Dune has always been something that united the film buffs in my family and friend groups, despite generational boundaries. My friends talk about Dune, my parents talk about Dune, I’m sure my dog would have something to say about Dune if she could speak. The film and book series has something of a dauntingly deep and dedicated fan base, one that you wouldn’t know is there until you finally take a step inside of it.
What universally drives people to become fans of Dune are the core themes that the story conveys so well. Power and violence, free will, and the impact the environment and human culture have on each other. Frank Herbert’s Dune is the story of young nobleman Paul Atreides’s rise to total authority over the planet Arrakis, it’s a deeply political novel that explores the influence of powerful individuals who gain that power by exploiting the resources and people of Arrakis. When I heard Dune was getting a game, I expected it to be a near overwhelmingly narrative experience tackling these themes with a hardcore bluntness.
There are a few games in the strategy genre that sort of do this already, and I’ve put a lot of time into both. Crusader Kings III and Frostpunk are the two examples that come to mind when I think of the game I expected Spice Wars to be.
CKIII is a game that, in my opinion, uses its storytelling to enhance its 4x mechanics. You will constantly be flooded with little narrative decisions (often ones that will repeat over and over again throughout the course of the game) that will affect your realm or ruler and either make expansion easier or more difficult. Frostpunk I feel is the opposite, where the narrative of survival and political and environmental unrest is the sole focus and the gameplay exists just to enhance it.
With both of these games serving as extremes on the axis, I expected Spice Wars to be somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning more towards Frostpunk. To my surprise, the game completely lacks any sort of narrative whatsoever. From the start of the game, you are faced with one simple objective, gather spice, and the entirety of the game focuses on the most bare-bones of 4x gameplay with only that objective in mind. There are no narrative events or in-game storytelling whatsoever.
Starting off, I would assume a series as deeply focused on house politics as Dune is would make choosing your house at the beginning of the game an incredibly important decision. It matters, of course, but beyond a different roster of units, different stat bonuses and a “unique” way to go about the same objective as all of the other factions, nothing really changes based on your faction decision.
House Harkonnen is described as this incredibly devious and oppressing force, but besides some buffs to combat and a sinister sounding voice to all of their units, they will be doing the exact same thing as House Atreides. There are no narrative consequences or changes for playing either because again, there is no narrative.
The game is so focused on its core objective that it almost feels like playing a board game. Narratively, the goal of having an ever-increasing spice quota to fulfill makes sense for Dune. Unfortunately, with the lack of any narrative events or storytelling, the game falls into its core gameplay loop incredibly fast, with very little to do beyond it until the game simply ends.
Let’s talk about that gameplay loop. In Dune: Spice Wars, the objective, as stated above, is to collect Spice and pay an ever-increasing amount to the Space Guild periodically. To do so, you will need to train military units and scout the barren dunes for villages and spice fields using your Ornithopters.
As a side note, I very much enjoy the way moving an Ornithopter into a zone has it automatically explore all of the local points of interest. It’s a very useful bit of automation in a real-time strategy game.
Once you’ve found a Spice Field and the accompanying village in the same zone, it’s time to attack. While village militias are always weaker than your main units, there is still a battle to be won and without clever use of your strengths, you can still find yourself losing.
It is worth noting the amount of care that went into making each unit in the game completely unique from any others. Every faction has its own set of soldiers to fight for it, and every single one has unique stats and buffs or debuffs that need to be managed and exploited in a battle. The combat has a lot of depth that I wasn’t expecting and is currently my favorite in any 4x game.
Once a village’s militia is defeated, you capture the village and use it to exploit the nearby Spice field using a harvester. Sand worm attacks are supposed to be a threat, but you can really just turn on the auto-recall feature and they become more of a speed bump than anything else.
Captured villages can also be used to increase the production of all of your resources by spending stockpiled resources. Units and buildings have a maintenance cost, and selling Spice is the only real way to make Solari to pay it. It is up to you to balance how much Spice you save and how much you sell.
Research can be used to unlock new units and increase your access to resources or decrease the costs associated with them. It all comes back to making Spice exploitation and expansion easier, with winning the game really being the only objective.
The Landsraad and Espionage systems are almost not worth mentioning. They really come down to “use resources to gain more resources,” like every other aspect of the game. There are no storytelling bits or interesting mechanics associated with these systems.
That’s about it. Everything in Spice Wars comes back down to the 4x gameplay loop of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. It does this pretty well, though it lacks a lot of depth in the expand and exploit fields. There’s very little to research or build compared to other 4x games, keeping the scope of everything really small, which makes sense considering its Dune. And really, that’s the problem.
Spice Wars is a game that wants to be something, but is held back by its setting. Nothing really makes this game feel like Dune, with a complete lack of storytelling or exploration of any of Dune’s themes. The world submits to you so easily. Taking over a village with violence comes with no narrative of oppression, influencing the Landstraad isn’t some complex or interesting political game. Anywhere the Dune series would have had something to say, in Spice Wars you are simply rewarded and told to keep moving.
The 4x systems are held back by the setting, too. There’s very little to gain through exploiting the world, because the world of Dune is very limited in its scale and rewards. There are no giant robots or economic super factories to build on Arrakis.
The Final Word
Spice Wars is a game that does some things better than other 4x games, and a lot of things sub-par or worse than others. It’s a game that easily could have been set somewhere other than the world of Dune, and probably would have been the better for it.
I didn’t have a terrible time playing it, and it is hard to call the game bad. It really is just not the best it could be, but while the game may still be in early access, I just don’t see it going in any of the directions it needs to go to be its perfect self.
Our Dune: Spice Wars review was written based on the PC version of the game. Find more detailed looks at popular and upcoming titles in the Game Reviews section of our website!