Go to Reviews.org US Edition
Dune: Spice Wars review
There’s more than enough to chew on in Spice Wars for both Dune fans and newcomers alike.
Dune: Spice Wars isn’t just one of the best strategy games of the year, melding together 4X and RTS gameplay with striking visuals that do justice to the legacy of the source material involved.
Dune: Spice Wars review
As someone who started getting into board games around the same time they stopped making real-time strategy ones, Dune: Spice Wars feels like a little bit of both.
Developed by Shiro Games and published by Funcom, Spice Wars is a refreshing riff on a classic formula. The game leans into the best aspects of the source material and elegantly blends the long-term depth of 4X strategy games like Sid Mier’s Civilization with the satisfying immediacy of something like Starcraft.
All good board games begin with the set-up. Each time you start a new game of Spice Wars, you’ll get a randomly generated (albeit tile-based) version of Arrakis and be given a choice of six major factions to play as. More might come later down the line. However, right now the list includes House Atreides (AKA “The Good Guys”), House Harkonnen (AKA “The Bad Guys”), the Smugglers (AKA “The Profiteers”), House Corrino (AKA "The Royals"), House Ecaz (AKA "The Met Gala Mafia") and the Fremen (AKA “The Locals”).
Each of these factions comes with unique military units, faction-specific abilities and a set of smaller perks that are tied to your faction’s advisors. The Fremen, Harkonnens, Smugglers, Ecaz, Corrino and Attredies all have access to a total of four advisers. However, every game starts with you picking two of them. This empowers you to experiment with different builds and play styles within the scope of each faction. While the Smugglers might have a natural affinity for trade, the right adviser can make them a military powerhouse.
The second thing you need to cover with any good board game is the objective. What are you working towards? How can you get ahead of the competition, and how do you win?
In the case of Dune: Spice Wars, the goal here is to reach a “Hegemony” score before your rivals do. Hegemony points can be earned for pretty much anything, from harvesting spices to exploring the map to paying your taxes on time to winning military encounters. You can even build structures that crank out nothing but the currency, pushing you closer and closer to victory with each passing day.
There are a few additional win conditions in the game, such as being elected governor or assassinating or defeating every other player on Arrakis, but these are typically more trouble than they’re worth. They’re more intended as tools that can be used to stop someone else from winning if you’re behind on victory points than as an alternative path to pursue from the get-go.
Winning a game of Dune: Spice Wars is all about the long game. It isn’t about building the biggest army you can or racing down the tech tree. It’s about juggling your obligations and crises, dealing with unexpected setbacks and exploiting the right opportunities at the moment that’ll maximize the difference between you and the other factions.
If all that sounds a little overwhelming, fret not. Dune: Spice Wars gives you the option of hitting the space bar and pausing the action. This smaller mechanical quirk makes a huge difference to the experience of playing a game with this many moving parts. It gives you a moment to take a breath, get a grip on what’s happening on-screen and think carefully about your next move.
Even if you are in a race against time, there’s always enough give that you can take a minute to balance the various plates you’re spinning before adding another onto the stack. As a result of this inclusion, Spice Wars feel much closer to stuff like the Dune board game than most other real-time strategy games do. After a while, I actually found myself wishing that more games were unafraid to slow things down in the way that this one does.
Most of the time, the factions of Dune: Spice Wars cohabitate on Arrakis amicably. Your rivals feel less like merciless robots looking to terminate your presence on the map but instead behave more like other players at a dining table.
Together, you’ll carve up the natural resources and neutral settlements on the map like colonialist Europe divided up Africa. From time to time, you might even sign a research or trade agreement with one faction to help you get ahead of another.
Sometimes though, the conflict between the great powers of Arrakis is inevitable. Whenever that happens, Spice Wars is more micro than macro. It’s akin to Total Annihilation rather than Total War. Armies rarely grow in size beyond a dozen or so different units, are expensive to maintain and can easily be eaten by a worm, get eviscerated by a sandstorm or run out of supplies mid-transit if you aren’t careful.
All this is to say that Spice Wars doesn’t fall into the trap of mistaking quantity for quality. The on-screen action is always pretty readable and the number of variables in play, from terrain bonuses to defensive structures, give you plenty of room to get creative.
Of course, this is Dune we’re talking about. Military might is far from the only factor in play. Both short-term successes and long-term strategies have to be underpinned by smart diplomacy and good intelligence.
The former is structured by the Landsraad mechanic. For every week of in-game action that elapses in Spice Wars, new laws will be either enacted or rejected. Sometimes the effects of these laws are broad and beneficial, like reducing the upkeep of armed forces or cutting taxes. Other times, they are suppressive to the ambitions of a single faction.
The Attredies and Harkonnen hold more sway on this front relative to the Smugglers and Fremen. However, that’s not to say the latter can’t nudge the politics of the court in their favour.
In any case, the Landsraad makes the diplomacy mechanics here a lot juicier to mess with than other grand strategy games of this type. Much the same can be said for the Spice Wars' spycraft mechanics.
Each faction recruits a roster of agents over time. These agents can be deployed to infiltrate the institutions of the Dune universe or the ranks of other players. Doing either will accrue Intel, a currency that can be invested in powerful, but consumable abilities that can quickly turn the tide of a battle.
These Intel abilities can be incredibly powerful in combat situations but are also very useful in the hands of players who prefer to focus on the economic or diplomacy side of the game. When you have the ability to declare ceasefires or inspire mutiny within the ranks of your enemies, you don’t necessarily need to have a standing army ready to go.
Success will usually come easiest to those who are willing to try every tool at their disposal, but Spice Wars never forces you to play in any given direction. Your journey towards victory will likely follow the same contours from faction to faction, but there’s plenty of room for you to make that path your own.
In the months since it first entered early access, developer Shiro Games has added not just new factions to the game but also new modes. In addition to the standard four-player match, there's now also a faster 2-player mode, a more-involved campaign and both competitive and cooperative multiplayer support. It all adds up to a comprehensive package.
Spice Wars isn't just a lot of fun to play, it's very accommodating when it comes to fitting it into your life. It's not going to take over your evenings and weekends like a Civilization or Total War game will unless you want it to.
Is Dune: Spice Wars worth the money?
If the thrills offered by the recent film adaptation or a longer-term fascination with Frank Herbert's science fiction series is the vector by which you’ve been drawn to consider picking up a copy of Dune: Spice Wars, I have some bad news. The fact that this is a strategy game set on Arrakis might actually be the least interesting thing about it.
Sure, the Shiro Games version of the Dune universe is dripping with flavour and texture that feels inspired by other adaptations yet is wholly unique. Yet, the fact that the specific structure and pacing of the gameplay here feels so well complemented by the setting and subject material is ultimately secondary to the fact that the core gameplay loop is as compelling as it is.
Games like Age of Mythology and Warcraft got me into PC gaming to begin with and while my passion for them endures, the broader popularity of the genre has fallen by the wayside in the years since. We’re a long way from the temporary stay of execution that the Starcraft 2 trilogy bought the real-time strategy genre.
Dune: Spice Wars is not a board game, but the specific ways in which this initial incarnation feels like one make a compelling case that the once-mighty, now-vintage RTS might be overdue for a comeback.