It's been a while since we've visited the Dune universe in a real-time strategy game – I thought the iPod was basically sorcery when Emperor: Battle for Dune came out in 2001 – but even in its early access form, Dune: Spice Wars is shaping up to be a triumphant return. Four distinct factions that all engage a little differently with interesting combat, politics, and exploration make for an exciting time on the beautifully deadly world of Arrakis. And more impressive still, it never made me feel like I need to be a highly trained Mentat mastermind to keep track of it all.
Spice Wars is a bit more of a traditional RTS than developer Shiro Games' last project, Northgard, which shared a lot of elements with worker placement tabletop games. But a return to the old formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and its well-balanced resource mechanics are still at the heart of everything. Whether it's manpower, political influence, or the all-important spice, I never fell into a rut in this glimmering desert where I felt like I had enough of everything. Spice Wars always keeps you hungering for something, which can lead to conflict even with a long-time ally if they just happen to get to that juicy spice field you were eyeing before you can.
Combat is relatively simple but satisfying. Until you get pretty deep into the military tech tree your army size will be limited to only a handful, which makes microing your units crucial in an even fight. I appreciate how this raises the skill cap significantly without having to worry about a giant, indecipherable blob of soldiers. And each faction fights a bit differently, from the relatively straightforward Atreides legions who get bonuses for ganging up on a single enemy, to the elusive Fremen who can cause a lot of delightful havoc by cleverly leveraging small squads of stealthy infiltrators. The added danger of the Shai Hulud introduces further tense and engaging considerations to each battle, especially in the late game. Why? Because having large groups of soldiers fighting over a small area risks getting them all turned into worm food.
MASTERS OF DUNE
Because of those differences each faction has some distinct flavor to their tactics, with the brutish Harkonnens relying on strong military garrisons to squeeze additional productivity out of their workforce, and the Fremen’s advantageous ability to collect precious spice without noisy, mechanical harvesters that tend to attract trouble of the giant death worm variety. Of course, you can never actually remove the threat of the worms, so you have to learn to live with them. I really like how this reminds you that no matter how powerful you get, you still have to bow to Arrakis' unforgiving rules. In this way, the planet really comes alive and becomes a character of its own, supported by gleaming stretches of dunes in the daytime and an eerily quiet, almost meditative sea of twinkling blue at night. The look of the units and buildings is a bit cartoonishly stylized, but putting everything together, it's gorgeous.
This signature harshness also manifests in a supply system that demands you supply all military units with provisions to survive for any length of time outside friendly territory. Particularly dangerous are the deep deserts, dividing up the map with basically impassible expanses, killing anything that tries to pass through them and creating effective tactical puzzles to solve. Some factions, especially the Fremen, can eventually gain the ability to cross them safely. But most of the time, I had to decide if it was worth risking my whole army to strike an enemy where they least expected it – a risky but exhilarating gambit.
NOT BRAVE ENOUGH FOR POLITICS
While all of this is going on, high-level strategy simmers as each faction jockeys for position in the cutthroat space senate, the Landsraad. The Atreides and Harkonnens are voting members with official representation, but all factions, including the unrecognized Fremen and Smugglers, can spend a resource called Influence to represent bribes and backroom deals to get what they’re after. It sounds complex, but the way it works is very easy to follow, with resolutions like increasing the upkeep on certain goods or giving a faction the ability to raise special Imperial armies coming to a vote periodically. It's impressive how Spice Wars was able to bolt a fairly deep political system onto an already complex RTS without it feeling bloated or confusing. That said, this is one area that could use a balance pass before it comes out of early access.
Of the several games I played of Spice Wars, which each take around three to four hours to finish, all but one ended when the House Atreides were voted Governors of Dune. Once they attain this title, it's only a matter of holding onto it for a certain number of days before the game ends. The main issue I had was that there doesn't really seem to be any way to stop them, other than maybe wiping them off the map – and that’s almost impossible to do quickly, given each faction's main base has defenses that will decimate all but the strongest late-game armies. You have to hope that the governorship randomly comes up for a vote again and try to take it for yourself. Sometimes it simply doesn't come up again at all – there’s no way to influence this that I could find.
The espionage system is where the complexity might have finally boiled over. Using spies, who are named characters who generate an Intel resource, you can execute useful operations that range from hindering enemy replenishment in a region to starting a rebellion in one of their settlements. The problem with it is that it takes a lot of time to manage, and it ended up being one too many things to juggle when I had warfare, economics, and politics to worry about. Underhanded dealings are a big part of the Dune universe, so I wouldn't necessarily want to see this system go away. But more ways to use my Intel passively instead of constantly having to assign it to new operations (or trade it away so it didn't go to waste) would have been nice.
And those rebellions feel a bit too punishing, as well. Given the small unit cap, having an entire settlement on the other side of the map rise up while you're in the middle of a war can be disastrous, even with multiple agents assigned to counter-espionage. Local militias you've built in the settlement only defend against rival powers and won't lift a finger against rebels. So it can get pretty frustrating with how few tools there are to counter it.