Tom Chick's Dune Wars Game Diary


Graphical Hackificator
Feb 12, 2008
London, UK
This game diary by Tom Chick was original posted on the gaming blog which is now deceased. I'm reproducing it here as it may be of interest to people. Thanks to Tom for writing it.

13th December 2010

Dune Wars: I drink your water! I drink it up!

Early on in Dune Wars, a mod for Civilization IV based on Frank Herbert's sci-fi novels, I ran into one of those bugs that kills any interest I might have in a mod. After all, if the guys who made this mod let a bug this serious creep into the first few turns of a game, imagine how bad the bugs are going to be once I get further.

However, the case of the missing water ended up just cementing my resolve to dig into this fantastic mod, which is probably the closest thing to Brian Reynolds' Alpha Centauri I've played since Alpha Centauri. Becuase sure enough, that's no bug. It's a feature.

Cities in Dune Wars require water instead of food. The terrain makes this clear. The map is relentlessly brown and rugged. Who would try to grow a civilization here?

Wait, hold on. What's that out in the open desert? It appears to be a light coating of brown sugar and cinnamon, like you'd find on top of a delicious moist helping of coffee cake. It's spice. It's the reason your here. Spice is the fuel that drives your economy. We'll get more into that later.

But first, you need cities. In vanilla Civilization IV, set as it is on worlds with plenty of drinking water, food is the resource cities need to grow. But here you need water. The early learning curve in Dune Wars is figuring out how best to get water for your cities.

You have three options at the start, and a fourth available in the late game. 1) Hilltops can build wind traps. 2) The terrain is dotted with weird bits of foliage that you can improve with dew collectors. 3) Sources of ground water support wells. Early on, you'll only get a small amount of water from any of these three sources. As you move along the tech tree, you can improve any of these three sources. Later, you'll be able to import water from the polar ice caps.

So as you're learning the game, you have to watch closely how much water you're producing. For instance, a city consumes two units of water for each point of size. My Fremen capital, Sietch Tabr, is size five and therefore drinks ten water every turn. My newly founded Fremen city Gara Kulon is size one, so it drinks two water every turn.

All water that isn't drunk goes into the city growth "bucket". When that bucket fills up, the city increases in size. Gara Kulon, for instance, is producing seven units of water, mainly because I've set up improved dew collectors on nearby sand verbena, which also add a point of happiness to my cities. Apparently the flowers are pretty enough to be considered a luxury good. Fair enough. I imagine you don't get a lot of flowers on Arrakis. A few sand verbenas on the dinner table work wonders to cheer the place up.

I've also built a deathstill in Gara Kulon, which is a unique Fremen structure. All factions in Dune Wars can build a water cache that saves some of the water when a city reaches its growth threshold (Civ players will recognize this as the equivalent of a granary). But the Fremen variation of a water cache, the deathstill, also adds a point of water to the city.

So Gara Kulon is generating seven water and drinking two water. That should mean five points of water go into the city growth bucket every turn. When the bucket fills, Gara Kulon will become a size two city. However, Gara Kulon is running a deficit every turn, because it's drinking eight water. And Dune Wars tells me why.

One of the cool things about this mod is that it includes a set of advanced tooltips and interface options. It's ideal for guys like me who love to consider the numbers and dig into what's going on. So when I hover my cursor over Gara Kulon's water usage, I see that the population is consuming two water -- fair enough -- and that six water are going to "nearby units".

What? What nearby units? The documentation is Dune Wars, which is quite good and nicely integrated into the Civilopedia, says nothing about units using water. After poking around a bit and running a few brief tests, I conclude it's obviously a bug. I figure I'll let the guys making the mod know about this bug, at which point I'll uninstall it and move on to something that works.

But they quickly explain to me that I should check the vicinity around my city for waterstealers. These are barbarian units with a special attribute called "water insect". It means that when the unit is within range of a city, it will drain two points of water from that city. And sure enough, just in range to the north, is the barbarian settlement of Jizran Chasm, host to three waterstealers.

Now that's a new twist! Barbarians that are effectively raiding a city and keeping it from growing. Very clever, Dune Wars. Here is a reason to be proactive against barbarians instead of just parking a defender is a city and waiting for them to come to me. Here are bandits doing some actual banditry instead of just serving as wandering experience points farms. Sure enough, here is no bug. Here is a feature so cool that it immediately cements my resolve to give this mod a long thorough look.

Like many ambitious mods, Dune Wars has been an ongoing project with various ups and downs, guided by various people with various levels of commitment. It's currently helmed by Deliverator. He got involved with the mod last year because it was something he wanted to play. He has since introduced a lot of the mechanics that make it feel uniquely Dune. Deliverator graciously shares credit with the mod's original creator keldath, interface artist koma13, and fellow designers David Allen and Ahriman, all of whom remain active in its ongoing design and testing. You can pick your way through a full history here to get a sense for how it's been a long-term collaborative development. Or just grab the mod here and try it with me.

Now that my Fremen have been sapped dry by marauding waterstealers, I've started over. It's time to play Emperor. Let's see how you filthy waterstealers, not to mention House Harkonnen, fare against the Sardaukar.


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14th December 2010

Dune Wars: Welcome to Arrakis, donut planet

In Dune Wars, if you keep moving in one direction, you will hit the edge of the map. What gives? What kind of lousy Civilization IV map doesn't wrap around like a regular globe? The answer is a map that takes place on only one hemisphere.

It was only after a few test games of Dune Wars that I realized what was going on with the basic map script. Civilization IV uses map scripts to guide your randomized worlds so they don't look like someone ate a bunch of terrain tiles and then vomited them out (although that's actually one of the map scripts). For instance, the terra map script situates all the players on a single continent. It then creates a second continent with unique resources that the civilizations can exploit once they've learned to cross the open ocean. The terra maps are still random, but they create a very specific type of game progression based on the Old World discovering the New World.

The default map script for Dune Wars doesn't wrap around, because it takes place on a world where the southern hemisphere is wide-open desert wasteland, not unlike an empty ocean. There's no reason to go out there, hence the hard edge of the map. The northern hemisphere, where the game takes place, features a continuous continent ringing the planet's northern hemisphere. Up top is a polar ice cap, which can be an important source of water for any faction that can get here to set up ice extractors and melting lenses.

So every random map in Dune Wars is like a donut. Anyone who read a copy of the book with the map included, or who played the excellent Avalon Hill board game, will probably remember the basic layout of the map, seen from the top of the planet looking down.

So how does Dune Wars fit in with the Civilization model of growing a civilization on this map? The mod presumes an unexplained Great Cataclysm on Arrakis reset all the factions to a single settler and a couple of starting units. The nine factions have to fight to reclaim the planet. The victory conditions in a game of Dune Wars are mostly the same as the victory conditions in a game of Civilization IV. There are victories for conquest (conquer everyone else), domination (occupy a certain amount of territory and control a certain amount of the total population), culture (develop four super advanced cities), and diplomacy (win a vote of the Landsraad High Council, which is the Dune equivalent of the United Nations).

There's also a terraforming victory condition. If you start building special reservoirs in your cities, the terrain around them will convert into grasslands, which has the side effect of disrupting spice production. If you convert enough tiles, you'll turn Arrakis into a garden paradise and win the terraforming victory.

I won't be doing this last one, because I'll be playing Emperor Shaddam IV of House Corrino. Now I should warn you that I'm not much of a Dune nerd, so a lot of the mythology will be lost on me. But I do bring to this game an agenda. Like any self-respecting imperial power, I plan to harvest a whole mess of spice. In the process, I will use imperial muscle to beat back any competitors. If I haven't conquered them by the end of the game's time limit, I intend to win on points.

My overarching strategy has three stages, each based on making a beeline to a certain point in the tech tree.

* Stage 1: Research desert survival techs to get several cities flourishing. This means improving my wind traps and dew collectors at the expense of any sort of religious, government, or military research.

* Stage 2: Get a spice economy going by harvesting spice from my spread out cities. I'll facilitate this spice harvesting by converting my Arrakis Future civic to spice production. Basically, this is the economic exploitation phase of my imperialism.

* Stage 3: Research Offworld Trade, which lets me build a landing stage. This will bring into play House Corrino's unique ability to call down a bunch of totally badass imperial troops called Sardaukar. This will be the military phase of my imperialism, also known as "Who wants a Sardaukar beatdown?"

Stage 1 takes the first hundred turns (a game ends after 500 turns if no one has achieved a victory condition, in which case the winner is determined by points). House Corrino is one of the few houses to start with a flying scout thopter, so it's relatively easy to grab the ruined botanical stations that hide pre-Cataclysm goodies. It also helps me get my bearing pretty quickly. If you think of the Dune donut as a clock, here's how my game has unfolded so far.

I'm at the 10 o'clock position (purple). House Harkonnen (red), ruled by Feyd-Rautha, is "south" of me at the 9 o'clock position. We're getting along royally thanks in part to a story-based tweak to diplomatic dispositions. Historically, it seems that Harkonnen and Corrino were buddies, so we get a little +2 friendship boost. We're also both of the Imperial "religion", which should make us fast friends over the long run. House Atreides (green), ruled by Alia-of-the-Knife, is further south at the 7 o'clock position. Because of the story-based diplomacy tweak, I expect Harkonnen and Atreides will keep each other busy. In terms of score, they're about 150 points behind me.

Going around the donut in a clockwise direction, I have plenty of growing room, but I eventually come to my real competition. House Ix (white) is at the two o'clock position. Next to them, at the three o'clock position, are the Bene Gesserit (yellow). These factions are neck-and-neck with me in terms of score and they both embrace the Shai-Hulud religion. This is going to be trouble in the long run.

I've also encountered House Ecaz and House Ordos. Ecaz has been friendly, and they traded me the stillsuits that let my workers build spice harvesters farther out into the desert as well as moisture seals that help my cities grow. Ordos, an espionage-based house, has been pretty uppity with me, but they're in last place, so who cares.

I haven't found the Fremen or the Bene Tleilaxu yet, so I have no idea how they're faring. The Fremen get all sorts of funky unique abilities and I've seen them pull far ahead in some of my earlier test games. I expect they're somewhere at the opposite side of the donut that I haven't explored yet.


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15th December 2010

Dune Wars: spice is the spice of life

Stage two of my three-part plan to win Dune Wars involves harvesting a lot of spice. And that makes some people -- and things! -- on this planet very unhappy.

Spice only appears in the desert, which is like ocean in a normal game of Civ IV. The desert is divided into shallow tiles near the rock outcroppings and deep desert tiles everywhere else. Units can only go into the deep desert with stillsuits if they're infantry, or with suspensor technology if they're vehicles.

Tornadoes called "spice blows" move around the desert and periodically dump a thin layer of spice on the sand. Workers can build automated spice harvesters on these thin layers (note that the worker has to stick to the shallow desert tiles until you research stillsuits). Every spice harvester, no matter where it's located, adds two gold of income to your faction's palace. It's that simple. Note that a spice harvester doesn't need a city's population to work the tile, which is how most resources work in Civilization IV. You just build the harvester, let it do its thing, and enjoy the income you get for exporting it.

The occasional problem with spice harvesters is that storms will destroy them and sandworms will eat them. You can't do a thing about either hazard. Now you might think you can fight a sandworm, but you'd be wrong. A sandworm is not a unit in Dune Wars. It is a force of nature. When it eats your harvester, you get no say in the matter. You'll just have to build another one. Furthermore, you'll eventually suck up all the spice from a tile, so you'll have to keep going where the spice goes.

In my game, I've racked up a considerable maintenance cost by spreading so many cities across such a wide swath of terrain, which I had to do it to keep House Ix bottled up (more on this tomorrow). I'll eventually reduce the cost of my far flung empire when I research and implement the Imperium civic, but that's not going to happen for a while. So my workers get busy building spice harvesters. I even found some cities for no reason other than to extend my border out to fields of spice. Workers can also build outposts to extend borders. For instance, this outpost just outside Imperial City lets me reach a couple of additional spice sources (image missing)

This nearly useless little settlement is positioned perfectly on a finger of land that juts into a rich spice field:

As my income starts to catch up with my maintenance costs, my priority is to get to a tech called Spice Industry to really punch up production. This will let me choose a new civic in a category called Arrakis Future. The three options for Arrakis Future are neutral, paradise, and spice. Neutral is the default. Paradise is a late game option for factions who want to pursue a terraforming victory. And spice is a mid-game option for those of us who want to make beaucoup money.

This civic has a significant effect on diplomacy. When I convert to spice for my Arrakis Future civic, the Fremen and House Atriedes consider it the equivalent of being the wrong religion. They're not nearly as amenable as they were when I was neutral on Arrakis Future. In fact, they're downright sullen.

But the advantages I unlock are well worth a couple of sullen factions. I can construct spice workers, which are non-combat units that can only construct spice harvesters. But they're inexpensive and they work faster than normal workers. Since spice harvesters are so often lost, it's a good idea to have a couple of spice workers on autopilot to keep your economy singing.

Another advantage from choosing spice in the Arrakis Future civic is that any spice worked directly by a city also provides hammer resources that help the city produce buildings and units. Spice also "expires" more slowly, so I get more of a return from each tile. I also unlock a special building called a spice silo, which adds extra gold income to any city based on how many units of spice I'm currently gathering.

Once I commit to using Arrakis as a source of spice production, my income starts to gradually climb. I am able to devote more resources to research and espionage. I even amass a healthy sum of solaris, which is the unit of currency on Dune. I'll eventually spend this to bring units from offworld.

A pair of sandworms keep threatening the spice fields around Imperial City. I've got a settlement far to the "north" called Zuwarah that I established because it was close to so many spice fields. A nearby bandit city with a Waterstealer keeps Zuwarah from growing, but this doesn't affect spice production in the least. I can harvest just as much spice from the vicinity of a size 1 city as I can from the vicinity of a size 10 city.

However, this bandit city will be the target of my first military action. And now that I'm flush with cash and running a positive balance, I'm ready to move on to stage three of my plan.


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16th December 2010

Dune Wars: Sardaukar beatdown

Martulah was a smuggler's city on my border until the House of Ix seized it. Then it turned into an unsightly ball of Ixian territory nestled in the crook of my empire. It proved a perfect playground for my agents, who enjoyed the bonus that comes from performing espionage missions so far from the Ixian capital of New Vernii (by the way, Dune Wars works wonders to reinvigorate Civilization IV's messy espionage).

But once I had amassed six Sardaukar legionaries, Martulah was my first target. Stage three of my plan to dominate Arrakis has begun.

I remember a fair bit of Dune lore from when I was a kid. I loved the book. But then the David Lynch movie came along and messed that up. I vaguely recall that it was one of my first experiences with how cruel the world can be. I recently re-watched it and was shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- by how awful it was. Good lord, what an amateurish mess. It was a bit like watching community theatre with a budget for cool costumes. George Lucas has nothing on David Lynch.

One of the things I recall most from Dune lore was the idea of the Sardaukar. The universe of Dune is ruled by an emperor from House Corrino, the faction I'm playing in the game. The emperor's badass troops are called Sardaukar, which sounds like something you'd put on in a pastrami sandwich, but is in fact...well, actually, I have no idea what the deal is with the name. There was something in the Dune movie about Imperial conditioning, so maybe that has something to do with it. I just know that Sardaukar are the universe's most badass troops. And I have a whole mess of them on the mesas overlooking the Ixian city of Martulah.

I'm afraid this isn't going to be very dramatic. A cluster of Ix's best units, grenade troopers and a quad, move to reinforce Martulah. I pick off a few of them easily and then smash the city's defenses. To give you a sense for how easy this is, let's talk numbers.

You start Dune Wars with the soldier, a unit with a strength of 2. This is soon obsoleted by infantry with a strength of 3. One of the good early units are the Fremen's Crysknife Fighters with a strength of 4. If you move along the military portion of the tech tree, you come to master guardsmen with a strength of 5. Factions that embrace the Madhi religion can train Madhi zealots with a strength of 6. Otherwise, you don't get a strength 6 unit until you've researched chemical explosives and secured a source of nitrate for grenade troopers.

That's where the House of Ix is now. They've got a healthy complement of master guardsmen and grenade troopers hunkered down in their cities. The 5-strength guardsmen get a +50% bonus in cities, so they count as strength 7.5. The 6-strength grenade troopers get a +50% bonus against melee fighters like my Sardaukar legionaries, so they have an effective strength of 9.

A Sardaukar legionary has a strength of 14.

But let's not stop there. I'm training them in cities with barracks, which start them off with 3 experience points. Furthermore, I've implemented a legal civic called Kanly. This is some sort of military hooha that gives new units +4 xp, but makes them 10% more expensive. So every new Sardaukar legionary begins with 7xp, which allows for two promotions. I'm giving them each their first two basic combat upgrades, each worth +10%, which boosts their strength from 14 to 17.

But wait, there's more! As soon as a Sardaukar legionary hits 10xp, I have unlocked a special promotion called Ginaz training for an additional +20% strength and a 20% xp bonus from being in combat. Ginaz training is part of Dune Wars offworld resource system. As soon as you build a landing stage, unlocked by researching a fairly advanced tech called offworld trade, you can choose a unique resource that represents your house's monopoly on some offworld boon.

Some factions have a unique resource available only to them. For instance, only House Corrino can bring in the resource called Sardaukar cooperation, which is required to build these powerful Sardaukar legionaries. I get three units of the resource, so I've traded one away to House Harkonnen, currently embroiled in a war (and losing it) with House Atreides.

Landing stages are considered a national wonder, so each faction can build two of them. I used my first for Sardaukar Cooperation, of course. However, for my second landing stage, there are all sorts of options for luxury goods, or special resources like sapho juice to boost the bonus you get from your mentats. However, since I'll be rampaging through enemy cities with my elite troops, my second landing stage will bring in Ginaz Training to unlock the special promotions. After seizing Martlah, two of my legionaries are Ginaz trained, which means they're more than twice as powerful as anything Ix can put in their way.

Like I said, stage three of my plan is called "Who wants a Sardaukar beatdown?"


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17th December 2010

Dune Wars: an ending is a very delicate time

So I end up winning my game by points. But it's not as easy as I expected. My elite Sardaukar don't exactly steamroller the other factions. They even take heavy losses against House Ix and then the Fremen. Sure, the Sardaukar get the job done well enough. But Dune Wars manages to integrate things like air power, mobility, defenses, terrain, vehicles, economy, and espionage, so I can't just run away with the game even though I've pressed the advantage of House Corrino's elite imperial troops.

The Sardaukar are powerful, but they have to walk everywhere. It takes them a long time to get where they need to go. This wasn't immediately clear to me, since you don't build roads in Dune Wars. Instead, all units in friendly territory get a movement bonus that presumably models transportation infrastructure. Once my Sardaukar invade another faction's territory, they slow down from two tiles a turn to one tile a turn. But enemy units can still move around at two tiles a turn. So the defending faction brings up reinforcements quicker than I can move forward. My Sardaukar hit hard, but they have to punch through wave after wave of defenders. So that's where rollers, quads, and suspensor craft come in handy!

While my Sardaukar are pressing forward, a couple of Ixian vulture thopters laid waste to my infrastructure, attacking spice workers and harassing smaller outposts. All the while, the Bene Gesserit were running rampant with their superior culture. And the Atreides, whom I'd underestimated, swallowed up Harkonnen territory and threatened my southern border, diverting troops I should have been using to invade Ix.

I was able to win this game by pressing House Corrino's advantage. But now I'm keen to see the other factions' advantages at work, and I might even be ready to go up a notch from the Prince AI. I'm curious to try the Bene Gesserit with their breeding program to bring out the Kwisatz Haderach. I'm curious to play with the Fremen's free-ranging units, guerrilla tactics, and sandworms. The terraforming victory condition has piqued my curiosity, and the Fremen seem to be the faction to try it. The shapeshifting Bene Tlielaxu's espionage prowess is intriguing. In fact, Dune Wars outdoes Civilization IV itself by breathing new life into the espionage system. With unlockable abilities you improve by training agents, espionage has a sense of payoff rather than the minimally rewarding busywork that passed for espionage when it was added in Beyond the Sword. The Giant Death Robot in Civilization V has nothing on Dune Wars' monitor warship, a capital spacecraft operating in the planet's atmosphere. And, of course, atomics.

It's all pretty staggering. So many ways to play... The next step in Dune Wars' development is getting it to work as a multiplayer game, which is currently underway. (Now done - Ed) When that happens, I expect Dune Wars can takes its place in a niche that should have been filled by sci fi games like Alpha Centauri and Emperor of the Fading Suns.


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