Dune the board game and Dune Imperium. Both of these games are mind-blowing. Much like ‘spice,’ the euphemistically named drug that ‘expands consciousness’ in the Dune universe. But which is better? Which should you buy?
There are some similarities between the two games. The most obvious and foremost is that they’re based in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic universe. If you've seen the (potentially spice-fuelled) film of the 1980s, or read the space opera that is the Dune series, then you’re probably amazed by and almost addicted to the story. It’s a sweeping, desert-filled, warrior ridden, sensual thrill ride across space and time. One that you well may understand less once you’ve actually finished reading.
So, let’s dive into the games that were inspired by this franchise to see which you should buy.
Dune, by Avalon Hill, was originally released in 1979, then re-released in 1984 to coincide with the film. And then, due to a convergence of copyright, licensing, and popular groundswell, it was put back into print by Gale Force 9 in 2019. Dune Imperium was released by Direwolf in 2020 and is quite different from Avalon’s first iteration.
[A note here to avoid confusion: Dune refers to the Frank Herbert universe/novels as well as the Gale Force 9 game. Dune Imperium refers to the Direwolf games]
Dune is played on what is essentially a circular board, to represent the planet of Arrakis. A great storm moves whilst you jostle for military might and spice harvesting. Treachery abounds as you take control of a particular faction, and you’re as likely to get stabbed in the back as you are to win a battle. Winning three major strongholds on the planet (board) allows you to take control of Arrakis and finish the battle for dominance. There is an excellent review available that goes into detail here.
This version is partly a euro-style game of worker placement but is also mixed with a deck-building twist. In a sense, it’s an attempt to blend two types of games together. And given how difficult it’s been to get hold of a copy, it seems to work. Not that the combination is without its detractors, who cry: "Why is it trying to be two things at once?!" But the reviews and the popularity are clear – it’s a great game, and combining those things actually creates a fantastic experience. You’ll try to win victory points in a race through battles, alliances in the Landsraad, and other tricky moves. The Zatu review can be found here.
Which Is Better?
As if we’re going to nail our colours to the mast so soon…
Games are a highly personal preference, so let’s run through some sample comparisons to help you make a decision. If you’re trying to decide that is – otherwise, you should just buy both.
“Dune probably looks better than Dune Imperium” is what I want to say, and looking at the boxes themselves that’s a clear comparison. Once you open it up though, you might be confused as to why I think that. Dune has a slightly dated feel about the artwork - so did the 1984 film - and that’s part of its charm. It’s slightly more gritty and feels like a world – probably due to the circular map. Imperium, by contrast, looks much newer and sharper, but is a bit lifeless once you get past the box. There’s nothing bad about the artwork at all (in fact it’s great), but nothing really wows you. Yes, there are references to places like Sietch Tabr or Arrakeen. But if you took the names off the board it would look like many other game boards, and doesn’t feel as much like it has a soul. (Alright, Dune might suffer that problem too if you took away the names, but it manages to seem a little more interesting somehow).
The cards that both sets come with add some fantastic flavour, and the references to Choam, the Bene Gesserit, and so on are welcome additions in both. In the deck-building aspect of Dune Imperium, you might recruit characters like Stilgar or Doctor Keynes as a sort of side deck to modify play. In Dune, they’re more likely to lead your armies. Perhaps this is another area where Dune Imperium sort of falls down with its world-building. You can play as, for example, the Harkonnens in Dune Imperium, and still recruit Stilgar or a number of Atreides. Which sort of makes them less characters within the story and more ‘helpful cards’. It breaks the immersion.
In Dune they’re a little more tailored to their original alliances – barring the Harkonnens turning them into traitors of course. But that also feels very in keeping with the universe. Dune also gives you some lovely DM style boards to hide things behind and that picks up the back-stabbing and secrecy of the original novels well. I can imagine that someone who has come to Dune through the most recent film would relate more to the imagery on Dune Imperium. But as someone who’s enjoyed the original artwork of the Dune novels, the 1980s film, and the early 2000s series, I lean towards the gritty retro feel. Although Dune Imperium looks newer and more modern, this is one point to Dune for me.
What About The Components And Play Style?
Both are pretty good! Nothing that leaps out at you like the miniatures from Blood Rage, the quality of Everdell, or the scope of Scythe, but they’re good. What both games do instead is lean into the complexity of play and the franchise itself for flavour. Dune Imperium has some mechanics that feel hefty. You need to balance military tactics, worker placement, resource management, deck building, and alliances (with the board rather than other players). It can be a little mind-blowing, but that’s what you play a game like this for. Its pieces are a little more colourful too which is nice.
Dune leans maybe even more heavily into the events of the universe. The ways that different factions function radically changes the gameplay. If you’re up for having your finest military moves destroyed in a single betraying stroke, or being handicapped by the highly specific rules, then Dune will not disappoint. Imperium captures a little more of the galaxy-spanning element of the Dune universe. Dune manages the on-planet aspect of the conflict slightly more. Imperium probably has a slight edge in tokens here (with nicer representations of water and spice) but it’s minimal. Call it a no-score draw.
Both games say that they play in 120 minutes. This may or may not be entirely true. Once you wrap your head around the rules you probably can do this, but my first game of Imperium lasted for almost 4 hours. Mind you, we were playing with someone who had the approximate speed of a dead snail and needed counselling for each move. Dune probably took a similar amount of time wrapping our heads around. Rather than gaining victory points through a variety of methods as in Imperium, it focuses on controlling settlements. Once played, both games leave you with a sense of greater understanding. A gestalt of what you probably should have done, or what you’d do differently next time, and that makes the idea of your next playthrough exciting.
Dune really shines with the interaction of multiple factions (there has been a lot said about it playing best with at least 4 players). Imperium makes more sense regarding how you can blend together its different aspects after a playthrough or two. Who you play as in Dune is incredibly important, as it will change the mechanics of the turns/game. The faction choice in Imperium only affects the choices you make in worker placement, rather than other players. This direct impact is definitely the provenance of Dune. It is worth saying that Imperium comes with an app and play deck so that you can simulate having 3-4 players. House Hagal will limit your play options much as a human opponent would (even though they can’t win), and the app allows you to play solo.
Did I enjoy one more than the other? Barring my snail-like opponent, not really. I felt taxed by both, I enjoyed both, I can see myself playing both again and again. In fact, I immediately wanted to play both again so that I could win.
There’s a sense, however, in which you need to plan and strategise a lot more in Imperium. And if you like that kind of thing then it’s the clear winner between the two. Dune certainly isn’t a Risk style, simple, destroy-your-opponent game. But it doesn’t have quite the same ‘thinking 10 steps ahead and responding to the complexities of the board’ element to it. And the app/House Hagal option for Imperium is great. Both have some fantastic surprises and elements of chance. But if you want something to tax your strategic little grey cells, or that has a few more play options, then Imperium wins this one for me.
So How Do You Decide?
We haven’t mentioned the expansions for both games which add some nice new twists. But ultimately, Dune feels more like Dune to me. Dune Imperium is an incredible game and well worth playing. But you could package it up as a different universe and then ask yourself: would it be as popular? It trades a larger understanding of the universe for a direct battle on Arrakis. For that reason, it may as well almost not be in the Dune universe. Dune feels more like the narrative that Frank Herbert devised – at least the version that David Lynch gave us. Would it be as good without the Dune universe? Not quite, but perhaps more so than Dune Imperium.
I can’t immediately think of a game that does quite what Dune does and that makes it interesting to me. But there are lots of great worker-placement games. If it’s a choice of “another game that’s like something I have” or “this feels a bit different and I want the Dune experience” I know which way I lean. That sounds like I don’t like Dune Imperium, and that’s not the case at all. You should definitely play both. In fact: buy both! The rave reviews aren’t wrong. Dune Imperium is fantastic. I love the feel, the universe and the strategy of it. If I had to pick only one, I’d go with Dune. It feels a little truer to its origins. And it's more of a mad scramble to victory than an inevitable slide into victory point defeat. Mind you, I’m still going to grab a copy of Dune Imperium when I can.
After all, the spice must flow.