A Game of Dwarves

By: Craig Lam

Published: October 10, 2012 Posted in: Previews

I just spent two hours underground. Time compressed as I chased veins of precious minerals and excavated forgotten vaults of treasure. My diggers scurried to obliterate the cubes of earth and stone I highlighted: expansions to the top level base; passages leading into the unknown, stretching out like fingers in the dark; trunklines bifurcating into arterials before reuniting; exploratory shafts widening into vast chasms, going ever deeper into the blackness below.

I must admit I didn’t really get A Game of Dwarves at first. Before playing it my naive mind had hoped for a 3D Dwarf Fortress, replete with all of its wrongheaded idiosyncracies and unique wonders. After all, it’s A Game of Dwarves. Beyond the ‘Dwarves’ part and its attendant concepts, such as alcoholism, Oedipal return-to-the-womb mentality, and uncontrollable avarice, the two titles have little in common.

A Game of Dwarves - title

A closer comparison is Dungeon Keeper. Superficially, at least, the set-up is identical. You have a top down camera, Earth’s crust is conveniently atomised into chunky squares, and you have to manage a sassy crew of fantasy creatures. A Game of Dwarves lacks the edge that Dungeon Keeper achieved by making you the bad guy, though, instead casting you as the layabout prince of the dwarven diaspora who were driven from their homelands by an evil cabal of mages (has there every been a benign cabal?). The main campaign follows your attempts to sanitise these lost lands by digging up cached treasure, collecting magical crystals, and smacking down hordes of goblins, trolls, and giant spiders.

Each level has a set of primary objectives, usually related to finding something hidden in the depths of the Earth, and a set of secondary objectives, which tend to involve meeting targets in goblin culling or wealth accumulation. The reward for completing these optional missions comes in reputation points, which can be spent to upgrade the Prince or purchase bonuses, such as extra resources at the start of every level. Dialogue between the delinquent Prince and his stern father provides a little light relief from all the digging and fighting, though the jokes tend to be on the tame side and most of the humour comes from the King’s voice, which sounds like Ivan Drago impersonating Groundskeeper Willie. Rrreal Dwarrrves rrroll theirrr Rrrs, rrright?

A Game of Dwarves - story

Although the mission objectives can be quite varied in their description, what they tend to boil down to is digging a path to the closest floating ?s, which mark out points of interest, and dealing with whatever you find there until you discover a mission objective. Most of these rooms feature a couple of enemies and some treasure. Frequently, rooms close to your starting point will contain monsters that will smack your neophyte dwarves into paste. There’s no time limit, so it makes sense to build up your resources and get some training done before venturing forth. Enemies don’t seem to move beyond the confines of their oubliettes, making the pace of progression entirely up to the player, which suits a casual game, but can lead to a rather static feel at times.

Beyond the objectives, a lot of the fun comes from shaping a settlement out of the rock and hoovering up clods of shiny metals. Generally, these metals end up pimping out throne rooms, drinking halls, and graveyards. There are plenty of objects to build, though I was disappointed in the lack of mega projects to splurge on in the decadent late game.

A Game of Dwarves - princewhack

Dwarves can be specialised into five base classes: crafter, digger, fighter, scholar, and worker. From these base classes there are unlockable sub-classes, such as researcher and sniper. They’re all well differentiated in design, and some are awfully cute, like the perpetually tankard swigging diggers. They have the basic needs of food and rest, provided by beds and dinner tables. Aesthetic luxuries like hideous tourmaline tiles and gauche statues of flagons work to raise the happiness and efficiency of the populace. At the moment, the dwarves seem strangely characterless. They act more as units than personalities, so it’s hard to develop much attachment to them beyond a respect for their usefulness: there’s no difference between how the berserkers and scholars act when they’re at home.

The cornerstones of the dwarven economy are mining and farming. Most of the minerals you need can be accumulating just from excavating a level in search of treasure rooms, though it makes sense to dig out any gold or other precious metals that you discover. Farming takes place around fertilisation stones. Since you can only have three farmers per fertiisation stone, it’s important to find a balance between food and wood producing crops. In most of my settlements, I’ve produced a surplus of wood. Fortunately, it’s possible to sell any excess resources at the Hemfort.

The Hemfort is the Dwarven nation’s HQ. Resources can be traded here, which is absolutely essential if a particular material is scarce in the level you’re playing. Unfortunately, each transaction requires a mouseclick; there’s no way to specify a set number of resources to buy or sell, nor can you simply hold the button down to keep selling. I’d love to see the Hemfort interface improved and the trading expanded in scope.

A Game of Dwarves - oops

At this stage there are still a few bugs in AI and pathfinding, basically the same sort of problems I remember from Dungeon Keeper 1: dwarves adding doglegs and kinks to routes that look straightforward to my eye, ignoring soft beds in favour of stone pallets, or standing idle next to objects I want them to interact with. I imagine these problems are easily fixable, however.

I’m looking forward to seeing how A Game of Dwarves develops. What I’ve played so far has been a solid, competent take on a sadly neglected genre. It’s far gentler and more static than the Dungeon Keeper series, yet it has a relaxing charm of its own. Improvements to certain systems, such as the economy and the dwarven AI before release could make it even more compelling.

Craig Lam
twitter | email