“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
Originally intended to coincide with the theatrical release of the latest movie adaptation helmed by director Dennis Villeneuve, Dune: Imperium from author Paul Dennen instead finds itself in the somewhat unfortunate situation of promoting a motion picture which has been postponed for the better part of a year due to the ongoing pandemic. As a result, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not this board game tie-in which is being published by Dire Wolf Digital manages to stand on its own as a solid entry to the rather crowded field of games that feature deckbuilding as a core mechanism.
Full disclosure: a review copy of Dune: Imperium was kindly provided by publisher Asmodee Nordics.
When Dire Wolf Digital revealed the first images showcasing the components and art style in Dune: Imperium it caused a bit of a stir. Discussions amongst aficionados concerning what exactly constitutes as “proper” Dune aesthetics raged on with a fiery intensity only matched by the scorching sun on the sandy dunes of Arrakis. As for me I find myself somewhat conflicted regarding my feelings towards the visual aspects of Dune: Imperium. On the one hand I do like the fact that the game uses stylised illustrations in favour of movie stills on the cards and player boards, as it gives Dune: Imperium its own identity whilst simultaneously paying homage to the source material from which the game draws inspiration.
But on the other hand, in terms of aesthetics the overall look of Dune: Imperium can best be described as bland or functional if one is feeling charitable. It is definitely the case that the game is easy to grok thanks to clear iconography on action spaces and the cards. And yet large sections of the main board feel barren, featuring plenty of dead space and a muted colour palette. Then again, perhaps it is somewhat unreasonable to expect panache and grandiose flair from a board game where the centre stage is a planet covered in sand as far as the eye can see. After all Terraforming Mars is not renowned for its stunning visual representation of the titular red planet…
Even though I am somewhat lukewarm as to my feelings on the overall aesthetics of the game I must admit that I am immensely impressed with the quality of the rulebook. Not only does it feature helpful examples of play and precise text, but the rulebook also includes an entire section dedicated to strategy tips to ease new players into grokking the core game system.
THE SOLO MODE
When playing Dune: Imperium solo you will compete against two automated opponents called Rivals. For the solo player, all of the core game mechanisms that make Dune: Imperium such an interesting combination of deckbuilding and worker placement remains unaltered. On your turn you will deploy your Agents i.e. workers to various spaces on the main board in order to perform actions needed to fuel your ongoing campaign to become the ruler of Arrakis. When you run of out of workers or choose to end the current round prematurely you have the option to acquire new cards from a market tableau and also participate in combat, potentially earning you bonuses in the form of victory points, cards, or resources. The Rivals on the other hand operate on a slightly different set of parameters as is often the case with neutral opponents in solo modes.
Rather than utilising deckbuilding in the traditional sense the actions of the neutral players are dictated by a separate card deck known as House Hagal. Much like the solo player the Rivals will dispatch their Agents onto the main board, rally troops to their garrison and deploy military units to participate in the end-of-round combat phase. However, rather than collecting the indicated resource associated with the action spaces on the main board the Rivals instead earn rewards and troops as indicated by the current House Hagal card. This results in a solo mode that is lightning fast to execute; you simply reveal one card for each Rival and perform the indicated action. During all of my solo playthroughs I never encountered a single instance where I was unsure as to what action a Rival was meant to perform on their turn, in large due to the clear if somewhat uninspiring iconography.
Similar to its source material, as a solo game experience Dune: Imperium is as engaging as it is relentless. The game will only last a total of ten rounds at most, as a result you really feel the pressure to eek out every single action to the fullest from turn one. And because the game incorporates worker placement as a core mechanism there is always an element of uncertainty as to what the Rivals will do on their turn which could potentially through a spanner in the works. This makes Dune: Imperium a highly tactical experience, something that I personally relish as I like the idea of having to pivot my long-term strategy due to how the political and military landscape is changing from round to round.
There is however one aspect of Dune: Imperium as a solo board game experience that I find somewhat perplexing and that has to do with the digital companion apps. I say apps in plural because at the time of writing this review there is not one but two official Dune: Imperium apps available to incorporate in your solitaire game session. Even worse is the fact that one of them, specifically the Dire Wolf Game Room, features a mechanism of churning i.e. refreshing the market row of cards which is absent in the base game. On paper this minor addition might seem trivial, in practice though the inclusion of a card market reset is crucial in achieving a sensation of competing against dynamic artificial adversaries. Why this mechanism is absent in the included solo mode is beyond me, as I imagine the same effect could easily be achieved by rolling a die or adding a couple of cards to the House Hagal deck.
Is the app indispensable in order to solo play Dune: Imperium? Absolutely not, everything you need for solitaire play is included in the base box and I played five solo sessions before even downloading the app(s). Personally through, I do feel that the added ability to churn the card market is absolutely essential. It really makes playing Dune: Imperium solo a much more engaging experience, it is somewhat unfortunate that Dire Wolf Digital choose to include it exclusively in a digital format…
Dune: Imperium has received a fair amount of praise in the board game press and for good reason. Similar to chocolate and peanut butter, the combination of deckbuilding and worker placement is definitely a success on my book and one that I would love to see other authors iterate on in future board game designs. Setting aside the issue with the digital companion apps, for me Dune: Imperium is a well implemented and highly enjoyable solitaire experience and one that I would unreservedly recommend. I have heard some reviewers critiquing the solo mode for being occasionally swingy and unpredictable and I can definitely see where they are coming from. Then again, seeing how the Dune universe is built upon a foundation of political intrigue and deceit it seems rather fitting that certain aspects of the Rivals motivations remain shrouded in mystery.
“He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future. Things persisted in not being what they seemed.” – Frank Herbert, Dune