Q1: Interview with Peter Olatka

I conducted this interview with one of the original designers of Dune, Peter Olatka, via email. I reached out to one of the developers of Rex, but they were unable to comment for this article. 

Grant: I'm curious how [Dune] came about in the late 1970s. Did you approach the Herbert estate, or did it come about another way?

Pete: We (Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge and I) had just published Cosmic Encounter via our newly formed company, Eon Products, and wanted to do another game right away. Everyone was reading science fiction and we were all fans of Dune. While searching for the rights we bumped into Avalon Hill Games. They had already acquired the board game license and had contracted with a group to do the design. We had a small bit of notoriety having just sprung Cosmic Encounter on a fledgling gaming industry. I pitched Avalon Hill on the idea that since Cosmic was such an innovative designs, they should really consider us to apply our skills to Dune. But, alas, they were well under way.

Shortly after the conversation, we got a call from Avalon Hill. The product turned in by the other group was just no good! And would we be interested in taking on Dune? We did not play hard to get - but we were in the driver’s seat and offered a deal that would let us license our underlying game system to be applied to the Dune property. And we retained the rights to apply that system to other games. ..the core of the system was the simultaneous revelation dial wheels.

Editor's Note: Thinking about simultaneously revealed dial wheels and how influential they've been for just the Fantasy Flight Games library alone! X-Wing, Armada, Warhammer: Conquest -- they use this everywhere!

Grant: Dune is incredibly evocative of its source material (the book), and even Rex, with its new coat of paint, is still overwhelmingly inspired by the book. Could you walk me through some of your key inspirations from the source material when you began the design?

Pete: One of the recurring themes in Dune was “wheels within wheels.” We had been working on a Roman Empire game called Tribute which used a wheel to secretly dial a number of committed troops to a battle. The dialed number put those troops at risk - win or lose. We combined that with our Cosmic Encounter Alien powers and applied them to the major characters in Dune. The whole design fell rapidly into place. We continued our obsession to avoid lots of die rolling in deference to having players be endowed with widely different abilities and them letting them mix and match with each other to struggle for supremacy.

Grant: Just as Dr. Wellington Yueh betrayed his Duke, players can devastate an opponent in battle with the Traitor card. How early was it introduced into the design? How did it evolve?

Pete: The traitor was with the game from the beginning. By planting the traitors at set up, the game immediately takes on tension. In converting books to games it’s important to isolate key features of the story line and then create novel ways to implant them into the fabric of the game.

Grant: The different factions in the game have such wonderfully powerful advantages. How, if at all, did the content design in Cosmic Encounter influence the asymmetry in Dune?

Pete: Cosmic Encounter was the driving force behind Dune. We were making expansion sets for Cosmic Encounter then and it was apparent that the universe was bigger than we imagined. We had already pitched Avalon Hill that we could springboard off Cosmic to make Dune - so it was obvious that each of the characters could be created in a similar way that the aliens were created. Dune had the advantage of a map and a backstory which allowed for creating six very different characters.

Grant: The combat mechanism stands out to me as a no-luck, entirely player driven affair. What were the inspirations in creating it? How did it come about?

Pete:  Well, luck was by and large confined to your cards and the Storm. We were averse to having a giant die-roll mechanism a la Risk - which had driven us to forego dice whenever possible. The wheel itself was an upgrade from the Tribute wheel, since this one paired heroes and weapons and defense creating a four part secret scheme that had simultaneous revelation.

Grant: The Fremen have a "wait it out" win condition, in that if the game ends without a victor, they win. It really goes to show that your focus on asymmetry pervades every facet of the design. Where did this idea come from? Are there any asymmetrical elements of which you're particularly proud?

Pete: What’s interesting is that we never really thought in terms of asymmetry per se.We just saw the design as capturing the essence of each of the characters and then setting them in the Dune environment. We all think that Dune is one of our best designs. The character treatment in our new Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne game, which uses adaptations from Cosmic Encounter, has elements of the Dune characters showing up both as tokens and on a “Sheet” as well.

Grant: What is your favorite Faction in Dune and why?

Pete: We all remember the feeling of intense surprise when 10 minutes into the game we would really feel like the Harkonnen. What really shines in Dune is that we were able to encapsulate each House by virtue of giving the characters attributes that guaranteed that each player would feel like they had become that character.

Grant: I think the Traitor mechanism and ability to win as a team (or solo) are the glue that make Dune work. Do you recall any aspect of the design being particularly troublesome to refine during development?  

Pete: The traitor mechanism was added early because it is so integral to Dune treachery. I recall Dune as being a fairly quick design that came together easily. Wining as a team was straight out of Cosmic, but it fit because in Dune there were always shifting alliance of convenience.

Editor's Note: The Harkonnens in the book, Dune, are treacherous and rely on assassination to accomplish their aims. In Dune/Rex, their faction gets to keep all four Traitor cards. All the other factions are dealt four, but only choose one to keep. It's a tiny rule with a significant impact.

Grant: I've heard you say "balance is for wimps" in an interview, or something to that effect. Yet, Rex feels remarkably fair in my plays! Were there any powers from Dune that felt too good, or too powerful, that had to be cast aside or neutered?

Pete: Well, I am not too sure about the quote, but the gist of my take on balance is that when everything is nudged so that no one has any advantage you have chess. Chess is one of the greatest games. But chess is not very funny. When playing group games, we like to put players in situations where they may face seemingly insurmountable odds, they may need help to overcome those odds or they may lose badly because of the odds. But, they had a lot of fun going down. More to the point, the player who had the great advantage with a certain character in game one, played it again in game two and due to the circumstances gets totally whacked. Surprise and uncertainty are more fun and funnier than the certitude of balance.

Editor's Note: Designers! Read that last answer. Read it again. Now, read it once more. 

Grant: Why should people play Dune or Rex today? What makes them special in your mind?

Pete: Rex is an elegant adaptation of the Dune game system.  That system is designed to allow players to quickly concoct simultaneous secret multiple faceted hidden plans.  We think that its one of the best interactive face offs in gaming.

Grant: What element should designers be borrowing from Dune?

Pete: I am a huge fan of designers borrowing from their own creations. And not trying to copy other designers' work. So I would suggest that designers look for innovative ways construct their games to provide players with systems that morph into different forms based on a changing mix of elements.

Grant: Is there anything I should have asked you? Is there anything you'd like to add?

Pete: We are currently busy creating a two player version of Cosmic Encounter and are testing it using Berserk’s TableTop Simulator. Cosmic Encounter fans are helping playtest it. No one thought it could be done…but the Cosmic world is in for a big surprise.

We would love to get DUNE republished, but alas the rights seem to be lost in the Frank Herbert Estate.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about one of our faves!

I'm so thankful to Peter Olatka for taking the time to speak to me!