Classic Reviews: Dust

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Great chips-and-soda game that is familiar in gameplay, but with just enough added complexity to keep players engaged throughout the game. Combat is nuanced but still fast-flowing, and players have to make serious strategic choices at every turn.

Review by Brant Guillory, about 7 years ago 🙂

This review originally appeared in Scrye Magazine

Number of players: 2-6
Designed for ages: 12 and up
Learning Curve: Low to Medium
Playing time: 1-3 hours
Pros: Visually grand; familiar mechanics; lots of choices for players
Cons: Backstory irrelevant to gameplay; some game effects not clearly explained

Dust, Fantasy Flight’s new “big box” game, is based on the comics of the same name, in which history was altered by the discovery of alien technology on a polar expedition early in WWII. You now know more than you need to know about the backstory of the game in order to play it. But don’t let that get you down, because Dust is a great game, regardless of the story behind it.

Players are trying to gain victory points by controlling power sources, conquering their opponents, and dominating certain numbers on the map. They do so by marshalling their armies, and balancing the manufacture of forces with the usage of them.

Each turn, players choose a card from their hand to specify the number of attacks and moves they will make that turn, as well as a number of production points they will use to build new forces. The cards also determine the order in which the turn will be conducted, and provide each player with a special ability they may activate during the turn.

The cards are not replenished each turn, however. Like everything else – units, or factories – they must be purchased with production points. And because turn order is decided by the number of attacks on the initiative cards, not the number of production points, aggressive players tend to go early in the turn, while slow builders must fend off attacks before placing their new units on the map.

And whatever you do, please don’t mention the word “Risk” around the Fantasy Flight staff! They are steadfast in their denials that Dust plays anything like Risk, even though the map covers the entire world with continents that look awfully Risk-ish. And movement is based on areas. And combat is dice-rolling along the line. And the six armies all have very Risk-like colors.

In truth, anyone who’s played Risk will get the basics of Dust in about 10 minutes. But that’s absolutely OK because it gets players playing rather than stumbling through a new rulebook. Dust adds just the right twists to counter everyone’s complaints about Risk. Turning in cards gives a player an overwhelming army advantage? Fine, we’ll let players manage their own production turn-to-turn. Combat is an arthritis-inducing die-roll-festival between mountains of identical ‘soldiers’? Let’s differentiate between types of units, include aviation, and let players pick and choose their units to establish “tactical supremacy” in a battle (basically, ‘initiative’ by another name). No real “home base” on the map that you’re fighting from? Let’s give each player a capital to defend.

In fact, if you locked a half-dozen game designers in a room, and asked them to improve on Risk, it’s very likely that Dust would be the outcome, though probably with less-snazzy artwork. Just be sure to check Fantasy Flight’s website for rules clarifications.

Dust is fun because players are forced to constantly balance conquering new land with holding what they have, especially power sources and production centers. The card-driven initiative and turn-order mechanism makes players ponder hard about which moves to make; the special effects on the cards also factor into decision-making.

Victory is not determined by simply plowing across the map. It is a subtle balance of controlling power sources, owning land spaces, production centers, and naval units. Additionally, it is very hard to knock someone out of the game, which means that everyone who starts playing stays in it ‘til the end – yet another improvement on the Risk formula – making this a good choice for a weekly game group who wants to keep everyone involved.

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