Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unity Games XIV: Dune!

With the play of Dune at Unity Games XIV, my Holy Grail list is now complete. And what a finish!

The Game

Dune is not your typical...well...anything. It has a lot of familiar sounding mechanics, but none of them is familiar. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the game was published in 1979, decades before all of our familiar mechanics became familiar. In that respect, comparing Dune to other games seems backwards. But since I discovered it long after most of my current collection, that's the only way I can compare it.

The goal of Dune is to occupy 3 of the 5 strongholds. This seems analogous with many Euro and wargame objectives. But in Dune, you don't necessarily spend a lot of time focusing on this because the only means to that end is Spice, and Spice is a rare commodity for most players.

Player units get from place to place by Area Movement...sort of. Combat uses Area Influence and Simultaneous Action Selection...sort of. The Storm moves around the map randomly...sort of. Spice appears randomly on the map...sort of. Players bid for cards sight unseen...sort of. All of these "sort of's" can create the false sense of complexity. It's simply different. And that is a good thing. It feels very refreshing to play. And just to keep you on your toes, player turn order is counter-clockwise.

The divisions of the planet are also unique. The map has many arbitrarily shaped regions that are used for movement, just as in other Area Movement games (eg Risk). However, the map is also divided into 18 sectors, pizza-shaped wedges with the Polar Sink at the hub. The regions and sectors form a strange mesh of overlapping topology. That is, you can be in a region and also in any one of 5 different sectors in some cases. The Storm fills the sector it is in. This includes every region (or partial region) in that sector. You could be a region along with Spice and/or an opponent but be separated from them by The Storm. All mountain regions, strongholds, and The Imperial Basin are safe from the Storm with a nasty exception: if The Shield Wall is destroyed, then Carthag, Arakeen, and The Imperial Basin are now exposed. All of this creates a very cool spatial landscape on which to maneuver, physically and politically.

The phases of a turn are simple:
  • move The Storm
  • place Spice on new location
  • bid for cards
  • recover units, land/move units
  • resolve battles
  • collect Spice
The interesting thing is that every player has unique abilities. Not just your typical orthogonal +1/-1 "Euro" unique abilities, but completely different powers that no one else has. This gives each player strengths and weaknesses that can be used and abused in the various phases.

The Atreides have prescience. They can peek at each card up for auction. They can peek at their opponents leader, offensive card, defensive card, or committed units before deciding on their own selections. They can peek at the next Spice card before moving their units. This gives the Atreides the power of information. Other players must watch the Atreides carefully to learn as much as they can. But is he bluffing? Are you willing to pay for information?

The Harkonnen are treacherous. They can have up to 4 of the opponents' leaders in their pay, as opposed to the default of one for the rest of the players. They may hold 8 cards instead of the default 4, and every time you win a card at auction, you get an additional one. The Harkonnen almost always have a nasty card ready to mess things up, and battles against them run more of a risk of a traitor being discovered in your midst.

The Guild controls all space travel. All players shipping from off-planet must pay them for the service. They have more options available during movement, and do so more cheaply. They win by default at the end of 15 turns if no other player has won. Every time you land new units on Dune, you are making The Guild richer.

The Bene Gesserit are galactic advisers and have The Voice. If they can predict (and perhaps cause to happen) the winner and the turn on which they win, then the Bene Gesserit win instead. They can ship a free unit (to the Polar Sink) when any other player ships from off-planet. During combat, they can Voice their opponent to play or not play a specific card. The Bene Gesserit are scary to attack, but start very weak.

The Fremen are native to Dune and know its ways. They may move units 2 spaces instead of the default 1. They add units to the map from hidden on-planet locations, so do not pay The Guild. They may ride any Worm that appears in their region to any other region (rather than being devoured). They win after 15 turns if they can create certain stronghold occupancy criteria. Ironically, the Fremen are Spice-poor, but require less Spice during play.

The Emperor rules the galaxy, or so he thinks. He collects all Spice used to bid on cards. Every time you win a bid for a card, you are giving the Emperor Spice with which to bid on the next one.

Combat occurs between any two players in the same region, unless they are separated by The Storm. Each player secretly dials a number of units to commit up to the units present, selects a leader, an attack card, and a defense card. Then everything is revealed. If your opponent is using a leader that is in your pay, you may announce your traitor and automatically win the battle. Otherwise, the offense/defense card pairs are compared to see if the leaders die. If they do, their value does not apply to the combat. Units committed and the values of surviving leaders are added together. The greatest value wins (aggressor wins ties). The loser loses all his units. The winner loses all dialed units.

This combat system is very nice. You can win, but lose your leader. You can lose but keep your leader. You can win even if you've dialed zero, or have no leader. If your goal is to collect Spice after combat, then you have an incentive to dial fewer units at the risk of losing the battle.

The Session

We had the pleasure of playing on David Fontes's fantastic wooden masterpiece. It has raised areas for all the mountain regions and a removable Shield Wall region. We used wooden discs for units and glass beads for spice.

Atreides - Al
Harkonnen - Scott
Fremen - Dom
Emperor - Josh
Guild - James
Bene Gesserit - Jim

I chose The Harkonnens to win on turn 8. It was a complete guess, but I figured I could ally with him early and make it happen. Unfortunately, we didn't get our first Worm until turn 7, so we couldn't form alliances until then, which was too late for my evil agenda.

I felt so weak for many turns. I managed to buy a couple of cards which wiped me out, putting my on CHOAM Charity for a bit. I couldn't ship units because I couldn't afford The Guild's outrageous prices. I took every opportunity to ship my free unit to The Polar Sink whenever anyone else shipped. But this meant I had a big stack on units in the center of the board and nowhere else. I had to start spreading out.

Units caught in the desert are killed if The Storm passes overhead. I had more than my share of bad luck, as well as deliberate attacks through the use of the Control Weather card. No one seemed to consider me much of a threat until my first battle when The Voice showed its power. We had 3 units each. I dialed 1, chose my leader (they are all 5's), a Poison Weapon card, and a Poison Defense card. I voiced my opponent to not play a Poison Defense. My weapon killed him. He had no offensive card.

My battle against The Fremen would have been a disaster, but fortunately I had Stilgar in my pay. The Fremen got screwed badly by traitors in this game.

I decided to be more proactive. I offered Atreides a Spice if he would tell me the location of the next Spice blow. He agreed. You cannot lie or break deals in Dune. Wind Pass North! I had a stack right next to that region. 6 Spice for me on the next turn. Things were looking up.

I kept trying desperately to gain control of Carthag or Arakeen so I could use Ornithopters to move units farther. I had a stack in The Imperial Basin waiting to decide which stronghold I should attack. The Guild player had 6 units on the Shield Wall, waited until the Storm was over me, moved to Hole in the Rock, and blew the wall with Family Atomics. My units and those of Atreides in Arakeen were destroyed. Had I chosen the more forward sector of The Imperial Basin, I would have been ok.

On turn 8, we got a Worm which allows alliances to form, break, or change. Much discussion followed. In the end, 3 alliances formed: Atreides/Bene Gesserit, Harkonnen/Fremen, Emperor/Guild. The Atreides/Bene Gesserit alliance is very powerful in combat, being able to peek at one of the opponent's combat "settings" and Voice them at the same time. The Guild attacked both Carthag and Arakeen, taking on one of us each. These battles should have been easy, but The Guild had powerful cards, winning them both and claiming victory for his alliances 3 strongholds.

This caught the rest of us by surprise. I don't think anyone was really paying attention to the victory conditions as much as just trying to gain more Spice and cards. I really had a blast playing this, and would play it again any time. It's definitely not your typical game. It's got a lot of randomness. The strategic options are more about doing things that take advantage of your strengths rather than executing some specific long-term plan. The game is very opportunistic, and rewards aggression and negotiation.

The Board

There are many version of the Dune game, as well as many custom boards. As always, my thoughts on the board are related to physical functionality.

In effect, there are 4 basic types of regions: The Polar Sink, strongholds, desert, and mountain. The published boards all seem to strive for some less-than-functional textured look. In practice, it's not easy to see what's what.

While I love the custom wooden board and really like the imagery of some of the other custom jobs (1, 2, 3), my tastes go along with Mike Doyle's excellent treatment. It shows the 4 basic region types along with something else important: the 2 green-shaded strongholds are the 2 that need to be occupied to get Ornithopters as well as the 2 that become exposed if The Shield Wall is blown. Very nice.

The Future

I'm going to play Dune again, but I'm not sure I could live with the tiny Avalon Hill version with its cardboard tokens. This game deserves a special treatment.

Fantasy Flight Games is supposed to be publishing a game using the Dune system in Q4 2008 that will be re-themed [perhaps] into the Twilight Imperium universe. At this point, it's either that or make my own. I think I'll wait and see what FFG comes up with. Will they keep the game mechanics exactly the same? What versions, variants, expansions will they include? Will they FFG-ize the game (a million cardboard counters where 10 will do, 200 cards with ambiguous affects that feedback on each other requiring an FAQ larger than the rules)?

My preference--if it means anything--would be Mike Doyle's board, leaders, combat discs, wooden bits for leaders and Spice, and a better solution for hiding reserves and Spice. Player shields never seem to work well. Someone find a better solution.


At 10:39 AM, Blogger Hertzog said...

I also love this amazing game. At the moment we are playing it above virtually all our other games (except in the case when there are 7 players, when we revert to the equally brilliant Struggle of Empires...)

Just a point or two...

The Bene Gesserit are supposed to collect charity starting from turn 2 onwards, regardless of the amount of funds you have available.

Also, if you remain non-aggressive, you may piggy-back on to the shipping faction's destination in lieu of the polar cap.

Lastly, when playing the BG, always try to predict a faction that you are NOT allied with. Then, at the appropriate turn, you could fudge a crucial battle, and have them win~ fulfilling your prophecy! Super sneaky, but that's why players start to fear initiating an attack on the dreaded BG :-)

Hope you can play it again soon. My group is always coming up with new, creative ideas for bluffing and subterfuge and the more we play, the more we appreciate the game's wonderful narrative quality.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Hertzog said...

Oh and one last point on the BG : always auction on treachery cards if you have enough hand space (that charity should come in handy for just this purpose). No card is worthless to you, as they can all be transformed into the awesome Karama card, which allows for great flexibility.

The Benes are perhaps the most difficult faction choice for beginning players, but everyone should try them at least once for a unique gaming experience :-)

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, this is Josh, who played the Emperor at our game. Though it doesn't matter, I'm the one who blew the Shield Wall. However, there is something that does matter: A few days after the game, I was re-reading the rules, when I noticed something in the FAQ on the last page of the rules. When the Shield Wall is blown, units that had previously been protected by the Wall are still OK if they are in the storm at that moment. Obviously, the game would have been very different if not unintentionally misplayed that way. Oh well, live and learn, and still a very fun experience.

Note to Hertzog: We did not use any advanced rules, and thus the Bene did not get to use all of those tasty powers you listed.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Sorry about that. I guess I just remembered it was a player to my right. :)

"When the Shield Wall is blown, units that had previously been protected by the Wall are still OK if they are in the storm at that moment. Obviously, the game would have been very different if not unintentionally misplayed that way."

Oh my! How did we miss that. It's the first question in the Q&A. The game would have certainly lasted a few more turns if we had played that correctly. Nice find.


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