Dune: War for Arrakis Board Game Review

If there’s a sci-fi equivalent to the fantasy cultural juggernaut that is Lord of the Rings, then it’s Frank Herbert’s Dune. So it’s perhaps surprising that the same design team of Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello are responsible for big strategy war board games on both subjects. Their Tolkien game, 2004’s War of the Ring, is a widely recognised classic, marrying asymmetric maneuver warfare with the rich narrative possibilities of the novel.

Now they’re hoping to repeat the same acclaim using some of the same mechanics in Dune: War for Arrakis, as the houses Harkonnen and Atreides fight for control of the desert planet.

What’s in the Box

As a CMON game, one of the big draws in this big box is the big selection of miniatures, and Dune: War for Arrakis doesn’t disappoint. There are three trays of figures, which range from generic and elite soldiers for both sides in multiple sculpts, to detailed miniatures of all the main characters from Dune, including Paul Atreides and Baron Harkonnen. There are also some big, chunky miniatures of vehicles like harvesters and carryalls, and bigger, chunkier miniatures of the famous sandworms that infest the desert planet.

While the figures are the main draw here, production values are high across the contents of the box. The board, depicting the inhabited areas of the titular planet and the deeper desert regions around it, comes in two full-sized halves to match the epic scale of the action, lavished with artwork that makes the most of the beige hues that are enforced by the desert geography. There’s a sheet of good quality cardboard tokens to punch, a big bag of custom dice and several decks of glossy cards.

For such a visual feast it is, perhaps, surprising that beyond the board the art is pretty sparse. Most of the cards are bare, while the character cards have ink sketches of their subjects rather than full color. There are also some player boards to help each player track their game state, and these are surprisingly flimsy, especially given the full-on production treatment on show elsewhere. However, even these minor let-downs are perfectly functional and clear, attractive graphic design makes up for the lack of card art.

Rules and How It Plays

Like the designer’s other best-known titles, this uses an action dice game system. Both sides get a handful of these dice to roll, four for the Atreides and eight for the Harkonnen, and the faces that come up indicate what actions you can take. Most are fairly self-explanatory: strategy and leadership both let you move and attack with your forces, under slightly different circumstances, while deployment lets you add troops to the board, and Mentat actions let you draw cards. If you have named leaders—characters from the franchise—in play then their cards tend to power up these basic actions, giving you more options.

It’s a great system, so much so that it’s surprising it’s not been copied more by other designers. The actions you roll are critical, so that initial spill of dice across the board is heart-stopping. But whether you get what you wanted or not, there’s a lot of creative strategy involved in trying to make the best of what fortune has given you. You way want to deploy before you attack, for example, or if you’re short on military options, perhaps fishing for cards might give you what you need. Every choice has a knock-on effect, every strategy needs to be flexible to cope with the whims of fate, and every time one player spends a die, their opponent will need to reconsider their choices on the fly. It’s brilliant.

Whatever you choose, your picks then feed into the second layer of this interesting meat-grinder. Like most of the best board games, Dune: War for Arrakis gives both players competing priorities and not enough troops or actions to cover them all. The Harkonnen have a very clear military and action advantage but, to maintain it, they must harvest and deliver spice else the Emperor will withdraw support in the form of locking up some action dice. Those deliveries are very vulnerable to raids by the Atreides troops, which, while fewer, can survive in the deep desert. But to win, rather than just survive, the Harkonnen player must find and destroy enemy settlements hidden in the desert, while their opponent needs to fulfil missions that vary each turn and find the ecological testing stations that dot the board.

So, for both sides, when you attack, you inevitably leave yourself short on defence. Choosing the balance is central to the strategy and tactics of the game, and boils down to how well you use your cards, troops and action dice, and read the situation on the board. Initially, the Harkonnen player seems incredibly dominant starting with more troops, ornithopters to move them, and having unlimited reinforcements compared to a paltry eight deployment actions over the entire game for their opponents.

Combat is dice based and this random, but a lack of combat effects in the card decks means weight of numbers usually tells. While this can feel repetitive, it aids in planning strategy, and the Harkonnen will likely steamroll over the first few settlements very fast. But their flow of spice, and with it their access to dice, will stutter, and their troops will suffer if left exposed in the desert. Then the Atreides can start to make use of their much more flexible arsenal, including command of the giant sandworms, and turn the tide.

Not that that prolongs the action past its welcome. Games like this, with fairly complex rules, narrative aspirations, and bags of miniatures, have a reputation for playing long, but Dune: War for Arrakis is a very welcome change in that regard. At around two hours for a game, it’s long enough to feel epic, but not too long to tax your patience or your free time. There might even be time to swap sides and re-rack for a rematch. It’s secret here is simply the rapid manner in which players accrue victory points.

Each settlement has a secret value between one and three, and the Harkonnens need just ten to win. Meanwhile, the Atreides have a secret win condition based on three different victory pools and their missions, too, will be scoring on every turn. The hidden aspects of both ensure there’s a tense finish to every game.

Despite the detailed miniatures and thematic trappings, narrative is one area where the game falls down. Yes, the spice and the worms and other iconic trappings of the franchise are all here, but this is very much a wargames, and there’s little sign of the politics and treachery that characterize the novel series, let alone its explorations of ecology, gender dynamics and other issues. It’s also notable that very little coherent story emerges from the play, besides the obvious one about the cut and thrust of powerful attacks and heroic defences. This might all sound a tall order for a game, and it is, but this design team managed to tick all those boxes against the source material of their previous effort, War of the Ring.

Where to Buy