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The game was originally designed with a Roman Empire theme, with the name Tribute. Avalon Hill had acquired the license to produce a Dune game, and contacted Eberle, Kittredge and Olotka when their own design proved unusable. Elements suitable for the Dune universe were added to the game, particularly from their earlier game, Cosmic Encounter.
In 1984, to tie in with the Dune film, Avalon Hill published a second edition of the game as well as two expansions, Spice Harvest and The Duel.
The Spice Harvest expansion changes the initial setup of the standard game by adding a pre-game in which the factions lobby for control of the intergalactic Spice market in order to purchase a more advantageous initial position for the start of the main game (control for the planet of Arrakis).
The Duel adds "leader tokens" representing the primary leaders of each faction and a secondary board representing a circular arena for one-on-one combat. Leaders may fight individual combat using a special deck of cards for movement and attacks.
Both supplements included additional Treachery Cards. Both supplements are also incorporated into the French edition published by Jeux Descartes.
In addition, Avalon Hill's strategy magazines, The General and Heroes, published counters and rules for three additional factions: the Bene Tleilax, the Ixians, and the Landsraad, factions/organizations appearing in Frank Herbert's original novels.
In 2007, a third edition of the game was announced by Fantasy Flight Games. However, Fantasy Flight Gamescould not acquire the Dune license, so the game will be re-themed, placing it in the Twilight Imperium universe. Peter Olotka says Fantasy Flight Games will release it in 2010.
Players take on the role of one of the power groups in the politics of the planet Arrakis. The game board, which represents the planet, is split into a number of territories, some of which are strongholds. Players move their units from territory to territory, and if two or more players enter the same territory, the contest is resolved using a hidden bidding system. Once one player, or an alliance of players, controls enough of the strongholds, they are the winner.
The board is also divided into radial sections, and the planet's permanent storm moves along those sections, destroying any troops in its path. Each turn, one territory undergoes "spice blow", which places an amount of spice in that territory.
An auction is held each turn in which players can purchase "treachery cards" - for example weapons (lasers or poisons) and defenses, which can be used later in combat.
Each player has five leader tokens of varying strengths. Leaders are used in combat to supplement the strength of their units. However, each player has a traitor among the other players' leaders, so using leaders can be a risk. Leaders can be killed in combat, but players may use spice to buy dead leaders back from the Bene Tleilaxu tanks.
When a territory is contested, each player in the contest chooses in secret to sacrifice a number of their troops in that territory. Each unit sacrificed gives them a base score of one. Leader tokens add to the strength of their side, provided it survives the attack by the opposing leader. Attacks and defenses affecting leaders are chosen in secret by the players from their available treachery cards.
Once both players have chosen their strategies, they reveal the number of units, leaders and items used. If the player has chosen their opponent's traitor, they are defeated. Otherwise, if a player has used a weapon against which the other player has not used a defense, their opponent's leader is killed. If a laser is used against a shield, all units and leaders are killed from both sides. Otherwise, the scores are then added together, and the player with the lower score is defeated. The player with the higher score, while victorious, still must lose the number of units they planned in their strategy.
Each faction has unique powers which modify the rules. Both the default abilities and the optional "Additional Character Advantages" are included below.
- House Atreides
- In many cases when bids are performed blind, the Atreides player may use "prescience" to view the object of the bidding. The Atreides player may also use prescience to look at the next spice blow card, and force their opponents to reveal one element of their battle plan in battle.
- The Bene Gesserit
- The Bene Gesserit player may "coexist" with other players' units without causing a confrontation, and may command other players to use or not to use certain cards during combat (representing their use of "the Voice"). At the beginning of the game the Bene Gesserit player secretly records the name of another player and the turn at which they think that other player will win the game. If the Bene Gesserit correctly guesses who will win and when, they win the game instead.
- The Emperor
- The Emperor has five elite units (Sardaukar) that are twice as effective as ordinary units, although they lose this bonus against the Fremen. When the other players buy treachery cards, they pay the Emperor.
- The Fremen
- The Fremen have three elite units, move faster on the board, and only suffer half losses from the storm, which they can predict the movement of. As their armies are already on Arrakis, they need not pay shipping costs to the Guild. Their troops are not killed if a worm appears; instead, they can ride the worm to a location of their choice. If no-one has won after fifteen turns and certain strongholds are either unoccupied or occupied by the Fremen, they win.
- The Spacing Guild
- The Guild player receives the payment when other players transport units onto the board, while paying only half for transporting themselves. They can ship units around the planet, or even send them back to their reserves. They can choose to take their turn at any point during a turn. If no-one has won after fifteen turns, and the Fremen don't win, the Guild does.
- House Harkonnen
- When the Harkonnen player buys a treachery card, they receive a second one free, and they can hold twice as many. Where the other players have one traitor, they have many. Whenever they win a battle, they may kill or temporarily capture a random leader from the loser.
Each faction also grants some aspect of their powers to their allies.
A faction or alliance of factions wins by controlling three of the five strongholds at the end of a turn. In a game with only two factions the winning faction must control four strongholds. In a recommended "longer game" variant a faction or alliance of factions must control four strongholds, or all five in a game with only two factions.
Many players adhere to a "house rule" in which unallied factions can win by controlling three strongholds but alliances of two or more factions must control four strongholds in order to win. This win condition does not appear in the official rules.
Three other winning conditions exist:
- The Fremen win at the end of turn 15 (the final round of game play) if no faction has won the game by the normal criteria and the occupancy of certain strongholds meets certain constraints. This win condition represents a situation where the Fremen have prevented interference with their own plans for Dune.
- The Guild wins if, at the end of turn 15, no faction has won via the conventional win, and the Fremen win conditions are not met. This win condition represents the situation where the Guild has preserved the status quo on Dune and may continue to provide shipping services.
- The Bene Gesserit win if, after a faction or alliance has succeeded in a conventional win, they reveal that they predicted (prior to the game's start) that that faction would win in that turn. The Bene Gesserit need only predict one of the winning players in the event of an alliance win. If the Bene Gesserit cause their own alliance to win in the turn that they predicted one of their allies would win, then the Bene Gesserit alone win. This win condition represents the situation where the Bene Gesserit have manipulated the situation so that their hidden agenda is fulfilled.
The Bene Gesserit cannot predict the Fremen or Guild turn 15 default wins. However they may predict that the Fremen or the Guild will win in turn 15 by the normal majority stronghold occupancy criteria.