Desert Oasis: Taking Refuge From PAX East With The Dune Board Game

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J.P. Grant finds the true value of PAX East in a thirty-year-old board game based on a science fiction classic.

If you’ve never been to an event like PAX East, the massive gaming convention held here in Boston last week, it’s a little like Las Vegas. Throngs of people crowd the passages between gigantic billboards, inching forward toward yet another blinking attraction. Basso voices rumble incomprehensibly from ceiling-mounted speakers. Flashing video screens and giant statues of mythical creatures compete for a rapidly diminishing reservoir of attention. Everyone seems bewildered, as if they’ve just awoken from a coma and can’t quite remember how to walk. People in costumes hand you trinkets. You wait in line a lot.

I’m 32. For people of my advanced age, a few days of this provides more than enough stimulation. So I was particularly excited to hear, a few months back, that my good friend Julian Murdoch was arranging a PAX board game session where we could escape the tumult of the expo floor for an afternoon. Better yet, the game would be Dune—a long out-of-print Avalon Hill classic based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece, which happens to be my favorite book.

dune board.JPG The field of battle.

Still, I’ll cop to a bit of initial intimidation. The game would take four to six hours, Julian said. “You have to pre-read the rules and watch a video or two,” his original pitch read. “This is not a game you just sit down and learn.” He was right. Dune is not only mechanically complex—like the novel, it’s a strategic mix of diplomacy, treachery, ecology, combat, and economics as factions vie for control of the desert planet Arrakis—but its pervasive use of the book’s peculiar terminology and technology can make it pretty opaque for newcomers. Knowing that a lasgun blast hitting a Holtzmann shield creates a nuclear explosion would be, for probably the only time in my life, actually useful.

Studying the rules, it turned out, was a delight. Dune is best played with six players, each taking the role of a major faction from the novel. The factions each have unique powers that let them bend the rules: The Atreides can use their prescience to peek at cards; the Harkonnens gain extra treachery cards; the Fremen can ride sandworms across the map. The powers are straight out of the fiction, instantly recognizable to fans of the books and movies. Dune’s famous mystical drug, the Spice, serves as currency in the game. As I dug into the ruleset, I found myself impressed with how well the designers had fused theme and mechanics. It’s not surprising that the game, like the book, has remained a cult favorite for decades.

dune box art.jpg Artist’s conception: The author and his friends (bottom left) about to be consumed by the overwhelming PAX East convention.

Dune was originally published by Avalon Hill in 1979; a revised edition, along with two expansions, was published in 1984 as a tie-in to the David Lynch film. That was the last time the game was officially released, years before most PAX attendees were born. But the game was so popular among Dune and board game aficionados that hobbyists have been printing their own homemade sets ever since, using printing services like ArtsCow. Over the years, there have been multiple redesigns of the board and components. The design we used was by Scott Everts, a developer of the popular Fallout series of video games. (Apparently, he worked on his Dune redesign for relaxation during the development of Fallout: New Vegas.)

The set was a beauty, assembled over a period of months by our friend Steve Waldron—the only person I know who can list “Castle Steward” on his resume. He and his wife Amanda manage Ravenwood Castle in southern Ohio, a vacation property where tabletop gaming is a big draw. Steve has a lot of experience introducing guests to new games, so he was the perfect GM for our session—especially because along with board and component designs, Dune’s rules have undergone multiple evolutions over the years. For our session, we cherry-picked rules and cards from the base game and the two expansions, which Steve says is common among longtime Dune players. “I’ve played with different rules every time I’ve played it,” he says. The flexible (and sometimes ambiguous) nature of the rules necessitates establishing “house rules” for most sessions, he agrees.

dunegame1.jpg A quiet repose amid the sensory overload of PAX East.

For me, this flexibility was a striking counterpoint to my experience with the video games on the show floor. Most video games, by their nature, don’t allow for interpretation. Software cannot react to changing circumstances or player experiences. Software never forgets a rule. In a game like Dune, where players can form alliances and backstab each other, getting a read on the other people at the table is a crucial process. For all their stunning visuals and instantaneous responsiveness, few video games approximate the delicate balance of cooperation and competition I experienced in Dune.

Our afternoon in the tabletop area was an oasis of calm in the midst of the PAX bustle, but not only because it was a refuge from the thunder and flash of the expo floor. The experience also felt intensely personal. Julian had recruited an artist friend to render each player as a Dune character on custom leader tokens. After a month of joking with Cory, the Harkonnen player, about Sting cosplay, my wife fashioned him a replica bird-diaper out of duct tape—which he proudly donned upon defeating my Fremen army. (The less said about that, the better. On every level.)

On the show floor and in press demos it’s easy to feel bombarded by marketing salvo after marketing salvo, precision-tuned PR ordnance aimed at the seventy-five thousand walking pre-orders attending the convention. PAX, like Vegas, can feel deeply depersonalizing, a spectacle cynically transparent in its reduction of “fans” to “consumers.” But among a group of friends, playing an obscure, out-of-print board game with a homemade set, I couldn’t have felt more at home.

Oh, and for the record: I allied with the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild to win the game. As we Fremen say: “Wisdom comes from the desert.”

dune victory.jpg The author in abject defeat as the ersatz Sting celebrates his Harkonnen victory.