Q1: Inspired by Rex
Dune is a very inspiring design and something that demonstrates many lessons. Although in our interview Olatka noted designers should create their own experiences, which I somewhat agree with, I think Dune can provide a great deal of instruction for those willing to read. By the "somewhat agree," I think it's only natural that design inspires more design. I think people should be inventive and bring something unique, but I also think borrowing a few ideas here and there is just fine.
First and foremost, Dune reminds us of the depth, value, and unpredictability of social dynamics. Social dynamics are notoriously rules light, but incredibly deep. Man is the greatest foe, and social mechanisms remove us from the shackles so many games strap upon us.
In Dune, you can make alliances that are binding...until they are broken. You can win together, or lose together, or try to go solo. You can create an implied alliance, like Risk or Diplomacy before one is actually confirmed. You can act a certain way to manipulate an opponent, then betray them and ink the deal with someone else.
These alliances and the diplomacy of the game is further enhanced by the Traitor mechanism. Traitors are a tool that let you crush someone or at least know how risky an ally is to take under your wing. Information is power, and the Traitors are a crucial piece of information.
Allies also gain special powers from their partner, which means the two are literally superior to one, except they need to do so much more work to win. It’s a very compelling balancing act, and it’s not uncommon to see multiple alliances form, break, and re-form as the game spans its eight rounds.
The Traitor, the alliance, the asymmetry really make this a very rich social engagement. Social mechanisms like alliances are typically relegated to war games, but I think it’s a misstep that you don’t see more heavy euro games with trading and alliance conditions. I’m curious how Marco Polo would fare if we built a trade empire together, not just independently. Would that work? Perhaps a collaborative cave network in Caverna that was more difficult to execute, but if excavated, there would be riches enough for two.
Dune also presents a wonderful platform for mind games. We’ve already touched on those presented by the will she/won’t she elements of an alliance, but the combat mechanism is all about trying to recall what weapon they bought, whether they want to win the battle or gain the Influence, and whether they have your Traitor. They’ve been gunning for you...so is that a bluff, or more than bluster? Because you must commit to your battle plan before seeing what your opponent plans it just ratchets up the tension. You could screw everything up with the twist of the dial and it’s just a very rich and dramatic exercise.
Finally, we cannot leave a brief piece on Dune’s design inspiration without touching on the broad, dramatic, sweeping asymmetry that’s infused throughout the design. Players have different win conditions. They earn money differently. They fight differently. Some of the rules are very simple, yet shockingly potent. The Harkonnen’s ability to have more Traitors is a game changer by merely tweaking a value. Some seem downright broken, like the Corrino ability to be paid for every card bought. That’s wild! It means they don’t really have to contend for Influence on the board as much. Yet, somehow, it’s all fair.
Fair is a great adjective and one I’d like to shine more light upon. There’s this obsession with perfect balance in asymmetrical games -- trust me -- and I think in this pursuit, we risk losing what makes asymmetry fun. Asymmetry should be fair. Everyone should have a reasonably good chance of victory. Everyone should have a power. Everyone should have a weakness. Approximately. But, in a game that leaves the realm of math behind in favor of social dynamics, you need to focus on fairness. And, you need to focus on fun.
The asymmetry in Dune is marvelous and ridiculous. Everyone uses their powers with glee. Everyone is always envious of everyone else’s magic at the table. It’s madness, and it makes it all so easy to get swept up in the experience the designers have crafted.
Dune can teach us many things with its very simple mechanisms, and Rex can drive this point home by showing how an old game can be sped up and modernized. The two are an excellent pairing and you could do worse than borrowing ideas from either.