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Friday, 20 January 2023

Friday Filler: Dune: Betrayal

The social deduction game drawn from the parlour game, Murder in the Dark and the classic Russian game, Mafia, has become a fixed staple and genre of the board gaming hobby. This type of game is typically played between two teams, one hidden, one not. The smaller hidden team consist of the murderers or the traitors, whilst the larger team—amongst which the smaller team hides—consist of their victims, the ones they are going to betray or murder. It is up to the larger team to identify the murderers or traitors, as the latter try to keep their identities hidden whilst also undermining or murdering the members of the larger group. The genre reached its peak with the release in 2010 of Indie Boards and Cards’ The Resistance: A Game of Secret Identities, Deduction, and Deception, and Breaking Games’ Secret Hitler in 2016. Although, there were many releases in the genre, it is not as popular as it once was, however, this does not mean that the occasional entry in the genre is being released, such as Dune: Betrayal from Gale Force Nine.

Dune: Betrayal is a social deduction game based on the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert and the more recent film directed by Denis Villeneuve. Both universe and story of Dune are absolutely perfect for social deduction, especially one involving betrayal as the main characters in the book are betrayed from within and all but destroyed by a rival noble house. Designed for between four and eight players, aged fourteen and up, Dune: Betrayal casts the players as Nobles and Fighters of honourable House Atreides and heartless House Harkonnen. House Atreides has been awarded the fiefdom of Arrakis by the Emperor, but House Harkonnen, in connivance with the Emperor, is planning to retake and destroy House Atreides in the process. Dune: Betrayal is game of secret identities in which House Harkonnen is planning to attack House Atreides. If House Harkonnen can identify the members of House Atreides, it will greatly help in its attack and so win the game for the House Harkonnen team, but if House Atreides can identify the members of House Harkonnen, it will greatly aid in its defence and so win the game for the House Atreides team.

The game consists of a small Scoring Board, which tracks both the seesaw movement of the scoring to House Harkonnen and back again to House Atreides, and so on, five different sets of Cards, and nine tokens. The different sets of Cards consist of eight Identity Cards (four Atreides and four Harkonnen), twenty-four 24 Trait Cards (eight Atreides, eight Harkonnen, and eight Fighter), sixteen Target Cards (eight Attack and eight Defend), thirty Action Cards, and eight Reference Cards. Each Identity Card gives the character’s name, rank—noble or fighter, three scoring Sigils, and Special Attribute. The Sigils are Atreides, Harkonnen, All Nobles, All Fighters, and All Players. The core characters for the four-player game are Baron Harkonnen (Harkonnen Noble), Trooper (Harkonnen Fighter), Duke Leto Atreides (Atreides Noble), and Duncan Idaho (Atreides Fighter). Expanding the game from five to eight players adds more Nobles and Fighters from each side, as well as more characters from Dune.

The Trait Cards are marked Atreides, Harkonnen, or Fighter. Each player will have two in play, matching the identity of his character. Thus, Duke Leto Atreides will have the Atreides and Noble Trait Cards, whereas the Harkonnen Fighter has the Harkonnen and Fighter trait Cards. The Attack and Defend are used to target another player. Ideally, Attack Cards should be played on enemies as this will lose a player points. The Action Cards vary in effect, but all are inspired by Dune and illustrated with stills from the film. Each is marked with a Sigil matching those on the Identity Cards— Atreides, Harkonnen, All Nobles, All Fighters, and All Players. Action Cards can be played immediately, as interrupts against other Action Card, and in the first, second, or either of the two Targeting rounds. For example, the ‘Ornithopter Escape’ Card is marked with an All Fighters Sigil and acts as an interrupt to prevent another player targeting you, forcing him to either target another player or disCard the Action Card played. The ‘Harkonnen Probe Ship’ Card has the Harkonnen Sigil and enables the player to view another player’s Trait Card. ‘Mind Breaker’ has the Atreides Sigil and enables a player to view another player’s Trait if it is Shielded. Any player can draw and use an Action Card, but if the Sigil on the Action Card matches a Sigil on either of a player’s Trait Cards, they will score him points at the end of the game. However, if a player picks Action Cards based on Sigil too explicitly, then that may possibly indicate his Trait Cards and thus his identity for the other players.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives an Identity Card and Trait Cards for the Identity. These are placed face down. The identity is kept secret. Three Action Cards are drawn and placed in the middle of the table. As is standard in social deduction games, some information is initially revealed to the players, or in this case, Baron Harkonnen, who starts the game knowing who the Harkonnen Fighters are and thus who the Atreides characters are—but not which of them is the Noble or the Fighter.

Dune: Betrayal is played out in six rounds—three Action rounds, two Targeting rounds, and one Battle round. In the Action rounds, the players take it in turns selecting and playing Action Cards. The aim here is play them on the Traits of the other players and in the process reveal them, thus giving clues as to a player’s Identity. Once one player has learned a player’s Trait, that Trait Card is turned sideways to indicate that it is Shielded. A Shielded Trait can only be viewed by the ‘Mind Breaker’ Action Card. Obviously, a player will be able to learn whether the targeted player is a Fighter or a Noble, or an Atreides or Harkonnen. In addition, certain Action Cards, ‘Atreides Sigil’ and ‘Master of Assassins’, enable a player to target rival players with two types of tokens—Atreides Sigil and Assassin Tokens. Atreides Sigil Token are played on your house to protect it, Assassin Tokens on a rival player to attack it. Points scored at the end of the game for playing the Tokens varies and depends upon whether the player is Harkonnen or Atreides.

In the two Targeting rounds, players take it in turns to play their Attack and Defend cards. These are placed face down on a rival player’s Identity Card. The aim here is for the player to attack his enemies as they will lose points—especially Nobles, and Atreides Nobles in particular. In the Battle round, Identities are revealed and points are scored for Attack and Defend Cards, Tokens, and Action Cards. The team with the greatest number of points wins.

Physically, Dune: Betrayal is reasonably well presented. The rules are clearly written with explanations of how the game should be played and examples of the scoring system at the end of the game. The latter is needed as it is the most complex part of the game. Good use is made of illustrations from the film to match the Action Cards and give Dune: Betrayal much of its flavour and feel. Even then that flavour and feel is not very much. The card stock is slightly thin and may not stand up to too much handling without card sleeves.

Throughout the rules for Dune: Betrayal there are strategy notes, which primarily encourage the players to discuss with each other what they will have discovered, not necessarily explicitly or even truthfully! Thus they can lie. Plus, of course, the players do need to keep an eye on what their rivals are doing as that will potentially give them clues too. However, the game and its play feels underwhelming, especially in relation to Dune as a setting, with the keeping of Identities secret meaning that the players can only reference the characters in the film in an oblique way rather than fully roleplaying them. A much longer, and more detailed game would allow for that, most obviously with the classic Dune board game published in by Avalon Hill in 1979 and again by Gale Force Nine in 2019. Nor do any of the characters have any real special abilities that might have again added some flavour or feel to the game. Although play is quick, it does not feel it, and the play and thus the social interaction of the game is not working with very much—the Traits and the Action Cards played—in an attempt to reveal very little. So there is little for the players to build on.

There is still scope for a good social deductive game based on Dune, but unfortunately, Dune: Betrayal is not it. It is not interesting enough and it does not make interesting use of the Dune franchise. There are still good social deductive games available—the aforementioned The Resistance and Killing Hitler—are excellent examples and still very playable. There is even another game from Indie Boards and Cards, Coup, published in 2012, which might better have suited the Dune universe, certainly its artwork was reminiscent of Dune as a setting. Dune: Betrayal is at best, a game for the Dune fan to try, but even then, they should be looking at the more recent reprint of Dune and then Dune: Imperium, for a better, more thematic and interesting play experience.

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