The story of Dune takes place in the far future. 2025 or something. By this time, Kickstarter is the only place to buy board games. Everything is KS exclusive and campaigns last one minute and thirty seconds. Microtransactions have been jammed into board gaming and are now the norm. Not surprisingly, all games are Dune-themed. It’s been this way since 2020.
Dune Betrayal is a hidden role, a social deduction game for four to eight players. Games last between twenty and forty minutes, depending on player count.
In Dune Betrayal, each player is given a hidden identity which either puts them in House Atreides or Harkonnen. Depending on player count, each house will include one or more fighters and one or more nobles. Based on their identity, players will take two trait cards and place them face down in front of them. When combined, these trait cards reveal that a player is either a fighter for one of the two houses or that they are a noble for either house. Nobles are especially important because they have the potential to lose the most points when targeted. Scoring works in a tug-of-war fashion which I will explain later.
Over the course of three action rounds, players will attempt to gain information about the identities of other players, then the last two rounds (targeting rounds) are used to play attack/defend cards onto other players.
During the action rounds, in clockwise order starting with the dealer, each player will draft one of the available face-up action cards. These cards either have immediate effects, such as viewing another player’s trait, or they may give you powers during the targeting rounds. When a player’s trait card is viewed, it is then turned sideways to indicate that it is shielded and cannot be viewed without a specific action card. Action cards also contain sigil symbols that may match the sigil symbols on a player’s identity card. This will come up again in scoring.
After each player has taken three action cards, there will be two targeting rounds. During these rounds, each player will play either their attack or defend cards face down on another player’s identity card. All players will play one attack and one defend by the end of the two targeting rounds.
The game ends with the battle round, which is essentially just tallying up the scores. Each player will move a shared battle marker on the board either left (Harkonnen) or right (Atreides), depending on a number of factors. First, they score 1 point for their side for each action card they have with a sigil that matches any of the three sigils on their identity card for a max of three points. Then, players gain or lose points based on any tokens that were given to them by other players. Finally, target cards are scored. Harkonnen nobles lose 1 point for each attack card received. Atreides nobles lose 2 points for each attack card received. Fighters lose 1 point for each attack card received, but ignore any attacks after the first. Finally, each player gains one point for their side for each defense card received. Whichever side the battle tokens ends on after all players have scored, wins the game.
Let’s address the sandworm in the room. This is a hidden role game designed by the same designer who made The Resistance/Resistance Avalon, Don Eskridge. He’s had a few games since, but Resistance put him on the map. Released in 2009, it’s still well regarded as the gold standard for social deduction games. Dune Betrayal starts with a similar foundation of hidden roles, but changes the way information is gleaned and what is done with that information.
The first thing that stands out are the rules. They shouldn’t be a problem in a game like this. Dune Betrayal has 11 half pages of rules, riddled with various rules that require reference cards because they aren’t intuitive. However, they only included 4 of each reference card. That’s enough to cover the minimum player count. This should be a simple game, but the rules made it feel more complicated. Teaching this game caused more confusion than teaching any other social deduction game I’ve played.
For the most part, special abilities are non-existent here. The Harkonnen nobles get to know who their fighters are, but beyond that, everyone’s character works the same way. This also means that things don’t change much from game to game. In werewolf terms, everyone is a villager every game. There’s no added glee from being Merlin, Percival, Morgana, etc… (as in Resistance Avalon).
The action deck is a good idea in theory. This can help differentiate the experience between players and between games. However, of the 30 action cards, there are only 10 unique cards. That means you’ll see repeat after repeat. Since there can’t be two of the same card out at once, I was discarding and redrawing more often than I wanted.
I played this game with several social deduction veterans who cut their teeth on Werewolf, Resistance, etc… Still, the gameplay felt a bit arbitrary. There was not much direction in terms of what to share with whom and when. This led to less talking, accusing, lying, and arguing than what you’d expect. Furthermore, this game did not have any shocking reveals, tension, or betrayal as the namesake might suggest. By the targeting round, several players felt like they were taking a shot in the dark when playing their attack and defend cards. With games like this, I expect most to grasp it pretty quickly.
That’s the game at the higher ends of the player count range (6, 7, and 8). With less, it’s hardly a game. It becomes obvious who is whom within a couple of action rounds. All that’s left is to see who took the most action cards with matching sigil. That’s not interesting, and I don’t think they should have jammed more player counts in.
We talked about The Resistance at the start of this section, but what came to mind more during my plays of this game was a game called Good Cop Bad Cop (Brian Henk & Clayton Skancke, 2014). Both games have facedown trait cards that add up to someone’s identity, a goal of determining who the leader is in order to attack them, and cards with different abilities. Good Cop Bad Cop is whacky, tense, highly varied, and fun with a legitimate way to switch sides in the game. Dune Betrayal feels like a sterilized version of that game. I think the goal was to make a more serious game to match the tone of the Dune movies, but in doing so, the fun was lost. The Resistance took this more balanced, methodical approach as well, but it worked so much better.
Let’s talk about the production quality. In a hidden role social deduction game, card quality matters a lot. It’s important that with repeat plays, one role card cannot be told apart from another when flipped upside down. The cards in this game may be some of the thinnest card stock I’ve ever played with. This is in a day and age where production values are improving across the board. Is it too much to ask for some average card stock? Of course, I can sleeve the cards, and I did. However, I don’t think that should be expected from players, especially when this is likely going to sell most to a casual gaming audience.
The theming is about as thin as the card stock. The action cards have some flavor, but any old story of good vs. evil could have been subbed in here. I can’t shake the feeling that the mechanics for this game had been sitting around for a long while, waiting for any old setting to be applied. Now, that’s not normally an issue if the gameplay is great (see Resistance), but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. If there was more added to bring the setting out and making it feel like the Dune universe, it could have made the experience worthwhile. I know that’s a lot to expect from a social deduction game, but it’s a crowded field now.
Sadly, Dune Betrayal does not have the spice, as they say. They say that, right? Whether you are House Atreides or House Harkonnen, nobody wins here. Maybe that’s thematic, but not worth the effort. Check out Resistance Avalon, Deception Murder in Hong Kong, or Good Cop Bad Cop if you’d like to play some really good social deduction games. I’m not sure who the target audience is here. There are a couple of very good Dune games out there. You can skip this one.
Final Score: 1.5 stars – A social deduction game that gives a bad name to the genre.
• Few moments of awe, shock, betrayal, etc.
• Gameplay is arbitrary
• Cards quality is bad
• Theme is pasted on
• Even worse at lower player counts