Slam Dunc

Now do Bene Tleilax. Duncan cards for you, and you, and you! Duncan cards for everybody!

Expansions always make for peculiar reviews. One of the realities of writing about lots of board games is that there’s precious little time to revisit anything. Even the most impressive titles often fall by the wayside. Paul Dennen’s Dune: Imperium proved an exception, reappearing on my table again and again thanks to its smart hybridization of deck-building and worker placement. Now it has a major expansion, Rise of Ix, along with the usual burning questions. What’s changed? Are there new avenues for a house aspirant to pursue greatness? Doth the spice flow?

I’ll say this much: the Dennen who designed Rise of Ix must have played this thing a thousand times, because he understands exactly what makes Dune: Imperium tick.

CHOAM. CHOAM. How do you say CHOAM. CHOAM.

The Landsraad has been overhauled.

For those looking for an accounting of everything new to Rise of Ix, you’re going to be disappointed. There are plenty of extra bits and bobs, new factions and cards and intrigues and conflicts. But rather than going through every detail, I want to impart some sense for how things have transformed over the past year. If you don’t know the first thing about Dune: Imperium, this isn’t the place for you. For everyone who’s played it already, perhaps the most important detail is that the game’s overall structure remains intact. Every round still revolves around a conflict, complete with upped antes and last-moment reveals. Your agents are still deployed to the surface of Arrakis or to curry favor with the Imperium’s notable factions. You still won’t have enough water.

Most importantly, Dennen’s deck-building is still one of the most compelling systems out there. The short version is that you’re effectively building two decks in one, both with their own functions and idiosyncrasies, and with enough overlap that sometimes a card will be useful to both purposes. Cards are either used to deploy agents — Imperium’s worker placement half — in which case your deck is arranged by potential locations and the odd deployment bonus, or they’re used for their “reveal” effects, an overturned cornucopia of currency and combat bonuses.

These twin necessities drove plenty of decisions before; now decks are more fluid than ever. On one level, the alterations are holistic. The board has gotten an update since the last time we scrubbed our ass with sand. That, combined with a host of new cards, offers bounteous new ways to jettison cruft, draw new options, and make purchases. A few cards are powerful enough that they require a discard, like the Satellite Ban that lets you exchange a card for both spice and water, or the Truthsayer’s straightforward discard for a fresh card from the top of your deck. Accompanying this new cost, however, is an effect that lets certain cards award their reveal effect whenever they’re discarded or trashed. Offerings like Treachery or In the Shadows can now be safely discarded for their bonuses — in these cases, troops or Bene Gesserit influence. It’s a subtle change at first, suffering from the entrenched hesitation of the base game, where every new card made your deck more top-heavy and less likely to cycle. Before too long, though, a new status quo takes hold. Where lean decks were once the norm, it’s now possible to stack your cards high, provided of course that you’re paying attention to all those special discard effects.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward style of play, wild bonuses spilling into your hand and onto the table, only to occasionally stutter when a turn doesn’t go as planned thanks to a shoddy draw or because somebody claimed the Research Station or Selective Breeding’s extra draws before you could. But when a gamble pays off, the whole table groans like the Baron’s suspensors after Feyd-Rautha’s fete. Individual plays aren’t often memorable in deck-builders, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time I paid for my Ix-Guild Compact with a Water Peddler and Guild Accord. In translation, that means I paid for a dreadnought with two discards — which in turn gave me two extra water and three spice. That’s a game-changer. Wheels within wheels, baby.

I like how they were the chumps of the movie, but here they think they're super cool.

Dreadnoughts add an extra punch to conflicts.

The expansion’s other elements, the dreadnoughts and technologies and even some of the finer details like certain cards, combine to create an experience that’s freer of the constraints that, even if they didn’t hamper it, certainly dominated the original game. Among my peers, Dune: Imperium’s preeminent strategy was to collect spice, trade it on the CHOAM market, and then purchase our additional agent as quickly as possible. That extra 50% boost in placement potential would then permit us to amass the troops and resources we needed to command the outcome of the game’s contests. This sequence was never so straightforward that it became dull, but its beats were laid out for all to see.

Rise of Ix turns that on its head. In many cases, players don’t even bother to purchase their extra agent. Why should they when there are so many other avenues to explore? Now there are dreadnoughts, powerful combat units that return to your base after a failed battle. Like a valve releasing pressure, these decrease the number of troops you need to hire after each fight, freeing you up to undertake other objectives. The same goes for technologies, little rule-benders that often cost a fortune in spice, but which can gradually be discounted by sending agents to Ix, like some galactic form of layaway. These take many forms: free draws, extra battle strength, even new ways to earn points, including for those who would rather focus on influence rather than outright combat. In one play, the victorious house hadn’t won a single conflict, instead coming to power using tech objectives, alliances, and cards like Web of Power that dole out increasing bonuses depending on how many factions you’ve influenced. Of course, that player was still scheming and maneuvering and fighting. He’d spent troops to come in second and third place in battle, and weathered close calls once we got wise to his tricks. But he was able to construct a deck that took advantage of nontraditional modes of power. If anything feels suitable to Dune, it’s that.

My one hangup is a system of delayed gratification that seems at odds with all the goodies Rise of Ix pushes. The CHOAM market has been overhauled, the original game’s simple exchange of spice for solaris transformed into a new system of “freighters” that can be moved along a track or recalled to gain the income of whichever space the freighter was squatting on at that moment. It’s harder than ever to earn hard cash, at least when you aren’t being tantalized by the troops and tech discounts also situated on the freighter track. I suspect this is a case of me not having cracked the code, because I’ve seen freighters used to great effect. For now, I tend to over-harvest spice by reflex, thanks to the ancestral memory of selling it all to CHOAM, and it’s cost me more than one play.

Ix is so McDune.

Ixian technologies are a big deal.

But hey, a myopic and outdated stratagem being swept away by the forces of change is also very Dune. Toss in a spice orgy and this might become the most complete vision of Dune I’ve played.

Rise of Ix is more than I hoped for, both as an expansion that adds a bunch of stuff and as the next level for Imperium as a whole. It’s the sort of expansion that shows just how intimately aware its designer is of his game’s strengths, quirks, and even weaknesses. Here’s to many more cycles through the deck and another few kindjals between the ribs.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on March 4, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. The strength of any expansion may be informally measured by the gamer’s desire to not play without it- which Rise of Ix seems to have accomplished. New players really need not play the base game first, as the expansion cognitive burden of new content and their supporting rules does not appear particularly onerous.

    There’s still room in my deluxe edition for more stuff, Mr. Dennen! 😉

  2. To be honest the expansion is good in theory, bit bad in practice. It has the feel of an expansion that wasn’t playtested enough to be honest. I love some of the changes, especially that Green is worth playing after you get your swordmaster and council seat and also the non fungibility of spice and Solaris. Late game uses for Solaris are also good.

    That said the power creep on cards and the design on techs, which aren’t properly costed, leaves much to be desired. We are weighing up whether to go back to playing the base game as a group.

  3. Also it is way easier to earn cash now and the infiltrator mechanic, I think is generally negative, because the timing aspect of agent placement is one of the only interesting interactions between players in the game.

  4. Based upon the limited plays I’ve had (both with our gaming group and solo), I would agree that some of the new cards may present varying degrees of power creep- although I haven’t encountered any situation yet that I felt was egregious.

    As to the infiltrator mechanic, I think it’s an inspired choice because it can potentially upset one player’s assumptions about the board state and their opponent’s strategic limitations. This ability isn’t overdone IMO, because there are only 7 infiltrator cards (one for each faction, if I’ve counted correctly) that can be drawn from a card pool of over 100 cards.

    That’s… spicy. 😉

    • I guess my problem is we know the risk of upset assumptions. You will see it coming too, since your opponent has to buy it. My question is what does it add to the game? In my opinion it reduces the importance of timing. That makes the game less, not more interesting. Is it a big deal? No, but is it part of the implementation problems in the expansion, sure. To be honest though, I’d live with it. I think it is the least of the worries with the new expansion. For me the biggest issue is the conjunction of power creep, poorly costed techs and increased removal. This last one is probably good, but it needs to be well costed and some of it isn’t. Anyway, all in all I really love a lot of the changes, I just think Space Biff’s review here is not very critical, not that one shouldn’t like the expansion, just that the review is not very even handed and often wrong. (ie purchasing an extra agent is easier and so it is taken earlier than it used to be, so it figures as “more” essential).

      • My experience with the expansion mirrors Biff’s almost exactly. Half the time I don’t buy my extra agent. Builds are waaay more diverse. And a bunch of people have mentioned the solarus thing. You’re just saying dumb things confidently.

      • Spizlman, let’s keep it polite, please!

      • Sorry, Dan. But don’t you feel like it’s rude to say you’re ‘wrong’ when lots of people have been making similar statements to yours?

      • Possibly. But there’s no need to worry about it. People will be people. I’d rather not have anybody conduct a pile-on in my defense.

      • To be clear Spizlman, I think Dan was complaining about your ad hominem without any supporting reasoning, not that you thought I was wrong.

  5. I think Dan was complaining about your ad hominem, not that you thought I was wrong. With respect, I’ve played the expansion quite a bit now and if you read what I said, I like a lot of the changes. I can’t see how you can go a whole game without buying the agent. It it is so easy to buy and significantly increases your ability to take actions.

    I do agree that the openings are more diverse. I like a lot of the changes. I’m just a little surprised at how positive the review is given what are pretty well known problems with some of the details around the changes.

  6. I feel the need to chime in as well. Dan was spot-on with this review. Imperium has been one of the few new games my group keeps returning to, in part thanks to the expansion. It seems pretty obvious that cash is scarcer but given broader uses. Because there are new ways to form your deck, certain old cards have actually received a bump in usefulness. One or two techs seem mispriced, but I’m wary of making a hard call, and I know that Dan usually regards balance complaints as illusory.

    Calling the review “wrong,” when Dan’s statement was specifically that he and his fellow players don’t always follow the usual conveyor belt toward buying their extra agent, is spectacularly misplaced. He’s reporting on how the game treated him. It’s literally impossible to be “wrong.” If he doesn’t buy his agent every play, then he doesn’t buy his agent. I don’t, either. It’s a valid play that focuses on other approaches. Thinking that a review can be wrong in this regard is to misunderstand what a review is for.

    That’s where my own frustration comes from. We usually have enlightening conversations here, so comments that are rude or dismissive come across as intrusions into a space that’s usually very thoughtful.

    • I agree with Dan re-balance often. My problem is not “balance” per se. My problem is when design decisions make the game less, not more interesting. The reason costing on techs matters, is because there is only a semi-market mechanic for their pricing. If it was a pax game, say like Pax Pamir (or to some degree Pax Ren), the market would pretty much determine the price and relative power of the cards that come out. Now there is a kind of market, because you can know all the techs and therefore know the risk that an underpriced tech will come out. Is it imbalanced? Probably not, players can compensate for this.

      My objection is more whether this makes the quality of decision making better. I think better costing on the techs, would have been better, it is only a few of them, like the one that draws extra cards or the one that trashes cards (for 3 spice). Most are fine. Again, my complaint is not that it is broken, more that it feels under developed. More play would have probably lead on increase in price of both of these (or a decrease in power). They aren’t broken and as I said there is kind of a clumsy market mechanism built in. I like in general the idea of technology as it fixes an issue in the original game. My complaint is that Dan’s view feels a bit overly positive, given actual development issues in the expansion.

      With regard to the swordmaster, I don’t think the expansion significantly changes the incentives here. Situationally a tech might be good enough to delay the purchase of the sword master, but it will be rare. SO sure if an undercosted tech comes up that you can buy, that might be better, but I think that the power of the extra agent is not so low that you would never buy it. This was true previously as well. While you had to work towards the extra agent, you didn’t need to buy it turn 2 or 3, even if that was usually. Extra agents are still being bought turn 2 or 3. It wasn’t an autowin before and it isn’t an autowin now to get the extra agent early, but it is very difficult to win if you never get it, given how cheap it is to purchase now and how few actions you give up.

      As with all good games it is situational, of course. There are probably always going to be exceptions, where getting some very powerful card in a thin deck can overcome a disadvantage, but even so, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone one who never got the extra agent actually win a game. I’m not saying it is impossible, but I think it is hard with good players.

      As for Dan’s review not being capable of propositional truth. This is either a misreading of what he said or an ontological error. Here is a statement from the review:

      ” In many cases, players don’t even bother to purchase their extra agent. Why should they when there are so many other avenues to explore? Now there are dreadnoughts, powerful combat units that return to your base after a failed battle. ” That is a statement to me capable of bearing truth. He didn’t say, in the games that I have seen players often not purchase extra agents. He says generally that players in many cases don’t bother to purchase extra agents. Maybe in Dan’s group that is the case, but it certainly seems to me in generality that people still mostly purchase sword masters. They still get them in turns 2, 3 and 4, generally. That isn’t much different to pre-expansion.

      I think there are rational reasons for this, that is to say the advantage of the swordmaster is still important, both in obtaining extra actions and getting to go last in a turn (it is part of why the mentat is so good, once you have money).

    • Thank you for being so pleasant and patient where I could not, Matt.

  7. Have you played Arnak or its expansion?

      • If you are a big fan of Dune Imperium, it definitely would be worth looking it at. It is far more “eurofied” and refined, whether that is good or not is an interesting question, but I definitely enjoy both and at a surface level (ie worker placement deck builders) they are similar.

  1. Pingback: Dunc: Immorality | SPACE-BIFF!

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