If you’ve spent any amount of substantial time with Dune media, then you know as well as I do that it’s about more than combat. It’s about politics, subterfuge, and trying to synergize with a world seemingly evolved to kill all things that aren’t native to it. That’s a big part of the reason I’ve been interested in Shiro Games and Funcom’s Dune: Spice Wars. It aims to capture the diplomacy and spycraft of Dune alongside its open hostilities, and after a recent hands-on I had with the game, I’m more excited than ever to see it grow in early access.
The race for control of a hell world
In this build of Dune: Spice Wars, a few typical factions were included. The directly conflicting houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are present. Adding to the mix was the Smugglers Guild faction led by Esmar Tuek and the native Fremen faction led by Liet Kynes. More than just differing colors on the battlefield, each of them plays quite different from one another and that distinctness came through quite well as I got a feel for a few of them in my time with the game.
In Dune: Spice Wars, your goal is to become the sole governing authority of Dune and its valuable spice. There are a few ways to go about that. You can attempt to wipe out your enemies through direct combat, raising troops and carefully commanding them against opposing factions, neutral villages, and the pitfalls of the planet such as deadly sandworms and sandstorms. However, you can also take on a far more diplomatic approach, seizing territory, controlling resources, and earning off-world government trust through a voting system until you command enough diplomatic power to earn the title of Dune Governorship. Neither is an easy route and the competition is stiff. It’s the many ways in which you can approach the end game and how each house excels that make Dune: Spice Wars a treat so far.
In approaching your goal of conquest and leadership of Arrakis, you start by scouting and controlling territory with valuable resources in it. Spice is the most important because throughout a game, you have to raise enough spice to meet an off-world tax requirement and grow your political stature. Meeting each tax session successfully gives each main group access to bigger faction bonuses when they have a high enough standing. To this end, you have ornithopters that will scout the map for you, discovering resources, villages, and more to give you a better idea of what regions to pursue and how. You can micromanage the ornithopter scouting, or you can set them to auto-recon the map until told otherwise, which is a nice touch.
However, there are other things to consider. You can trade spice for Solari (currency for buying military units and strategic buildings in villages). You’ll also need resources like plasteel to build those buildings, water to keep your villages and main settlement happy and annex new villages without rebellion, and manpower to cultivate your army and crew your spice harvesters. When you don’t have enough of any given resource, sometimes you have to negotiate with the opposing factions to get what you need in a pinch. Of course… they can always deny your trades. These 4X elements add fun elements to Dune: Spice Wars that ensure you’re not just always fighting every one else. You literally can’t survive without them sometimes.
Variety is the spice of life
I started with House Atreides. The most peace-loving and diplomatic of houses, the Atreides start with a number of bonuses and factors that befit a faction that would rather negotiate than wage war (not that they can’t fight). For one, it’s easier to bring neutral villages under Atreides control via its Peaceful Annexation ability. After certain periods of time pass, a vote is also brought up to determine various factors on the planet such as increasing the cost of military units for all factions or giving one faction special control over water or unique units. For this, the Atreides have a strong presence in voting and can use the ongoing politics to gain bonuses that get it ahead in the game. It wasn’t long before I used the power of Atreides politics to secure a path to peaceful leadership of Arrakis with just enough military presence to keep my domain safe from raids and other factions.
Conversely, I played as the Fremen in another game. More attuned to the planet and less attuned to politics, the Fremen have bonuses for moving troops quickly and operating with less danger on Arrakis. There’s a supply meter on every military unit that drains when they are outside the faction’s controlled territory. Once that supply bar drains they will begin to die. Fremen military unit supply bars last longer, allowing for more sturdy excursions into hostile territory.
The best thing about them by far is their use of sandworms. When any military unit is operating on open sand, there is a risk of sandworms arriving and decimating all units who don’t flee the area immediately. Fremen are at risk too, but they can also use Thumpers to call a sandworm and transport military units across long distances quickly via Worm Riding. It’s very limited at first, but accessible where other factions have to build transport shuttles to do the same. I used it to transport my armies right up to a target I wanted to attack and ambush it before my opponents could respond. In this way, Fremen have an edge in military speed and efficiency, but as natives of Arrakis, they have little vote in the council politics. I could almost never get votes in my favor as the Fremen against the diplomatic authority of the Harkonnen and Atreides or the odds-stacking subterfuge of the Smugglers.
Faction bonuses and styles aren’t so stiff that you can’t change things though. In fact, one of the most intriguing parts of Dune: Spice Wars is a choice right at the beginning. In addition to static faction bonuses like Atreides politics or Fremen Worm Riding, you are presented with four advisors when you choose your faction at the beginning of the game and you can only choose two. Each advisor will supply an extra bonus to your faction. For Atreides, I chose Duncan Idaho, who gave me bonuses in dealing with neutral factions, and Thufir Hawat, who gave me an edge in spycraft. I could have also chosen Lady Jessica to allow me to force treaties on other factions or Gurney Halleck who would have increased the quality of my military units. Each of these advisors can synergize with what you already have or give you an edge on a playstyle the faction otherwise wouldn’t have.
Science and spycraft also let you change up your approach in Dune: Spice Wars. For this early edition, there were four branching tech trees focused on diplomacy and spycraft, military prowess, economic benefits, and planet recon and traversal. Each faction also has special technologies only they can access, such as the Fremen being able to build Ceremonial Caves to power up their troops in regions with energy resources where other factions would instead build fuel cell factories to power additional ornithopters or transport shuttles. Finally, at certain junctures, you unlock spies that can be assigned to enemy factions and discover their plans or government entities to do things like increase your spice to Solari conversion rates to better your economy. Players will likely find the “optimal” way to play a faction based on what it has, but between advisors, spycraft, and technology, Dune: Spice Wars also gives you a lot of freedom to play passively, aggressively, or balanced as you please.
A promising conquest
Dune: Spice War is already shaping up to be the kind of Dune game I’ve dreamed of. I love how dangerous it is to try to depend solely on military conquest, but it’s not to say you can’t do that if you deck your faction out with the right bonuses and resources. I love the classic RTS games, but spycraft, economics, diplomacy, and politics are what I feel a Dune game has long needed. All of those elements are already here and give Spice Wars a heck of a start. With a solid balancing act of 4X and real-time strategy coming out of the gate, I can’t wait to see how Shiro Games and Funcom build upon the foundation they’ve set here over the course of the game’s early access cycle.
These hands-on impressions are based on an early PC build of the game supplied by the publisher. Dune: Spice Wars releases for Steam Early Access on April 26, 2022.
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Dune: Spice Wars takes the franchise beyond its battle-focused RTS roots