Dune: Spice Wars is a forthcoming real-time 4X strategy game set on everyone’s favorite dying sand planet. Dune: Spice Wars, based on Frank Herbert’s classic book and developed by the same team that brought you Northgard and Wartales, will put players in the shoes of one of four factions when it opens in early access later this spring, and I’ve had a chance to see one of them in action.
Shiro Games demonstrated how the (sadly without Chalamet) Atreides family would fight for control of Arrakis’ most coveted substance – the all-important spice melange – although players will also be able to choose from the shadowy Harkonnen clan at launch, as well as two additional unannounced factions in the upcoming weeks.
There are many things to take in, but if you’ve been hoping for a Dune game to surpass the 1992 RTS epic Dune II: Battle For Arrakis, you’d best get your head out of the sand and strap on your hydro-cycling stillsuit. The contest for the finest strategy game of the year will heat up.
You’ll begin a round of Spice Wars from your base castle in Arrakeen – the large, stone megacity that Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film adaption famously blasted to smithereens.
Fortunately, you’ll have more time to settle into this version of Arrakis’ capital, since, unlike in the film (and the novels), you’ll be essentially building your spice empire from scratch here, rather than stepping into an existing business as the new steward.
When the game starts, Arrakeen is surrounded by a dense fog of war, and you’ll need to push out with your dragonfly-like Ornithopters to uncover fresh spice fields and surrounding settlements in which to establish your facilities.
These are originally shown on your map as points of interest, and you’ll need to spend time exploring these areas before discovering their actual nature. According to Shiro Games, these areas of interest might range from the above-mentioned communities to ruins, wreckages, and caravans, each of which confers a unique boost.
Before you can begin harvesting neighboring spice fields, you must first seize control of the village’s closest outpost, either by sending over some of your military forces or, as we’re playing as the peace-loving Atreides in this demo, via diplomacy.
The former takes you to the town quicker and is the only alternative for certain groups (*cough* the sluggy Harkonnens *cough*). Choosing the more diplomatic option, on the other hand, will provide you with the extra benefit of already having two raiders in place to protect your new region.
Shiro Games felt more assertive throughout our demo, and the village’s military personnel hailed their unit of foot soldiers. When the two sides met, firearms were drawn, and blood was sprinkled over the dunes.
Unlike in most real-time strategy games, ranged units in Dune: Spice Wars do not automatically move out of harm’s path, so you’ll need to micromanage your soldiers if you want them to survive a brawl uninjured.
When the camera is zoomed out, units can become quite small. Still, I found that the gunners’ silhouettes were easily distinguishable from the other melee-based warriors.
The unit banner their heads helped them stand out even more – although how well this scales with larger armies remains to be seen. On the positive side, selecting the complete unit is as simple as clicking on one of them.
“Dune: Spice Wars is unquestionably a 4X game,” Adrien Briatta, Shiro Games’ director of marketing and publishing, told us. “It has a leisurely pace, a tile system, and a large number of resources, but it is fundamentally an RTS – and this is particularly true during battle.”
Once you’ve triumphed, it’s time to conquer the settlement properly. To be clear, you’ll still need sufficient authority in the area to take control. Still, you may check this stat before participating in any conflict by hovering your cursor over the settlement. After capturing a hamlet, you may begin constructing your spice refinery and harvesting.
The remainder of your resources and political currency is accessible via the top navigation bar. As the game’s “most valuable resource,” your Spice level is prominently shown in the UI, along with a slider that allows you to sell it to the Choam for cash (or Solari, in the game’s terminology) or save it for future use.
The latter is “critical,” according to Briatta since you will be required to pay the dreaded spice tax to your imperial masters each month. This fee will fluctuate over time, and if you are unable to pay, your Landsraad Standing will deteriorate, making you a more vulnerable target for political assaults, which Briatta notes “may be as damaging as military strikes.”
Solari may be earned in a variety of ways. Fortunately, selling spice is not the only one. Additionally, you may earn income by collecting dividends from the Choam and exchanging resources with other players. You’ll need a substantial amount of money to construct structures and raise your forces.
Additionally, you’ll need to manage your Plascrete, another critical building resource for which you’ll need to construct a specific factory before you can begin creating it, and your Manpower, which decides how many residents you’ll need to educate as troops and vehicle operators.
None of this will be possible, though, if you do not have adequate water, which Briatta says will be a “big challenge for you.” It is, in fact, your stability meter. Without water, communities will revolt, perhaps bringing your whole empire to a halt.
Fortunately, you can generate water by creating various structures such as wind traps. Still, you may also locate it in the North Bowl, an area in the far corner of the globe that Briatta describes as “a critical location in the game.”
“There will be an ethnicity to the North Bowl,” he explains since it enables you to accumulate a large number of critical resources that will aid you in advance.
It’s a short flight to the North Bowl in an ornithopter, but getting your soldiers there and protecting it will be another issue completely. There are portions of Arrakis classified as ‘deep desert,’ and troops will almost certainly perish if they attempt to travel them on foot – which Briatta ominously refers to as “the desert price.”
When you leave your region, units must consume their supplies, and after resources are low, they begin to lose health.
Due to the extraordinarily strong winds seen in deep desert regions, this process occurs considerably quicker, and we all watched in terror as lead game designer Franck Delfortrie brought in a company of troops to demonstrate. “Deep deserts may be called oceans in previous 4X games,” Briatta notes, adding that crossing them will need improved technology.
To help transportation (and, more broadly, to build your empire), you’ll need to work on Spice Wars’ tech tree constantly. It is divided into four broad categories: expansion, military, economics, and statecraft, encompassing all aspects of politics and deception.
In our presentation, picking ‘Survival Training’ in the Military part unlocked a new heavy weapons unit for the Atreides family. Still, each side will have its distinct squads to play with. Each unit also has its unique passive powers, which Briatta adds were created to complement one another in combat.
He demonstrated this by demonstrating how Atreides rangers can deliver splash damage from afar, but Atreides troopers can strengthen themselves when they lose health – which they would surely do while in range of their rangers’ strikes. While this is a rather dangerous technique, I’m eager to see how other troops interact in the final edition.
You will also need to protect the North Bowl. As you search and conquer more of the world, Arrakeen and your other acquired villages will also need security. Arrakeen’s self-defense systems should be capable of withstanding potshots from small groups of desert raiders, but mobilizing soldiers to protect settlements and refineries will require far more unit micromanagement.
Additionally, there is your primary adversary party to consider. In my presentation, the Harkonnens sat on the opposite side of the Spice Wars table, albeit the demo’s limited duration prevented us from seeing if they’ll be able to inflict the same level of cinematic carnage as their filmic counterparts.
Even if you have the strongest army on Arrakis, you will still need to play politics with the Landsraad Council to keep everyone happy.
This is all accomplished through a panel on the right-hand side of the screen, but Briatta said that the game’s user interface is refined and may change before it enters early access. Nonetheless, given what I observed, it all seemed to be workable.
The most critical metric to monitor is your Landsraad Standing, which is determined by your interactions with other factions and your compliance with the spice mentioned above tax. However, you may also employ subterfuge to influence it, which will affect the amount of influence you have when attempting to pass resolutions.
The options I saw accessible during the demo included certifying new infrastructure (thereby boosting the elected faction’s construction costs), signing new military contracts to strengthen an army, and de-escalating contentious circumstances.
You may elect yourself or an opponent to any of these resolutions, and you can spend votes on them in an attempt to pass them. Additionally, you may use your influence to swing the decision in your favor.
This may be determined by your primary Authority stat or through information obtained through espionage – which includes deploying spies to spy on organizations such as the council and rival factions.
However, you’ll need to acquire intelligence before sending your spies to conduct your dirty job, which you may accomplish among ruins and wreckages.
In summary, it seems as if you’ll have much to think about during a game that Briatta estimates would take between 3-5 hours – but how often you’ll be required to participate in Spice Wars’ political maneuvering rather than just moving your soldiers about the battlefield remains to be seen.
Indeed, the Landsraad Council is not the end-all-be-all of this game. Additionally, there is a separate diplomacy panel that you may reach by clicking on the picture of your rival side. If you’re feeling generous, you may gift them resources such as solar, spice, and soothe in return for signing treaties.
I was especially taken with how altering the trade offer in our presentation impacted Baron Harkoneen’s response. When presented with a lousy trade contract, his wrinkled triple chins almost quadrupled in size, but he rewarded us with a cocked brow and a rubbing of his grimy little hands when we changed it to something more palatable.
As nasty as Baron Harkonnen seems in last year’s film, partaking in this activity may help transform him into a friend throughout your campaign, and he may even offer you his support in the Landsraad Council.
To accomplish a Dune game: Spice Wars, most players will likely attain Hegemony, represented as a kind of total game score that increases as your empire steadily grows and expands.
There are also diplomatic victories to be had, such as effectively electing yourself governor of Arrakis via the Landsraad Council (though Briatta notes that this is quite difficult to pull off successfully), or taking everything by force via a military victory – which includes using your spy network to assassinate your opposing faction leader.
This is another “very tough” triumph, but let’s face it, it sounds a lot more fun than becoming Baron Harkonnen’s best mate. No, sir, you will not find me climbing in a large black slime bath with that person.
Whichever route you go, this early access release of Dune: Spice Wars seems to have a lot going on, and I, for one, am anxious to get my hands dirty.
According to what I’ve seen, Shiro Games has done an excellent job converting Dune’s epic power plays into a real-time 4X strategy game, and most significantly, it does not seem to be unduly frightening for newcomers to the genre.
There is a lot to take in, but as someone who has always been intimidated by some of the all-time great 4X games, Dune: Spice Wars appears to be more my pace – and a 3-5 hour game duration isn’t half bad either. There is no indication when Spice Wars will get early access on Steam, but we will keep you updated as soon as we learn more.