To attempt an understanding of Muad’dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing the Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.
– From “Manual of Muad’dib” by the Princess Irulan
In our last Design Diary, we covered the main mechanics featured in Dune: War for Arrakis (you can read it here). In today's Design Diary, we will explore the main differences, in terms of gameplay and available resources, between the two opposing factions: the Atreides and the Harkonnens.
Let us begin with Dune’s quintessential villains (a definition they would certainly not agree with), the alliance formed by House Harkonnen and the Imperial rulers of House Corrino. Recently returned to full control of the planet thanks to the support of the Imperial Sardaukar, having killed Duke Leto, captured his Mentat Thufir Hawat, and seemingly exterminated all remaining Atreides, the Harkonnens apparently have no rivals left. Only a few Fremen tribes remain to oppose them.
The Fremen are proud, fierce rebels gathered in various hidden communities scattered across the desert (called Sietches), whose true military strength remains unknown. Now that the locations of the last eight rebel Sietches have finally been discovered, the Harkonnen's objective is to conquer them one by one and crush any remaining opposition, while ensuring that the flow of Spice to the major powers of the Imperium, the CHOAM, the Landsraad, and the Spacing Guild, remains plentiful and steady.
The Harkonnen player scores points by conquering as many Sietches as possible, moving their legions through a hostile environment. They don’t know the true extent of the enemy's forces but rely on a strong initial superiority of assets and troops. The Harkonnens’ style of play is ruthless, having at their disposal more legions at the beginning of the game, more Action Dice, and Ornithopters for fast movement of their troops.
However, to maintain supremacy over their opponent, the Harkonnens will also have to wisely manage the gathering of Spice, through the careful positioning of Harvesters and Carryalls across the game board. Failure to meet the periodic Spice quota will cause relations with the Imperium powers to deteriorate, reducing the Action Dice available in subsequent rounds and thus gradually reducing the Harkonnens’ initial advantage.
On the other hand, the Atreides player follows a very different, and at times unpredictable, style of play. Lady Jessica, the Duke’s concubine; and her son Paul, heir to the House Atreides; have taken refuge with the Fremen, with whom they have found formidable allies. In the face of the sheer military superiority of the Harkonnens, the Fremen possess subtle advantages given by two main factors.
The first is secrecy. They can hide the true size of their legions until the very last moment, leading the opponent to dangerous mistakes in their tactics.
The second is the desert itself. Having adapted for generations to the inhospitable conditions of Arrakis, the Fremen are able to rely on its unforgiving ecology to their advantage, using Wormsign to move quickly around the game board and to make the colossal Sandworms appear, causing them to unleash devastating attacks on enemy legions.
Unlike the Harkonnens, the Atreides player can score points in a variety of ways, from conquering opposing settlements or ecological testing stations to raiding enemy Harvesters, but mostly by acquiring Prescience cards by fulfilling the prophecies contained therein. However, having far fewer Action Dice at their disposal than the Harkonnen player, the Atreides compensate for this increased flexibility by having to devote more attention to the economy of their resources, deciding whether to focus on military expansion or achieving the goals set by the Prescience cards.
By scoring points, the Atreides player will also gain various improvements, such as new leaders or upgraded versions of existing ones, increasingly undermining the Harkonnen's supremacy in a climax that will lead either to glorious victory or to utter defeat.
Alongside these asymmetrical mechanics, a randomized setup and several other factors will make each game different from the previous one, tempting players to try different tactics each time and to swap roles for completely different game experiences. Which side will you choose in your first game of Dune: War for Arrakis?