When Empress Theodora looked out upon the world that her historians would claim she carved from the earth with her own hands, she smiled to herself, content in her handiwork. Before retreating back into her stately pleasure dome, she would take comfort in her total and undeniable control over every continent, every ocean, even the sky above her head and the space beyond that. Textbooks would proclaim her glorious and eternal ascent as the work of a singular, god-like mastermind with hands that crafted reality. The books would be wrong, of course. Sure, she pointed fingers, issued edicts, sent spies and soldiers. But they ignore the countless lives and blood and blackened cities that formed the foundation of her benevolent theocracy. It started with one village, some local minerals, a single garrison, and from there an ever widening gyre of war, intrigue, colonization, and conversion played out for centuries while she supped languorously on imported fruits and imported women. But in the end, it wasn’t the armies she raised, or the rival kingdoms she razed which secured her triumph as empress of the globe…
It was her priests that carried the message of girl-love to every corner and brought kings and queens to heel and ushered in the glorious triumph of a cultural revolution of women who love women. That’s what the books would say, after all she produced the books.
Agamemnon never made it to Troy. His compatriots may have set sail, and sure, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia all the same. But as the king made his preparations, demanding resources and men from neighboring city-states as he set out to steal back Paris’s wife, he faced a tremendous loss. It was a categorical miscalculation of his own greatness that he perceived as a titanic insult. And so, regrouping, he never made his way across the Aegean. Instead he dedicated his life to routing his rival. He studied the defeat, shored up his weaknesses, and pursued that one motherfucker across the land—siphoning off resources from brother and fellow king. Making truces and deals he had no interest in honoring. He was going to find Pterelaos, and before he killed him, destroy everything that motherfucker loved.
And Liu Bei? Dear sweet Liu Bei roaming the countryside and making friends from rivals with the power of vibes. Only entering a fight to show off his moves and impress his bros. He united China under a vibe check. And the vibes were truly good. Even if grain production was slightly down year-over-year.
Part of the reason I love these kinds of strategy games, in spite of their often miserable political underpinnings, is they excel at creating stories. Sure, numbers and geometry make them tick, but the beating heart of these games is just narrative generation engines. No matter which particular genre or blend of genres you prefer from the Three Moves Ahead library, it’s all just random tables and Excel documents set in motion to tell the story of violence on local, national, global, and maybe even galactic scales. And when a game can’t do that? Well it has to have at least solid, chaotic action to fall back on. When you send your squads to sack an enemy resource, you need the localized drama that puts the video in videogame (and a raucous Frank Klepacki score).
Dune: Spice Wars doesn’t just not provide for that—it actively resists it. Instead of using the mechanical opportunities as a means for players to construct personal narratives of expansion and extermination, it is very transparent about the spreadsheet most games try to obfuscate. Advisors are just stat blocks. As for your opponents, shouting at hated talking heads on the evening news generates more of a relational loop. They exist, sometimes you’ll see their names and flags on votes, or in treaties where assets are incremented up or down. They might have a bark or two. But that’s it. Liet Kynes won’t deliver a rousing eco-terrorist speech as your water generators are captured by Fremen rebels. Duke Leto won’t ramble about how you should have invested in Desert Power. Baron Harkonnen has no words to back with NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Even the weird hybrid ‘90s adventure game from Cryo Interactive had Saudukar, the Imperial shock troopers, dropship in when you failed to meet your spice quota, leaving you with a cutscene of the vague VGA-likeness of Kyle McLachlan turning to bone in the arid wastes. But there’s none of that here. Just the desert winds, a semi-ambient electronic soundtrack, and an RTS stultified by 4X and Grand Strategy ambitions it hasn’t yet fulfilled.
And then there’s the connection to Dune the source text. All the names are there, characters from the novels show up. Major and minor factions, technologies and political angles. Dune: Spice Wars, like the 2021 adaptation that it quotes in branding and in decisions like making Liet Kynes a Black woman, is too focused on showing off its knowledge of proper nouns to deliver the core of Frank Herbert’s epic series of novels that is as aggressively political as it is orientalist. Those books feature a number of factions each with agendas within agendas. Maneuverings play out in both grand and microscopic gestures. Westwood studios already proved it’s ideal for adapting into games.
But it has to make some degree of sense. 4X and even RTS games are only as good as the logical consistency of their conflicts. Adaptations need to either resist and counter the source, or express an understanding of it in their translation.
In my game as the Fremen, I opened up trade negotiations with the Harkonnen just to see if I could, and I ended up swindling them into a sick deal that had them kicking me influence and money for a handful of spice. Meanwhile the Good Duke Leto Atreides was busy mulling over whether or not he should just break one of the most sacrosanct laws of the Imperium and dig into his ancestral stockpile of atomics to obliterate my villages he kept unsuccessfully laying siege to. I guess the only thing that made sense was that the Combine Honnete kept demanding their cut every year. Except…why am I, as a Fremen, having anything to do with fucking CHOAM or the Landstraad? It’s the year 10,191 for fuck’s sake. I should be a haunting desert myth. An uncountable, unknowable, and as-of-yet untappable resource or a prickly and impossible to eradicate thornbush snarl in the minds of the Great Houses.
While the game offers multiple win conditions—obliterate your opponents through war or assassination, achieve enough political control over Arrakis to win through hegemony, or be elected the governor of the planet—they don’t take each faction’s wants and needs into consideration. No matter which faction you choose to play as, these are your win conditions, and the conditions under which you will play are largely the same too. Rather than forming a tight network of underground mercantilism and information brokerage, smugglers are just as inclined as the Harkonnen to build a massive army and steam roll the map. The religious and mystical fervor of the Fremen never factors into their win condition nor does the ecological desire of Dr. Kynes who has pledged herself to making the dry desert planet a lush paradise—but if they’re very good the Emperor of the Known universe who has been repeatedly trying to colonize Arrakis might just grant them governorship. Neither faction will work with the Atreides towards any kind of lasting union (despite this literally happening in the books and highly out of his wheelhouse Lynch film). These are conditions for a much more complicated and more fulfilled game though. But they’re what’s necessary to transform an efficient game with the veneer of “Frank Herbert’s Dune” into a Dune ass Dune game.
The best way I found to approach this game is as an RTS with a very, very light hand on the political stick. I turned the speed all the way up, didn’t let myself spend more than a few seconds on each vote, and largely ignored my trade requests. I never let myself hit the pause button and I squeezed Arrakis dry. My CHOAM contract debts were always paid in full and I cranked out soldier after soldier after soldier, and I overran the desert as fast as my soldiers could move. I set the map to one AI opponent and let the Fremen get their total route of the Harkonnen.
I can see the places where this game can get filled out, and I hope it does. There’s room for this game to impress by the time it leaves Early Access. It could take a spot on my list of Dune games to play. But it has to figure out what it wants to be and invest in those areas first. Dune: Spice Wars isn’t a worthy successor to the Westwood Dune Legacy yet, but like God Emperor of Dune, it just might be full of surprises yet.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.