Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.
It’s hard to imagine what our geekish DNA would look like if Frank Herbert had never written Dune. It touches so much, and says so much, but never seems to follow any one thread to its conclusion. Maybe because it’s as varied as the thoughts rattling around Herbert’s head in the early ’60s. Poverty grasses and climate patterns. Resource monopolies and shortages. Religion as opiate; opiate as religion. Charismatic heroes unleashing murderous jihads. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious and cellular memory, spurring hosts to destruction and rebirth alike. Great houses entangled in destinies both inevitable and mutable, like plunging headfirst into a sandstorm with just enough will to select the ground where your flesh will be scoured from your bones.
And the beauty of Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka’s 1979 design of the board game version is that it got it right. As right as could be got, anyway.
Let me tell you a story.
There is nothing more pitiful than a begging Harkonnen. There he knelt, the great gluttonous Baron, scraping on his knees for spice charity. It was hardly even the Baron’s fault. Yes, he’d made wagers. Spent his treasury on an ill-timed invasion of Arrakeen, first hampered by a storm and Atreides reinforcements, later undone by the atomic merger of lasgun beam and shield. An entire army, an entire treasury, even the na-baron Feyd-Rautha, evaporated like a bowl of water left under the sun of the desert planet at midday.
With Arrakeen occupied by the Emperor’s reinforcements, the Baron fled into the sands. A land of tooth and crysknife, distilled urine and broken footsteps. For a time the Baron sought solace among the Bene Gesserit witches, trading favors for scraps. The arrangement worked thusly: when the prescient Atreides bid on weapons of war, the Baron bid higher, past even what common sense would let bear. With his ledger marked through with red slashes, he would turn the equipment over to the witches, earning only enough spice to bring a small expedition onto the planet’s surface.
Over time, the Harkonnen expedition grew, for the Baron was willing to risk what others would not — his men. Under threat of the long knife, they launched suicidal attacks on valueless targets. These sorties were not meant to gain ground, but noble heads and the bounties attached to them. The Baron grew fat(ter) with each assassination. At long last, a second expedition made landfall right outside of Arrakeen. A second attempt at rebirthing his atomized glory.
But it was an alliance the Baron needed, struck with the same Fremen the Baron had hounded ceaselessly in his younger years. They descended upon four strongholds at once, catching the Emperor and his Atreides cronies by surprise. By dawn, everything of note upon the surface of Arrakis was held within the Baron’s sausagelike grasp. “Is it not a wonderful thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?” the Baron said, very improbably.
The (morbidly obese) sleeper had awakened.
The best thing about being a Guild Spicer is that you’re never short on spice. It’s right there in the name. While everybody else squabbles over rocks, the Guild is happy to continue delivering troops to the planet. Yes, please invade Carthag. Need a lift to that Fremen stronghold? Oh, you’d like to destabilize Imperial control over that spice blow? Hop aboard! That’ll be ten spice, please and thank you.
But there’s a downside. After a while, people realize you’re as rich as everyone else combined. Then it’s all talk about wealth gaps and share alike and everybody kill some Guild troops. Before long, you’re paying the Tleilaxu for the privilege of regrowing all those dead soldiers. And nobody likes dealing with those guys. They’re always impersonating your deceased lovers and bragging about how they once bred a kwisatz haderach from a giant space vagina. Gross.
What’s a Guild representative to do? Sign up with the Bene Gesserit, of course. Now there’s an organization that prizes planning! Together, you start putting everyone in their proper places. You’ve got the cash, they have the robed
jedi witches who can force enemy commanders to obey your battle plans with a single phrase. Even better, their representatives are already embedded in every noble house. Uprisings occur in tandem with your troops emerging from Guild heighliners. At a tidy discount, naturally. Friends and family only pay half-rates for orbital drops.
At this moment, at the height of your power, right as you tabulate how to license the merchandise of your victory as a line of popular children’s toys, your Bene Gesserit companion turns to you and utters a word. Down go the curtains. Whoops! Turns out, they planned this from the very beginning. So much for infinite wealth.
Last story. I promise.
When Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka designed Dune in 1979, they wisely focused on the most consistent of the book’s many threads: the kanly between Atreides and Harkonnen, the all-consuming jealousy of the Corrino imperial household and the Spicing Guild, and the interloping schemes and dreams of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and native Fremen. You won’t be catching any nip slips at a spice orgy, but Paul Muad’dib will gradually awaken into his role as a prescient god-boy. This is represented by a token that awards a +2 modifier in battle. It’s far more useful than it sounds.
Dune was both a product of its time and significantly ahead of it. On the one hand, there’s really no telling what will happen. Players can get wiped out. But not formally. Just enough to twiddle their thumbs until they scrape enough spice together to get back into the action. That could be ten minutes later. Or an hour. Or never. No wonder it features a wildly divergent playtime. Meanwhile, some players will have to write stuff down. Or make the occasional ruling on an ambiguous situation. At times, it stutters ever so slightly, its bones creaking beneath such an ambitious load.
It’s an experience, is what I’m saying. Maybe even an experience that functions best when everybody comes prepared for a game that might last two hours or six. A convention game, or one perfect for a long Saturday, complete with meals and access to at least two bathrooms.
But it’s a worthwhile experience, in part because it gets so many details right, even things that weren’t a given only a decade ago. Asymmetrical factions. Heavy negotiation. Phases that allow for largely simultaneous play. In Dune, there’s no such thing as downtime. It’s too lean for that. Each faction only makes one deployment and one move per turn because those deployments and moves are so portentous.
The really big deal is how it handles its setting. Because these teams aren’t factions with some Dune stickers. They’re Herbert’s counterparts, right down to their core, as strongly realized as any other this hobby has produced. The Atreides are always telling fortunes, but only in glimpses. The Harkonnen are horrid jerks who’ve already corrupted someone in your entourage. The Guild and the Emperor are disproportionately wealthy, and they’ll let you know it by dropping armies on your head. The Bene Gesserit dabble in generations-long plotting and giving unwanted advice. The Fremen seem weak until suddenly they’re everywhere.
And although you aren’t required to team up, you can count on there being alliances. It wouldn’t be Dune without strange bedfellows.
In other words, Dune effortlessly tells stories you might have read in Dune had Frank Herbert wanted to tell a slightly different tale than the one he published in 1965. Duels and battles with unexpected outcomes. Untimely betrayals and uncomfortable alliances. Wagers and triumphs and accidentally buying a jubba cloak from a shady market vendor. Feelings both fond and bitter.
Dune altered the landscape of science fiction. Dune did the same for board games, and feels as strange and misplaced and wonderful as the novel it adapts. Its return is welcome like a quiet moment in the sietch after a midnight raid.