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 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.
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.
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.”
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.