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Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy

A beginning is a very delicate time. The original volume of Frank Herbert's Dune first appeared in 1965, tho' a version had earlier been serialised in the science fiction magazine Analog. With its tale of interstellar intrigue and fiefdoms set in a distant future, it was an instant success. It has sold around 20 million copies and it spawned a succession of sequels (albeit of steadily declining quality) and several very interesting prequels written by other authors. The original novel and its first sequel, Children of Dune, remain the best known and provide the source material for David Lynch's butchered 1984 film and Denis Villeneuve's recent two-parter. Alejandro Jodorowsky also had plans in the 1970s to make an epic version with a cast that was to have included Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Alain Delon as Duncan Idaho and Surrealist artist Salvador Dali as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (!), and with Pink Floyd providing the music. Sadly those plans came to nought.

The 'Duniverse' revolves around the flow of melange, a substance known as 'spice'. It's essential for a number of purposes, including all interstellar travel, and in the whole of the known universe it is only found on the one inhospitable planet Arrakis - known as Dune. The novel and the contest for control of Arrakis between warring dynasties and guilds inspired Bill EberleJack Kittredge and Peter Olotka to create in 1979 an evocative Diplomacy-style board game for Avalon Hill. Their design for Dune drew on their highly asymmetric game Cosmic Encounter, originally published by Eon but now best known for its various FFG iterations. When the Avalon Hill game went out of print, the designers reworked it as Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This set the game in FFG's Twilight Imperium universe but it was essentially the same game with a different veneer. Popular as Twilight Imperium is, however, it's not Dune, so there was much excitement in 2019 when Gale Force 9 released their new version of the Dune game. It's a great game of negotiation, bluffing, deceit and conflict but it's a long game that typically runs to three hours and tho' the box says '2-6 players' it's a game that's definitely sub-par with fewer than six players. That then is where Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy comes in...

GF9's Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is a further reworking of Dune with design credits shared by Bill EberleJack KittredgePeter OlotkaGreg Olotka and Jack Reda. Tho' the title has been extended, gameplay is truncated almost to filler length. It notionally takes 2-4 players but it's primarily a four-player game: you're obviously not going to get much negotiation and diplomacy if you play with just two players! The game is played over a maximum of five rounds, so even with a full complement of four players you can expect to finish the game in around 40 minutes.

The game is notionally a distillation of the original Dune game. The factions are similarly highly asymmetric in their powers and how they play, tho' they are all trying to meet the same win condition (control at least three of the five strongholds by end of rounds 3, 4 or 5, or have the most points - strongholds plus spice - at the end of round 5). There are, however, just four factions in this game: House Atreides, House Harkonnen, the Fremen and the Imperium, with the latter incorporating powers borrowed from the Bene Gesserit.

Combat mirrors that found in the original game, using battle wheels to select the number of troops committed to battle, with a space to insert a marker for the leader you are using and with the option to add attack and defence cards. It invites bluff and offers scope for treachery (your leader could turn out to be under the control of your opponent), and the wheel/card combo is a great way of ensuring speedy combat resolution, which is why a similar system was adopted in Scythe (Stonemaier Games).

As in the original game, a storm travels around the planet causing havoc to most troops left out in the desert. They are similarly at risk from appearances of the Sandworms, tho' these deposit spice, which is the game's currency. Unless you're the Fremen, you'll need to spend spice to ship your troops to the planet and all players will need spice to restore and replace troops and leaders that are lost; and this is a game where you have to accept a high rate of attrition.

Tho' most of Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is abstracted from the original Dune game, one novel feature is the addition of Market cards. These can be bought sight unseen at a cost of 2 spice (payable by other players to the Imperium). Players can each hold a maximum of three Market cards but they vary widely in their single-use effects. Some, for example, can be used to affect battle or to negate another player's special ability. In a game built around bluff and treachery, the mere threat of another player's potential Market card powers might be sufficient to encourage them to commit their troops elsewhere...

The art for Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is by Casey Davies. It ties in with Denis Villeneuve's 2021 Dune Part One movie, making use of photos from the movie. Our one gripe is the shades-of-brown board which makes it harder than it needs to be to make out some of the territories. Given the description of Arrakis in the books and movies, you might well think the multi-coloured board in the 1979 Avalon Hill edition of Dune to be inappropriately gaudy but GF9 adopted an all-brown palette for the board in their 2019 edition and that board is much easier to 'read' than the sepia board in Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy.

Because it's truncated to no more than five rounds, Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is a game of tactics rather than strategy. If you want a more strategic game, you'll need the original game (ie: GF9's 2019 edition of Dune) but even if you have that game, Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is a version you'll be able get to the table more often and it's a great way of introducing new players to the core mechanics of the longer more strategic game. Think of it then as both a short playable game in its own right and a primer for a three-hour session of Dune.

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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