Dune Spice Wars enters Early Access with sandworms, strategy, and serious lore

Sadly, Dune: Spice Wars isn’t a game where Zendaya chucks packages of cayenne at Timothée Chalamet’s head. Happily, instead, it’s a deep real-time strategy game that makes the most of the Frank Herbert series’ complicated lore. Created by the same studio that built the Viking strategy game Northgard, Dune: Spice Wars gets its Early Access release on April 26 on PC, but we’ve already had our butts firmly kicked by the challenges of life on Arrakis. 

If you thought following the plot of Dune was complicated, you might not be ready for the complex layers of lore and systems built into the strategy game Dune: Spice Wars. Beware the casual movie fan who thinks they’ll just get to set up some tiny spice harvesters and train some House Atreides troops, you’ll be sandworm chow before you’ve even managed to build your wind traps. Alongside the build and battle RTS gameplay, Spice Wars also throws in a handful of 4X mechanics so victory isn’t just about military might. It’s also about economic dominance, politicians, and using your shadowy gang of agents to gain an advantage.  

A line in the sand 

Dune: Spice Wars

(Image credit: Shiro Games)

Your first task will be to choose which faction you want to play. In this Early Access version, there are Atreides, Harkonnen, Fremen, and the Smugglers, each armed with its own advantages. Let’s say, like me, you remember Oscar Isaac’s beard and decide to play as the noble House Atreides. That meant I had a special Peaceful Annexation ability, but also couldn’t pillage neutral villages. I chose two councilors, Lady Jessica because she’s awesome – and let me impose treaties on other factions more easily – and Gurney Halleck, who unlocked a special veteran military unit. See, between the annexations and the treaties, it’s already more to think about than your usual RTS. After that, you get a top-down view of Arrakis and can send your ornithopters out to explore.

These brave little units can recon the map for me, clearing the fog of war from the sands and highlighting settlements, spice harvest fields, and other points of interest like abandoned Fremen camps and crashed vehicles. I also have the main city of Arrakeen, where I can train my troops. 

While they’re doing little soldier bootcamp I try exploring the various icons and menus that surround the edges of my UI. There’s the usual skill trees to research and unlock new abilities and technology, my Hegemony rating, which is a fancy term for how much power my house holds in the Dune. A lot of things can help to build my score here, like how many regions I control, how much tax I’ve paid on spice, and how many enemy units I’ve defeated. Little portraits of the leaders of the other factions are where I can forge treaties or trade, and there’s the usual tally of resources to my name. 

Extra spicy 

Dune: Spice Wars

(Image credit: Shiro Games)

I send out my first two units, rangers, and troopers, towards a town near a spice field, and use my Peaceful Annexation ability to take control without bloodshed. Then I throw down a Spice Refinery, send out my harvester and get ready for the sweet sweet Solari to hit my bank account. And that’s about the last smart decisions I make. My first few attempts at dominating the dunes of Dune were messy. I learned quickly that a scattered approach, trying to build my military to brute force towns and to build something new in every settlement I took over – all while ignoring my agents and any political business – wasn’t going to bring me success. You need a plan in Dune: Spice Wars, and it had better be a good one. 

You need a plan in Dune: Spice Wars, and it had better be a good one

As you go about your spicy business, you’ll get opportunities. A pop-up asking which resolution I want to support in the Landsraad Council Vote – I can use my votes and influence to support things like Imperial Propaganda or Industrial Regulations. Honestly, I have little idea which supports my plans best and just guess. Another wants me to decide between courses of action on discovering a promising young politician, but I don’t meet the criteria to select either of them. No wonder everyone in Dune seems so stressed all the time, running a spice empire is no joke, and I haven’t even had to deal with a sandworm yet. 

It’s all overwhelming at first, and the tutorial hints are minimal, so anyone new to strategy games might want to wait for a single-player campaign to guide them through the process. What is impressive is how much of a slice of the Dune universe you get just incidental narrative, so zero knowledge of the novels or movies is required to lose yourself in the story. Just be prepared to pay attention, read a lot of menus and pop-ups closely, and to watch your resources like Ebenezer Scrooge watches his staff’s expense accounts. 

This Early Access version won’t include the single-player campaign or the planned multiplayer mode at launch, but developer Shiro Games has promised both will be available before the game gets a full release. I look forward to a bit more handholding on my visits to Arrakis, but until then I’ll keep trying to conquer it in my own, chaotic way. I’m going with the Harkonnen faction next, their ethics might be questionable, but they do seem to have a knack for getting things done. 

You’ll find Shiro Games’ Northgard on our list of the best RTS games you can play right now

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