Happening upon a dagger in the sand is chance… The use of that dagger is skill… Playing developer Dire Wolf’s digital adaptation of the Dune: Imperium board game—recently released on Steam early access—I find myself relying on chance, but needing to refine my skills to win in this fun, albeit challenging tabletop experience.
Fans of the physical version of Dune: Imperium (2020) will no doubt find themselves on familiar ground. For new players on the other hand, the game might be a tad intimidating to begin with. Either way, this Dune-themed tabletop experience is exceedingly entertaining, and it’s well worth learning the ropes.
Agent to Landsraad High Council—Check?
Dune: Imperium’s components hold firm to its Dune universe setting. Notably, of course, there’s an immediate artistic likeness with Denis Villenueve’s ongoing film adaptations, and direct connections to the lore and story of Frank Herbert’s Dune novel. But an additional parallel with the source material—that players will notice as they break-out the board and start sending agents off—is the strategic political maneuvering to claim victory… Points.
The board has a conflict zone to send troops for battle. There are spaces for all of the Imperium’s key factions, which can provide bonuses and other assorted prizes, pending an agent’s arrival and infiltration. Landsraad Council support can be bought, CHOAM can help players accumulate wealth, and there are Arrakis world locations which provide precious resources—Spice and water—to utilize across the multitude of game components.
Agents are the key, players can have up to three (or four for a turn if they purchase a mentat), and these subversive emissaries take the form of cards. Cards have their own unique abilities that shape the way a player can achieve their objectives, and even change the tide of the game. If this all sounds complex, that’s because it is…
Getting Started is the Mind Killer
Don’t get me wrong, anyone is capable of playing and understanding the Dune: Imperium’s digital board game mechanics. Now, how well players will fare against the formidable AI opponents—for which I firmly believe the normal difficulty should be tuned down—or how they will fare against online masters (there is already a community for multiplayer) is another thing entirely.
And, as I mentioned in the beginning, getting used to the array of options can be quite intimidating for new players. Whether that’s where best to send your agent game pieces, the host of card abilities offering different ways to play, or the various currencies which each have their uses.
Even after figuring out how to play, the learning curve can be a tad steep to perform at a moderate level—I got demolished in online play, and (at time of this review) have yet to beat a four-player normal AI game board… Normal. This is perhaps, one of the few blemishes of an otherwise great tabletop experience.
Break Out the Digital Board, Planet Arrakis Awaits
Dune: Imperium is overwhelming at first, addicting once you’ve grasped its gameplay, and potentially quite meta in the later stages. Regardless, however, of its inherent spiral to generally accepted winning strategy(s), the game in its digital version is a blast to start-up and play a few rounds. Each new game feels fresh—at least to begin with—with the sheer variety of cards, types of resources, and agent placement opportunities to set out and conquer victory points. In essence, gaining 10 VPs is needed to seize control of Arrakis.
The early access digital edition of the tabletop game runs smoothly and it feels great to maneuver the various pieces around the board. Its UI is phenomenal for the type of game that Dune: Imperium is. Character portraits, background art, and overall design is fantastic; I sometimes find myself lounging back and simply admiring the rotating planet of Arrakis in the background or dotting my eyes over the card portraits in the acquisition bank.
And though I haven’t played the physical edition of Dune: Imperium yet, I’ve watched videos of other people playing it—it’s safe to say the experience is near identical, with exception of ownership tangible board game pieces in the physical form. In its digital form, however, players have the ability to play with anyone, anywhere, anytime, including just yourself against AI opponents.
The other potential advantage of the digital version of the game is its varied and ever-changing modes, for example the new Skirmish challenges. I say potential, because players might be able to setup these same modes—as curated by the developers in the digital game—in their tabletop sessions.
As we’ve reported on in our first look article on Dune: Imperium Digital , the game is not intended to be in early access for long. In the state that the game is in currently, the short-winded early access period is sure to hold true. Already, the digital product works as its physical counterpart does. What’s yet to be added is an online game mode known as “events” (for leagues and tournaments) and fine-tuning of core mechanics, as Dire Wolf’s team reacts to player feedback and statistics. Early Access, in Dune: Imperium’s case, is not a defect on the overall package.
Expansions Not Yet Available
Dire Wolf have stated their intention to also digitalize existing physical expansions to Dune: Imperium—both Rise of Ix and Immortality—as well as the recently launched, standalone Uprising, in the order they were originally published. Timelines have not yet been communicated and those will likely depend on overall reception of this first Steam release. Until all of those are eventually available, the digital version lags behind it’s tabletop counterpart.
Many experienced Dune: Imperium players have expressed how much the expansions improve on the base game and that they’re hesitant to go back to playing without them. This also poses issues for future competitive play, as it wouldn’t be possible to e.g. practice for an offline event using the (official) digital version. Achieving expansion parity in the future, would be important to ensure a more accessible experience for all players—however they prefer to enjoy the game.
Dune: Imperium is everything one would want from the digital iteration of a physical board game. Though with additions such as varying modes, online play, and built-in rulesets that change how players play, this game carves out its own unique place alongside its physical counterpart. Once players learn the ropes, Dune: Imperium is a game they can come back to again and again, enjoying a new session each time the tabletop layout shuffles a fresh board.
In the event that community strategies narrow the playing field down to only a few viable play styles, there’s always the chance that one can happen upon a dagger in the sand. Or, in the future, arrival of aforementioned expansions already tied to the physical edition (and others that may be released in the future) might spice up the digital tabletop gameplay… Pun intended.
Dune: Imperium Digital - Early Access
Dire Wolf succeeds in bringing their addictive tabletop experience to the digital screen. With multi-layered game mechanics, appealing artwork, and many ways to play, this release offers enjoyment to a wide range of 'Dune' fans—including those who don't usually play card or board games. On condition that the developers implement a robust events mode (by end of Early Access) and prioritize adding its expansions, this game should captivate the community for years to come.
Phenomenal adaption of physical version
Polished UI and art design
Strong AI opponents
Variety of game modes
Great blend of skill and chance
Expansions not yet available / lack of parity with physical game
AI can feel overly challenging on normal
Collective community winning strategies might ruin the fun