Dune: Spice Wars is an exciting mix of RTS combat and political maneuvering

Dune: Spice Wars is an RTS set on the desert planet we've seen so much of in the books, movies, and other Dune games, but excitingly, it's not just about pushing an army around: It also involves the alliances and economies of Dune's broader galaxy. During a recent hands-off demonstration, I watched as a House Atreides player spread out from a single starting territory to explore the surface of Arrakis while also engaging in imperial intrigue, something you can glimpse in the new trailer above.

Spice Wars shares a lot of design basics with Shiro Games' critically acclaimed Northgard, an RTS centered on capturing and controlling territories rather than spreading out over a wide-open map. That works pretty well with the 4X DNA present in Spice Wars. Expanses of desert terrain form outlined territories which each contain a small town. Conquering the town confers control of the territory, and each section of desert can be exploited for resources like Spice for trade, Plascrete for buildings, or various rare commodities to sell for cold hard cash.

Taking territory is just not just about selecting some troops and marching them on over like you might've done in a Command & Conquer game. Factions like the Atreides can diplomatically annex small towns if they want, although it takes a lot of time. They can also roll in the troops, but that's expensive and dangerous: The locals put up a fight, and conquering one town will set others against you as Fremen bandits then come to raid your territory. Further, any troops venturing outside your turf are automatically on a clock: Once they run out of supplies, they'll quickly die.

The desert isn't a homogenous expanse of sand. Deep Deserts are the equivalent of oceans in other 4X games, and foot units there rapidly run out of supplies and are at huge risk for sandworm attacks. Meanwhile, special territories like the polar ice caps can supply resources otherwise very hard to get. Water, marketing lead Adrien Briatta said during the streamed preview, is "going to be a problem." Players will be drawn to the ice cap at the north pole, which means conflict.

No place like CHOAM

Most of Northgard's resources went towards building obvious material things. For that, Spice Wars really just has Solaris, Plascrete, Manpower, and Water. Truly taking control of Dune will require clever use of soft political currencies, in addition to agents to infiltrate and lobby important organizations. Meanwhile, your hard resources go towards backing up those plays by expanding your holdings on-world. 

Dune is a far more political than military work of science fiction, and Spice Wars appears to respect that. Though the game takes place only on Arrakis, the politics of the wider Imperium and its factions are vital to success. Players will curry favor in the Landsraad, trying to pass resolutions and laws that favor themselves over others. The goal is to be appointed Governor of Dune, but that's a path they'll find difficult if they're too aggressive in military conflict.

(Image credit: Shiro Games)

Landsraad favor is just one of the currencies players can accrue and spend. Your Authority goes towards pleasing factions such as the Spacing Guild, Bene Gesserit, Emperor, and others, for which you get direct rewards. There's also the Spice sales and distribution company, CHOAM, which buys all the Spice you don't personally hoard—and you have to hoard some, since the Emperor also demands a direct tax in Spice. (You may have heard somewhere that it must flow.)

Dune: Spice Wars will release in Early Access on Steam this spring. Multiplayer, new factions, and the full campaign will be added as updates to that unfinished version.

Jon Bolding is a games writer and critic with an extensive background in strategy games. When he's not on his PC, he can be found playing every tabletop game under the sun.