Saturday, March 29, 2008

Review: Dune

This game has been pretty well described here in previous reviews, and, well, you can download each and every piece needed for the game here, so I'm going to go light on the rules since they are covered here so well. It also helps me because this is my first review.

First of all, here are my biases: I've read the various Dune books (the originals by Herbert, not the newer Anderson ones) numerous times and love the politics and lore in the books. So, obviously the heavy theme appeals to me. Euro or AT doesn't matter much to me, as long as the game is fun. Randomness doesn't make or break a game for me, but I do need at least some level of strategy to make a game stand out for me. And given a well-executed theme, I can easily get caught up in a game to look past some of the minor flaws.

With that said, my only regret so far with the game is that I got over-anxious and my first play with a three-player game. While still a fantastic time, the entire time I kept thinking how much more it would shine with a fuller table.


The Overview:

As I said, the rules and mechanics are all available here in various reviews and for download, so I'll only cover them lightly. The basic premise of the game consists of territory control. The game is won by holding 3 sietches out of the 5 on the board at the end of a round. There are also other ways that certain factions can win, which is covered more in the theme of the game. The game also has a built in ending point of 15 rounds. At the end of the 15th round, the game is over and victory is determined by a few means.

Each player controls a faction from the original Dune stories and each faction has a unique power that supersedes the normal rules of the game.

House Atreides have the power of prescience, which allows them to look at a single element of their enemy's battleplans as well as letting them see the cards about to come up. They also have a bit of protection from their leaders turning traitor after losing a certain amount of units in the game.
The Fremen are native to Dune, and can muster a large group of forces on the board early and often and have movement advantages on the board, as well as knowing where the ever-present, and troop decimating, storm is moving ahead of time.
The Emperor whose main advantage is the vast amounts of money that he receives. Whenever anyone bids on treachery cards, he gets the spice bid on it. This also allows him to try to artificially raise the bid on treachery cards. He also has a small number of elite troops to use as well.
The Harkonnens have distinct combat advantages in the sense that they control more traitors than any other faction, making combat against them risky. They also can hold more treachery cards than any other faction, giving them more options in combat as well.
The Bene Gesserit witches are the trickiest of the factions. They can co-exist, meaning that they can occupy the same areas as other troops peacefully until they decide otherwise. They can also use the Voice, which forces players to employ certain actions while in combat with them or their allies. They also receive a small bit of money at the beginning of each bidding round as well.
The Spacing Guild receives money spent by other factions to land forces onto the board, giving them a lot of money. They also have movement advantages on the board as well.

Combat is incredibly strategic in this game and when you go into battle, you have to commit how many forces you are willing to lose in the fight. These forces are lost even if you win, making each battle a decision making process of committing enough to take a sietch, but keeping enough forces to the hold it. Added to this are leaders, who add to the battle scores. However, in the beginning of each game, each faction is able to choose a leader at random who is secretly in their employ and will turn traitor to its faction. The Harkonnens get four such traitors. The revelation of a traitorous leader can suddenly turn the tide of a battle that one thought was an easy win. Combat is also affected by the treachery cards which are played, though for the most part, they are there to impact your opponent's leader or protect your own.


The Theme:

For me, the theme is the game. Dune is a favorite book of mine and this game covers it with each faction. Each faction's power is well thought out and fits in perfectly with the theme of the books. Now, with that said, the theme dictates how each faction must be played, and each must be played specifically in order to be effectual. Some factions are more difficult to play than others and in smaller games; some factions really do not shine.

Now when it comes to fitting those factions into the theme of the game, it is done perfectly. The Bene Gesserits can win by holding strongholds like anyone else or they can win by predicting before the first turn, who will win the game and when. If they are correct, then they actually win the game by manipulating the faction, rather than the faction who should have "won". This makes a very interesting faction to play... and to trust when they offer you aid. The Spacing Guild can win by holding sietches as well, but they are more likely playing to stalemate the game. Because if by turn 15, no one controls the planet, they have manipulated the factions so the spice flows freely and they win. These thematics in the victory conditions are very well managed and adds an interesting twist to the game. My one suspicion is that the Spacing Guild would be more effective in drawing out stalemates in a full 6 faction game, perhaps unbalancing them a bit.

Every bit of the theme fit in well with the Dune books, but with two small little things. First, the Freman receiving CHOAM charity when they have no spice seems out of theme. And, considering the time frame of the game, Alia being one of the initial leaders of the Bene Gesserits seemed a little off for me. But these are such minor points, the only reason why they even stand out at all for me is because the theme is so meticulously and well done.


Learning the game:

The learning curve for the rules in this game is not that high, despite its subtle complexities. By our third or fourth round, we did not have to refer to rules except from time to time to check something out. It flowed smoothly after just a few rounds. However, I believe that the learning curve to effectively play each faction to its full potential is monstrous. I believe that new players will be eaten alive in any match with veteran players. Not that this is a bad thing, but there are so many subtle complexities to each faction which makes them unique, it would take a while to understand, let alone master, what each one's potential is.


The Components:

The game was published in 1979, and the artwork is definitely dated. Look back at the quality of artwork in your old Dungeons and Dragons basic set and you'll see a fair approximation of the artwork in the set. The treachery cards are small and flimsy with no definition of them on each card, requiring you to look at a reference sheet before you. For first time players unused to the cards, it was easy to tell when someone had won a card in bid that was not one of the standard weapon or defense cards as they picked up their treachery card, then looked over their reference sheet.

However, as I stated before, most every piece of the game is available online here on BGG, so these are easily replaced (I am in the process of making my own bits and board as well).


Playing the Game:

What I enjoyed most about the game is that every movement you made was necessary. There stood a chance of any one of us winning the game at various point of the game that it often came down to unspoken (and untrusted) alliances to clear out a sietch to make sure that it would not be held. This created a lot of tense and desperate moments in the game, which made for a very intense playing experience.

So far, I've only played with three players, so certain levels of diplomacy and alliances were gone from the game. Our first game played out about four and a half-hours to end at turn 15. It probably moved quicker because it was only three players, but we also were slower as we got accustomed to the game.

One of the problems I can foresee with it, however, is that the game could end quickly or go on for hours. There were moments where a victory was snatched away in the early rounds only by the skin of the other factions' teeth. It makes it hard to determine exactly how long the game would take. Though, I believe that a victory after 45 minutes would be unsatisfying and, with our group at least, a rematch would immediately follow.


Does the Wife Like It?:

Ah, the most important category for me. I play a lot of games without her, but ultimately, I really enjoy when she can join us at the table and get into a game. She's less strategic of a player, but likes good theme. She played the Bene Gesserits in a three-player game (something that is not easy to do, but she wanted to try it). It was during our game of Dune that I discovered exactly how manipulative my wife could be and she played them well... frighteningly well. Ultimately she lost as well as me as House Atreides to the Fremen, but my wife actually reveled in the role that she played. She's not a big combat heavy person, so the faction worked well for her as she would coexist until she needed to make a move. She almost manipulated the board to her predictive win as well. So, she enjoyed herself enough that she'll be back at Dune. She's tested herself to be surprisingly cutthroat when need be.


The Pros:

*Heavy, well-executed theme
*Tense, immersive gameplay where there are no wasted moves
*Excellent combat and strategy in the battles on the planet surface
*High levels of diplomacy and outright bluffing used throughout the rest of the game
*Rules are a surprisingly low learning curve, but mastering a faction requires a lot of practice
*Different factions are unique, so playing each one gives a different gameplay experience
*Truly a masterpiece and lots of fun


The Cons:

*The game appearance is a bit dated and the cards are flimsy and could use more information on them
*The game is made for 5-6 players. Balancing the factions played in a smaller group is possible, but can be a problem. I imagine a 3-player, Freman, Bene Gesserit, Spacing Guild game would be a disaster.
*It's out of print and hard to find


Overall:

I easily ranked this 9/10. I read a lot about the game before purchasing it and so I knew what I was getting into before the UPS package arrived. Still, I was amazed at how well everything flowed even in the smaller 3-faction game. My final review may change one I get to play it with a full table as I imagine the game would only get better.


9.5/10

Well, this is a first review, so that's why I was all over the place. Hopefully, I'll hone down how I want to review things a little better with subsequent reviews.

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