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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.