Dune: War for Arrakis Review

Dune: War for Arrakis is a 1-versus-1 asymmetrical tabletop war game that was successfully funded on Kickstarter last month, produced by CMON. While the physical version of the game isn’t out yet, the developers made the incredibly cool move to release the game for free on Tabletop Simulator to let everyone try it and see if they want to back the project. As such, I got to try out the game with my brother. While it might take you a couple plays to really wrap your head around, and can have some punishing RNG for first-time players, it’s got a lot of cool mechanics going on and is absolutely dripping with the flavor of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi universe.

    War for Arrakis is essentially a new spin on CMON’s previous asymmetrical 1-on-1 game, War of the Ring, which was similarly set in the Lord of the Rings universe. It shares a lot of its core mechanics with that game, such as combat, action economy, and some aspects of victory progression. Players play as one of two factions: the house Harkonen and house Atreides. The Atreides feature the protagonists of the first novel, fulfilling “prescience” cards to reenact scenes from the story and score points to win. They have control over Arrakis’ mighty Sandworms and have resilience to the harsh natural elements of the planet. The Harkonen are the villains, sending out vehicles into the desert to harvest Spice, and aiming to exterminate all of the Atreides’ bases. They get many more actions in a turn, and have much more raw military might.

    The key mechanic of the game is action dice. At the start of a turn, each player rolls their action dice (with the Harkonen potentially rolling less if their trade relationships are down). These dice tell you which actions you can take on your turn, from drawing useful cards to adding troops to the board to moving troops. The Atreides roll fewer dice than the Harkonen, but also have a free action they can take without a dice: Placing a “Wormsign” token on the board, which at the end of the turn may flip over to reveal a powerful Sandworm, as well as giving their troops free movement over spaces with a Wormsign token. Each player also has Leaders, which enhance certain die results’ effects. This mechanic gives an interesting limitation to your strategy, but can also be frustrating. For instance, in my first game playing as the Atreides, I never once rolled the option to place more troops on the board, which made it feel like I had little I could do about my loss once the Harkonen’s ball got rolling.

    Combat works slightly differently for both factions. While the Harkonen’s troops are face up at all times, the Atreides start with “reinforcement tokens” face down on the board. Each token has an amount of troops under it, which are revealed and placed on the board when attacked. This gives the Atreides a slight edge in combat, especially on defense. Once troops are revealed, a player may choose to discard an unwanted card for a boost in combat, then rolls one combat die for each troop and card. Shields block damage, swords deal damage, and special leader abilities can have different effects depending on the leader one has in combat (for instance, an unnamed leader turns these into swords, but Stilgar’s leader ability turns into two swords). Not having a leader makes these die results worthless, so whether to bring along a leader or not can be an interesting “push your luck” decision, especially since named leaders have other useful effects you might want to keep them alive for. I’m a big fan of the combat in this game: It’s got enough variance to stay interesting while being decision-rich enough to reward skilled players, especially when combined with the game’s movement mechanics.

    My biggest complaint with this game is that it can be very punishing for a player who doesn’t know the right strategy to use from the start or who ends up with bad luck, especially when playing as the Atreides. The Atreides as a faction rely a bit more on random chance than the Harkonen, their victory condition relies on randomly drawn Prescience cards, which they may or may not have the ability to fulfill at any given time. It’s important to fulfill these early too, since progressing on the prescience track also gives the Atreides more powerful leaders that are key to their victory. Their smaller dice pool also exacerbates the issue of random options. While the action dice certainly lead to interesting moments of limited options, when you don’t roll the option you need it can be frustrating. If the Atreides get off to a rough start, whether just through random chance or gunning for something that isn’t a winning strategy, it’s easy for the Harkonen to run over them. For instance, in my first game playing Atreides I thought prioritizing denying the Harkonen spice would be important in the early game, but this led me to lose a lot of troops and eventually be unable to stop the military power of the Harkonen, even with some lucky Sandworm placements. In my second game playing as the Harkonen though, the Atreides player played the correct strategy of waiting in the early game and not trying to be too aggressive, while I learned that Spice is really a relatively minor factor in the Harkonen’s game plan (only necessary for paying to keep trade partners happy and making sure you have enough action dice). Not knowing that was the correct strategy is what led to a very swift loss in my first game, which combined with poor RNG was a bit frustrating.

    Overall though, the more I played the game the more I liked it. It has a steep learning curve, but not in the way a lot of games do. Rather, you need to have some amount of trial and error with your strategies in order to figure out what you need to do in order to counter the other faction’s game plan. This is true of a lot of asymmetrical 1-versus-1 games, but the added RNG of action dice can make this issue a little bit more frustrating and leave you with even less room for error. A good player can play around any dice rolls, but it takes several playthroughs to learn how to, and it leads to the game not making a great first impression, seeming unbalanced or unwinnable for the losing player and not very fun for the winner either. These are problems War of the Ring had a bit as well, and if anything War for Arrakis makes them a little bit worse, with the randomly drawn Prescience cards being now the only route of victory for the Atreides.

    Still, in the grand scheme this is a complaint hardcore wargamers will not feel as much. Especially if you’ve played War of the Ring a lot, you’ll pick up on the correct strategy faster, and if you do know what to do there’s a really challenging and decision-rich wargame here with a lot of replayability. I think what this game absolutely nails is the flavor, though. The map is a recreation of Frank Herbert’s original drawings, with each faction playing not only with characters and events from the books, but also in a way that evokes their strengths and weaknesses from the story. If you’re a fan of the Dune universe and want a game that really evokes that original novel, I think this game (compared to the original Dune tabletop game and Dune: Imperium) does the best job at it.