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The Spice Definitely Flows in Dune: Imperium

Candice Harris
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Board Game: Dune: Imperium
I'm a late bloomer to the Dune-iverse and to all things Arrakeen, but as I've gotten deeper and deeper into it the past few months, I was thrilled to hear about Dire Wolf's upcoming release of Dune: Imperium, designed by Paul Dennen, the creator of Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure.

While on the lighter side of my gaming spectrum, I've always enjoyed playing all versions of Clank!, especially Clank! Legacy. You throw Dune, deck-building, worker placement, and Paul Dennen into a blender, and before I even experience what comes out, my ears are perked and my eyes are wide. Thus, I had to reach out to Dire Wolf expressing my interest in a review copy of Dune: Imperium, which they graciously hooked me up with so that I could navigate folded space, taste the spice firsthand, and share my initial impressions.

Dune: Imperium is a hybrid deck-building and worker placement game for 1 to 4 players that plays in about 60-120 minutes. Each player represents a leader of one of the Great Houses of the Landsraad, competing to earn the most victory points by defeating rivals in combat, forming alliances with the four powerful factions on Dune (Emperor, Spacing Guild, Bene Gesserit and Fremen), and cleverly establishing your political influence.

Each player starts the game with a leader board corresponding to their particular leader, which has two different abilities, unique from other players. You also have two agents (workers), a starting deck of cards (same for all players), some wooden cubes representing troops, and a few other components to form your supply. There's also a card market as expected in a deck-building game, and a general supply area of the main resources of the game: spice, solari, and water.

From gallery of candidrum
From gallery of candidrum
Leader board examples

Dune: Imperium is played over a series of rounds, with each round consisting of five phases: 1) Round Start, 2) Player Turns, 3) Combat, 4) Makers and 5) Recall. At the end of a round, if any player has reached 10 or more victory points or if the conflict deck is empty (after ten rounds), the game ends and whoever has the most victory points wins.

Round Start

You start each round by first revealing a new conflict card, then each player draws a hand of five cards. Conflict cards show the rewards you'll be competing for during the current round should you decide to deploy troops to the conflict.

From gallery of candidrum
Player Turns

Next you jump into the player turns phase, which is the meat and potatoes of Dune: Imperium, or shall I say, the cinnamon and nutmeg. In this phase, players take either an agent turn or a reveal turn in clockwise order until all players have completed their Rreveal turn. This is where the cards in your deck come into play, and you have to decide which cards (if any) you'll use to place agents on the board, versus which cards you'll save to reveal in order to gain resources and/or combat bonuses.

During an agent turn, you play a card from your hand face-up in front of you and use it to send one of your available agents to an unoccupied space on the board where you gain access to that particular location's effects. The location icons on the left side of the cards indicate which locations you can send an agent to with that particular card. Then the agent box on the card may grant you some additional bonus effects as well when you use that card for an agent turn. When you use the "Worm Riders" card for an agent turn, you gain two spice.

There's a decent variety of locations on the board with various effects that allow you to pursue a plethora of strategies as you play, especially when combo'd with different card effects. Like most worker placement games, there will be many moments where someone beats you to a spot you were hoping to use, but considering several cards have multiple location options, you're likely to find a clever back-up plan and work around it.

From gallery of candidrum

Some card and location effects allow you to gain resources, draw extra cards, trash cards, and recruit troops. There's a spot where you can spend solari to gain a Mentat (extra temporary worker) for the round, and if you're able to pony up even more solari, you can grab your third agent.

From gallery of candidrum

You can also gain devious intrigue cards from certain location effects in addition to other ways. The intrigue cards add a healthy dose of spice to otherwise familiar mechanisms and are one of my favorite elements of Dune: Imperium. There are plot, combat, and endgame intrigue cards that come into play at various points in the game, but the best part is that your opponents have no clue what type of card(s) you have and when and how it will impact them; it's so fun to keep everyone guessing. You might have a plot card that lets you spend a certain amount of spice to gain a victory point. If you reveal that at the right time, that one card could push you over the edge to win the game. On the other hand, you could have a beasty combat card that you reveal to push you ahead of your opponents during combat when someone else thought they were going to take it. The intrigue cards are mighty juicy...mighty juicy!

From gallery of candidrum
Intrigue card examples

When you place your agent on one of the four factions' board spaces, you gain the location and agent box card effects as usual, but you also gain an influence bump on the corresponding influence track. You gain a victory point when you hit the second space on each of the influence tracks, then if you're the first person to get to the fourth space on a given influence track, you gain the corresponding alliance token and get another victory point...but don't celebrate too fast.

From gallery of candidrum
If one of your opponents ever moves past you on an influence track where you currently hold the alliance token, they steal it from you — which makes you lose a victory point while they gain one. Dun-Dun-Duuuun! In a game with such a tight victory point system, this can be a literal game changer and in some cases, could cost you the game, so watch out.

You can manipulate faction influence quite a few different ways, and it adds an interesting layer to Dune: Imperium. Some players might focus on a single influence track and try to rush to the fourth space before everyone to snag an alliance token quickly, while others might try to just get to the second spot on all four tracks to lock in those 4 victory points. Some card effects are very powerful if you have an alliance token with a particular faction, and there's even a space on the board that you must have at least two influence with the Fremen in order to use. Gaining influence always seems pretty important, but how you approach it and how competitive it gets will vary from game to game and lend itself to exciting moments.

While you're thinking about gaining influence, try not to slip too much on the combat front. This is another excellent way to gain resources, influence, and most importantly, victory points.

Certain locations allow you to recruit troops from your supply to your garrison area, and also locations that will allow you to deploy troops from your garrison area into the conflict area. If a location has the combat icon in the bottom right corner, you can always deploy up to two troop cubes from your garrison to the conflict area. In addition, some locations with the combat icon allow you to recruit, and in those cases, you can move as many of the newly recruited troops from your supply directly to the conflict area, which is a great way to get more troops ready for combat. This can sometimes scare off your opponents, but if you deploy a ton of troops and your opponents decide not to deploy any, you're basically wasting troops that you could have saved in your garrison for future conflicts where they'd be better served. Figuring out when to deploy troops and how many troops to deploy is a tough decision.

From gallery of candidrum
After you finish your agent turns, you'll take a reveal turn, revealing the remaining cards in your hand and gaining the effects shown in the reveal box (beneath the agent box). The revealed effects on cards vary, but many give you persuasion that you can immediately use to acquire new cards from the Imperium Row (card market). Persuasion will be familiar if you've played Clank! as it's just like spending skill to acquire new cards. When using the "Shifting Allegiances" card for a reveal turn, you gain 2 persuasion.

During your reveal turn, you also set your combat strength for the round if you have at least one troop in the conflict area. Each troop cube has a strength of 2, and you'll add any additional strength for each sword on your revealed cards. Then you set your strength on the combat track and place all the cards you played and revealed into your discard pile. After all players have completed their reveal turns, let the battle begin!

Combat

From gallery of candidrum
At the start of the combat phase, you already know everyone's base combat strength as it's been marked on the combat track, but now players have a chance to play any number of combat intrigue cards to sneakily beef up their combat strength, so even though a player might be behind strength-wise at the start of combat, they could swoop ahead if they have combat cards that they choose to use. Once all players pass consecutively, you resolve combat. The player with the highest strength wins the first reward, second highest wins the second reward, etc.

From gallery of candidrum
Conflict card example
The conflict card deck is tiered, so the rewards get juicier and juicier as the game progresses. I dig the variety of combat rewards, so you can decide for yourself each round how much (or little) a particular combat round is worth fighting for.

Makers

After combat is resolved, in the makers phase spice accumulates on certain board spaces if no one moved an agent there that round. This is similar to some other worker placement games like Agricola, where it entices players to move to those spaces in future rounds.

From gallery of candidrum
I'm pretty sure there were multiple moments across my plays where The Great Flat piled up with bonus spice over several rounds, and you already get a base of three spice there, but it requires two water to even move there, so you're looking around at everyone's water situation, and no one has two water at the start of the round and you're feeling confident that you'll be able to swoop in to snag all that spice. You're considering turn order, looking at your hand, hoping no one else noticed the spice accumulation, and mapping out a plan to grab all that spice, but then out of nowhere, your opponent who goes before you plays a plot card which lets them gain water and they beat you to the spice mountain. Noooooooo! ...another reason I love that intrigue deck!

Recall

If the game end hasn't been triggered, you take all your agents back and rotate the first player market clockwise — but if a player has 10 or more victory points or the conflict deck is empty, you resolve any endgame intrigue cards, then whoever has the most victory points wins.

I do wish there was a better system for determining turn order other than just rotating the first player marker clockwise, with player turns going in clockwise order. It's certainly simple and perhaps that was the intention since there's already a lot to think about in the game, but for worker placement games I tend to prefer more interesting decisions when it comes to determining turn order. Turn order is really important, as you read above in my Great Flat spice pile-up story, so I do wish the players had more control over it.

I managed to play Dune: Imperium at all players counts and enjoyed them all, but if I had to pick, I preferred the two-player game the least. Solo and two-player games are played with AI opponents driven by a deck of cards with minimal rules that are easy to pick up, and therefore pretty smooth to play. There's also a handy app available that streamlines solo and two-player games, but regardless whether you use the deck or app, you'll be zipping along after a round or two with your subtly, intrusive AI rivals.

My two-player game just lacked a bit of the tension I felt playing with three and four players — and even solo. In the solo game, you play against two AI opponents and they can score points in various ways, which made me feel the pressure I feel playing three- and four-player games. The two-player game, on the other hand, adds a single AI opponent that doesn't score victory points, so you're competing for victory points only against your human opponent, which was fine, but not as exciting to me. I liked it; I just didn't love it as much as the other player counts.

From gallery of candidrum

Overall, I'm really digging Dune: Imperium. There aren't necessarily any ground-breaking, new mechanisms, but the way these familiar mechanisms are blended together is awesome and works well. I would say this is only a few clicks above the complexity level of Clank!, but it offers such a different and deeper strategic experience. No disrespect to Clank!, of course; I love me some Clank!, but Dune: Imperium feels more mature and sophisticated gameplaywise.

From gallery of candidrum
Everything is tied in well thematically, so fans of Dune will feel right at home, yet don't need to know a single thing about Dune to dig into Dune: Imperium and feel fully immersed in the gameplay.

I enjoyed the decision space of figuring out which cards to use for agent turns versus which cards to save for reveal turns, especially as you start incorporating fancier cards with juicier effects into your deck. Lots of cards synergize well together or with your level of influence with different factions, so it's fun to see what kind of card combos people pull off. I also like that you have a lot of different opportunities for drawing cards mid-round. That can open some exciting opportunities during agent turns or seriously boost your reveal turn.

I've already touched on how much I love what the intrigue cards bring to the table, but I also really love the tight victory point system and having combat rewards to consider each round. Each and every victory point is important and meaningful, and everyone knows it, so it makes the game feel tense. It's great that there are several different ways to score victory points, too, so players can pursue different strategies for scoring and it feels equally competitive in a really fun way.

There were multiple games in which I had a steady lead in the early game, then as newer players got the swing of it, their scoring discs crept closer and closer, gradually closing the gap, making me feel all sorts of anxious and stressed, but in the best way possible, all up until a climatic ending. There were many "Ohhhhhhh!" moments as we each tried to outwit each other with intrigue cards or by stealing alliance tokens. I love when a game sucks me in and makes me feel that way.

Kudos to Paul Dennen and Dire Wolf for taking control of the spice, then packing it into Dune: Imperium!
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