By Fergus Halliday, a journalist who specialises in consumer technology, games, film and pop culture. He has been published in Gizmodo, Kotaku and Superjump and was previously the editor of PC World Australia.
By the time David Lynch’s take on Dune hit cinemas in 1984, McCarthy had read the book several times over. His passion for the novel even proved to be a handy ice-breaker when it came to a first date with the woman he would later marry.
But where McCarthy’s first aim was easily realised, his second proved to be more of a slow burn. Eventually, he would build a Dune board game. It just wouldn’t be one entirely of his own making.
In 1979, Avalon Hill’s Dune board game hit shelves. Established over two decades, the company was a giant in the war and board gaming world. Famously, it had turned down a young Gary Gygax and his pitch for Dungeons & Dragons only a few years earlier.
While the colourful science fiction setting saw Dune stand out against many of the military-themed wargames that Avalon Hill was known for, the emphasis on strategy and territory control was right in line with other titles in the publisher’s catalogue like Blitzkrieg.
McCarthy managed to snag a copy of this original print run shortly after he graduated from university. It quickly became a staple of his board gaming nights with friends. That he’s held onto that copy, plus both of its expansions, in the decades since is a testament to the qualities that make it such a unique and special game.
For fans like McCarthy, the true beauty of Arrakis is laid bare in the asymmetry of the Dune board game. So many things can happen in a given match that even familiar dynamics can bend towards unexpected outcomes.
Every faction has a different take on the situation and there’s ample room for exploring different approaches and alternative paths to victory. For instance, the Bene Gesserit player can steal victory if they manage to predict the winner (and the specific turn in which they win) in advance and the Spacing Guild wins by default if the game drags on too long with no clear winner.
More than just love of the game though, it was McCarthy’s desire to learn that ultimately drove him to build the world’s first emulator for the Dune board game.
After learning C++ during the mid-90s, McCarthy was looking for a project that could help him learn the limits and capabilities of the Allegro graphics library. By this point, he had been programming games for over a decade. He’d even penned a few of his own Dune text adventures.
“I wanted to program something to learn the package and a board game was an obvious choice as all the design choices are made for you and the graphics could be scanned from the game components so I could concentrate on the implementation,” he said.
The project took about a year to come together, with McCarthy handling all the coding and his sons and friends helping test out the results. Eventually, he had a humble but robust piece of software that could support hot seat, online and email-based play.
According to McCarthy, one of the biggest challenges was building a system that could allow players to play certain cards at any time.
“This made the networking code very complex”, he said before adding that “there are a lot of ambiguities in the original rules, particularly with how the various 'special' rules interact with each other.”
Fortunately, there was a thriving community that could help clarify these things on Yahoo Groups at this time. The contributions of this group, which included both some of Dune’s original designers and the stewards of its competitive community like Brad Johnson, helped inform the way that the first Dune emulator handled the game’s complex ruleset.
As you might expect, they also became its core audience following the release. The Dune Board Game Yahoo Group fast became a nexus for those looking to get their fix through play-by-email and online matches.
McCarthy doesn’t have any metrics for just how many people downloaded and played using the emulator before 2008, but it's still hosted through his old ISP for those who want or need it. He says he was recently contacted by someone trying to use the emulator during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A little bit of port forwarding later, McCarthy was proud to discover that it still worked all these years later. Of course, the legacy of the Dune board game is nothing if not one born from perseverance.
Originally designed by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge and Peter Olotka, this particular adaptation of Frank Herbet’s science fiction novel has an origin story every bit as distinctive as the final product.
After hearing that publisher Avalon Hill had secured the Dune license, three made a play to pitch their take on a Dune board game. The year was 1979 and they were fresh off the critical and commercial success of Cosmic Encounter two years earlier. With one science fiction strategy title under their belt, the team were keen to add another and many of the gameplay ideas introduced in Cosmic Encounter (such as the embrace of social dynamics and asymmetry) would prove just as central to their take on the war for Arrakis.
Nevertheless, they were turned away. It turned out Avalon already had a Dune game in the works. A few weeks later, the publisher called them back. That game wasn’t quite what they were looking for and they wanted to know if the trio still wanted to give it a crack. The rest is history.
Commercially, the Dune board game was a success. However, its fortunes were largely pinned to those of the wider cultural fascination with Frank Herbert’s work at the time. And as Dune mania faded in the years following the release of David’ Lynch’s film in 1984 and Frank Herbert’s death in 1986, sales quickly dried up.
Through this dark age, Dune’s board gaming community endured. The same Brad Johnson who helped McCarthy build his emulator was keeping the competitive scene around the game alive through events like the World Boardgaming Championships.
In 1997, Hasbro acquired Avalon Hill. Eberle heard that the company might be interested in republishing Dune, but that hope proved to be short-lived. The licensing rights had reverted to the Herbert estate and so the revival was a no-go.
Over two decades later, a new publisher got ahold of the license. Based in Virginia and owned by New Zealand’s Battlefront Miniatures group, Gale Force Nine got its start producing components and models for games like MechWarrior: Dark Age. Eventually, it grew to the size where it could start publishing its own titles. In 2018, the company seized the opportunity to get its hands on the Dune license.
With a new film directed by Dennis Villeneuve on the horizon, the original trio of Dune designers (now operating under the name Future Pastimes) decided to reach out. They didn’t get very far. It was the Hasbro situation all over again.
Fortunately, history repeated itself. The publisher approached them with an offer instead. It turned out that one of the company's founders had been a huge fan of the original Dune board game in college. When fate handed them the opportunity to bring more Dune board games into the world, they decided to try and make their first such release a reprinting of the original.
That reprinting arrived in 2019, featuring fresh new art penned by illustrator Ilya Baranovsky. Baranovksy’s print-and-play reskin of the game had already become popular among longtime fans, so Gale Force Nine approached him to license it and speed up the process of bringing the reprint to market.
This version of Dune was a faithful revision of the original, with a new quick-start guide and a few minor tweaks informed by the competitive community around the game. Specifically, Eberle says that the biggest change was an outright endorsement of elements like bribery.
While the setting of Frank Herbert’s Dune and the social dynamics of a board game like this one present ripe conditions for players to play and pay off one another, the question of whether that actually makes for a better or more interesting and enjoyable experience is something that the three original designers struggled with for a long time.
Ultimately, the most diehard Dune fans settled the issue.
Despite this second life (and that of Dune in general following the release of Villeneuve’s film), the resurrected Dune board game has yet to receive any sort of digital adaptation beyond unofficial emulation projects like that of McCarthy and the likes of Tabletop Simulator.
Released in 2015 following a crowdfunding campaign the year prior, Tabletop Simulator is a physics simulation game that allows you to replicate the experience of a traditional board game in a virtual setting without spending a cent past what it costs to acquire a copy of the game for each player.
As popular as it has proved (especially during the pandemic) it should be said that Tabletop Simulator has a complicated relationship with the games that it is used to play. Fans spend hundreds of hours building out complex simulators that allow them to easily pick up and play games like Dune in a way that’s sometimes more convenient than the alternative.
In contrast to McCarthy’s emulator, they don’t even need to own their own copy of the game and rules to make sense of it. In many respects, Tabletop Simulator renders the original Dune emulator obsolete.
Asked about his feelings on the fan-led efforts to take Dune online, designer Peter Olotka is supportive but notes that he didn’t always feel that way.
As for whether an official adaptation of the Dune board game could ever replace it, Eberle is the first to call it a great idea but admitted that it is also one that Future Pastimes has a limited capacity to realise. While the trio have a desire to be involved or advise on a digital adaptation of Dune, the bulk of the work that’d be involved in getting a project like that off the ground probably wouldn’t be done by them.
“That license is available. There is interest in doing the board game as it exists now as a digital product, so I’m just hoping that deal gets made,” Eberle said.
“We’d love to have a digital game. It lends itself well to it. I think it’d be a big success but none of us have the skills to do that or training or whatever,” Olotka added.
These days, McCarthy’s emulator has largely been replaced by the likes of Treachery.online. It’s a more modern spin on the play-by-email software of the early 2000s developed by a Dutch coder named Ronald Ossendrijver.
Like McCarthy, Ossendrijver was exposed to Dune in his 20s. In 2019, a friend introduced him to the re-issue of the board game. It fast became a favourite.
A desire to get his fix of the Dune board game during the pandemic ultimately drove Ossendrijver to develop an online version of the board game. Like McCarthy, he developed his emulator alone but got plenty of feedback from friends.
Ossendrijver admits that he ran into McCarthy’s emulator sometime after starting work on his own, but that it didn’t influence his approach. That said, he ran into some pretty familiar issues when it came to the many exceptions to the basic rules of the board game.
Personally, Ossendrijver says that implementing an AI-controlled opponent in Treachery.online was the hardest part as “Dune is a complicated game that involves bluffing, long time planning, getting in other people's minds.”
Perhaps the bigger issue is that bots can hardly replace the sense of performance that a game of Dune evokes. Players have a script comprised of cards, actions and tokens, and the real magic of the game lies in the way they bring their roles to life.
“Our games are plays,” Eberle confesses.
“They are theatre experiences where the people in the audience, the people doing the play and the people making the play happen are all the same people.”
Of course, for this recipe to yield anything of interest, you need a little bit of drama to spice things up. Fortunately, Eberle says that nothing creates drama like inequality.
“That’s the spark that we first caught in Cosmic Encounter. The group will balance it if they’re motivated to and nothing motivates them more than unbridled power.”
Every game of the Dune board game has its heroes, villains, staunch alliances and great betrayals. That quality is tricky to translate from a physical setting into a digital one, but the zeal and loyalty of those converted to the cause of this cult classic is such that they’ll try to do so all the same.