Dune: War for Arrakis review: One of 2024’s best board games


As if predestined by the Bene Gesserit, Dune: War for Arrakis arrived at the perfect moment. This big-box strategy game emerged in the wake of Dune: Part Two, Dennis Villeneuve’s follow-up film that portrays the second half of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel. Just like the motion picture, this board game depicts the escalating desert war between the deposed House Atreides and usurping House Harkonnen. Both film and game share a second quality in common — they are spectacular pieces of media that could aptly be described as works of art.

The duo responsible for Dune: War for Arrakis are Marco Magi and Francesco Nepitello. The bones of the game bear the shape of this team’s previous release, a board game titled War of the Ring, depicting the storied struggle at the heart of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s an epic experience that features clashing armies and the march to Mt. Doom and all of the most important characters in Tolkien’s novels. War of the Ring’s best aspect is the tactical dice system that controls the flow of play and composes the game loop. This is the main element carried ported over into Dune: War for Arrakis.

Each turn both players roll a pool of dice. These custom six-siders have various action icons and the results determine what you will be able to do during the round. Play then consists of going back and forth from Atreides to Harkonnen, each player assigning a die and executing an action.

This is a simple system. You spend a die to recruit troops or move them. You can also play special cards from your hand to spring nasty surprises or launch massive attacks. The dice pool acts as a restriction, forcing players into tough spots where you can’t perfectly execute a plan. The tactical challenge is in how you utilize your options to warp the board to your will.

A render of Dune: War for Arrakis arranged for play. The pieces are red and green, gathered around a crescent-shaped set of mountains on a desert-colored game board.

Image: CMON

Victory, likewise, is nuanced. The Atreides have the tougher assignment as they need to focus on a small assortment of goals dealt out from the Prescience deck each turn. These encourage various maneuvers built broadly on the novel’s narrative, such as Paul drinking the Water of Life or Atreides using their Fremen warriors to attack vulnerable harvesters. They focus play on momentary considerations, forcing adaptation and bending to the environment — two central themes running throughout Herbert’s novel.

There is also incentive to control the ecological stations scattered about the map. These form hotspots as the Harkonnen player will typically try to defend them. Finally, Atreides will edge closer to success by taking the Harkonnen strongholds, such as the North Pole and Arrakeen. These are always well defended and a significant challenge, but with tools such as the fierce sandworms and the elite Fedaykin troops, such an offensive is possible.

The Harkonnen player has it a bit easier. Instead of pursuing dynamic objectives that change each round, they simply need to destroy 10 points of Fremen bases. The value of each sietch is hidden, but this number can be scouted with ornithopters as well as some clever card play. This is the more blunt faction, relying on marshaling legions of troops to root out the indigenous Fremen and annihilate them. It highlights the alternative philosophies of each house and incorporates one of the novel’s many motifs.

Red miniatures of different styles, all with swords and rifles, stand atop a desert game board. Their bases are different shapes, while some carry standards into battle.

Harkonnen leaders, supported by Sardaukar, hold fast on a stronghold
Photo: Charlie Theel/Polygon

Both combat and the incorporation of named leaders on the battlefield are reminiscent of War of the Ring. Violence is simple: Each unit adds a die that yields either a hit, shield, or special leader buffs. Shields cancel out hits with the remainder applied as casualties to the army. The special leader buffs are the most intriguing aspect. Baron Harkonnen, for instance, will offer defense while The Beast Rabban supplies extra blows. The special troops — Fedaykin and Sardaukar — add further texture by soaking multiple hits and negating the opponent’s defense results. This, while simple and easy to internalize, proves a surprisingly strong offensive toolset that results in the potential for devastating results. Fights resolve quickly and logically, framing dramatic moments that punctuate play and support the larger narrative arc of the game.

Besides conflict, the leaders are a significant aspect due to how they enhance player actions. Paul allows you to perform a special action that rallies multiple legions to him. Rabban can execute a potent double move which allows you to strike behind enemy lines and gain separation. Still other leaders influence card acquisition or deploy special units to the board. As the narrative evolves, new leaders come into play. The result is an unique story path each playthrough, with some sessions never even witnessing the Reverend Mother or the great Wild Maker.

A Sardaukar with a pistol confronts the miniature representing a sandworm, poised to eat him. The image has a Dutch angle to it, canted to one side.

Sandworms wreck havoc on non-native factions.
Photo: Charlie Theel/Polygon

There is a lot of detail here. The asymmetry of the two forces is a large part of the appeal. The Atreides/Fremen forces can ride worms across the desert with impunity, while Harkonnen legions left in the open desert are worn down by storms each round. Collecting spice is integral to the Harkonnen keeping the rest of the empire content and maintaining their economic advantage. There is bluffing and secrecy through hidden units and vicious card play. Despite all of this detail and the large amount of content, the game wraps up in a surprising two hours. It’s shocking how this framework is exceedingly capable of furnishing a full story arc with depth and precision in the alloted time.

Many of its accomplishments are a result of the design team iterating on War of the Ring, now in its second edition. Tweaks to leaders represent a significant improvement over that game, as they are now decoupled from the bonus dice they grant in Middle-earth. Here on Arrakis, the action system is more satisfying, as Atreides possess less dice but are able to perform the clever wormsign action on their turn — effectively manipulating the environment — instead of simply passing and waiting for their opponent to spend their extra dice. The time commitment is much shorter, as War of the Ring requires a huge chunk of the day to setup and play. There are other small improvements found in battle, the card system, and general game flow. The outcome is an experience that sits at this splendid intersection of grand strategy wargame with a more personal and intimate composition.

Despite these plaudits, it’s important to understand this is primarily a two-player game. It can function as a four-player endeavor with each faction split in half between a pair of players, but this is far less satisfying in practice and undercuts some of the design’s strengths. If a group of four players is in search of something to play, they would be much better off looking elsewhere.

Of more significance is an issue of faction balance. Michele Garbuggio, a developer that worked in support of the design team on this game, has stated that “by precise design intent, [Dune: War for Arrakis] is not balanced on a 50/50 win ratio…it’s more like a 60/40…in favor of the Harkonnen.” The intentionality behind this reflects the power disparity between the forces and the miraculous rise of the Kwisatz Haderach to lead the scattered Fremen. This does not detract from the overall power of the design. The vast majority of participants will engage this game casually and not in a tournament format, and in this more relaxed environment it’s of little consequence.

Regardless of these minor concerns, Dune: War for Arrakis has burst from the sand with ferocity. This game offers an epic experience flush with drama and moments of grandeur. It successfully condenses and refines many of the concepts of its designer’s previous work, and it produces a special game that stands with its own identity. 2024 is only halfway complete, but it may have already received its best title.

Dune: War for Arrakis is currently available at retail for $123. It is also available as a special Gamefound pre-order campaign where additional content from the original Kickstarter campaign is once again available, alongside a new expansion.


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