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Board game riding on popularity of ‘Dune’ franchise

Imperium creators: ‘It was very much a passion project’

By John Wenzel, The Denver Post
Published: March 9, 2024, 5:56am

DENVER — In “Dune: Part 2,” Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) rallies the Fremen people against the oppressive House Harkonnen, leading to an epic clash that unites characters from across the galaxy that author Frank Herbert first visited in his 1965 science-fiction novel “Dune.”

Director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, which opened last week, is a complex portrait of a people at war that has already garnered widespread critical acclaim. Naturally, any game that’s officially tied to it must echo that sense of scale and entanglement — particularly if it’s retailing at $60 — to be worthy of the name.

“I’ll take the games home and play with family, but I’m not a hardcore gamer myself,” said Scott Martins, founder and president of the Denver-based gaming company Dire Wolf. “I play well enough, but not as good as these guys who are tearing apart the game.”

Those hardcore gamers, who are part of the tabletop-gaming world (think Dungeons & Dragons, Settlers of Catan and other role-playing classics) drove sales at Dire Wolf to new heights during the pandemic.

The company’s official Dune: Imperium game was released in November 2020, ahead of the first “Dune” movie in 2021. The latest version, Uprising, came out in November 2023, a few months ahead of the “Dune: Part 2” release. That’s made Dire Wolf the first company in 40 years to release a new Dune game.

“It’s still a hobby board game — it’s not Settlers of Catan or even Monopoly — but it’s done very well,” Martins said from Dire Wolf’s Capitol Hill offices. “It’s been up there in terms of acclaim since it came out.”

“I was a little nervous the first time we went into a meeting about it,” said Paul Dennen, Dire Wolf’s creative director and the designer of the Dune games. “I was worried I wasn’t a big enough fan when this guy was correcting me on my Frank Herbert-isms.

“But Denis (Villeneuve) didn’t stick to all the pronunciations intended for these words,” he said. “Denis changed the story for his medium, which I think is smart, and we’re allowed to interpret that for our board game.”

Cut to a couple of weeks ago, when “Dune” movie producer Legendary Entertainment flew Martins and Dennen from Denver to Burbank, Calif., to screen “Dune: Part 2.” (Martins called it “the best day of work in my life.”)

It was justified. Dune: Imperium is a colorful, cleanly designed game that delves into deck-building — although not the same kind familiar to players of Pokémon or Magic: The Gathering. Players in Dune: Imperium draw cards, engage in combat, manage factions, gather resources and place virtual workers as they battle for victory points.

Reviewers and players have praised its accessibility and single-player mode, watching the game evolve from the base version to expansions and, timed to the release of “Dune: Part 2,” the new Dune Imperium: Uprising, which can work as a standalone game but also plays nicely with the base game and expansions.

‘Blue-collar work ethic’

Martins and Dennen have plenty of digital-gaming experience, having worked together since their time at Sony Online Entertainment in the mid-2000s. But Dire Wolf didn’t release its first tabletop game (the cult hit Clank!) until 2016, about six years after the company was founded. Taking on the Dune franchise required a “blue-collar work ethic,” Martins and Dennen said, and a whole other level of trust as dozens of Dire Wolf workers were separated during the pandemic.

“At the start, it was very much a passion project, and there was no expectation that it would do as well as it has,” Martins said.

Now that the game has racked up international awards and spawned its own live-playing events, Dire Wolf, which counts about 80 employees, is looking to carefully move forward into more digital adaptations of its games.

“I love European games because they’re very mechanical-oriented, but they tend to have thin themes and immersion,” Dennen said. “And I like those old-school, dice-chucking games, too. But I want to bring high excitement to game design. We’re not afraid of randomness to get thrown in so players have to deal with chaos. We’re super-fans of Dune and think these extreme situations lead to a lot of replay value.”

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