The Dice Must Flow
While other pubescent boys were discovering their interest in girls, my heart was occupied by Dune. Without reservation, it was my favorite book between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Too bad about most of the sequels, not to mention every attempt to translate onto the big screen.
A couple months ago, the first time Dune: The Dice Game (also known by its much cooler nickname The Dice Must Flow) hit my table, a newcomer to our group announced that he’d never read Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece. Somewhat interrupting my explanation of the rules, he asked, “So what’s it about?”
There’s a chance I was a bit curt in my response. I think I mumbled something about Lawrence of Arabia and went back to explaining how to play. Because anyway, what is Dune about? There are any number of things I could have said. It’s about the allure and danger of messiahs and heroes. About addiction to a dwindling resource. About the decline of the status quo, about revolution, about religion’s role in both. The transformative nature of knowledge, violence, sex. It’s about finding yourself and realizing you’ve lost yourself in the process.
Or maybe those are just the memory of my teenage hormones talking. Lots of things seem double-plus profound when your pituitary gland has declared war on the rest of your body.
The reason I’m waxing eloquent about Dune is to establish that anything short of that revelatory book itself is going to fall short of what I expect from a Dune-themed piece of entertainment. It would be fair to say that Dune was my Star Wars, my artifact of nostalgia that can never quite be replicated, though I’ll throw out my back wishing that it will one day happen.
In game terms, Dune was always going to be more about political machination than the Jungian collective unconscious. Battles for worthless ergs, dying for precious stretches of less-treacherous land, convenient alliances, convenient betrayal. Those are the things that make for good board games. Spice-induced orgies? Perhaps for one of those special-hug couples’ games, but probably not for a print-and-play title.
The centerpiece of The Dice Must Flow is found in its seven dice. With each player controlling a unique faction, every turn begins with the clatter of plastic against the table. Bit by bit, whoever is taking their turn will study the results, choose some to keep, and then roll the remainder in hopes of a better outcome. After a few rerolls, whatever sits before you will go on to determine what you can accomplish over the rest of your turn.
The most common dice are those that show six of the game’s eight factions. Rolling your own faction on your turn means you can recruit new troops to your side; rolling someone else’s means you can lure them into an alliance with the promise of free soldiers and perhaps even a few strategic moves down the line. This is a decision that bears some consideration. Alliances make it easier to win the game — alone you need to control three strategic regions, while together you only need to control four between the two of you — but they’re also limited to a single turn unless they get renewed every time the turn goes back to you or yours, which means there’s always a chance for a bad roll or just bald-faced expediency to spell doom for your budding friendship. Alliances are at the heart of the game, and are taken up and cast aside as easily as a desperate handful of toilet paper.
Which isn’t to say that the other dice aren’t critical in their own way. The spice die lets you know how much spice you’ve harvested for the purposes of deploying troops to the surface of the planet. Pleasanter allies might share their spice with you, but you can never count on that sort of kindness on Arrakis, and there’s always a chance you could roll the sandworm (Shai-Hulud, technically) and shout a cuss because that means you won’t be shipping anyone down to the planet at all. The kanly die — “kanly” being the formal system of vendettas between royal houses — lets you kill off enemy troops or protect your own. And the region die both determines where you can march your troops and which way the sandstorm will blow, shredding the troops in its path.
This system of interlocking dice effects can feel both rich and restrictive. That chunky handful of plastic cubes determines nearly everything you can do on your turn: who you can ally with, how many troops you can recruit, how many of them you can deploy to Arrakis, where you can march, whether you’re bogged down by sandworms or sandstorms, and so forth. Nearly every turn will include a setback of some kind, and it’s entirely possible for dumb luck to leave one player as helpless as an offworlder trapped atop a spice blow while their neighbor brings in a rich spice harvest and walks right into the fortress at Sietch Tabr without even a squeak of resistance. On the other hand, it certainly evokes a sense of rolling with your punches and making do with a changeable political, military, and ecological landscape. Rising to the occasion by making flexible strategic decisions and choosing careful temporary alliances feels not only appropriate to the setting, but also deviously splendid.
It also helps that each of the game’s eight factions are so well defined. Even my Dune-nerd conscience squeals with delight to see how House Harkonnen sneaks past fortifications (“Just like how they broke past the Atreides house shields with the help of the traitor Wellington Yueh!” I gasp) while the Empire employs elite Sardaukar troops and the native Fremen evade sandstorms and turn sandworms into opportunities by riding them across the entire planet. House Atreides boasts excellent leaders who can dominate in combat, the Bene Gesserit and Spacing Guild can embrace alternate victory conditions, the Bene Tleilax abduct enemy troops, and the Smugglers can hire mercenaries with little effort. Each side feels distinct.
Even so, my main complaint with The Dice Must Flow is that it’s just too damn long for a dice game. I mentioned before that it’s entirely possible for one player to have a stinker of a turn. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t bother me — I’m an enormous fan of Greenland and Neanderthal, to name two dice games that love an unfair turn or two — but in this case the game works best with as many players as possible in order to encourage changing allegiances, yet results in great stretches of time where nearly everybody is just sitting around. A single turn can take quite a bit of time, meandering through nine phases and often more than one negotiation. Now imagine sitting through all that, multiplied by up to seven other players. Under those conditions, a bad turn is more than just a setback. It’s a setback plus an interminable wait before any chance of redemption.
The span between turns is as flawed a metric as any to judge a game by, and it certainly won’t bother everybody. And granted, the span of time between getting your hands on those dice might be filled with negotiations, threats, warnings, or any of the other cute little things we do to get other people to act the way we want. In either case, long wait or no, there are still so many things I like about The Dice Must Flow, from its clever use of dice as a governing system to the way all those factions are so cleverly distinguished, that I’m inclined to give it a tentative recommendation anyway. It also earns points by being a title you can print and play on your own.
Some say you can seek your fortunes on Arrakis. Much like spice harvesting, it can be as tedious as the scenery is brown. For a few, however, the rewards will be tremendous.