Frank Herbert’s Dune holds a special place in the gaming community, providing the basis for one of the first true real-time strategy titles, Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty. Shiro Games is treading on hallowed ground with its latest title, Dune: Spice Wars, and the studio seems to know it. The game’s recent 1.0 release still has some pain points after a year in early access, but it's clear that Spice Wars was developed with a clear passion and understanding of the assignment.
Dune: Spice Wars is a 4X game, played completely in real time, set against the backdrop of Herbert’s novel. While the game clearly uses established 4X titles like Civilization 6 as a framework, massaging that same formula into an RTS flavored with the Dune universe gives Spice Wars an edge.
At launch, Spice Wars features the Atreides, Harkonnen, and Fremen factions, in addition to Smugglers, House Corrino, and House Ecaz. Each faction operates on the same basic principles but has some unique wrinkles that lend them to a specific play style. For example, while House Atreides can’t pillage settlements, they can peacefully annex them, which is more expensive but yields long-term bonuses. The Fremen, on the other hand, aren’t subject to the same penalties for failing to pay the Emperor's ever-present spice tax.
The standard game mode, Battle for Arrakis, is supplemented by the protracted two-player Kanly Duel and the more lengthy Conquest Campaign. The gameplay will be familiar enough to seasoned players of the 4X genre, but a series of helpful tooltips and tutorials are also present to fill you in on the basics.
Each procedurally generated map is composed of regions controlled by a single settlement (think city-states from Civ 6). These can be annexed, turning them into extensions of your regime, or pillaged for a quick cash infusion. Each settlement also has randomly assigned traits that may influence how you specialize its infrastructure.
The harsh environment of Dune plays into your strategy, too — units deteriorate when outside of your territory too long, which has the added effect of curbing rushes as a viable strategy. The random appearance of sandstorms and sandworms can also effectively shut down operations for large areas of the map.
Expanding, conquering, and researching all in real time may sound overwhelming, but the action on the map occurs at a leisurely pace, and you can pause the action at any time. Things can still get occasionally chaotic, though, usually when you’re attempting to fight wars on multiple fronts.
The minute-to-minute combat in Spice Wars is serviceable but lacks precision. Your ranged units make a bad habit of engaging in melee, while your melee units will chase the enemy into their own territory from a defensive position. Beyond your units’ occasional ineptitude, what’s even more frustrating is trying to figure out why you’ve lost. You’re provided with stats for all of your units, but these numbers lack transparency and context. Unlike with a game of Civ, which provides a detailed comparison and breakdown of the math involved, I can’t tell you why having a unit with more armor is good, or what effect fire rate has on the outcome of an engagement.
While the martial combat is a bit forgettable, Shiro Games has done a great job turning espionage and policy meetings, the elements that I’d typically ignore in a game of Civ, into engaging metagames within themselves. This truly makes a game of Spice Wars feel like a war of assassins, where having the right agents in place and getting on the right ballot can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Aesthetically, Spice Wars looks great, leveraging visual themes inspired by the recent Denis Villeneuve adaptation, and the soundtrack feels like a mashup of the groovy 1984 movie soundtrack paired with the suspenseful rock anthems from the original RTS titles from Westwood Studios. The voice work, unfortunately, lacks the same distinction, with the unit acknowledgments, in particular, ranging in quality from passable to comical.
In its current state, Dune: Spice Wars is novel and entertaining, if altogether imperfect. While the core gameplay won’t shatter anyone’s expectations of the 4X or RTS genres, Spice Wars absolutely nails the feel and aesthetics of open warfare over the sands of Dune. Like Paul Atreides, this game didn’t roll out of bed ready to topple an empire, but if Shiro Games continues to support Spice Wars with the same level of dedication we’ve seen throughout early access, it has the potential to achieve greatness.
The 1.0 release of Dune: Spice Wars was released on Sep. 14 for Windows PC. The final release of the game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Funcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.