Dune game adaptations are a very delicate thing. Know then, that we haven’t had one since 2001. The newest entry is being developed by Shiro Games, of Northgard and Wartales. At this point, my ability to hammer references to the opening lines of 1983’s Dune breaks down, and I simply have to state that I finally got to play the Early Access of Shiro’s Dune: Spice Wars.
For the three people who don’t yet know about Dune from sheer cultural osmosis, it’s a space opera setting. The Empire stretches among the stars. But no planet is more valuable than Arrakis, where spice mélange is found. No material in the galaxy is as precious as spice, which extends life, enables interstellar travel, and creates the human computers known as Mentants. As in the book, the noble houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are fighting over the planet. But to suit the needs of the RTS genre, the native Fremen and smuggler-y Smugglers also exist as playable factions.
The pinnacle of a centuries-long breeding program
Dune: Spice Wars is a real-time 4X game, and that’s the most apt description I can give. Your randomly generated map of Arrakis is split into regions, and the one who conquers the region’s village controls the territory. Your main base is nigh unbroachable, and is the only place where you train troops. However, unlike with capitals in most 4X games, it isn’t just a” City, But Bigger by Virtue of Being the First.” You don’t even build structures there for a good bit of the match.
Units move around (and fight) and buildings are constructed in real time, just like in an RTS. But there’s no freeform base building. Each village can, by default, have two buildings constructed within short range of it, with further three slots unlockable via ever-growing investments. Son even if this is a 4X release, it definitely avoids the pitfall of all Civilization-like games where founding a new city becomes a repetitive chore the further you progress.
You can’t pave the sands with your cities in Dune: Spice Wars, but neither can you easily sweep the map away. To conquer a new town, you need not only to take down the defenders, but also to invest Water and Authority — and only the latter is generated and pooled. Similarly, there’s more than mere upkeep keeping you from instantly spawning a large, all-conquering army.
My kingdom for a company of Sardaukar
But the combat mechanics aren’t that deep. Or, rather, units are fairly simple, usually having health, power, and armor scores, as well as some ability that makes them stand out. The real challenge, then, is how and when you deploy them.
After all, Dune is more known for intrigue and maneuvering than for large stand-up battles. You shape the battlefields of Dune: Spice Wars to your advantage by using intelligence operations. Use Drop Supplies and Sabotage Gear, and suddenly your troops will have their health and supplies replenished even in enemy territory, while the defenders find their power diminished.
Or you can spawn a rebellion in an enemy village, and either wait for it to revert the town to neutral status or use this as a distraction to launch an attack at the other end of enemy territory. Maybe you’ll risk it all and launch an attack over The Deep Desert, which saps supplies mercilessly and is thus usually considered like an impassable barrier.
You should also consider the fact that your villages are defended by cheap but fragile militia. So do you reinforce the border region, sacrificing two slots for the missile turret and military command? Or do you just plonk down an airfield and hope to move in airmobile reserves when the time comes?
The computer-controlled opponent, of course, always opts to get the turret. And those are powerful, but they work more like force multipliers and less like impregnable castles of Age of Empires. They work in a certain radius, not constrained by regions (just like the airfield). I suspect both of those structures are the reason why village buildings are built physically on the map instead of being abstracted like in most 4X games. Careful placement is the difference between the turret supporting your militia while your forces are flown in, and the turret getting ganked by the first Fremen to step over the border. Similarly, a well-placed airfield will allow you to drop your army right on top of the next village.
House Ordos does not appear in the books or this game
Since we’re on villages, they aren’t the only place where faction differences are evident in Dune: Spice Wars. However, they serve as a good example. The noble Atreides can’t sack villages, but they can convince them to join peacefully. The Harkonen, however, can not only sack villages, but also oppress them for temporary increase in efficiency. The Smugglers, meanwhile, can invest funds to establish miniature criminal underworld bases in enemy villages, which can then act as sources of passive income, or even pave the way for an easier takeover.
Differences also exist in unit rosters, research trees, and even buildings. Fremen don’t even have spice harvesters for the worms to eat! The others have to either manually recall theirs once a worm sign is spotted, or switch on automatic recall in exchange for a drop in spice income.
And the spice must flow, because all factions have to make periodic payments (as taxes or bribes) — or face the consequences. The ever-increasing thirst for spice is another thing that drives expansion (or, if you’re very good, trade). But the economy is ravenous in more ways than one, and running out of any resource — money, plascrete, fuel cells, manpower, etc. — could be disastrous in fun and unique ways.
This all ties back to all the wonderful ways you interact with villages, as a single siege can seriously impact your income. This is especially true for special regions. For example, a water extractor on the Polar Cap can provide 50 Water — a regular region can, at best, give you a third of that. A boon that big makes the region very much worth fighting over.
War changes, but never ends
And if you’re playing against the computer, there is no real peace in the Dune: Spice Wars. At best, the diplomatic options allow for an open-borders treaty that makes passage through the signatory’s territory not cost unit supply. At the same time, each treaty saps your Authority income, and Authority is what you need the most to conquer and re-conquer villages.
Gameplay in Dune: Spice Wars is constantly in flux, as you look for a good opportunity to strike, even if its for the temporary gains of a raid — which itself is a tradeoff, as villages have long memories. There are basically no frontlines and no real standing armies, but there’s definitely space for skirmishes, feints, distractions, and more. And that’s before you get into the decrees of the Landsraad.
Dune: Spice Wars has just entered Early Access, but it’s already a fun little title. The game provides much longer RTS matches, but is also a lot shorter than any real 4X run. It’s hard to judge its overall staying power, but if the gameplay charms you, it will have potential. After all, even your regular faction playstyle can be tweaked by choosing advisors straight from the pages of the book! plus, there are a few factions that can be covered by DLC — we might be getting our 10-hour Sardaukar chant fix yet.