I had a pretty crazy Saturday night. I didn’t get drunk, go to any parties or commit any crimes (as far as I can tell), but the evening of April 29 was nonetheless pretty memorable.
It was board game night.
I go to one every week: A night out at a friend’s off-campus apartment where a couple of people play games for two or three hours. A nice break from schoolwork. April 29 wasn’t just any board game night, though: It was Dune night.
You might have seen 2021’s sci-fi epic starring Timothée Chalamet and Oscar Isaac, or you might have even read the 1965 book it’s based on. The Dune board game, first released in 1979 and re-released in 2019, however, is a different beast altogether.
Preparation began the week before. We needed to assemble six people and get them up to speed on the rules. My friend and I made two, and I quickly roped in two others, though one eventually dropped out. After a bit of advertising, we found three more to round out the table. I circulated some videos explaining the rules ahead of Saturday, so we would have as much time as possible to actually play the game.
We were going to need it.
I made sure to bring snacks: candied Shai-Halud (gummy worms) and Juice of Sappho (fancy soda) – fuel for the long night ahead.
The six of us selected the factions we’d be playing for the night, shedding our identities and immersing ourselves in the desert sands. I took on the role of Malina Aru, Ur-Director of CHOAM (the Dune universe’s largest corporation). To my left sat Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit order and Edric of the Spacing Guild, to my right sat Liet Pardot Kynes, leader of the Fremen and across from me sat Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and mortal enemy Duke Paul Atreides.
It might be helpful to know a little bit more about how Dune works. Six factions are vying for control of Arrakis’ northern hemisphere, aiming to occupy three of five major strongholds – or four if in an alliance with another player (more on those later). Players must collect Spice, the game’s currency, to hire soldiers and purchase weaponry. The game is also intensely political, with betrayals and bribery occurring constantly as secret agendas change and shift.
Our conflict began slowly. My faction, CHOAM, is quite wealthy but starts with no troops on the planet – the moves I made early on involved skirmishes with opponents in an attempt to audit them and look at their secret cards. For my first attempt, I moved into an enemy-filled area with just one troop of my own. This decision initially drew puzzled looks, but when I announced I would be auditing my opponent, the table burst out into laughter.
Dune is filled with moments like these, moments of absurdity amidst complicated schemes and nail-biting twists of fate. Following strategic blunders on both sides, another early maneuver had two opposing armies totally wiped out. Both players had unwittingly selected a traitor to lead their forces into battle, resulting in a massacre.
The Sleeper Awakens
The stakes rose as the game continued. After the appearance of the first Shai-Halud (Sandworm, marking the formation of alliances), I allied myself with Mother Mohiam and her Bene Gesserit order, who have the power to influence opponents. With my income and her mind control abilities, we could easily assassinate enemy leaders and defeat them in battle. Unfortunately, no such decisive victory made itself available. Aggressive moves were of limited effectiveness and cities were constantly changing hands. The Tleilaxu Tanks, where dead leaders and troops went, overflowed with cardboard corpses.
Bribes exchanged hands. Secrets were whispered in the cramped bathroom of the apartment and passed in folded note cards. Each of us scrambled for a more advantageous position. I even betrayed my former partner and temporarily allied with the Spacing Guild, leveraging our immense combined wealth to finance a devastating war machine.
The snacks ran out. Hours passed. Nobody was winning, but nobody was losing, either. A player would capture a city with a devastating assault, only to be kicked out the next turn. The tables turned once more – the Fremen and Spacing Guild aligned with one another, seeking a win-by-default. If nobody won by the tenth round, they would win as a team.
The Slow Blade
In round ten, hour seven, a nuclear explosion rocked the board, but it didn’t seem to matter. The table was littered with folded-up notes. We couldn’t remember how to do basic math. An elegant piece of political theater devolved into a bloody slugging match of attrition – walls of troops slammed against one another only to be annihilated time and time again. I couldn’t recall what happened during the previous turn. My Auditor minion was assassinated at least twice – I brought her back to life each time, shoving her into the same meat grinder as everyone else: Live, fight, die, repeat.
At turn ten, we determined that the Fremen-Guild alliance was unstoppable and collectively decided to concede the game.
We started at five. We ended at midnight. We were exhausted. The game took its toll on the mind, eking out every last drop of brainpower for strategic and tactical considerations. We begged for the game to end, yet we loved the time we spent playing it. Dune is a game for making memories – memories we will recall when we play it months or even a year from now.