Paul Dennen gets deck-building games. More importantly, he gets that deck-building is an under-leveraged mechanism. Wait, you might be saying, aren’t there one billion deck-building games? Yes. More deck-building games than there are grains of sand in the sea. But not all of them are slick hybrid titles like Clank!, which mixed deck-building with just enough beyond-the-deck considerations to make it worthwhile. While the rest of the hobby lags behind Martin Wallace’s multiple experiments in hybrid deck–building, Dennen has been doing one better by taking those lessons and turning them into games you’re actually likely to play.
Dune: Imperium is the best of his offerings yet. Although not necessarily because of the systems Dennen is mixing together.
Here’s the source-genome for Dennen’s ghola: one part deck-building, one part worker placement. Two systems blended together, like Duncan Idaho and an assassin’s imprint. Or Duncan Idaho and half of the hereditary code to fulfill the Golden Path. Or Duncan Idaho and the power to out-sex an Honored Matre. Spoiler warning? Friend, those books are half a century old. Pitter-patter.
Doubtless there will be much talk about how smoothly Imperium merges these systems. To bestow a high compliment, it succeeds so entirely that the result doesn’t even feel like worker placement. Workers are placed, spaces are blocked, and resources are dutifully tallied in dribs and drabs. The essentials are intact.
Yet Imperium goes in another direction, one less consumed with making its board as restrictive as possible. Here the table is permissive. Open, or open enough that you’ll never quite be locked out of an avenue entirely. Need troops? There are half a dozen ways to field them. Looking for water? Spice? Money? When something you desire is unavailable, either you can find it elsewhere or pursue some other scheme. Want to dig at your rivals? There’s no cause for worry. Dune famously chanted “wheels within wheels within wheels” so often that nearly every one of its gamified forms has focused on the interplay of scheming factions rather than, say, the mind-expanding nature of drugs, sex, puberty, and the dawning awareness of one’s larger ecosystem. Which is to say, you’ll never employ prescience or soporific needles or the power of the Voice as anything other than power-ups. There is no terrifying metamorphosis of the mind. But the usual stuff? The feuding houses, unexpected turns of fortune, and something called a mentat? The trappings of Dune-as-game-setting? All here. And lovingly rendered.
But while the worker placement stuff is done superbly, where Imperium feels the most appropriately Dune-ish is in its combat.
Robert Gabhart’s best-known game received plenty of accolades, but it’s still an example of early deck-building that feels lost to time. Some of that was deliberate. Before Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion had a billion imitators, it had a son — Arctic Scavengers. Times being what they were, Rio Grande Games swiftly locked it away to prevent it from competing with its father, likely the closest Dominion has ever gotten to accurately reflecting the Medieval Period.
Like the origins of the feud between Houses Harkonnen and Atreides, that’s background noise. The important part is how Arctic Scavengers handled combat. Most of the time, its cards did normal deck-buildery things like buying, trashing, and drawing other cards. But each round was also arranged around an inevitable skirmish. Your cards could either be used for regular actions or saved for that final shootout to secure the game’s most significant rewards. Suddenly this otherwise straightforward genre also featured bluffing. Every card dedicated to the skirmish might be a trap or nothing at all.
Dune: Imperium understands the lessons of Arctic Scavengers without copying them. If anything, it’s better. Each of the game’s ten rounds is capped with a conflict for resources, intrigue cards, control of regions on the map, or even outright victory points. As you play, troops can be recruited to either sit in your garrison or be deployed into the conflict. Appropriately, these fights are draining; every deployed soldier is lost, possibly leaving your forces depleted for next round’s conflict. But the rewards are so tantalizing that sitting out is often far worse than sacrificing a few expendable grunts, even if you’re only shooting for the pity prize in second or third place.
What makes these conflicts so gripping, however, is how each round builds in anticipation. One house nudges a few troops into the middle. Another recruits an entire heighliner’s worth of sardaukar, but cannot yet deploy them. There they sit in their garrison, niggling like a sandtrout, waiting to be bid or retained. And then there’s the possibility of last-moment reveals, whether from special intrigue cards or your regular hand. Because, as Frank Herbert never tired of typing, on Arrakis there are wheels within wheels within wheels.
Crucially, the composition of your deck is holistic, affecting everything on the table in profound ways. Deploying an agent to the board’s worker spaces requires a card with a matching symbol, and also provides that card’s play effect. This often means you receive two benefits at once: the one in your hand and the one on the board. If you squint, these make for neat narrative beats. A spy trashes a useless card from your discard pile to enable intrigue, while also putting you into contact with some imperial fundraisers. A Fremen camp exchanges spice for manpower, while also showing you how to reach the best spice blows. Stilgar shares water and navigates the deep desert. Gurney Halleck’s tactical brilliance bestows both troops and extra cards, but remains myopic to the planet’s broader structures of power. A card entitled “Firm Grip” prompts jokes about how exactly one goes about extracting the Water of Life from Shai-Hulud. As I wrote earlier, it’s all very Dune.
This matters even beyond the placement of your agents. Most of the time, you begin with a hand of five cards, but only two to three agents. Some back-of-the-envelope math confirms that you’ll have leftover cards. This is where Imperium most cleverly riffs on Arctic Scavengers. When you’re done placing agents, you take a “reveal turn.” All your leftover cards are placed on the table, splayed so that their bottom-most strips are visible, revealing an entirely different set of bonuses. Sometimes these offer resources. More often, they award influence for buying new cards and swords that boost your strength in the upcoming conflict. If you time your reveal right, it’s possible to transform a handful of troops into an onslaught of worm riders, elite infantry, and attack ‘thopters. Sometimes it’s even desirable to forego an agent turn altogether in favor of an earlier reveal. Not placing a worker isn’t the ideal move I expected from a worker placement game, yet it’s often the case here.
These factors combine to make something greater than any one of them could accomplish individually, not unlike the bloodlines contributing to the emergence of the kwisatz haderach. On its own, the worker placement is too straightforward to be interesting. Weighted against the pressures of your deck, the inverse becomes true, with certain spaces made rarer or more heavily contested simply by how often they appear on cards. The least common are those representing the game’s four special factions — the Imperium, Spacing Guild, Bene Gesserit, and Fremen. Each offers abilities not found elsewhere, including the Guild’s onetime-use go-anywhere card and the Bene Gesserit’s careful winnowing of your deck. Even better, noble houses gain influence with them over time, unlocking victory points and eventually an alliance token. Like everything else in the game, these are simple but impactful, often causing minor struggles of favor to complement the broader conflicts being waged down on Arrakis.
As you might expect, the biggest trade-off to all those wheels within wheels within wheels is the possibility of their grinding against the game’s pacing. Indeed, Dune: Imperium often feels slower than it should, in part because turns are so reactive. Each action can carry significant import: a blocked space, a resource that puts a rival within reach of something you’re striving toward, extra troops deployed into the conflict, favor with a faction you need to control — there are so many variables that many turns demand recalibration. The same thing that makes Imperium great is also its curse. Running with the kwisatz haderach metaphor, if I were being generous I’d say it’s like being paralyzed with indecision thanks to runaway prescience. Less generous, that it’s more like one of those Tleilaxu knockoffs.
Here’s the good news: whether generous or not, the metaphor remains defiantly suitable to Dune. Paul Dennen has done yeoman’s work with Imperium, not only as a hybrid design that shows its titanic effort by how effortless it feels when operated by one’s hands and one’s mind, but also because he’s named Paul, and nerdy children named Paul carried that namesake of terrible purpose like a talisman. Whether it’s furthering the legacy of Herbert or Wallace or Dennen, it’s a massive step forward.
A complimentary copy was provided.