Dune: Imperium Review – IGN

For decades, fans of James Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune could only get their table kicks with one game, also called Dune. But it was a game: released in 1979, it was years ahead of its time and encouraged players to recreate the novel’s Machiavellian intrigue. However, he needed six players to shine and had a wildly variable playing time.

Now there is a new pretender to the throne in Dune: Imperium. It’s a very different beast, eschewing the classic territorial conquest setup of the old game for a hodgepodge of modern strategic design ideas. But with the Dune name on the box and an acclaimed new film adaptation in theaters, it’s well set for success.

What is in the box

Despite the fact that novels have inspired great art over the years, Dune: Imperium opts for function over form. The dash and case are awash in muted desert hues, unsurprisingly. Below are many cards with lots of useful art to illustrate. The best parts are the portraits on the leader cards that players use to indicate their loyalty.

There are also pieces of wood, cubes that are used both in scoring tracks and to represent troops, and humanoid forms for agents. It’s all pretty standard fare, though the player colors are eye-catching and eye-catching.

Rules and how to play

At the core of Dune: Imperium is the concept of deck building. In these games, players start with a small deck of cards, often all players have the same deck as is the case here. As the game progresses, they can buy new and more powerful cards for their deck and hopefully eliminate some of the original weak ones. This game adds a novel twist to this popular formula, called “reveal turns.”

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Each card has two possible effects. The first is for when you use it to add an agent piece to the board, which also gives you the effects of the space it is played in. This attracts another well-worn game mechanic, worker placement. But you only have a limited group of agents, usually two. After that, you “reveal” the remaining cards and get the second effect.

Most deck building games revolve around building hands that allow you to draw and play more cards, giving you a more powerful turn and going through your deck faster. Revealing turns frees Dune: Imperium from the need to follow this pattern, leaving it capable of doing much more interesting things with its card effects and strategic options.

Players take on the role of noble houses in the Dune setting, including the Atreides and Harkonnen from the first novel. Each has a choice of two leader cards with tasty special powers. The other major players, the Emperor, planetary natives, Fremen, and others, are represented by board spaces. Engaging agents here increases your influence within these factions, a major source of victory points. The other spaces are geographic summaries of places on the planet Dune.

Cards are assigned to one or more of these areas of the board and can only be played there. Many spaces also require you to spend one of the three resources in the game (water, spices, and solari) to send an agent there. Others reward you with some of those resources or troops.

In essence, then, what this does is hook the build of the platform to the typical resource pyramid dilemma so beloved in modern strategy games. To get resources, you need resources, and the only solution to this chicken and egg problem is to make better use of the cards in your hand than your opponents. Deck building is a brilliant complement to this setup, giving you another strategic lever to work with and ensuring that there is no “best” way to solve the central puzzle.

Of course, despite all the intrigues in the book, it is also a story about martial prowess and Dune: Imperium has not forgotten that aspect. There is a very abstract “conflict” mechanic where each turn has a different reward for winning a military victory. Agents playing in geographic spaces allow you to push troops from your reserves into this generic conflict. When everyone has had their reveal turns, players add up the troops engaged, with bonuses from the reveal effects, and divide the rewards according to their ranking.

Despite the clumsy abstraction, this is a crucial design element. Like most worker placement games, agents sent to a space block it from other players for that turn. But Dune: Imperium has a lot more slots than most games of its kind, which means that blocking is usually a minor inconvenience. That reduces it as a source of tension and interaction, which the conflict more than compensates. Soldiers’ dribbling into the fight each turn is a slow battle of superiority, with the outcome uncertain until revelations are established.

Between resources, cards, and conflict, players are left with a lot of plates to turn and only two miserable actions to do so. And that’s counting without the victory points you’ll need to win, which come from various sources. In addition to the influence of factions, they can be won in conflict or with cards. The game ends when someone scores ten victory points or passes ten turns, whichever comes first. The leading player doesn’t always win, as a final card game flurry can sometimes secure a bonus point or two.

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However, by focusing on giving players a rich soup of tactical decisions, Dune: Imperium distances itself from its source material. A Crysknife may be a holy weapon for Fremen, but here you’re just pushing a cube up on a clue of influence. The bones of a narrative are in place: Fremen want water, spaces in Dune give you flavor, and the Spacing Guild will help you land a ton of troops on the planet. But it’s a weak drill, a little unconvincing ghola, with little of the devious central plot of the novels.

You also need three or four players to shine. The solo game offers a solid challenge, pitting you against two AI players that are simple to play but harder to beat as you increase their difficulty level. With two, you still have to add an AI player, which makes for an annoying distraction that players have to manage between their own turns.

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