GeekDad: Announcing the 2021 GeekDad Game of the Year


In November, we announced our finalists for the 2021 GeekDad Game of the Year. This past week, we got our panel of judges together (virtually again this year) to play through all ten finalists on Tabletop Simulator and Vorpal Board. Each of us really loves the titles that we designated as GeekDad Approved, and spent time sharing what we loved about these games with each other—but it’s still always a tough decision to narrow it down to a single title, especially with the broad range of game genres and themes represented.

After much deliberation, we’re happy to announce our Game of Year for 2021: Dune: Imperium, designed by Paul Dennen, with art by Clay Brooks, Raul Ramos, and Nate Storm, and published by Dire Wolf.

In the five years we’ve been awarding Game of the Year, Paul Dennen has become the first designer to win twice, as he also designed our 2017 winner Clank! In Space!Congratulations to Paul, Caly, Raul, Nate, and the entire team at Dire Wolf.

Anyway, you can read Paul’s original review here, and keep reading to see what we had to say about it.

Paul Atreides combats the Beast Rabban. Image by Paul Benson.

Paul Benson

Sometimes, though not as often as we’d like, a game comes along that just fires on all cylinders. The design and theme mesh perfectly, creating a gaming experience that keeps you coming back for more. For me, Dune: Imperium reaches that highly rarefied height.

Being both a fan of the Dune franchise as well as Paul Dennen’s Clank! series of games, I was both excited and nervous to try this one out. While there are some excellent board games based on licensed franchises, unfortunately the vast majority of them are mediocre at best and unplayable at worst.

When I received my review copy, we were still in lockdown, and there was not yet a way to play the game online. And so, my first game was a solo game. The solo mode turned out to be highly enjoyable, and also served to whet my appetite to play in person.

Once I was able to play with other people, I knew for certain that I had something special on my game table. Everyone that I introduced to Dune: Imperium was instantly hooked by the elegant balance of worker placement, deck building, and resource management. And it didn’t matter whether they were big fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or had never read a single Dune book or watched the movies or TV miniseries. The theme enhances the experience for fans, but in no way becomes a barrier to gameplay.

As I reviewed other board games throughout the year, Dune: Imperium was the game that I kept pulling off the shelf to play whenever I had the opportunity. Most of my playthroughs have been very close matches, and have produced many memorable moments.  

If I lose a game of Dune: Imperium (and I did lose two games back to back against my fellow GeekDads), I still have a great time. It only makes me want to turn around and play another match, so that I can try out different strategies. And when you can enjoy a game even when coming in last place, you know that’s just one more sign that a game like Dune: Imperium is worthy of Game of the Year.

Rob Huddleston

I’m not a fan of Dune, the franchise. I don’t dislike it, and I definitely enjoyed the movie, but I’ve never been able to get into the books. So I’ll admit that it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I began our initial play-through of the game.

About halfway through, when it was someone else’s turn, I added the game to my Amazon wishlist.

One of the things that makes the game truly great is that it doesn’t rely on a deep knowledge of the lore of Dune. My knowledge of the universe didn’t extend past whatever I remember from seeing the movie, but I was never lost. Are there perhaps references that I don’t fully appreciate? Sure. Am I probably pronouncing things wrong in my head? Almost certainly. Did either of those in any way reduce my enjoyment of the game? Not in the slightest.

It definitely helps that it incorporates one of my favorite boardgame mechanics–deck building. But Dune: Imperium isn’t a deck builder. Rather, it integrates deck building into a bigger game that also includes elements of worker placement (which is, arguably, the game’s primary mechanic) and resource management. (And knowing enough about Dune to know why water is scarce didn’t make it any less frustrating when I could never seem to get the water I needed.)

This isn’t a lightweight game that you’re going to pull out with your friends who you are trying to get to start playing modern boardgames. It’s certainly the heaviest of the games we’ve awarded Game of the Year within the last several years. But it’s not so heavy as to be intimidating to most players. I’m very confident that my family is going to enjoy it. 

We are, of course, GeekDad, and so recognizing games that are family-friendly is important to us. Of course you aren’t going to be playing Dune: Imperium with your very small kids, but the publisher-recommended minimum age of 14 is probably higher than the real lower limit. I would have been playing this game with my kids when they were 10 or so. (Remember that those minimum ages on boxes have more to do with safety considerations than playability.) 

I’m excited to get my own copy of Dune: Imperium so I can start playing it. And I have little doubt that I’ll only be starting to play, as I think this very deserving winner is going to become a staple of our game nights for years to come. 

The GeekDads playing Dune on Tabletop Simulator. Image by Paul Benson.

Michael Knight

This year was a tough one for determining Game of the Year. Just narrowing down the finalists to a list of ten was difficult. When Dune: Imperium was released earlier this year, I was not really interested in it. I was not familiar with the story and did not know much about the game. However, after I saw the recently released movie Dune, and got a taste of the story, I wanted to learn more and to play Dune: Imperium.

At first, I was skeptical. Games with movie tie-ins are not always the greatest. Often the theme takes precedence over gameplay and mechanics. Yet, as I read the rules and learned how to play the game, I was impressed with what I saw. I really enjoy deck-building games and am a big fan of Thunderstone Quest. Since Dune: Imperium combines deck-building with worker placement, another mechanic I enjoy, my curiosity had been piqued and I looked forward to giving it a try.

Right from the start, as we were picking from the 8 different leaders, I was impressed that each leader had two unique abilities. These abilities reward a player for pursuing a style of play that fits that character. Some focus on military conflict, others on gathering resources or diplomacy with the four factions. That alone provides increased replayability as well as illustrates there is more than one way to win. As I played the game, I came to realize that resource management was also important. Not surprisingly, since the planet on which you play is a vast desert, water is a very limited resource. Gaining water opens up additional and better opportunities. 

I really enjoy playing Dune: Imperium. It does a masterful job of combining deck-building with worker placement. I like the challenge of having to balance gathering resources, selling resources, gaining influence with the factions, and winning conflicts. Yet players are not overwhelmed with choices. I also liked that the gameplay fit perfectly with the theme and story. Yet, players unfamiliar with the story of Dune can still enjoy this game. For all of these reasons, Dune: Imperium truly deserves to be named GeekDad Game of the Year.

Jonathan Liu

Like Rob and Michael, I was not invested in the world of Dune prior to playing Dune: Imperium—and I haven’t even seen the movie, so all I know is basically what I’ve picked up through general cultural osmosis over the years. But I’d agree that you don’t need to know the story of Dune to enjoy the game, any more than a sci-fi game that wasn’t based on an existing property. Mostly you can pick up enough from the gameplay: water is scarce, spice is worth money, and there are four powerful factions that you’d love to win favor with.

I’d already been a huge fan of Paul Dennen’s Clank!, which did some fun things with deck-building that I hadn’t seen before, and I was eager to see how he used the mechanic in this setting. What’s new this time is the way that players take turns playing a single card from their hands (not unheard of in deck-building, but uncommon)—the cards determine where you can send your worker and also may give you additional effects. The other new feature, which leads to some really tough choices, is that the cards you don’t play will have effects as well. Throughout the game, you’ll have to make trade-offs: do I send a worker to harvest some more spice, or do I save this card so I can acquire that Opulence card from the market?

To win the game, though, you can’t just focus on building up your deck—you have to manage your resources (particularly water!), and you’ll score points by winning conflicts and gaining influence in the various factions. Another thing I liked is that there can be a tug-of-war between players for the alliances, so sometimes points will change hands in the course of the game. Overall, the game uses its mechanics to set up an intense struggle for control, and players are forced to vie for the limited spaces and resources to succeed. It’s designed for players who love some head-to-head conflict, and the intrigue cards can result in some exciting turnabouts.

I’ll probably be able to play Dune: Imperium with my teenage daughter, but may have to wait a little bit longer before my third grader is ready for it. However, I think it’ll also be a hit with a lot of my game night friends … once I’m able to have people over again!

Once again, congrats to the Dune: Imperium team, and cheers for all of our Game of the Year finalists for a roster of fantastic games!

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