Reviewed by Herb Levy
DUNE: IMPERIUM (Dire Wolf/Legendary, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-120 minutes; $50)
One of the classic novels of science fiction is Frank Herbert’s Dune. The premise of the novel is the existence of the planet Arrakis, a desert planet also known as Dune, upon which giant sandworms roam and create the spice melange, a critical element in space travel worth more than its weight in gold. Competition for control of the planet and its spice propel players into the world of Dune Imperium.
As designed by Paul Dennen, Dune Imperium puts players into the roles of Leaders of one of the Four Great Houses of Dune. Become dominant (by earning 10 – or more – Victory Points) and you will be victorious!
Along with a “combat area” where troops will be deployed, the gameboard depicts a wide array of places denoted by icons. Green hexagons indicate the Landsraad (the governing body of the planet) while a purple circle indicates populated areas and yellow triangles indicate deserts (and places to sell spice) on Dune. Four areas represent the four Houses of the game where influence will be tracked with an eye towards alliances.
The game is played over a series of rounds, a maximum of 10, and Conflict cards (labelled I, II and III) are turned into a stack of 10 (one I, five II and four III) placed face down near the combat area. Near the board is the shuffled deck of Imperium cards with five of them turned face up (available for purchase later on). Three decks of “Reserve” cards, two of which may be bought as well, the other a reward for exerting influence in a specific House, are also on hand. A deck of Intrigue cards (which are, in effect, chance cards that are all beneficial) is shuffled and placed by the board. Several commodities populate the game including spice (orange), Solari (currency in gray) and water (blue). All are valuable and useful in their own ways as these commodities are required to access key areas on the board and Solari is needed to “buy” your third Agent and more.
Each player chooses one of the 8 characters in the game. Each character has different abilities which provides for a slightly asymmetrical beginning to play. (With four of the eight possible characters at most active in a game, the backs of unchosen character cards serve as a very useful play aid for everyone.) All start with 16 cubes (one placed at the bottom of each of the four Influence tracks, the rest considered “troops”), 2 discs (one used as your scoring marker, the other held in reserve), 3 agents (but only 2 begin active), 3 control markers and a combat marker in their chosen color and 1 water as well as identical 10 card starting decks. This deck is shuffled and a hand of five cards drawn.
Cards are the means of agent placement. Most cards have icons that match areas on the board allowing you to send an agent into a matching area. Unlike most worker placement games, you are not able to access all areas on the board at any time you want. Here, if you want to go to an area but do not have a card with the corresponding icon, you are out of luck. Many cards also have an “agent box” which grants a special bonus when played. With only 2 (or 3) agents to deploy (four if you manage to hire the “Mentat”, a “mercenary” agent you may hire if you have the Solari to pay for him!), you will always have cards left over. While all areas are important, it is crucial that the Influence tracks are not neglected.
Each of the four tracks represent a House of Dune. As players advance up these tracks, they will earn Victory Points and, as they get towards the top, be able to claim an “Alliance” token – and another VP. An additional bonus (of Solari or a card or cubes etc.) is also awarded. These VPs, however, may not be permanent. Should another player overtake the one in the lead, that Alliance token is taken from that player and the token – and VP – given to the new Alliance owner. Considering that 10 VPs is the goal, a swing of VPs like this can be deadly to one’s hopes for victory!
With all active Agents placed, remaining cards in all players hands are exposed in the “Reveal” part of a turn.
There are two parts to a Reveal: buying additional cards and adding strength to combat. The bottom most cards have either a number (in a blue diamond) or sword icons. Numbers in blue represent “persuasion”. Persuasion is used to recruit cards from the current display to “join your deck”. (If you have enough Solari – and the right card – you will be able to buy more “persuasion” – noted by placing that second disc on the board.) There are always 5 cards available for “recruiting” in addition to 3 decks of “reserve” cards. Bought cards are added to a player’s discard pile, to be shuffled into that player’s deck and be drawn into his/her hand when the cards recycle. Multiple cards can be purchased on a turn provided you have enough persuasion. Swords are added to a player’s strength to determine just how much power they have in this round’s combat.
Combat is an important feature of Dune Imperium and, as is typical with Euros, very stylized. Players begin with 3 troops (cubes) in the circular space next to the combat area (known as their “garrison”). Some areas gain you troops for garrison placement. If an agent should be sent to an area that has a desert scene and/or sword icons, any troops received for going there, may be immediately placed in the combat area. In addition, up to 2 troops in the garrison may be added to the combat area too. Once all cards have been played, combat strength of all players involved in the combat is determined.
Each troop (cube) is worth 2 strength. Each sword icon is worth 1. Now, in turn order, players may add Intrigue cards to modify the respective strengths of players involved. Once all players decline to play further Intrigue cards, resulting totals are compared. The player with the most strength gets the top reward of the Conflict card with second and third place rewards handed out accordingly. (Ties result in the LOWER reward being granted to all tied players.) Reward cover the whole spectrum as you may earn Solari or spice or water or, more critically, earn Victory Points and possibly earn Control of certain areas.
Gaining control of an area allows you to place your control market on it. Anytime anyone goes there (you or another player), you receive a Solari or a spice (depending on the area). You also get to add a troop to battle IF that area is the scene of the Conflict that round.
Once the battle is resolved, spice is seeded on those desert spaces that were not occupied, all troops involved in the battle get returned to players’ supplies, agents are retrieved from the board and a new round begins by revealing the next Combat card. However, if someone has reached 10 Victory Points, the game will end. At that point, players with Intrigue cards for use at the endgame play them. When the dust clears, the players with the MOST VPs claims victory!
Although the game plays at its best with three and four players, rules are provided for both 2 player and solo games using a deck of cards as “artificial intelligence”. Two player and solo modes of play can be found in many games published during this global pandemic making them more accessible to players who find finding game partners a bit challenging. In both cases, these modes of play work fine. The asymmetrical characters give different advantages but none so advantageous as to be seriously unbalancing. Graphically, the game is quite satisfactory with attractive artwork. The only perplexing aspect is the board, when folded, is slightly smaller than the box necessitating four foam “bumpers” to keep it from rattling around! Why not make the box a shade smaller or the board a touch bigger?
In Dune: Imperium, you need to go into areas in order to mine spice, generate Solari and get water. Recruiting more powerful cards through “persuasion” is another important factor although your deck will never become huge so choosing cards that work together is yet another consideration when collecting them. Combat timing is important as well. Not every conflict needs to be won as the rewards for victory that round may not be essential to your longer ranged goals. It often pays to hold back committing troops or Intrigue cards to a battle of lesser importance, holding them for maximum impact in a battle that can significantly swing the game your way. In any case, you have to keep your eye on the prize: Victory Points will be found through increasing Influence (across the four influence tracks of the game) AND success through combat. Neglect either one and you will come up short.
With Dune: Imperium, Paul Dennen has taken tried and true game mechanisms and created a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The result is a painstakingly solid design resulting in a beautiful blend of worker placement and deck-building. – – – Herb Levy
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