DUNE – First contact @ Arrakis

This report was written by Hiew and first posted at Hiew’s Boardgame Blog (link).

Jeff of / Old Town Kopitiam Cheras gamers organised a session to play the classic and out-of-print (and very expensive) Dune, a game based on the famous science fiction novel series. He had never played it before, although he had had it for some time. This was the French version published by Descartes Editions. On Labour Day, 1 May 2010, we played a 5-player game at Old Town Kopitiam.

The Game
I read the first two books of the Dune series a few years ago, but don’t remember the details very well, so some details written here may not be accurate. Dune the boardgame is played on a map of Arrakis, the planet where precious spice is harvested. Multiple factions are vying for control of Arrakis, and they have different agendas, strengths and weaknesses. There are 5 strongholds on the map. You need to control a certain number of strongholds to win the game, that number depending on the number of players and the size of the alliance you are in, if you are in one.

You need military units to control a stronghold, and military units in this game are very simple. You have a total of 20 tiny round tokens. Depending on the faction you play, some start on the board, some start off board and need to be deployed later. Every round, you can do exactly one shipment of units from off board onto the planet, and exactly one movement of one group of units from one space to one other space on the board. I was surprised how simple this was when I read the rules, and was later surprised again how well the game works in spite of this simplicity.

The battle system is simple. Three factors come into play – units, leaders, and treachery cards. The number of military units is known when two armies clash, but each side secretly commits a subset to actually fight. The loser loses all units, and the winner loses only the committed units. Both sides also secretly commit a leader (every faction starts with five), and some cards. Leaders boost the total strength. Cards are used for killing the enemy leader, or protecting your own leader.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

That’s me teaching the game. Left to right: me, Arm, Wai Yan (game spectator, whom, in hindsight, we probably should have asked to be the 6th player playing Bene Gesserit), Ainul.

Many photos here are courtesy of Jeff of

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

That’s me handing a battle disc to Arm. The battle disc allows you to secretly select a number, which will be the number of units you want to commit in the battle. That little round recess is the spot to place your leader.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

Leaders are round discs. These are Jeff’s Harkonnen leaders. The numbers are the strength that these leaders contribute to a battle. The strength 10 Harkonnen leader should not be in play. It’s part of an expansion.

One twist in battles is traitors. During game setup, each faction secretly gains a leader from another faction, a traitor. If you end up fighting an army lead by this traitor secretly serving you, you automatically win the battle, which is cool. However you also will not know how many and which of your leaders are secretly serving other lords.

For most of the actions that you can take in the game, you need spice. This is the key currency in the game, and it is scarce. You need spice to ship units onto the board. You need spice to bid for cards. You need spice to revive dead units. You start with some spice, but once the game starts, you have to harvest spice yourself. Every round some spice will be discovered in one region. The players need to rush there to harvest the spice. Other factions are not the only thing you need to worry about. There is a raging storm which will wipe out your units together with any spice if it hits you when you are in the desert, and Arrakis is 80% desert. There are also giant sandworms which will eat up your units and the spice. They tend to appear in the region most recently found to have spice, so it’s a dilemma between getting there before other factions and waiting for an extra round until it’s safe. Life is tough.

This was my player shield. You hide your spice under this. The artwork is comic-style and very 80’s.

The Play
In our game, Jeff played the Harkonnen, master of treachery (more treachery cards and more traitors than others). I played the Atreides, the faction of the main character in the story. I could see some extra information, e.g. whether a sandworm was coming, where spice would appear next, the opponent’s leader in a battle. In the novels the Atreides and the Harkonnen were sworn enemies. They each started the game controlling two important strongholds near each other. Ainul played the Emperor, rich because bids for treachery cards were paid to him, but he started with no units on the board. Arm played the Guild, who monopolised transportation, and was nicknamed DHL. The Guild was rich because unit shipment costs were paid to them. Ken played the Fremen, the natives, nicknamed orang asli (which means aborigines). They were poor but numerous. They popped up freely near a particular desert as opposed to needing to be shipped from orbit. They also get revived for free when killed. They moved faster.

The first round of the game. Atreides (green, played by me) started in Arrakeen, and Harkonnen (black, played by Jeff) started in Carthag. These two cities are important because having units present here mean you have access to ornithopters (something like helicopters) and your units anywhere on the board can move 3 steps instead of 1.

When we played, the French in the game posed a bigger difficulty that we had expected. The English rules we had referred to region names in English but the names on the board were in French. The card texts were in French and we had to look up the English reference sheets. Despite this, we had a fun game and quite a number of interesting stories.

The Tleulaxu tanks, where dead leaders and units go to, and can be revied. Ken (Fremen, yellow) was first to have casualties.

Some spice appeared right next to my (green) home base of Arrakeen. Ainul (red) attacked Jeff’s (black) home base of Carthag, shipping his army in directly from orbit. This is one thing that you always need to be careful of. If your enemy has enough spice (i.e. money), he can ship a large army directly to any space on the board (unless it is under storm, or it is already occupied by two factions).

Ainul (Emperor, red), Jeff (Harkonnen, black), Ken (Fremen, yellow), Arm (Guild, orange). Look at how much spice (money) Arm has under his screen. He’s filthy rich because all payments for shipping units from orbit get paid to him.

Jeff (Harkonnen) was aggressive from the start, since he had an advantage. Strangely, he reduced his defenses at Carthag, his home base, moving his units to threaten Ken (Fremen). Later, we realised it was because he had a treachery card which would blow up the Shield Wall which protected Carthag and Arrakeen (my home base), making them vulnerable just like deserts when the storm passed over. I was conservative and kept reinforcing my units already in Arrakeen, and when I realised Jeff’s plan, I had to mass migrate hurriedly before my army got wiped out by the storm.

Amidst the chaos of my house-moving, I carelessly neglected to notice that Ainul was already in control of two strongholds, and would immediately win when he captured a third. When my huge stack of units stepped out of Arrakeen, leaving a token garrison, he shipped in a huge stack from orbit. It would be the battle to end the game. I was heavily outnumbered. Then I remembered something. One of his leaders was a traitor secretly loyal to me, Comte Hasimir Fenring, a strength 6 (i.e. very strong) leader. If he chose this leader for the battle, I would win regardless of my numbers. When the battle discs and leaders were revealed, I almost shouted with joy. It was Comte Hasimir Fenring! What a dramatic twist of fate. Ainul lost his whole army. Then he saw my leader, and guess what, my leader was a traitor secretly loyal to him too! So it was mutual annihilation. Neither of us gained any spice. All soldiers were killed. Arrakeen became an empty town.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

I (Atreides, green) temporarily vacated my home base of Arrakeen to seek refuge at the polar sink (centre of board), which was always safe from storms and safe from attack.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

Ainul (Emperor, red) plopped down an army from outer space. Ouch…

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

The leader he committed to this battle was a traitor secretly loyal to me.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

Mutual destruction left Arrakeen deserted. My huge army watched helplessly from the polar sink.

And this was not the only battle ending in mutual annihilation. There was another battle where Jeff attacked Ken with a tiny army, which was literally on a suicide mission. Jeff had both a laser gun treachery card and a shield treachery card. If both these came up in the same battle, everyone died. The rules didn’t forbid the same player from playing both these cards, so we agreed this was allowed. The revival tanks (where units could be brought back to life) became rather crowded.

The giant sandworm made an appearance in our (relatively short) game. A huge pile of spice popped up in a desert just outside of one of the strongholds that Ainul was holding. Some of Ken’s Fremen troops were also in range to come harvest the spice. Ken sent in his troops. I expected Ainul to send his troops to fight over the precious spice, but he decided to stay put. Then on the next round, the sandworm came! What a lucky decision for Ainul. I was about to start laughing at Ken for his greed. Then I realised that the Fremen were not afraid of sandworms. In fact they rode sandworms, and Ken’s troop took a free ride to another region.

In the fourth round, when the sandworm appeared, it also meant a Nexus would occur. This was the time players could form, join, or leave alliances. Ainul’s Emperial troops were doing well, and Ken’s Fremen orang asli too, and they agreed to become allies. Jeff and I decided we needed to form an alliance too. Arm had to leave by then to catch a flight. In that same round, Ainul and Ken together reached 4 strongholds, and Jeff and I could not stop them. So the original lead hero and lead villian of the novels were sidelined, and the nobility + orang asli pact won control of Arrakis.

BGC Meetup - DUNE (Descartes)

Last round of the game. I could not move quickly enough to reoccupy Arrakeen. Ken (Fremen, yellow) and Ainul (Emperor, red) were allied and had units in 4 strongholds. Jeff (Harkonnen, black) was still contesting one of the strongholds with Ken, but eventually could not beat Ken’s superior numbers.

Another shot of the final round. The Tleilaxu tanks were pretty full.

The Thoughts
We played only 4 rounds out of the max possible 15, and yet we had so many memorable events and exciting twists of fate. Despite the very simple core rules, the different factions play very differently. Their unique powers give them very different strengths. They also have very different starting positions, and they require different strategies to play. I was surprised how thematic and immersive the game was, despite the simple core rules. A lot of this come from the treachery cards, and of course the varying faction special abilities.

The game is very dynamic. Spice is always scarce. Every round some spice turns up, and the players have to decide whether to scramble after it. Then there’s the ever-moving storm. You can never be sure how quickly it will sweep across the deserts, and you have to be careful your troops don’t get caught unprepared. There is one weather control treachery card which allows a player to move the storm between 0 and 10 steps, as opposed to the normal possible range of 2 to 6. If you have planned your troops to be a “safe” 7 steps away, and an enemy has the weather control card up his sleeve, you can be royally, ahem, disrupted.

I quite enjoyed Dune, and I think it truly is a classic. Too bad it is out-of-print. I found out that it was designed by the same team behind Cosmic Encounter. I enjoyed Dune much more, but I could see some similarities between the games – simple core rules, but the unique faction powers make a very big difference and create very interesting interactions among the players.

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