Dune: Spice Wars has a lot riding on its shoulders. Coming after a two-decade-long drought of video games set in Frank Herbert’s universe, Shiro Games’ attempt at blending 4X elements into what looks like a sturdy RTS core needs to appeal both to older fans and an audience accustomed to modern games.
It’s certainly not an easy thing to do but, judging by a gameplay demo we saw during a recent press event, it might just be on the right track.
My look at Dune: Spice Wars began with the Arrakeen surrounded by thick fog that obscured vision outside of a very small area around it. The initial impression is that of heading right into the unknown, unaware of the bounties and dangers that await beyond the yellow-brown veil.
Thankfully, you can use Ornithopters to scout the map, pushing back the fog while revealing both resources and points of interest that help you further your efforts.
Controlling villages is key to harvesting the resources they’re linked to and you won’t be able to waltz in without first dealing with their defenders. Taking them by force is one option but, although quicker, you’ll have to first wipe out the units protecting them. Afterwards, their defense becomes entirely your responsibility.
The Atreides can also use their Peaceful Annex ability to take over neutral villages without bloodshed. This process isn’t as quick, but sees the village’s defenders switching to your side rather than getting murdered.
Spice Wars is “definitely is a 4X game,” according to the developer, who also notes that its real-time combat requires a fair share of micromanagement if you want your troops to deal as much damage as possible.
Capturing a village linked to a spice field lets you build a Refinery nearby to begin extracting the much-coveted spice. Upon completion, a Carrier flies a bulky harvester to the field so it can start extracting the valuable resource.
“It’s quite hard to build on sand,” the developer tells me, “especially considering that Arrakis is the home of Sandworms.” That’s why each village sits atop an area of solid rock.
Structures can be placed freely within this portion of solid ground. Some buildings, like military ones, even have a direct effect on the area surrounding them, so you may want to position others to take advantage of it.
Over the course of any Dune: Spice Wars match, you’ll have to keep track of several resources.
Spice is arguably the most important one, requiring you to control spice fields spread across the planet. You can sell this spice to the CHOAM or stockpile it. Stockpiling is quite vital, as you have to regularly pay the Imperial Spice Tax, which can vary over the course of a game. Failing to do so has major consequences.
Solaris act as the main currency obtained from selling spice, getting dividends from CHOAM, or trading resources with other players. Placing down many buildings – both inside villages and your main base – costs Solaris and you’ll also need them to pay for your unit’s upkeep cost.
Plascrete can be made in special factories or bought from off-world markets and is necessary to build structures.
Manpower, then, “represents the number of people ready to serve the player with loyalty.” To produce it, you’ll need to recruit Arrakis’ local population through a building called the Recruitment Office. Alternatively, you can also infiltrate the Space Guild and import it from the rest of the Empire.
As you can probably tell, the resource is used to create and maintain military units as well as train crews for newly created harvesters.
Then there’s water, which you’ll need a steady supply of to keep your population happy. Not having enough leads to the people in your villages rebelling. As they’re tied to resource production, it’s easy to see how that can become a problem.
Windtraps can produce water, but you can also extract it from the planet’s North Pole. According to the developers, games usually involve a race to the North Pole because of it. Lastly, fuel cells act as the main energy source on Arrakis, limiting the number of vehicles you can construct.
Dune: Spice Wars also features a tech tree, its multiple technologies split into four different branches – statecraft, expansion, military, and economics. In the footage I saw, the Atreides researched the Survival Training technology to bolster their army with the Heavy Weapons Squad unit.
Each faction has unique military units that specialize in different areas of combat. They also have unique passive abilities, which are designed to synergize with each other. As an example, Harkonnen Gunners deal splash damage while the Harkonnen Troopers fight harder when damaged, which opens the way for high risk, high reward style of gameplay.
You also won’t always be on the offense. Aside from opposing houses, desert raiders can also attack your territory, aiming to steal your resources.
Main bases such as Arakeen come with their own close-range defenses that make them tough targets to conquer, but if you’re defending smaller villages, you’ll need to be more actively involved in micromanaging your troops, the developer said.
Unsurprisingly, the desert is a dangerous place in Dune: Spice Wars. Once units leave your territory, their Supply will start to decrease. If it reaches 0, they die. The rate at which it goes down depends on if they’re in a “regular” desert area – in which you can move, fight, and scout for quite some time before having to return – or the deep desert.
These are even more perilous, harboring very strong winds and frequent sandworm activity while draining supply at an even faster rate. The developer compares them to seas in other 4X games, noting that they’ll be particularly tough to cross at the start. But as time passes and you research technologies, you’ll eventually be able to move your troops past them without having them die.
Politics also plays a big role in Dune: Spice Wars and you’ll have to pay close attention to the Landsraad. The political strength of all houses on Arrakis is based on their relationships with different factions. This level is tracked on a scale from 0 to 500 and is also linked to the player’s ability to pay the Imperial Spice Tax.
It determines the number of votes available to you during the next Landsraad session, but you can also spend a resource called Influence to increase the number of available votes. Every 20 days, a new Landsraad session kicks off, focusing on 3 resolutions.
Players can use all their votes on one resolution, to ensure it passes, or try and influence multiple resolutions. Their effects can be positive or negative for all factions, in which case the player can vote for or against each of them. They can also target one specific faction, letting players vote who they want as the target of the resolution. Obviously, all players involved have a say, so it won’t be just you pulling the strings.
Diplomacy is also something you won’t want to overlook, as it lets you send resources and sign treaties with other houses.
Espionage is yet another tool you can use to guarantee victory. Your agents can spread across the universe fulfilling different roles. They can spy on other factions, feeding you information about their resources, military units, controlled territory, and their own espionage activity.
They can also be assigned to different institutions. Having one in the Landsraad grants extra Influence, helping you pass a resolution or counter your opponents’ coups. Assigning them to the Spice Guild grants manpower, while sending them to work their magic on the CHOAM yields additional solaris.
Agents can also roam across Arrakis, increasing your authority with villages – ensuring you can capture them and expand your territory – or gathering intel in ruins and wreckages. Intel is a resource used to trigger espionage missions involving stealing tech, sabotage, or even assassinations. The latter stand out thanks to their high risk, high reward nature.
If successful, they essentially remove the opposing leader from the game. Much like destroying opposing main cities, it counts towards the Elimination victory, which requires you to defeat every other opponent. Those who do not want to leave a trail of destruction in their wake can turn to two other victory types.
A Hegemony victory resembles other 4X games score victories. To pursue it, you’ll want to focus on expansion and stockpiling wealth, but winning battles, researching technologies or conquering villages also gets you closer. In addition, each house has its own method of generating Hegemony points.
As the hardened politicians they are, the Atreides gain points whenever they participate in passing a resolution in the Landsraad. There’s also the Political victory type, which is particularly tough to obtain, as you’ll need to go through the Landsraad.
“Among the resolutions that can be presented, some are what we call charters, milestones in the quest to the political rule of Arrakis,” the developer tells me. “Each charter has restricting conditions that impact the player that wants to access it. One of these is called ‘Dune governorship’.
“It requires control of a large part of the planet and to be liked by the Landsraad minor houses. The player that keeps ‘Dune Governorship’ for 3 months wins the game. It is not an easy victory.”
The developer also notes that a game of Dune: Spice Wars can last between 3 and 5 hours, depending on the settings you pick at the start.
Over its course, you’ll unlock different ways of moving across the map, like airfields, which you can build in captured villages. Doing so enables units to use shuttles to move between airfields instead of braving the desert.
There’s also a day/night cycle that shows the passage of time, providing another reminder of the fact that you have to pay the Imperial Spice Tax, and that certain resolutions might expire soon. In the future, there will be other gameplay features linked to this cycle, especially with some of the game’s unannounced houses.
The developers also say that players can expect a fair bit of asymmetrical gameplay. The two other houses will handle “their relationship with their main base” as well as expansion quite differently.
As much as it’s a slower-paced game, Dune: Spice Wars seems to have plenty for players to do and keep track of at any given time. From the Landsraad’s resolutions to sending spies throughout the universe and taking territory by force, what I saw of the game looks promising.
I couldn’t help but notice the distinct lack of anything sandworm-related in the footage, but perhaps they’ll be there when Dune: Spice Worms launches in early access later this year.
About Bogdan Robert Mateș
When not brewing coffee or debating serious topics with my cat, you'll either find me playing video games or writing about them.