Dunc: Immorality

Needs more colons.

The foremost question about Dune: Imperium: Immorality is one of abundance. Does Imperium really need another expansion? It hasn’t even been a year since Paul Dennen gave Dune: Imperium its first big addition, Rise of Ix. At this rate we’ll soon be juggling expansions for the Honored Matres and Fish Speakers. Talk about power creeps.

Speaking of power creep, have you ever heard of the Tleilaxu?

Immoraler.

Meet the Bene Tleilax. They’re immoral.

Outside of a brief reference, the Bene Tleilax don’t make an appearance in Frank Herbert’s original Dune, which means they don’t make appearances in David Lynch’s Dune or the first half of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, either. Appearing in the second novel, they serve as a stepping stone to the weirdness of the later books. What the Bene Gesserit do for politics and self-control, the Bene Tleilax perform for biology and control of form. As the creators of altered bodies, the Tleilaxu provide a deeply uncomfortable literalization of Dune’s subtext for puberty. Just as Paul — Paul Atreides, not Paul Dennen — experiences the horror of his own maturing body, and the sexuality, responsibility, and culpability that await on the far side of adolescence, the Tleilaxu are a force of constant remaking. They are the squirming discomfort of body dysmorphia blown outward into a major galactic faction. Also: shape-shifters are inherently scary.

Ahem. Pardon the essay. The point is, one of my quibbles with most adaptations of Dune is that they sidestep the books’ underlying themes to instead focus on their delivery method. On one level, that’s entirely fair. When I told my Dad that the later books include Paul’s son transforming himself into a giant sandworm-human hybrid so he could rule humanity for thousands of years, but that his ultimate goal was to have himself assassinated so that humanity would explode outward and become invulnerable to conquest by any single foe — and that the foe he envisioned was not killer robots — well, dear old Dad’s face had gone pretty slack by the end. Warring factions are cool. The Jungian collective unconsciousness driving humankind to interracial breeding is, um, a tougher nut to pitch to studio executives.

But that’s exactly what Immortality brings to the table. Not textually. At no point does it ask you to think about the philosophical questions Herbert was preoccupied with. Rather, it brings the weirdness. This is the squicky side of Dune. There are writhing beetle-people, tank-born soldiers bred for battle, corpses as a form of currency. There still isn’t a spice orgy in sight, and one could easily overlook the source material’s thoughts on religion. The result is still two steps closer to Dune than any of its other board game adaptations.

Ah, yes, my tank-friend.

Some uncomfortable new friends.

What does it add? Observe, Feyd-Rautha. There are a few bits and bobs, but its major contribution is the Tleilaxu board and an accompanying deck. The board is a track to move along — two tracks, really — that mostly provide benefits for their own sake. Every so often, you toss a corpse onto the board. Yes, a corpse. The game calls them “specimens,” but that’s one of those euphemisms that manages to lay its subject more bare, not less. Anyway, there are plenty of ways to earn them. Certain cards, including a pair of starters that supplant all the pesky “Dune, The Desert Planet” cards from your deck, can generate them as part of your reveal turn. So can a handful of intrigue cards, including those that transform battle casualties into specimens. Hm, wonder what’s going on there? Discarded equipment, surely. At any rate, specimens accrue on the Tleilaxu board much the way Negotiators accrued on the Ix board. Since you don’t have all that many cubes, it’s more important than ever to measure out where you’re deploying them.

The big twist is that these corpses specimens can be reborn as powerful Tleilaxu cards. These are purchased at the same time as regular cards, except you pay for them with the aforementioned specimens. They’re universally powerful, as you can imagine, something they get away with by being difficult to acquire. They also introduce a new concept. Grafting, it’s called. Cards with grafting must be played with a second card, merging their effects and locations together. This increases their potency even further, and enables some combos that verge on broken, although it can prove a downside as well. This is because grafting is non-optional, often resulting in a significantly weaker reveal turn.

As with most expansions to well-tuned games, Immortality adds enough that it sometimes feels like a mudslide of chocolate. That goes double when it’s combined with Rise of Ix. With more workarounds, the worker-placement side of the game matters less. To compensate, decks feel hardier and more fluid. With some careful selections, it’s easier to prepare a deck that triggers its effects more often. Moving far enough along the Tleilaxu track even writes this directly into the game’s processes, letting you plop Tleilaxu cards onto the top of your deck rather than seeding them into your discard. In a game that only sees you playing ten hands tops, that’s a nice way to ensure you get to use a card more than once or twice.

To be clear, however, it can feel like combing through a big mossy pile of chairdog fur. The end result is often stellar, offering cooler combos and surprising twists, but it edges further and further from the accessible entry point of baseline Imperium. As a veteran of the game who’s pleased to tinker with new toys, being forced to choose between multiple powerful emphases is exactly the sort of problem I don’t mind. Now I’m balancing the base game’s purchasing combos with Rise of Ix’s shipping track, upgrades, and dreadnoughts and choosing how much to invest in the Bene Tleilax. If all these systems had been competing for my attention in the original release, I might have confused it for a title from Mindclash. And that’s exactly as mixed a complisult as it sounds.

Check out all those guild navigators! Sure hope we get to see them in the next movie.

Immortality proves the stronger expansion.

On the whole, though, Immortality is the better of Imperium’s expansions. It’s more imaginative, a bit more intuitive, and certainly the wilder of the two. It’s also more streamlined, leaning less on sideboard upgrades and more on cards you can slot into your deck, which keeps the focus on your hand rather than wandering afield. I’m not sure Dennen will be able to cram much more into this game without breaking it. For now it strains at the seams, but in a way that makes it seem fuller rather than on the verge of eruption. This is Dune as I like it: big, weird, and perfect for a visit.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 28, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great review, and a helpful primer on some of Dune’s more deeply-hidden themes, for someone like myself who hasn’t read the books, but loves the movies and board game!

    I just got Immortality in the mail, and this review has me excited to play it, but not as excited to explain it to my friends who haven’t played since Ix came out. Maybe this will be one of the heavier experiences generally reserved for my wife and I.

    • We tossed one friend into the deep end. He struggled somewhat on his first play, but caught up by his second. So it isn’t too heavy. But maybe too heavy to expect competitive play right away.

  2. Excellent! I’ve been trying to decide on which expansion to get. This review helps a bunch to get me leaning towards this one. Cheaper as well! Thanks for a great review!

  3. Incidentally, how would you go about designing a board game that engages with Dune’s deeper themes?

    • I mean, I’m not a game designer, so I’d outsource it to Prospero Hall or something.

      But I think the first step would be switching the default mode from “warring factions” to “individual journeys.”

  4. I did think “complisult” was an obscure Dune reference I must admit, though it did eventually click. Having said that, the “Bene Complisult” should definitely be a faction – when the ring is played they can make a permanent ally with one faction and a eternal foe of another… but neither knows which is which 🙂

  5. Thank you, Dan, for the good read.
    One question: Would you prefer Base Game plus Immortality over Base Game plus Ix plus Immortality? Or would you recommend going all in if one’s group can handle it?

  6. From the outside, this upgrade seemed like a grafting on of Lost Ruins of Arnak type of upgrading, and I wasn’t too interested. I’m glad to see that I am wrong! I enjoy the base game a lot, and Ix is good but isn’t a game-changer (ha ha). I really like Dune Imperium overall, but it does have the quirky Root feeling of a race that can end abruptly, which can be fun but frustrating too (1 more turn, just 1 more turn!).

    • Yeah, the conclusion can be jarring. A side-effect of a score target rather than set number of rounds, I suppose. One could imagine playing it for ten rounds rather than to 12 points, although you’d lose out on the ability to pull off a surprise win.

  7. As someone who occasionally frequents Grindr, the alt text on the header image was *highly* unnecessary 😛

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