Dune: Imperium Transports Players From Denver to Arrakis

Imperium designer Paul Dennen and Dire Wolf founder Scott Martins.
Imperium designer Paul Dennen and Dire Wolf founder Scott Martins. Alexander Elmore
"I know David Lynch did the best with what he could in two hours, but basically, you can't tell Dune in two hours," says Paul Dennen, designer of the board game Dune: Imperium.

The new Dune adaptation, directed by Denis Villeneuve and set for an October 22 release in theaters and on HBO Max's ad-free plan, is eighteen minutes longer than David Lynch's 137-minute, 1984 film, but it only covers the first half of the 1965 novel. This time, the filmmakers made the smart decision to not even attempt to encapsulate the book's enormous narrative, which ranges from 400 to upwards of 800 pages depending on the edition.

For those unfamiliar with Dune's story and lacking the will to read even the shorter version over the next few days, there are a plethora of YouTube videos on the subject. For those looking for a more interactive way to get into the world of Frank Herbert, a board game might be the perfect solution.

Dune: Imperium, released in December 2020, is the first tabletop game self-published by Dire Wolf Digital, a Denver-based company founded by Scott Martins. So far, Dire Wolf's biggest success has come with its Clank! series, which was originally a digital exclusive but was brought to tabletops in a co-published version with Renegade Game Studios in 2016. There are currently eight games and expansion packs in the Clank! series.
click to enlarge Dune: Imperium uses the likenesses of actors involved in the 2021 film. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Dune: Imperium uses the likenesses of actors involved in the 2021 film.
Alexander Elmore

Both Dennen and Martins discovered Herbert in their teens. For Dennen, who shares a first name with the protagonist of Dune, the film really opened his eyes. "I was fourteen at the time," he recalls, adding that the movie "was totally confusing to me. My brother was a big fan of the books, so he filled in all those gaps for me, and then I started reading the books because he showed me how cool they were."

Martins was gifted the books by a cousin. "It was like 'here you go' and I was like 'ahh'; my mind was blown," he says with frantic hand motions to match. "That was my on-ramp into nerdom."

A Dune game wasn't on their minds when Dire Wolf was founded, though. The first inklings of such a creation materialized in 2018 at Gen Con, a tabletop game convention in Indianapolis. "We ended up getting the opportunity to do something we were passionate about in part because of the success of Clank!" explains Martins.

Imperium isn't the first Dune board game. In 1979, Avalon Hill Game Co. released a tabletop adaptation, aptly titled Dune; that game was revamped by Gale Force Nine in 2019. Coming up with a new way to tell the story was challenging. "I would love to make a game based on Dune, but there already is one, and it's pretty well-loved," Dennen recalls thinking. "So I didn't tell my brother I was making a game; I just asked him questions about what he would expect from a game based on Dune, because he's the biggest Dune fan I know."

As part of their research, both Dennen and Martins reread the original novel, but Dennen focused more energy on the appendix. He knew that a way to differentiate between the original board game and his version would be to "take a wider view of the universe." This led to the players' ability to visit planets beyond Arrakis, also known as Dune, and to interact with more races and factions than are involved in the novel's narrative.

"Throughout 2019 we tried — and I would say I failed — to come up with a good game," says Dennen. "It was good, but Dune is so special that we wanted it to be great."

Through all three prototypes that Dire Wolf wound up creating, the only thing that stuck was the concept of using cards in some way. Board sizes changed, factions and characters were dropped and added, and the game finally settled into a blend of deck-building, worker placement and political strategy/warfare games — a rare combo, according to Dennen.
click to enlarge Dune Imperium focuses on more than just the titular planet. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Dune Imperium focuses on more than just the titular planet.
Alexander Elmore
The game can run anywhere from ninety minutes to over two hours; including open conflict and a deck of cards allows a certain randomization. "It's a game arc that starts small, and you're fighting over these little bits and pieces of resources," says Dennen, "but by the end, it's escalated and you're having these big battles for major spoils." The process of adapting a seminal piece of literature like Dune into a game was already a major challenge, but creating a merchandise tie-in for a blockbuster film added unprecedented pressure.

Almost as soon as the contract was signed, Martins says, "we got a top-secret brand bible that had my name and Dire Wolf watermarked all over it. So we created a special server and locked it away. That was a little nerve-racking that we got to see early stuff, and some of it changed along the way."

Imperium only uses the title font of the new film, and the likenesses of the actors are represented on character cards, which required approvals from both Legendary Pictures and the actors themselves. "We would get comments back," Martins says. "Some [actors] didn't care at all, some were 'a little more of this, a little less of that.'" Still, Legendary not only gave Dire Wolf the freedom to use its design and Villeneuve's vision, but "they also let us make stuff up to go alongside it," he adds.

Although the film's primary cast appears in the game, Dennen explains that it was hard to give much attention to any one person, since Imperium takes such a zoomed-out view of the world.
click to enlarge Dune: Imperium combines several different types of board games for a more unique experience. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Dune: Imperium combines several different types of board games for a more unique experience.
Alexander Elmore
An expansion pack subtitled "Rise of Ix" is slated to hit shelves around the end of the year and will push the game further into the world of Ixian technology, which is only briefly mentioned in Herbert's first novel and likely won't be in the 2021 film at all. For Dennen, the appendix was again a major help in deciding where to take the game next. The expansion pack adds the further element of tableau building, as players can buy tiles with special abilities to enhance their moves, along with more houses and cards.

Expanding the game might seem like a premature move since the base game has been out for less than a year, but Martin has a strong trust in Dire Wolf's connection with Legendary. "The movie was supposed to come out a year ago. We got very lucky and are thankful to Legendary; they let us put out this game last December, and a lot of other licensees have had to wait," he says. "We've had this whole eight- or nine-month window to ourselves with the IP. It's like getting another bite of the apple now. The movie is out, people are excited, and we can't wait for the sequel."

Dune: Imperium is available on the Dire Wolf Digital website and at nationwide board game suppliers. Dune (2021) will be released October 22 in theaters and will stream on the ad-free plan of HBO Max for 31 days from the theatrical release. For more information on the film, visit the Dune website.
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