A Game of Conquest and Conquest

Dune. That inscrutable novel. As a youngster it seemed to me to be about purpose and awakening, puberty maybe, definitely victimhood, all trammeled by the reality that every life touches everything else, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. Its game adaptations, both cardboard and digital, were disappointingly narrow, preoccupied with the competing factions that served as the backdrop to its larger questions. Of those many attempts, however, the closest anything came to approximating the feel of Frank Herbert’s magnum opus was Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka’s 1979 board game, the very same that received a supernal remake only a few years back.

Dune — the 1979 board game — was also longer than Shai-Hulud. In an attempt to bring it under control for modern audiences, Gale Force Nine tapped Greg Olotka and Jack Reda to help create something more digestible. An abridgement, if you will.

The resultant Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is certainly more playable. But it’s more playable the way bowdlerized Shakespeare is more watchable. Most of the individual beats have survived intact. All the same, the cutting has not been kind to the overall intention of the piece.

The board is weirdly dark in places. I have no idea why they made that decision.

Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.

The setup for Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy, hereafter referred to as McDune for both ease of reading and to properly convey my posture, is wearyingly familiar. The planet Arrakis, home to the nootropic spice upon which the galactic empire hinges, has been thrust into a multi-pronged conflict. Four factions vie for supremacy, each with their own advantages. There’s the Imperium, fantastically wealthy space fascists who command the course of battle; House Harkonnen, fish-flesh bald space fascists who reduce their opponents’ loyal retainers into traitors; House Atreides, faintly prescient nobles who’ve attracted a number of skilled attendants by pretending to not be space fascists; and the Fremen, natives to Arrakis who boast home field advantages like knowing how to survive the planet’s storms and sandworms.

The game marches through the greatest hits of the original, although the tracks are periodically cut short. There’s the planet-spanning sandstorm that demolishes unprotected armies, although I have yet to see it circumnavigate the planet. There are spice blows that pepper the landscape with harvestable spice, making epicenters of conflict. There are strongholds that must be captured to win. There are cards for purchase, both for use in battle and to disrupt the usual proceedings of the game’s many phases.

Those defending McDune on the basis of its combat are like people defending dice-rolling regardless of its application. The same system can be slotted into different frameworks.

The combat survives intact — minus the stakes.

Speaking of battle, that’s the note that survives the transition most intact. Combat is preserved largely as it appeared in 1979. Two factions enter the fight with some quantity of troops on their side. Their masters prepare individual battle wheels, dialing in how many troops they’re willing to expend, which leader will lend their strength to the total, and a weapon and defense card for assassinating rival leaders or tweaking battle numbers.

As far as combat systems go, this one has bones of tungsten, and it’s remarkable that others haven’t taken its cue. It’s filled with facets that seem minor until they loom large. Weapons and defenses, for example, are often retained upon victory. That can seem like a good thing — you’re keeping your cards — but also means that your opponents will gradually come to know which tricks you’re hiding up your sleeve. Meanwhile, while the victor only loses the troops they committed to battle, the losing side watches as their entire force is demolished. The result is a natural brinkmanship, a lingering temptation to bid all but one or two troops, itself a trap that can leave more pennywise players in command of additional soldiery and access to strongholds and spice. And, of course, there’s the fear of betrayal, prompting smart players to deploy weaker commanders rather than be wiped out when their best fighter turns out to be a rival agent.

It’s a remarkable system, prone to swings of fortune but never traditional chance, open to marvelous plays and terrific blunders, and so very suitable to a story that hinges on deliberate strikes and killing ripostes.

More’s the pity that it doesn’t really fit McDune.

I imagine the thought process went like this. The original Dune is widely considered a masterpiece of game design. This is an opinion I happen to share, although I commiserate with the perspective that it’s too long, somewhat dated, and worthy of an update. According to conventional wisdom, it’s easier to engage modern players with shorter playtimes. The solution, therefore, is to take the things that made Dune so Dune-worthy, but pare them down. Fewer rounds. Faster phases. Less room to get lost in.

Like wear dorky-ass bubble helmets. Oh wait, the Sardaukar looked rad. Never mind.

Factions do faction stuff.

Except in this case the solution doesn’t ameliorate the original game’s weaknesses. If anything, it swings those weaknesses so far around in the other direction that it creates an entirely new set of problems. As its core elements, McDune retains the combat, a few asymmetrical factions, and some of the setting’s particularities, like strongholds and spice. It never stops to consider that maybe length was one of the reasons those things worked in the first place.

Take combat. In the 1979 version of Dune, a single misstep in battle can wipe out your forces, kill your best leader, and leave you without cards to defend yourself against further attacks. The way you regain deceased troops and leaders is a part of that. Every round, a couple troops trickle back into your pool of available manpower, and you can spend spice to purchase more troops or revive your leaders. This creates a contrast to the brinkmanship of battle. While you want to bid high enough to win, you also need to bid low enough so that you don’t have to pay to bring back your troops. Battles aren’t only about this fight. They’re about the next fight, and the fight after that.

In McDune, battle rarely carries longer-term considerations. Because the game is so short, tied as it is to a fixed timer, you’re only going to take part in a small handful of battles. The consequences spool out from there. Why be cautious with your troops when their longevity hardly matters? Even with copious losses, you aren’t likely to need to revive your forces. In the event that you do, a small handful will suffice for the rest of the game. Why worry about individual leaders? You’re likely to fight fewer battles than you have staff. If one leader is revealed as a traitor, you’re now free to revive them as a safeguard against betrayal. You’ll never have to worry about a faction-wide brain drain. Why fret over positioning? Instead of needing to worry about terrain or the approaching storm, McDune takes a freewheeling approach to dropping in armies. With only the smallest exceptions — ironically, one that usually applies to the Fremen — any spice field or stronghold is accessible at any time. All the simpler for getting into battle, but this renders most of Arrakis’s geography pointless.

Over and over, McDune reduces Dune to combat while also removing the very things that gave combat its stakes. Perhaps most surprising of all, it even removes diplomacy. Here, victory hinges on capturing three strongholds or counting up points after five rounds have elapsed. In the original, two factions could ally. This forced them to capture four strongholds together. That’s two strongholds apiece, a much easier proposition that capturing three alone. But far from being the obvious move, alliances opened up another potential layer of deception and betrayal. McDune’s cognomen declares it “A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy.” Yet its only diplomacy is the sort that arises when one player pleads with another to pretty please not attack them. By that measure, an enormous number of non-diplomatic games could be considered “A Game of Diplomacy.”

Foundation of sand, maybe. Uh huh. I went there.

On the sand.

I will say this for McDune: it’s much easier to table than its predecessor. But that’s only if the sole factor is a game’s length. If you’re interested in drama, scheming, or actual diplomacy, there are far better short titles, and certainly there’s a vastly superior longer one. This awakening may not be long, but the sleeper already thinks he needs a nap.


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Posted on February 1, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. What are the better short titles?

  2. Dune without the Guild and the Bene Gesserit?!? My mind recoils at the very thought! Perhaps this was their first mistake, then. “Dune needs a full 6p to play, but ‘modern’ games have to be playable with 4.” Which loses many of the problems of diplomacy and intrigue that those two factions brought to the table.

  3. The reason I never picked up the original/reprinted Dune is not due to play time but player count: I never get more than 3 other people to the table and even that is rather rare. It’s oft mentioned that there’s no point playing the original at less than 5, so I was hoping McDune would scratch that itch for my group

  4. I could never understand how to use the Karama card in Dune; the rulebook, errata, expansion rulebook, and community all disagreed. So I got rid of it.

  5. I bought the GF9 reprint of the Descartes edition mostly due to nostalgia- and you may imagine the extent of my dismay when I realized that none of the vague rules or edge cases had really been resolved thirty years on.

    I watch a preview of this scaled-down variant and wondered why bother? It’s not unlike wanting to make Twilight Imperium a 90 minute mini opera. Welcome to Disappointmentville. Population: You. However, just getting the licensing deal from the Herbert estate must have been a feather in someone’s cap, so I understand the desire to flood the market with spice (even if it’s somewhat stale).

  6. I was a little surprised by your review because after reading the rules, it seemed like a smooth little area control game. If this was themed differently, and didn’t promise to be Dune 2.0, would you feel any differently?

  7. It’s a shame so much got ‘lost in translation’. I was really looking forward to a more streamlined version of ‘Dune’. The mentioned issues make me wonder why this was even released as a new standalone game and not an expansion for the original game to allow playing a short game variant.

    “In McDune, battle rarely carries longer-term considerations. Because the game is so short, tied as it is to a fixed timer, you’re only going to take part in a small handful of battles. The consequences spool out from there. Why be cautious with your troops when their longevity hardly matters?”
    This also reminds me of FFG’s reprint of the classic ‘Merchant of Venus’. MoV is also a game that suffers a little due to it’s rather long play time. It isn’t easy to come up with a solution because it requires time to balance out the effects of (un)lucky exploration in the early game and the fickleness of its ‘roll-to-move’.

    Another example would be ‘Die Macher’: A normal game requires playing elections in seven states, which takes quite some time and may feel a little tedious because you’re doing the same things over and over.The new edition introduces a short game variant playing only four elections.

  8. [continuing the above since I accidentally hit the Send key…]
    However, with only four elections, it doesn’t pay to invest in the party base and restricted resources like bribery cards can be played in every election, so there aren’t many difficult decisions to make.

    • Good thoughts, jhaelen. My attitude is that there are a number of “virtues” a game can have… and that we currently weigh playtime a little too heavily in assessing those virtues.

  9. I got this game because my kids were really into the theme, and I figured it would be an easier gaming session than the original. And it was! It’s quick, it’s easy, and there’s still lots of tension. In fact, that’s maybe the part that I like the least about it; it’s almost too quick! As you pointed out, there’s not much benefit to paying to revive troops or leaders that much, it rarely happens in our sessions. And one of my kids dislikes the swinginess of losing everything in a battle because of a bad card choice; the fact that the game is so short definitely makes a late turn loss very very harsh. I tried to explain to him that that very fact makes it so that the game goes fast and we can play again (or something else), but I can see why it disheartens him and why he now unfortunately doesn’t really want to play it so much.

    Still, though, I think: yes, this game has its flaws, but, if you want a quick area control with some strategy, a fair bit of luck, some tenseness, and that doesn’t overstay its welcome with less experienced board gamers, then this is a good choice. I don’t regret having bought it, and am totally willing to play it again.. if only I can convince my teen to play with me and his pre-teen brother again!

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