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Game pieces from Dune: Imperium laid out on the game board, which is a map of the planet Arrakis.

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The new Dune board game is quick and merciless

Dune: Imperium uses the upcoming film as well as the entire literary franchise to excellent effect

Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dune: Imperium is the latest title from Dire Wolf Digital, makers of the popular card-driven dungeon crawler Clank! This highly anticipated board game is the first modern tabletop adaptation of the science fiction franchise in a generation, and it more than measures up to the hype. Dune: Imperium plays incredibly fast, especially compared to its predecessor, the legendary Frank Herbert’s Dune, first published in 1979.

Unfortunately, Dune: Imperium arrives at a very strange time for the hobby games industry. The ongoing global pandemic makes it challenging for players to gather together indoors, especially without a mask. These same health concerns have torpedoed the theater industry, and delayed the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movie — from which Dune: Imperium draws some of its inspiration as well as its art.

Thankfully, Dune: Imperium has an excellent single-player mode inside the box. The solitaire version of the game is also supported by a handy mobile app, making it an excellent way to learn the ropes. Once the public health situation has improved, it should be easy for fans to dive right in with their friends and get started.

Dune: Imperium uses stylized art from the upcoming movie, including the film’s logo as well as variations on the likenesses of actors such as Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, and Oscar Isaac. The game itself draws from the larger literary legacy of the franchise, including books by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. Players will still be fighting over the desert planet of Arrakis, and its mind-altering supply of spice melange. But the game also features factions and characters — like Count Ilban Richese and Countess Ariana Thorvald — that won’t be immediately familiar to everyone. These additional characters help to broaden the scope of the conflict for the desert planet, as well as increase replayability.

A game board with a fan of cards above it. In the foreground is a pile of multi-colored wooden pieces.
An early render of the components that come inside the retail version of Dune: Imperium.
Image: Dire Wolf Digital

Driving the action is a deck-building mechanic that should be familiar to anyone who has played similar games in the genre, especially previous titles in the Clank! series from Dire Wolf. Each player at the table is tasked with managing a short stack of cards, which can be drafted or purchased from a communal pool that sits in view along the sideboard. The trick is tailoring the number and type of cards in your deck to create the most effective engine to advance your strategy — which could include military, diplomatic, or economic objectives.

The deck-building mechanic gives the game several advantages. First, it’s fairly easy to teach the game to new players. With everyone sitting around the table working with the same similar cards, it’s easy to model the basic mechanics of play in just a few rounds. Also, unlike more traditional strategy games that focus on area control (think Risk, Axis & Allies, and the original Dune from Avalon Hill), Dune: Imperium does a far better job of keeping players engaged. Rather than passively waiting for two or three other players to take their turns, you must constantly be watching what cards are in play, and keep track of what new strategies open up when new cards show up for purchase or draft.

My favorite part of the game is how combat is abstracted — something that I was originally very skeptical of.

Large player cards, which serve as sideboard during play, interleaved with characters from the other decks of cards that come with Dune: Imperium.
The cast of Dune: Imperium includes versions of the cast of the Denis Villeneuve film, as well as characters only found in the novels so far.
Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Rather than moving pieces around on a chessboard, doing battle in Dune: Imperium feels much more like bidding on an auction. The end result is that everyone’s attention is focused on a single, pivotal battle each round rather than spending mental cycles on logistics. Instead of wondering how you’ll be getting your armies in the right place at the right time, it’s possible to splash the pot of the auction by converting currency into armies on a whim. In this way, the auction system itself more closely models the Dune universe’s thematic elements, which includes concepts like “foldspace” travel as well as cloning.

Likewise, I’m not always a huge fan of companion apps, which I feel often appear alongside games like this more as a stunt than as a practical way to enhance gameplay. The Dune: Imperium app is a no-frills tool that helps you set up the game for one or two players, and then automates the process of playing the AI — which, in this case is just a deck of cards. Even the sound effects are pleasant and help with immersion.

Finally, I was extremely impressed with the manual that comes packaged with the game. Dire Wolf is able to explain this fairly complicated game in 14 slim pages, with the help of thoughtful graphic design, precise text, and useful examples of play. Add in a simple cardboard pack-in and plenty of plastic bags to keep things sorted inside the box, and Dune: Imperium is the complete package.

Dune: Imperium costs $50, and pre-orders are expected to ship in early December. Fans who place a pre-order with their friendly local game store will get an exclusive promotional card. You can also purchase the game directly from Dire Wolf Digital online (pre-orders begin Oct. 29) or on Amazon. The publisher has also announced a $55 upgrade pack, which includes dozens of plastic miniatures to enhance the experience.

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