Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen Review – Well started is half done


When Arrakis was first announced a few months ago as a reskin/redesign of an 80’s zone control game called Borderlands, I was pretty optimistic. Say what you will (and I have) about Gale Force Nine’s track record with their original designs, their success in restoring the ancient dune speaks for itself.

In a way, my optimism was confirmed – there are some really cool ideas in this box, especially with the outstanding water debt mechanic. As players scramble for the resources and production facilities that will allow them to build the all-important sietches that double resource production and ultimately bring them victory, territories and the tokens within them will inevitably change hands. In most area control games, losing territory is a painful experience, and while Arrakis is no exception, offenders must give their victims water debts as a salve. And they’re a powerful ointment, because water debt is the most versatile and unconditionally useful mechanic I’ve seen. These tokens can be returned to prevent their owner from attacking, or to ignore enemy regions for your own attack deep into their territory. They can even be traded in to generate resources. As valuable as they are, they can of course also be used as hot commodities in trades with other players. But water debt isn’t the only good idea in Arrakis. Do you remember the resources you will fight for? They don’t just magically teleport to a resource pool when produced. Instead, they appear in the same map region as their production site, and much of the game works on the logistics of getting things to where they need to be converted into the host of development tiles. Initially, I was also attracted by the variable map structure, where rock faces make some borders harder than others, production sites are randomly distributed, and players then design starting regions. The good thing here isn’t just mechanical – Arrakis has the best first-party insert I’ve seen outside of Twilight Imperium. Otherwise I’d call the production adequate – the pegboard is thick enough and the cards don’t feel flimsy, but there’s nothing to write home about or impress anyone about.

Unfortunately, just like a nice guy who doesn’t shut up about crypto as much as I wanted to like Arrakis, we have some fundamental differences that I can’t reconcile. I might as well start with the rule book, which is more difficult to analyze than the more difficult Faulkner texts. The main problem is that it’s formatted by the guy in your group, who can’t agree on an order to teach the rules, so it’s constantly referencing ideas it hasn’t taught you yet, giving you page numbers, too which you can jump like a Choose your own adventure. The opening pages, usually dedicated to introducing basic gameplay concepts or victory conditions, are instead a bunch of irrelevant fluff and a huge example of the random setup, not that it or any other presentation in the rules offers a balanced alternative for beginners. It goes on, throwing random information at its reader, including a personal bogeyman of mine, and using its own bespoke terminology rather than industry standards. Experienced players will be able to spot a game round right away, so why obfuscate it by calling it a cycle? My stomach turned when I got to the table that explained under what conditions fundamental stages like resource production do or don’t happen, and honestly, things didn’t look any better from there. Understanding boundaries and movement has a quantum mechanical feel, as which tokens can cross which boundaries (and how many) depends on a combination of factors, including what combination of tokens are present and whether there are stones on the boundary or not. While this focus on logistics is a nice idea, it represents a readability nightmare in an area control game.

This brings us to the action phase, where players can choose to attack or draw cards from the plunder deck. Attacking seems easy enough: you simply place the attack marker in the region you wish to attack. Instead, it’s another unfortunate combination of interpreting vague rules and deciphering obscure board states. The attacker makes a move to the indicated region, with the ability to pick up but not discard tokens along the way. Then players’ combat strength is calculated by adding their markers in that region to their markers in adjacent regions, excluding those separated by rock barriers, with the secondary exception of those containing Kulon markers. Somewhere down the line, the defender can throw two of the attacker’s water debts into the region to stop the attack, but the timing of that and what to do with it afterward is unclear. If this happens, or if the defender wins, the attacker is free to attack another region or raid instead, but again, the rulebook doesn’t explain what happens to the tokens the attacker moved. I assumed the defender would just get it, but any clarity would be appreciated. Moving on to the Scavenge deck, it’s perhaps the most variance mechanic I’ve seen in a board game. The cards you draw can give you anything from a single resource to an ornithopter that has seven moves and ignores all movement restrictions, making the logistical conundrum of getting the resources you want there obsolete.

Finally, I have to deal with the end of the rulebook, which is chock full of rules that don’t make sense or just make Arrakis seem like a lazy design. First off, there are rules that allow house rules if everyone agrees, which seemed nice to me at first but felt a little fishy after some thought as most games these days don’t need house rules because the design is properly tested and balanced before they are sold to customers. Likewise, there are rules for when players leave the game mid-game. Again, that seems nice, but when people finish your 90-minute game before it’s done enough that you need to make a rule for it, it seems to indicate that there’s a bigger flaw in your balancing, the should be addressed. The rules that really flipped the switch in my head from “that’s a cool idea with some problems” to “Gale Force Nine couldn’t bother to finish their game before they sold it” relate to formal ones alliances. Being in a formalized alliance offers a wealth of benefits, from combat and logistics to simply reducing the number of sietches required to win the game. However, all players must agree to a formal alliance, and the strategy section at the back acknowledges that the other players probably shouldn’t approve of alliances, and suggests that strong incentives and rule changes in each other’s favor might be required to get approval the table. It feels like the designers are saying, “Hey, here’s a cool idea for a game mechanic, why don’t you guys finalize it for us?”

Unfortunately, this feeling pervades the entire game, like Gale Force Nine sending a box full of components and game suggestions in anticipation of customers making their own game out of it.

Arrakis has some good ideas that I would definitely recommend to budding designers or just fans of game design, but there just isn’t a full game attached to them to justify the price.

– Nick Dubs

Nick grew up reading fantasy novels and board game rules for fun, so he accepted early on that he was an idiot. When he’s not busy exploring the intricacies of a hobby he’ll never take up, Nick can be caught trying to either cook an edible meal or befriend some local crows.

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