BENGALURU: The Expanse might be the new hotness and Star Wars always gets most of the buzz but, when it comes to sci-fi, Dune is still regarded as one of the greats. With hopes high for the upcoming movie, people were nonetheless somewhat skeptical when a card game was announced that was tentatively based on Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis.
Well, I’ve finally had a chance to play it and here’s how it goes. In Dune: Imperium, 1-4 players take on the roles of various House leaders and luminaries in the Dune universe.
Your goal is to have the most points at the end of the game, which is triggered once any player has 10 or more points at the end of the round. Two of my favourite board game mechanics are deckbuilding and worker placement, and Imperium is a wonderful hybrid of both. On most of your turns, you’ll deploy one of your agents to the board; however, you must play a card alongside each deployment.
That card will give you certain benefits but, more importantly, each card also determines where the accompanying agent can be deployed. Already, you’re having to think on a few levels here and that’s without taking into account where your opponents might like to go themselves. Of course, they might not have the cards to go there and round and round it goes. Spicing things up is what happens when you either run out of agents to deploy or choose to pass early.
You then reveal the remaining cards in your hand, gaining their ‘reveal’ benefits (which are different to the benefits they offer when you play them — making that earlier decision even trickier!) and then make your final decisions of the round, which will have ramifications for the rest of the game. First, you can purchase new cards that will go into your deck and offer you additional powers and opportunities, and some of them get more and more powerful when you make alliances with certain factions. Secondly, you will prepare for conflict. Conflict, as anybody who’s familiar with the source material would know, is an integral part of the Dune story and that carries over to Imperium.
Each round, players will have to decide how much of their military strength they want to commit to the brewing conflict in the hopes of gaining certain rewards come the end of the round — resources, control of certain areas of the board, or even a precious victory point. Remember, you’re only playing to ten points and if that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because it really isn’t. Making matters more painful, however, is that all committed troops are lost once a conflict is resolved, whether you win or lose; so fullthrottle aggression might carry the day for you once or twice, but you’ve got to outthink your opponents if you’re going to win the war.
A word about the artwork — many licensed games suffer at least somewhat from having to use movie/TV show still images as card art or the like, such as Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle or Firefly: The Game. Immersion suffers a bit when you’re essentially looking at photographs of famous actors, which is why future games of this ilk need to take a look at how Dune: Imperium’s done it. Characters are recognisable, and yet the stylised treatment just elevates it a notch; this really should be the benchmark going forward.
When it was released in December last year, Dune: Imperium was greeted with near-universal acclaim. When the hype around a game is so strong, people almost always react with extreme excitement or extreme suspicion — happily, there’s plenty of fire here underneath all the smoke because this is a truly phenomenal game. We’re not even halfway through 2021 yet, but I genuinely don’t think I’ll play a better game this year than Dune: Imperium.
(Arjun is a gamer, book lover and an all-round renaissance man)