My first game of Dune: Spice Wars proved to me this title is a promising entry into the real-time strategy genre. While there’s plenty yet to add before the game comes out of Early Access, my first impressions are favourable. Allow me to expand: this game succeeds as both a Dune game and as a strategy; actually, that’s not entirely true. It doesn’t yet succeed; rather it shows promise of succeeding across these two criteria during this stage of the game’s development.
So let’s talk about where it succeeds so far, and where it needs plenty of work yet. Spice Wars does well as a Dune title on the strength of its atmosphere. Taking control of House Atreides for the first time, I found myself the owner of a single ornithopter amid a vast map covered by a fog of war; every new territory I uncovered promised both opportunity and danger. The early game masterfully creates a sense of Arrakis as it should be—a hostile planet full of great riches and greater perils, with invisible factions plotting your demise. The soundtrack definitely helps – it is a cross between Hans Zimmer’s score of 2021’s Dune film and a more synth-based soundtrack you’ll meet across many sci-fi games, from Stellaris to Eve Online to Mass Effect. This strong sense of atmosphere across the early game lingers later on as well, thanks to the appearances of sandstorms and the intermittent displays of sandworms consuming spice harvesters or entire groups of soldiers if you’re not careful with your management. Where it flounders, at present, is with the lack of unique faction units for each faction—and, in my personal opinion, with Hero units as well. The world of Dune has epic, larger than life figures who could be more than just advisors that offer one type of bonus over another, depending on your choice; time will tell—having such characters on the battlefield would certainly enhance the atmosphere of the world.
That said, I could see the dangers of introducing hero units as going against the design principles of Spice Wars. I think now is a good time to move beyond the franchise and talk about this title as a strategy game. It is developed by Shiro Games, which came up with indie real-time strategy darling Northgard. I played a few hours of that and while I thought it was an absolute delight of a game, it didn’t click with me enough to give it the hundreds upon hundreds of hours it deserved. The way that the fog-of-war works, zones recalling board-game hexes placed as you reveal them, each of them defined by one or two token features such as the spice, or rare minerals, or plascrete—all these are signature design choices of Shiro Games, recalling elements of their prior title. I cannot make a full comparison at present—unless you’re interested in me investigating both games in relation to one another further, in which case—let me know.
An aspect of the gameplay I only began to figure out and use to greater extent towards the end of my first game is the Espionage system; I’m not sure how viable it is as sole strategic focus if your economy is not also happily churning along but I can see that the developers are pushing towards making it a central part of the Spice Wars experience. Here, too, the DNA of the Dune world enhances the experience—Herbert’s novels are rich sources to draw inspiration from for political intrigue. End-game Espionage objectives such as the attempted assassination of one of the faction’s leaders come across as an ambitious attempt to deliver on the promise inherent to Dune – I haven’t carried one of these successfully yet, so I’ll have to report my findings about them later.
For my money, Espionage seems to offer the player tools to reach their goals faster, whether those are defined through Domination, Political, or Hegemony victory. In the first case you can use Espionage to eventually unlock atomics—a big, bad, no-good act in the Dune universe, which will cost you considerable standing at the Landsraad. The Landsraad is the body that represents all the Great Houses, the system that confers bonuses and penalties to different factions as well as worldwide bonuses or penalties to different developments of your faction, such as research type bonuses or direct effects on different resources. It’s reminiscent in look and feel to Civilization VI’s World Congress—I’d even say it’s a pretty close sibling to that one. Hegemony points you get from a whole lot of different things—quests (which need a whole lot more flavour text), controlling unique planetary areas, number of areas controlled, taxes paid in spice and so much more; the best part is that each faction has a mechanic that invites them to embrace a certain playstyle in order to get a higher score. Hegemony points are a sure-fire way to win, and I was well on my way to that kind of victory, but it sure takes a while.
By the time the late-game came and I was still a good ten thousand Hegemony points away from victory, I had banked big every possible resource in the game. I simply built a massive army and destroyed my enemies one by one, without the least amount of trouble. I didn’t even want to do away with the Fremen or the Guild—but sitting there and waiting to gain the one resource I needed to expand turned tedious. That’s when I started playing with Espionage, but not even that saved my erstwhile allies over the next half hour—I ended up coming up with reasons to honorably end both of them; the Fremen had attacked my territory half a game earlier, so they had to go, and—did the Guild spokesman just imply he’d have his spies sabotage my spicing facilities? Despite the stockpile of five thousand spice I had? They just have to go, now, too. Steamrolling is one big issue of the late game and I don’t seem alone in thinking so—something has to be done about it. That aside, the systems seem more solid than not, and fiddling across with the tech, military, and economic aspects of the game are all genuinely enjoyable. Espionage was the system I engaged with the least during this first playthrough, but it is also one of the more original additions to Dune, as far as my experience with it goes.
This isn’t the kind of RTS you can hop into for twenty-thirty minutes. Playing with House Atreides on the middle difficulty took me about four to five hours, so starting a game demands a fine investment of time without swallowing up entire weeks of your life. I might end games a little more quickly from this point on, I expect, but the first dip into a new strategy always demands extra attention and a methodical approach. It’s been great fun, fiddling around with House Atreides – I look forward to seeing how the other factions hold up over my next few ventures to Arrakis. How about you—think you might try and conquer Arrakis for your faction?