Dune Imperium Overview
The phrase “spicing things up” takes on a slightly different meaning with Dune Imperium. In Dune said spice is a super drug excreted by worms large enough to feature in a 90’s B movie starring Kevin Bacon.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
Planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the only place where the Spice Melange can be found. Many factions are critically dependent on the substance, making it exceptionally valuable. That of course means war.
Dune Imperium is a worker placement and deckbuilding hybrid for 1 to 4 players. You take on the role of house leaders vying for control of the spice and by extension the planet.
The player with the most victory points within 10 rounds wins. Victory points are earned through a combination of winning conflicts and making alliances with the various factions that have an interest in Arrakis
As the game progresses, you will slowly build a deck of cards that have multiple uses, send agents to do your bidding around the board, and pull a sneaky with some intrigue cards.
I knew nothing of the source material going into Dune Imperium, but the game inspired me to look into it. I enjoyed the game perfectly fine, in my ignorance. But it was still interesting to learn that going on a space adventure while tripping on LSD is not in fact, how Dune’s Space Navigators use the spice.
More seriously, the Dune Universe is quite fascinating. Dune Imperium connects its mechanisms to concepts from the source material quite well, without being overbearing. You can still connect with the game without knowing what a Stillsuit or Heighliner is, but even a cursory sweep of the Dune wiki will enhance that connection further by giving you context on what is happening on the cards and board spaces.
|Gideon’s Bias||Dune Imperium Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Dire Wolf|
|Number of Plays: 20+||Designer: Paul Dennen|
|Player Counts Played: All||Player Counts: 1-4|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Worker Placement, Deck Building|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Medium|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Love it||Price: $55|
Dune Imperium is packed with components, but much of it is on the simplistic side, with generic pieces for troops, money, and spice. This is actually how I prefer most games to be designed as it helps keep the price in reach of people beyond hardcore collectors. An upgrade kit exists as a separate option for those who’re interested, and that’s how it should be.
At the same time, Dune Imperium manages to be nice looking game and uses its simplicity to great effect. The color arrangement of meeples and cubes stands out in contrast to the board they are played on. Plus the pastel art style of the Imperium cards looks great and is consistent. The house leader cards look nice too, in regards to both artwork and layout.
The board itself manages to pack the gameplay-related iconography while maintaining a clean look that is easy to visually process. The board spaces make sense within the game world once you understand how to play. Populated areas ripe for conflict are all on the planet itself, for example, while the political side of the Imperium is off-planet altogether.
The various faction icons are easily identifiable, and the first player token has awesome artwork of a sandworm. The cards themselves aren’t the best quality, however. I managed to nick a couple on my very first play, so sleeves aren’t optional.
I particularly enjoy that the conflict zone takes center stage on the planet. This is where players push their troops into battle. The strength tracker directly under it offers a very clean and intuitive way to tally combat strength each round alongside helpful and easy-to-understand iconography.
Dune Imperium is a good example of simple beauty. While none of its components are complex, high-end, or overproduced, it still manages to look great and maintain a strong table presence.
Card Play and Deck Building
Dune Imperium is a hybrid of worker placement and deck building that work together in unison to form a greater whole. It’s not only the unique combination that makes the game flow so well but how it executes those mechanisms across the whole game.
Cards play three major roles in Dune Imperium. The icons on the left side of a card allow you to send a worker to a space with one of those icons, while the box right below the artwork is an effect you get if you play it.
However, there is also a reveal phase where you get to show every card you didn’t play, and gain the effect of the bottom box. This gives every card a value that extends in three directions and also enhances the decision space. You have to decide which cards to play and which ones to hold back for their reveal effects.
During the reveal phase, you spend influence on a choice of five random cards in the Imperium Row, or the always available Arrakis Liason or The Spice Must Flow cards. The most common reveal effect is to gain influence, but that’s far from the only one. But it does mean you have to juggle your priorities between placing your agents to woo a faction, gaining wealth, winning conflicts, and obtaining influence for new cards.
Your deck-building decisions carry just as much weight. Every player begins equal, with the same cards. The starter deck is weak, but care must be given as you expand it. You have to factor in the different quantity of icons in your deck, both potential effects a card can have, and how they combo with other cards.
Giving each card a variety of uses grants each individual card a value that can’t be quantified in a vacuum, and I adore that. The only cards that are objectively weaker are the ones you start with and that’s intentional. Every other card has a potential use depending on your strategy, playstyle, deck build, leader, and the ever-changing state of the game. A must-have card in one game might mean nothing to you in the next, and that’s simply brilliant game design.
One issue I have is the game is fairly short. Since each player starts the game with the same set of ten cards. It really takes a few rounds for your deck builds to really get going, and the game can end without fully getting to realize its potential.
I would have enjoyed a mode or variant to alter your starting deck, or for a longer game. If you use the official app, there is a Blitz mode that does actually have you draft some cards at the beginning. But it’s one step forward and two steps back as it also significantly shorten a game that already ends too quickly.
This isn’t a deal-breaker by any means. The deck-building is still vital to the game. So much so that I’d place Dune Imperium above many more dedicated deck builders. The choices you make with your deck in Dune Imperium have a substantial and very visible impact on your game.
Much like Dune Imperium’s deck building, the worker placement is more nuanced than what I find in other games. Placing a worker is done by playing a card, and the weight of every move you make can be felt rounds later.
The concept might seem pretty standard. You move a worker to a space, pay the cost if one is present and gain whatever the space says. But there is a lack of wiggle room in Dune Imperium that makes the process engaging. It’s not that mistakes can’t be forgiven, it’s that each agent has to be placed with deliberate intent. You only have two of them, so why are you placing one there?
If you want Spice or Solari, it’s for a purpose. Maybe you intend on buying the Swordmaster, granting you a third worker for the rest of the game. Maybe you want a seat on the council for extra influence. Perhaps you intend to hand over six Spice to the Space Guild, so they Heighliner you in some troops for a critical battle. Or you may intend to send an agent to the Research Station and draw three extra cards for more influence or to dig for a combo or icon you need.
Board spaces are always in competition since only one agent can be present at a time and each player is limited by the icons on the cards in their hand. Trying to predict another player’s strategy is as important as planning yours. Otherwise, your turn might get upended when they unexpectedly take a spot you were critically counting on. Yet, they are vulnerable to the very same move. It can sometimes be worth it to cut them off, over gaining something you wanted.
Dune Imperium is a strategy game with multiple layers that’s both incredibly satisfying, and approachable to learn. It’s fairly simple to pick up, but difficult to master as there are always several factors at play that shift from game to game.
That said there are two spaces I want to elaborate on because they can trip up a new player and aren’t explained as elegantly as I would like.
The Swordmaster space allows you to gain a third agent for the rest of the game for 8 Solarii. This has very clear and obvious benefits, and the earlier you obtain it, the better.
The problem is the benefits of the swordmaster are so clear that it feels like a necessity. Novice players can get caught in a repetitive loop of racing for it every game. The trick is, there are actual trade-offs to having it, and it’s not required to win. It takes more experience to understand that though, and not all players will be able to see past the obvious benefits.
For example, to gain the swordmaster, you need to spend time acquiring 8 Solari, a task that can take multiple rounds. That money could have been spent rallying troops for a conflict, or even an early seat on the council to enhance your deck-building ability.
Once you have your swordmaster, you need to play an extra card to utilize it. Meaning three of your five cards per turn have to be played to use all three agents. This means your reveal phases are going to be weak unless you intentionally pursue spaces and abilities that draw you more cards. That can pigeonhole you later on. Or you can choose to reveal early and not use your third agent, wasting the effort you spent to obtain it.
The point is, one path isn’t inherently stronger than the other. There are benefits and negatives to both. You have to give up a lot to have your swordmaster, but a third agent is incredibly useful. Alternatively, you can spend those resources elsewhere and have stronger reveal phases.
This all serves to show just how wide your strategies can go in Dune Imperium. The problem is, none of this is communicated well. It’s easy for a new player to fall into the trap of viewing the swordmaster as vital, and never truly understanding the depths of the game.
The Mentat is similar to the swordmaster, except you get the Mentat as an extra agent just for that turn, and draw a card. You pay two Solarii when playing an agent to the Mentat space.
Basically, you’re trading an agent for an agent, but again there are clear benefits. You get to act later, meaning you can choose to commit to a conflict after everyone else has acted. Plus you get to draw a card. Card draw tends to be really strong in Dune Imperium thanks to the reveal phase, and The Mentat, like the Sword Master, is consistently attractive.
Once again, trade-offs exist but are less clear. You’re actually dead even on the trade. You trade an agent and one card to draw a card and gain the Mentat. To play the Mentat, you must play another card. So, there’s no reveal phase advantage there. You’re also likely going to reveal later than other players, meaning they get to pick cards from the Imperium Row before you. Finally, you’re paying Solarii, which has many other uses.
The Mentat has clear benefits, but also an illusion of benefits. The Mentat should be used in key moments for specific reasons, not taken every turn. And that habit can be hard to break. When a player becomes obsessed with the Mentat, it can also be frustrating for other players, as they continually have to wait on a player to take an extra turn. Which compounds if they also have a swordmaster when you don’t
The turn itself is unlikely to gain any big advantage over you, but it’s more the principle of constantly feeling like you’re playing less of the game than they are that’s annoying. Even if it’s not strictly true.
Where the swordmaster could use more clarity in the intent of the design, I think the existence of the Mentat is largely overkill and detracts from the game more than it adds to it. It certainly has a place in some strategies or key tactical plays, but it can be a severe distraction and annoyance.
Victory Points and Conflict
The game ends after ten rounds or when a player has ten or more victory points. The victory point system in Dune Imperium is devilishly balanced to provide tight and meaningful games where every turn is meaningful.
Victory points are primarily earned in two ways, conflict and faction diplomacy. Whenever you send an agent to a faction space, you increase your standing with that faction. At two standing you earn a victory point. If you ever reach the 4th space of a faction track, you gain a bonus. If you are the first player there, you take their alliance token granting an additional victory point. The kicker is, if another player passes you on that track, they take the token and victory point from you.
It’s very unlikely that you’re going to earn every faction alliance, but even if you did that’s only 8 Victory points total. So you’re going to have to combine it with some other methods. If you have a strong influence engine, you could buy copies of The Spice Must Flow. It’s a weak card that dilutes your deck but grants an instant victory point when you acquire them.
However, there is also the ongoing conflict on Arrakis. Each round has a conflict that grants rewards to those who come in the first second, or third, and sometimes the reward is victory points. The conflict is pretty straightforward, spaces with a crossing swords icon allow you to move troops from your garrison. Each troop counts as two strength in battle, and the highest strength at the end of the round wins the conflict.
However, there is always an element of surprise. Some cards have a sword icon that grants +1 strength per sword if revealed during the reveal phase. This is yet another strategic factor you must account for when planning your strategy and deck build. The conflict is an ever-present factor within the game that’s that simple but provides additional nuance to the gameplay.
You can’t win every battle, and troops committed to the conflict are lost regardless of the outcome. Even if you can’t win first place, it can be worth it to take second or third depending on your strategy and the reward. Other times it’s worth baiting another player into wasting troops. There is a lot of mind games to be played with the other players in Dune Imperium, especially when you factor in another piece of the puzzle. The Intrigue cards.
Intrigue cards are a type of card you can’t buy. You earn them from rewards or by going to specific places on the board that grant them. Carthag on the planet itself, or Secrets, a Bene Gesserit faction space. Intrigue cards are kept secret from other players and have a ton of potential effects. They range from simply granting you resources or standing with a faction, to gaining extra strength in the conflict or even gaining a victory point.
The secrecy of the intrigue cards adds another dimension to the tactics and player interaction in the game. For example, a player may look over, and notice that you only have one agent remaining and four spice.
The Heighliner space requires six spice. So they know you can’t earn the extra spice and go to the Heighliner this round, so they decide to go all-in on the conflict. Little did they know, you have an intrigue card that grants you two spice, and you happily show up with a spaceship full of troops at the last minute.
Each intrigue card is unique, so no one can truly predict what is you’re doing in the shadows. Intrigue cards are very powerful. But there’s a built-in mechanism to stop players from holding back an arsenal of gotchas until the right moment. Whenever a player sends an agent to the Secrets space, any player with four or more intrigue cards must give them one at random.
Intrigue cards are like other resources and require a player’s deliberate intent to acquire them. They are just one of many tools in Dune Imperiums kit to provide a truly stellar game of strategy.
Unfortunately, there are a few intrigue cards that can only be used during end-game scoring. There are only three of them and two provide surprise victory points. Losing to one feels cheap and unsatisfying. The small number of them feels like an exceptionally random factor of luck in a game that’s mostly reliant on players’ skills to succeed.
I think the best course of action would have been to include more end-game intrigue cards or none at all. Having one of two game-deciding cards randomly show up for one player just feels bad.
I played Dune Imperium at all player counts, and it plays beautifully at them all. More than that, it largely feels like the same game no matter how many are playing, and that’s wonderful.
The game uses an automa during solo play and with two players. With two it serves as a spoiler role instead of another player, but there’s also nothing stopping you from using the solo rules with it. I’ve done it, and it works fine.
Dune Imperium has possibly the cleanest and most elegant Automa I’ve ever encountered. It’s exceptionally quick to run and still captures the general feeling of playing against another player. You simply draw a card and do what it says, it’s super fast. You have to run two of them solo, and it adds almost no overhead.
Usually automas fall into one of two categories, they are either complex to run, but feel like a player. Or they are simple to run but feel like a modded cut-down version of the game. While the true presence of a player can never be captured by a set of rules and cards, Dune Imperium feels close. They take spaces, fight in conflicts and keep a degree of unpredictability as if they had a combat intrigue card tucked away.
The elegant power of the house Hagel automa deck makes Dune Imperium a great choice for solo play. One that I play happily instead of reluctantly, something I rarely find in a competitive board game. Usually, that space is reserved for cooperative games.
Bearing in mind that I’m not familiar with the Dune Universe outside of the research I did prior to this review. I feel that Dune Imperium is very thematic. Now, it may not capture the exact feel of the setting, but that’s not something I can answer. It does however connect its mechanisms to its theme in coherent ways.
Take the icons that dictate where you can send an agent for instance. Blue icons are populated areas that also allow you to deploy troops in a conflict. The golden triangles are wealth spaces, either where spice accumulates on Dune, or where you can sell it to CHOAM on the moon.
The green icon represents politics and bureaucracy, where you can rally troops, buy a council seat, hire a Mentat, etc. The factions have their own spaces, and someone intersects with the others. Both Fremen spaces are conflict spaces, why? The Fremen live on Dune. The Stillsuit space grants you water though, why? The Fremen Stillsuits filter sweat and urination into drinkable water, gross, but hey, it’s accurate.
The Heighliner space from the Spacing Guild allows you to dump a bunch of new troops into a battle and gain water because a Heighliner is a spaceship. It transported them for you through fold space.
The Voice card prevents players from moving to a space they choose because a Bene Gesserit adept can tweak their voice in a way that makes it nearly impossible to refuse a command. Most aspects of the game reflect the mechanisms with the theme in similar ways.
The worms themselves are underused though. They appear on a few cards, but that’s it. It’s also a bummer that the intrigue cards have no artwork to reflect the text, but overall I find the theme to be very strong.
Dune Imperium represents the epitome of what I look for in board games. I favor heavy games. While Dune Imperium isn’t heavy, it provides the breadth of choice, strategy, and variability that I seek to extract from heavy games in the first place.
The game is approachable, and it has been painless for me to teach others. But it has multiple layers of strategy that work with each other to form a deliberately coherent game. Every aspect intersects with another. Nothing is isolated, from the deck building, worker placement, conflict, or intrigue cards.
At first, I thought the playable characters were underwhelming, and that some were obviously superior to the others. But the more I played, the more I changed my mind. They are shockingly balanced and have a much bigger impact on the game than I was expecting.
That has been a common theme as I continue to play Dune Imperium. I assume, and then I’m forced to realign my assertations as more and more of the game’s depth becomes revealed to me. I love it when a game does that, and I enjoy peeling back layer after layer.
Furthermore, Dune Imperium plays great at two players, which’s one of the key requirements to remaining on my shelf. There are things I dislike, or wish were different, but they pale in comparison to the aspects I like and enjoy.
It’s a testament to the quality of the game that it was able to win me over so strongly in spite of the fact that I have no connection to the source material. A game’s theme is important to me, and I enjoyed the gameplay enough to want to learn more about its universe.
Verdict on Dune Imperium
Dune Imperium is the perfect storm of mechanisms that take a large number of commonly used board game aspects and makes them shine in the best possible way. The worker placement is tight, deliberate, and combines with deck building where every single card choice matters. In the center of it all is a conflict that is affected by all of it. And it still somehow manages to grant a wide variety of victory paths that can be pursued.
The game hands you the same set of starting cards every game. But manages to leave so many paths viable and ever-changing variables that it’s rare to play the same way twice. The leader you chose, the cards available in the imperium row, the starting conflict, and even your place in turn order can all drastically change the strategy that you might want to pursue.
It may have a hang-up or two, but the fact remains. Dune Imperium is one of the most well-designed and coherent games out there. I recommend it whether or not you are a fan of the source material and gladly award the game my Golden Shield
- 8 Unique characters
- Simple components that look great
- Every card having three potential uses makes them all situationally valuable
- Connects it’s theme and mechanisms very well
- Highly strategical with multiple layers
- Easy to learn, hard to master
- The conflict phase is a lot of fun to plan around
- Many paths to victory
- A brilliant mix of genres that work great together
- A game where every choice matters
- Fantastic solo mode and elegant automa
- Games can feel too short
- Players may get tunnel vision of what they falsely believe is optimal
- One player continually using the Mentat is irritating
- Losing to an end game intrigue card can feel unfair
Who Would Like Dune Imperium?
- Fans of the source material will have an instant kinship with the game
- If you enjoy games such as Clank or The Lost Ruins of Arnak, you will likely enjoy Dune Imperium
- You need a great solo game that’s painless to run.
- If you want a medium-weight game that has the strategical depth of something much heavier, you can’t beat it.
- You enjoy games with player interaction
- If you have ever wanted to play a deck builder where you can feel the weight of your card choices, do the Dune.
Who Wouldn’t Like Dune Imperium?
- If you dislike hostile player interaction, it’s unavoidable. Winning a conflict means other players lose troops and you can interfere with other players
- The wide-open nature and vast strategy makes Dune Imperium susceptible to analysis paralysis, bear that in mind
- If the last-minute loss to an intrigue card would ruin game night, beware (or at least remove the two offending cards)
- Despite being a hybrid, both deck building and worker placement are central to the game, if you have a strong dislike of either it might not be the game for you.