I thought he who controlled the spice controlled the universe, but it turns out he who controls the spice mostly just pays hella taxes.
Here I am on Arrakis, spreading Fremen warriors to more and more territories so I can collect enough spice to rule the desert planet. And yet I have to pay most of my haul to the Spacing Guild as a bribe? And they want more every month? Forget this competition between the Atreides, Harkonnen, Fremen, and Smugglers factions: I hope 4X strategy game Dune: Spice Wars eventually includes a win condition that lets me tell the Spacing Guild to piss off.
Spice Wars is the first videogame based on Frank Herbert's books in two decades, and its real-time 4X approach to Arrakis feels like a distant relative of the Dune 2000 RTS (basically a Command & Conquer reskin) I played as a teenager. This is a much quieter game, with political and economic systems taking priority over combat, but when I do get into a fight I can micromanage my small unit of Fremen warriors to tweak their positioning and who they're attacking. There's a bit of RTS DNA in there still.
With its launch into early access this week, Spice Wars includes a singlelpayer mode and a barebones tutorial that won't get you much further than understanding how to collect spice (you build a building, and then tell some guys to get harvesting). It took me till the end of my first campaign—a quick three hours—to begin to grasp the strategy behind its politics and spycraft, but it was never overwhelming the way many 4X games are.
Developer Shiro Games, best known for Northgard, has plans to expand with multiplayer or a campaign, depending on what players want most. Whichever Shiro prioritizes, I hope Spice Wars leaves early access feeling more like Dune than it does now.
Spice Wars is at the moment a dry (forgive me) 4X game, missing the personality that the best of the genre deliver through chatty leaders, narrative events, or ample flavor text. Last year's Old World was a sterling example, with some spontaneous events tied directly to the personality traits of your leader and other elaborate story beats based on real history. Spice Wars is recognizably Dune because of the desert and sandworms and ornithopters and the sharply bearded Duke Leto Atreides, but it's missing that extra layer of personality.
I crave a deeper event system that draws from Dune lore, like political snafus involving snubbed Bene Gesserit witches or my entire civilization freaking out when the Sardaukar show up to kick my ass.
For more on Dune's PC history, check out our retrospective on the best and worst Dune games on PC.
Spice Wars is refreshingly breezy for this style of strategy game, though: I expanded my territory, destroyed the Harkonnen base, worked my way through two tech trees and started throwing my weight into politics all in less than four hours. Spice Wars manages to feel fast-paced and laid-back at the same time. After I lost my first campaign to Leto Atreides cheekily declaring himself governor—a political move I could've countered if I'd been paying more attention to politics instead of my military—I started understanding how much more I could've done with each system at play here. That's knowledge I plan to exploit on another run.
As the Fremen I was able to keep my armies healthy in harsh desert conditions and summon worms to travel vast distances, but I was particularly unpopular in the political Landsraad council, so I spent too long ignoring the monthly votes that granted factions major advantages. I focused on growing my military and economic tech trees and missed out on how powerful espionage could be, too. If I'd devoted more spies to the Atreides house, I may have been able to assassinate Duke Leto before he'd clinched a political victory.
I was at least able to train up an army of Fedaykin warriors powerful enough to stomp Baron Harkonnen's troops and destroy his heavily fortified capital after an extended siege. I consider it a public good—nobody likes that guy.
That was satisfying, but you can't think too hard about how Spice Wars has grafted Dune onto the framework (and budget) of a basic 4X. You can place buildings on a small grid within each territory, but their location is mostly meaningless. Outside of a few unique units and tech tree differences, the Fremen mostly play like the Atreides, who aren't all that different from the Harkonnen, and so on. Should the Fremen really be conquering territories, manufacturing whatever the heck plascrete is, and paying spice taxes to the Spacing Guild?
Early access will give Spice Wars the opportunity to root itself more deeply in Dune's universe, but it's going to need a greater focus on characters, mounds of flavor text, and more differentiation between its factions to begin feeling more like an interpretation of Dune and less like a playground painted to look like it. But I do like how compact it is compared to the likes of Civilization or Total War, while still managing to offer the same balance of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination.
I enjoyed zooming in on my Fremen warriors and watching them chew through Harkonnen soldiers and level up. Likewise there was a real tension sending them across a sandy wasteland and watching their supply meters ticking down the longer they were outside my territory. Single units in Total War are meaningless, but I was heartbroken when two of my veterans were swallowed up by a sandworm while running for the rocky safety of a settlement. Spice Wars is already able to tell stories unique to Dune in small bursts, even if it's lacking the direct storytelling of a campaign.
A year from now I hope Spice Wars is weaving in narration, too, and using characters to give each faction more life. In Herbert's original novel, Muad'Dib says "There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors." I'm not saying that quote alone is justification for Spice Wars stealing Old World's heir system and complex relationships, but, well, is Dune truly Dune without knife duels settling everything from the fate of the universe to petty grudges?