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July 2022

Dune: Spice Wars

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Funcom
Developer: Shiro Games
Release Date: 2022


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PC Preview - 'Dune: Spice Wars'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 25, 2022 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

Dune: Spice Wars is a real-time strategy game with 4X elements based on Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking novel Dune.

The Dune series is one of political intrigue, military action, and the underlying schemes of heroes and villains revolving around the desert planet Arrakis and its mind-enhancing spice. This makes it a perfect fit for a 4X game. Combining building your military forces with resource gathering, diplomacy, and empire building? It's what the franchise was made for. While there have been other attempts at Dune RTSes, Spice Wars is the first in a very long time. We got our hands on the Early Access version of the game, and it seems like it's off to a very good start.

The game is divided into four factions in our preview build, but we know more are coming down the line. They are House Atreides, House Harkonnen, Smugglers and Fremen, and each one is represented by a leader: Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Esmar Tuek and Liet Kynes. The four are an unusual mix of the book and movie versions. For example, Tuek is a minor character from the books who does not even appear in the film version. On the other hand, Liet Kynes is portrayed as looking similar to Sharon Duncan-Brewster instead of the male version from the books.

Each of the four factions has strengths and weaknesses. On one end of the spectrum is Atreides, who specialize in diplomacy and building bridges, but they can't use underhanded methods, such as raiding neutral villages. Harkonnen is their polar opposite, specializing in spying, subterfuge and oppression. They can use their military might to squeeze the people of Arrakis for more profit but are beloved by none.

The two other factions are more complex. Smugglers can install special headquarters in enemy villages and access a black market, but they have limited ability to interact with the Landsraad, the overall governing body of the world of Dune. Fremen share this weakness but gain the bonuses of requiring less supplies, forming alliances with other Fremen, and riding the mighty sandworms.

Each faction also has four different Councilors who allow you to further customize their bonuses. There are other characters from the movies and books. Leto has the Lady Jessica, Thufir Hawat, Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, each of which offers unique bonuses to combat or diplomacy. You can choose the characters based on how you intend to win. Duncan Idaho can make it easier to form relationships with the Fremen, while Gurney Halleck makes the starting military more powerful. Some characters have powerful bonuses that are tougher to use, such as the Lady Jessica, who can force another faction to accept a treaty unless they have enough resources to refuse.

Overall, I'm happy with the initial design of each of the groups. It seems to fit the basic Dune aesthetic and strongly encourages players to live the role of whoever they chose. If you are Fremen, then you're going to want to leverage your overwhelming military prowess into a victory. If you're Harkonnen, you're best off being sneaky and manipulating things to your advantage. The only group I felt lacked a strong identity were the Smugglers, but while they are an important part of the Dune lore, they are more minor than the three other factions.

Spice War's gameplay focuses on the unforgiving desert. You begin with a starting city and an ornithopter. The ornithopter can freely fly around the map, scouting for villages, treasures, items of interest or precious spice patches. It is potentially at the mercy of storms and enemy attacks, but most importantly, it doesn't need supplies.

This becomes important because supplies are the absolute key to mobility in Spice Wars. If a military unit is near a controlled city or village, they are fine. If they want to venture into the desert, they must spend supplies at a staggering rate. Run out of supplies, and you'll discover what Arrakis has in store for those who are foolish enough to doubt its dangers. This means you're limited in mobility unless you can form supply chains or find ways to transport troops. Fremen can stretch supplies, giving them an advantage in moving and attacking.

The most important resource on Arrakis is the spice Melange. It is the entire reason that so many great people are fighting over a desert hellhole. Mining Melange requires a lot of investment. You need to find patches, convert nearby villages to your cause so they can serve as spice refineries, and send out large harvesters to mine the spice. While harvesters are mining, they attract worms, and it is up to you to determine how long they stay. Wait too long, and you lose the harvester and its load. The mined spice can be sold or stockpiled. Selling earns currency, but you may need a stockpile before long.

Part of this is because while you may be working to rule Dune, your chosen faction has to pay taxes and levies to the greater Empire. You need to send a certain amount of spice every month or risk suffering their displeasure. At the same time, the price of spice is always changing. If you stockpile during slow periods, you can sell at a high price when the time is right and still have enough left over to keep the emperor happy.

Keeping the emperor happy is important because every 20 days or so, the Landsraad Council meets. During these meetings, all the factions can attempt to levy the Landsraad to change the rules of the game. This can involve reducing the costs of military units, increasing the production of items, or a host of other things, including benefits unlocked during gameplay. Having the resources necessary to sway the Landsraad to your favor is critical, especially since your enemies will try to do the same.

Your goal in the game is to win in one of three different ways. One is simply by destroying all the other factions on Arrakis, leaving you the sole uncontested holders of the planet. Another more diplomatic option is to get the Landsraad to recognize you as the official governor of the planet, which requires gathering enough political power to force others to vote for you. The last is by earning an overwhelming Hegemony, which is a resource gathered both through generic actions and faction-specific actions. It's kind of like your score. If you can gather 50,000 Hegemony, you'll be the victory through sheer overwhelming control.

All in all, Dune: Spice Wars is off to an interesting start. It's clear that the developers have put a lot of thought and effort into making the game feel like Dune, with many clever inside jokes and references to various forms of media. (My favorite dark joke is that Nefud, captain of the Harkonnen guard, gives you a discount on Combat Drugs if you choose him.) There are a lot of interesting gameplay decisions, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the game develops through its Early Access days. Dune: Spice Wars is available via Steam Early Access now.

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