Let’s get two things straight. First, few science fiction franchises lend themselves more obviously to a strategy board game (full of economy, politics, and combat) than Dune. It’s literally a roiling cauldron of warring noble houses, overlapping intrigues, and the ever-present spectre of war over resources (or rather, one resource: the Spice, Melange).
And, second, the time could not be riper for a new, widely accessible, beginner-friendly Dune board game. Like, er, the one that Gale Force Nine has just made – Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy. So fasten the seals on your stillsuit, take a sip of body temperature water from the tube at your neck, and let’s talk about it for a while.
Dune is, perhaps, more famous now than it’s been since Frank Herbert’s original, 500-page sci-fi novel first hit shelves over half a century ago. Since its release in October, Director Denis Villeneuve’s $165 million Dune movie has outstripped all (covid-moderated) expectations by making over $300 million in cinemas in its first month, immediately locking in a sequel for 2023.
It’s all good news for Legendary Pictures, the movie studio behind Dune (2021) – but it’s fantastic news for us long-suffering Dune fans – partly because, at long last, we can put our extensive trivia knowledge to good use by lording it over our pals – but mostly because our once-tiny supply of potential Dune board game buddies just grew exponentially.
And, once you’ve got your gang of mates together, fresh from the cinema, itching to sit down around a table and kick some Harkonnen ass, it won’t take you long to find the ‘big dog’ of Dune board games to play. Gale Force Nine’s Dune: A Game of Conquest, Diplomacy, and Betrayal is a cracking, modernised reprint of a legendary 1979 classic that’s drawn plaudits from across the board gaming world.
Yep, ‘Dune Classic’ is deep, heavyweight, narratively loyal, aesthetically gorgeous, and utterly irreplaceable – but it isn’t the most friendly to the brand new board gamer. Overlaid mechanics of territory, combat, spice, deals, and negotiations make for a long play time and a bit of a learning curve. It isn’t hard to see the gap in the market for a game with the same core structure, evocative setting, and tried and tested gameplay rhythm – but making tweaks across the board to welcome in more potential players as a genuine ‘gateway’ game. Enter Gale Force Nine’s new offering – Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy.
What is Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy?
Gale Force Nine says its newest Dune title has been carefully built as a board game in its own right, offering an “evolution” of the original’s experience that’s streamlined, fast, and fun – and loses none of its forebear’s famed immersive, thematic feel. Recent Boardgamegeek forum comments from one of the game’s creators, Jack Reda, lay out a pretty clear idea of what the game’s setting out to do.
“We recognised that many people will see the movie, and then want to play games in that universe,” Reda explains. “Many will be casual gamers, who might not be ready for the depth and complexity of classic Dune (not to mention the likelihood of a 5+ hour gaming experience).”
“We felt it was better to provide a more accessible experience, and then use it [to] lure them into the deeper world of gaming in general, and Dune gaming in particular,” he adds.
Playing through the new entry, it certainly felt alluring to us. At its heart, the game is about territory. You’ll take command of one of four key factions with interests in the desert planet of Arrakis: House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Imperium, and the Fremen. Each has subtly different mechanics, leading to some lightly asymmetric gameplay – but everybody has the same victory conditions: to control three Strongholds on the game’s map, or to have the most Spice stockpiled at the end of five full rounds.
To do so, you’ll have to train and maintain increasing military forces, using them carefully to both take and hold territory, and secure a steady supply of Spice (the game’s currency). Along the way, your forces will face off against both rival players (via a clever, intense little combat system based on blind bidding, ‘leader’ characters, and offensive and defensive wild cards) and Arrakis itself; deadly sandstorms sweep randomly around the gameboard, and unlucky armies can get swallowed whole by giant sand worms at any moment.
If that wasn’t enough, one or more of your ‘leaders’ – key characters from each faction who can be selected to lead your armies into battle – could turn out to be a traitor at any time, losing you the battle, the local spice, all your forces, and that leader – which is brutal indeed. While the classic Dune board game’s potential for skulduggery and double-dealing has been slimmed down for this new evolution (hence the removal of ‘betrayal’ from the title), there’s still enough dirty fighting here to evoke the movie’s countless low blows and ‘plans within plans’.
What do you get inside the box?
As with Gale Force Nine’s reprint production of ‘Dune Classic’, care has self-evidently been taken to make this game’s box, board, and components visually arresting. The big difference here, though, is that its design direction, colour scheme, logos, and imagery are all taken directly from the 2021 movie.
Where the game materials show specific characters (such as on the faction boards, cards, and leader tokens), they’re portrayed with their actors in the film; the same goes for representations of ships, shields, swords, stillsuits, et cetera. It may not appeal to some older hands (and, we remind you, for those people, there’s always Dune Classic). But, for brand new players enthralled by the magnificent visuals of Villeneuve’s movie, it’s a helpful way to clue people into what, and who, is being represented on the tabletop. Plus, we all get to ogle Jason Momoa and Zendaya a bit more without feeling guilty or weird.
Who is Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy for?
Most obviously, this title has been engineered to make a complex, multi-layered strategy board game accessible to folks who’re new to the world of tabletop games: fresh-faced recruits who enjoyed the movie, but don’t know what a Worker Placement is, and think a Eurogame involves taking a train from England to France.
But Gale Force Nine has clearly focused, too, on keeping enough of the core Dune board game experience intact that fans of the original can see this as an occasional alternative to the full fat edition – one that takes less time, less brain power, and is accessible to more combinations of their gamer and non-gamer friends, so they can have a blast on Arrakis even if the full A-Team isn’t free for game night.
Achieving both at once may sound like a tough worm to ride – but, given the success the firm’s had with its Dune Classic reprint, we’ve got a good feeling about it.
Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is out now, with a recommended retail price of $50 / £40. You can buy it at your Friendly Local Gaming Store, or else get it direct from Gale Force Nine.