Because the movie business is in a state of absolute chaos right now, the Dune reboot, which was supposed to be the big holiday movie of 2020, is now going to be the big holiday movie of 2021 instead. Just don’t tell this accompanying board game, which went ahead and released in December 2020 anyway.
Dune Imperium is an all-new game set in Frank Herbert’s universe, unlike last year’s other Dune board game, which was a remake of a long out-of-print classic. Originally developed and timed to release alongside Denis Villeneuve’s movie, Imperium doesn’t just have the franchise’s new logo, it’s even using character art based on the actors appearing in the film. A film that’s now almost a year away from being released.
Ah well! Dune is Dune, a sandworm is a sandworm, and a Mentat a Mentat, so it’s not like releasing the game 12 months early was going to spoil anything. We know how this is all going to go down, and it’s not going to go down well for...well, most folks.
Made by Dire Wolf—famous for their excellent digital adaptations—Dune Imperium is a blend of worker placement and deck building, where you take charge of one of Dune’s noble houses and try to just generally be better at doing things all over the surface of the planet than the competition.
Here’s how it works. Every turn you get a set number of actions available to you, which you perform by sending a little worker guy to the relevant area on the board, then playing a matching card (it has to be the same type as the space you’ve placed your worker) to trigger that action. You start off with only two workers, meaning you only get two actions per turn, but later you can upgrade to three and temporarily boost it to four.
Because you can only put workers where you’ve got matching cards, managing your deck is as important as picking an action, hence the “worker placement x deck building” selling point. As Imperium goes on you’ll add more and stronger cards to your deck, increasing your options every turn, and once you’ve used all your workers for that turn you can dump your remaining cards for resources and combat points (the game’s combat is settled on a fairly simple basis of “whoever has the most points wins”).
It works really well as a game. I love worker placement games and their stark, simple economy, and while I’m not normally as big a fan of deck building, which I find too fiddly, it works really well here scaled back and shackled to another mechanic (I loved Flamme Rouge for the same reason). I found I was constantly doing something valuable, something contributing tangibly to my push for victory, which is a real strength of worker placement games, but the randomness of drawing cards and the way everyone’s power keeps growing exponentially each turn kept things constantly (I’m sorry) spicy.
But as Dune game? It’s not very good. While last year’s Dune had its warts, it was also a fascinating exploration of the world and its factions. Its recreation of Arrakis’ weather and the indifferent cruelty of sandworms made the whole thing feel Dune as hell, an important thing for a licensed game!
Imperium feels nothing like Dune. It’s almost as though this was a different game that had the license papered over the top of it. Aside from a few resource-specific jobs (like needing/getting water from the Fremen), little you do in Imperium ever seems like it’s on or about Dune. This is a franchise defined by brutality and treachery, and you won’t find either of those here, only economy and a need to optimise your actions.
Combat is incredibly basic, sandworms are non-existent, and spice—the whole reason anyone is here!—is just another currency. Then there are factions and jobs here that have been shoehorned into awkward spots in order to serve a gameplay function, at odds with their importance or prevalence in Dune.
I’m also a bit down on the build quality of the game. It ships with some basic, mostly abstract wooden tokens, which are fine, but the existence of a $50 upgrade pack full of lavish plastic minis hovering over that is a shame. It would have been nice to just include some (or even all) of those in the base game, and might have helped it feel more thematic than it currently does.
I liked my time with Imperium! As a fan of worker placement games, this game’s blending of that with deck-building was a cool twist. I just wish it had been a better Dune game.