As the Worm Turns: Dune (Avalon Hill)

Bene Gesserit troops by the score charged into Sietch Tabr, representing the entire military might of this coven of hypnotic witches, all to evict the Fremen holed up there, in hopes that the sisterhood’s allies in the Atredies might be able to take advantage of the suicidal raid. Using their weirding ways, they commanded the Fremen to drop their guard, while prescient Paul Atredies peeked into the future of the combat. Success, but at a devastating cost to the victors, who were wiped out as well!

Beware the Bene Gesserit!

And that was just one player’s turn in Dune, Avalon Hill’s revolutionary 1979 proto-Euro game based on the Frank Herbert novel. I had wanted to play this game for ages, and my good gaming buddies Doug Bush, Mike Vogt, Joe Jackson, and Neil and Dan Stanhagen happily agreed to my request. It’s a strange and simple game, with the potential to last from thirty minutes to seven hours, depending on how the cards and combats play out. Luck plays almost no role beyond the variability introduced by card draws; no dice, and the incredibly bloody combat system often leaves the victor as depleted as the vanquished.

Players take the roles of the six main factions vying for the hypnogogic Spice that comes only from this desert planet: the spacing Guild, which uses Spice to fold space and travel between the stars; the Emperor, who rules all and controls the economy of the galaxy; the cunning Harkonnen, who excel at treacherous actions; the witchy Bene Gesserit, who can bend lesser minds to their will; the native Fremen, keepers of the planet and riders of the giant Worms that prowl the sands; and the Atredies, who claim the planet and have in their clan one who can see into the future. Each, of course, has game breaking powers, with the asymmetry between the factions driving play.

Arrakis, near the end.

A standard victory comes from occupying a number of strongholds based on the number of people in an alliance (if any), with several stalemate/end game victories possible as well if the conquest condition does not occur. The Bene Gesserit have an additional path to victory: should they predict, before the game starts, the turn on which a specific faction claims a non-end game victory, they win, and not the faction that triggered the victory. Beware the help of the witches, even if they are in your alliance!

Indeed, all the factions prove to be unstable allies, and the prospect of a solo victory, attained with the erstwhile help of once-allies, can often prove too tempting. Like any good Euro, there are wheels within wheels of decisions, and that’s not even counting the Combat Wheels that are used to secretly dial up committed strength for military enagements.

Fans of the novel and its associated world building will find the book’s background nicely integrated into the game’s play, with traitorous leaders (often in the employ of the Harkonnen), ghola tanks for reviving dead troops, and the dreaded Worm surfacing on Spice blows to consume all the forces gathered to harvest the rare commodity. While the essential game play could be (and has been) transferred to a different theme, the team at Eon (contracted by AH to produce the game) melded theme and mechanic beautifully here.

Dune proves hard to come by on the secondary market, and a flourishing cottage industry of DIY/print-and-play kits (of dubious copyright propriety) exists in the game’s considerable fandom. I can understand the urge to own a copy of this game. With the right group (and the guys who played with me certainly fit that), the mix of treachery, alliance, combat, and cunning proves to be quite compelling. It’s a worthy addition to any collection.

After the wasteful Bene Gesserit raid (and, full disclosure, that was me), the Fremen/Guild alliance (the Stanhagens) managed to fend off further assaults on their territory, using the Guild’s ability to preempt other players’ movement and the generous Fremen movement allowances to decisive effect. They took enough of the Strongholds to claim the desert planet. And, alas, I didn’t predict it…