Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy Review

With the arrival of the 2021 Dune movie,

This acclaimed sci-fi franchise is now well served by game adaptations like the excellent Dune: Empire. But it was not always so. For a long time, there was only one Dune game, also called Dune, which was first released in 1979 but has cast a long and impressive shadow on games ever since. Years ahead of its time, it was a brilliant take on the source material, with some of the most exciting fighting gear ever devised.

However, a full squad of six players was also required to have full effect, and game times could span from an hour to most of a day. Trying to make the core of the game more flexible for modern tastes has long been considered a near-impossible design goal. But that hasn’t stopped publisher Gale Force Nine from trying to release the clumsy Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy titles (look on amazon).

What’s in the box

If you’ve played the version of the original Dune game it’s based on, the components will look very familiar. There is a board depicting the surface of the planet as a circular map, which is functionally identical to its predecessor. The art is arguably clearer, though less stylized than in previous editions.

The three sheets of a punch card contain a ton of spice tokens, leader discs, the infamous war wheels, and a few other tokens. The images of the leaders’ faces are taken from the film adaptation. The war wheels are large and must be fastened together from front to back, with the two halves sliding freely against each other.

Below are four decks of cards to track traitors, a spice strike, combat artifacts, and a market for tricks and tools. They are also well illustrated with a mixture of custom art and imagery based on images from the film. However, they are so thin that they hardly match the word “card” over the thick paper. Sturdy envelopes are required if you don’t want them to fall apart.

Rules and how to play it

Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy lives up to the first half of its title.

Victory means control of three of the five fortresses on the surface of the planet with your troops at the end of the turn. If no one has managed to do this after five moves, you add up the points. Five for each stronghold you control plus the amount of spice used as currency in this game to see who comes out victorious.

This hard rev limit gives the game a much more reliable and manageable schedule than the older version of the game and usually runs for about an hour unless someone scores an early win. But it also lacks the second part of its long title and a key component of the previous game: negotiations. With so few moves and no rules to allow allies to win, it’s every player for himself. It’s an unfortunate loss, but a necessary one to hold back game time.

Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy lives up to the first half of its title.

What has been retained is the war wheel, the merciless engine with which you conquer territories. It’s such a great idea that it’s amazing it’s not copied more often. In combat, each player secretly selects a weapon and possibly some weapon or defense cards from their supply. Then, still secretly, they dial in a wheel number, which cannot exceed the number of troops they have in combat. The plans are then revealed and all the values ​​add up: the loser loses all his strength, and the winner loses only the number of troops he has recruited.

It’s hard to overestimate how agonizing these decisions are. One short number can lead to catastrophic losses, while too many can make it impossible for you to defend the newly conquered territory. As if that wasn’t enough, you might find that your opponent has already turned your leader into a traitor, or that poor weapon or defense card choices mean they die in combat so you don’t get their combat value or the chance to lose them again.

With such huge stakes, decisions can seem paralyzing.

And this is where Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy differs greatly from its predecessor for both better and worse. On the plus side, the shorter playtime makes it easier to pick and bear more easily if you screw something up. On the other hand, the cards and traitors in this edition are pretty much crap, whereas the old game had glimmers of intelligence that could be gained as the game progressed, allowing more informed choices to be made.

Aside from stronghold control, another vital element is spice control. This appears randomly on the board according to the card draw and is an immediate bait for setting up further armed encounters. You need spice to buy cards and send troops from your reserves to the surface of the planet, from where they can travel short distances across the desert. But beware, as the raging sandstorm moves at the whim of the cubes around the round board like the hand of a clock, destroying forces left open for an extra dose of strategic anxiety.

Another key thing that has been kept in the asymmetry of the game.

There are four factions here instead of six, the Bene Gesserit has been subservient to the Emperor and the Guild has been completely purged. But each still offers the feel of playing in that faction’s paper shoes from the book. The atredis can use Paul’s precognition to force the opponent to reveal part of their battle plan. Harkonnen gains additional traitors. The Imperium enjoys when other players buy cards. Finally, the Fremen can move freely and easily across the hostile surface of the planet.

These matchups fit well into their narrative roles, no matter how many players you have, creating a believable retelling of the novel’s story. For two players, there are also rules whereby each player can control paired factions, pitting Emperor and Harkonnen against Atredi and Fremen. It’s not the ideal way to learn the game, giving each player an extra overhead, but it’s a very enjoyable way to experience Dune together.

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