Review – ‘Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy’, Movie Tie-in Board Game
Gale Force Nine’s Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy (2021) stands as a simplified and redesigned version of the company’s well-known strategy board game Dune: A Game of Conquest, Diplomacy, and Betrayal (2019), itself an update to the original edition—published back in 1979.
Unlike that 2019 “classic” edition, the visuals of this new “conquest” game are clearly based on characters and scenes from 2021’s Dune movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The box cover features the faces of the film’s actors, intermixed with the distinctive ornithopters and the open maw of a sandworm overtaking two figures in the desert.
Gameplay and rules have been streamlined to reduce ambiguity found in earlier versions. This condenses play time considerably, with fast-paced games expected to run for 30-60 minutes. It’s a familiar, yet different, experience for those of us accustomed to the original. For busy people like myself, the changes make it easier to commit to playing a Dune-themed board game, knowing that it will conclude within five turns.
There has also been an effort to make the game more two-player friendly; again, welcome news to those who have fewer Dune fan/board gamer friends than they’d like, or are isolated for reasons related to the pandemic. We are not forgotten! Following is my review, based on several plays with two players.
Rulebook and Components
The first two pages of the rulebook introduce us to the universe of Dune through descriptions of the game’s four factions: Atreides, Fremen, Harkonnen, and Imperium. I was sad to see the Bene Gesserit are no longer their own faction. However, Lady Jessica and Reverend Mother [Mohiam] remain as characters and have been folded into the Atreides and Imperium factions, respectively.
The board is laid out intuitively, with Turns and Phases marked on the top corners, and the Tleilaxu Tanks and Spice Bank on the bottom corners. The Storm token is positioned on the edge of the planet and, during the game, can come to rest on any of eighteen sectors marked with dotted lines. On the map itself, there are four territory types: sand, rock, stronghold, or the Polar Sink.
Compared to the 2019 iteration this board is much darker, creating a brooding atmosphere. Some of the bottom territories do feel overly dark, making it hard to see their lines or symbols, as they fade into the darkness at the edge of the board. But the territory names are in white and still readable.
There are four card decks: spice, battle, traitor, and market. And four player faction sets, with each having a faction sheet explaining its advantages, leader discs, and forces tokens—all matching its color and icon. Other tokens include a first player token, spice tokens (used as currency), phase and turn tokens (used on the corners of the board to track progress), and two battle wheels. There are also two alliance faction sheets and stronghold blocker tokens for two-player games.
Setup takes just a couple minutes since the faction sheets explain the few things to do. The traitor deck is the only part that requires more preparation, because factions not in play must be removed. Additionally, if the Harkonnens are in play, they have a special selection advantage.
The goal of the game is for a player to occupy at least three strongholds, with at least one of their forces, and retain control of them until the end of turns three, four, or five. If they succeed, they win! The game has a maximum limit of five turns, with no wins allowed in the first two turns. If this win condition isn’t met by the end of the fifth turn, players earn five points for each stronghold they occupy and one point for each spice in their supply. Whoever has the most points wins!
There are seven phases, indicated in icons and words on the board: Storm, Spice Blow, Gain Cards, Revival, Shipping & Movement, Battle, and Spice Collection. Once you remember what happens in each phase, you can get into the flow of playing the game rather than looking at the rules constantly.
- Storm: You roll an eight-sided die to see if and how much the storm moves, from zero to six. You have to be wary of the approaching storm, unless you’re the Fremen faction, which doesn’t get destroyed in sand territories.
- Spice Blow: You reveal the top card of the spice deck and hope it’s not a sandworm. If it’s a territory card, you place the amount of spice in the two territories listed and begin planning how to get your forces there if you need spice (who doesn’t?). If it’s a sandworm, it destroys both spice and forces in the previously revealed two territories. Unless you’re the Fremen faction, who can ride the worm and get outta there!
- Gain Cards: You can get up to four battle cards and three market cards, but the market ones will cost you two spice each. And, if the Imperium is a faction in play, they receive that spice payment, so you will want to think carefully about lining their coffers.
- Revival: If you have lost troops to the Tleilaxu Tanks, this is your chance each turn to get two back for free and pay two spice each to retrieve additional forces or leaders trapped in there. Reviving people gets expensive!
- Shipping and Movement: You can send forces from your faction sheet onto any territory or stronghold on the planet by paying one spice per force. After shipping, you can move one group of forces from one territory to another territory up to three away. The Fremen play differently, though. They can only send forces to the Polar Sink, but they can send up to five each turn at no cost. They can also split their movement into two movements up to three territories away, or one movement up to six away. You can see the many advantages of this faction.
- Battle: Resolving battles is the most complex part of gameplay. When two or more factions are in the same territory, a battle occurs. Each faction’s player has to secretly create a battle plan with the number of forces they want to commit, a leader, and battle cards of a weapon and/or a defense. The Imperium faction has the advantage of using the Voice to dictate which type of card their opponent must play. The Atreides faction has the advantage of using prescience to ask to see one of the four parts of their opponent’s battle plan. After both players reveal their battle plans simultaneously, they can play other cards that affect the battle as well. Players can also choose to reveal a traitor if they have the traitor card for their opponent’s leader. The goal is not just to win the battle by having the highest total fighting strength, but to kill your opponent’s leader, because you only get spice for leaders killed in the battle (including your own).
- Spice Collection: If you have forces in the sector of a territory with spice, each force can take two spice. If you have fewer than three spice in your supply after this phase, you can take up to three as part of Spice Bank Charity. After collecting spice, players check to see if any player holds three strongholds; otherwise, play continues until the end of the fifth turn.
Over the course of one gaming session, I played three two-player games and managed to win each time. The first game took 50 minutes and proceeded through all five turns. We played as single factions, using House Atreides and House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens won with 41 spice and 2 strongholds to the Atreides’ 8 spice and 1 stronghold.
For the second game, which took 70 minutes, we tried playing with the “Allies” mode, with me as Atreides/Fremen and my opponent as Harkonnen/Imperium. The Atreides/Fremen won with 14 spice and 1 stronghold to the Harkonnen/Imperium’s 8 spice and 0 strongholds. Admittedly, I only squeaked out this win by playing a last-minute market card that let me move my forces just before spice collection to grab a handful of spice in the final phase of the fifth turn. I felt very satisfied at this maneuver; my opponent was less than enthused at having victory snatched from them right at the end.
We enjoyed playing with the allied faction rules and continued with this for the third game, but switched factions. This was a quick 27-minute game, since I already managed to win on the third turn by holding three strongholds with the Harkonnen/Imperium faction.
What do I like most about this board game? Well, it’s based on Dune, so of course that’s a plus. Fans of the movie will appreciate the new artwork and more dramatic vibe of the components. The rules were straightforward and faction sheets made setup quick. Even if I hadn’t already played the original game, I think it would have been easy to pick up. Since this can be played in around an hour, and starts from two players, I could see myself gravitating toward this game, over the longer versions, if I had limited time.
In terms of themes, I like the prescience ability thematically as well as for battle strategy, since it makes a difference being able to see some of what’s up your opponent’s sleeve. The extra traitor mechanic makes perfect sense for the Harkonnen faction. I like the Voice ability as well, although having it lie only with the Imperium means Jessica isn’t associated with it. However, since the Atreides already have prescience, it would be too powerful to have a second similar ability. The Fremen’s dual movement and ability to stay safe from the storm both made sense story wise, and made them an interesting faction to play.
Playing with the allied factions rules definitely opens up more options and strategy in a two-player game, so I’ll probably continue with that in future. Having to pay the Imperium for market cards made me more cautious of buying them, because it was essentially handing my opponent free money to buy a market card or deploy troops against me. With fewer turns to strategize and win, we quickly learned not to waste money early in the game—a mistake my opponent made the first time we played.
This version of the game isn’t perfect, though. It no longer includes privacy screens to help keep your battle plans secret. I would have liked something to shield my wheel and leader so I didn’t have to juggle those and my cards in hand. I would recommend sleeving your cards, because the edges were already showing a little wear after two games.
The compressed gameplay means there’s less time to catch up if you fall behind. This was a challenge for my opponent in our first game. Control of the strongholds can also swing quite quickly, with one player holding multiple ones only to lose control of them all in a single turn. Without good battle or market cards, it’s easy for one player to take a commanding lead. This is likely particularly the case in a two-player game, so having more players may make it a less variable experience. Nonetheless, there are enough luck mechanics—a die and multiple draw decks—to thwart even the best strategies.
Comparing this game to 2020’s Dune: Imperium, from Dire Wolf Digital, that game has more dimensions and is less variable, but it is also a longer game with more time and moving parts to let you develop your strategy. Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is faster and less demanding in terms of decision-making, and sometimes that’s the kind of game you or others feel like playing. The battle phases take the most time because you are trying to figure out leaders and traitors and which weapons to use, and then prescience and Voice abilities can add complexity.
Overall, this board game accomplishes the goal of adapting the original, to tie into the new movie and creating a fresh experience that’s accessible to a wider range of players—who may prefer a more fast-paced and streamlined Dune-themed game. I can see myself playing it on a rotation with the longer 2019 classic edition and Dune: Imperium.
To learn more about creative processes and some of the behind-the-scenes inspiration that went into designing this board game, also check out our recent interview with Jack Reda. He’s one of its designers, working on both this new movie version and ongoing expansion sets for the classic game.
Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is currently available for pre-order, directly via Gale Force Nine’s online store. There are multiple language editions, including English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish. We’ll update this review with further purchase options, once those are widely available.
Special thanks to Gale Force Nine for providing an advanced preview copy of the board game for this review.