A Game of Dwarves Review (PC)

Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for. Orcs are no longer green square-jawed brutes, trolls aren’t old men hiding under bridges, and dwarves are permanently Scottish. They’re axe-wielding miners who tend to dig too greedily and too deep. Paradox and developer Zeal get this rule spot on at least, as A Game of Dwarves is all about diminutive Scotsmen who can heigh-ho and dig, dig, dig until it gets them into trouble. What role do you, the player, have in this little game? You try to manage the little sods, that’s what.

A Game of Dwarves is what happens when you cross Dwarf Fortress with Dungeon Keeper. It’s a strategy-management title where the object is to mine for minerals and make a nice little home for your dwarves to be happy in.

There’s a lot of digging before you reach those question marks.

Each level has a set of goals (primary and optional) that get progressively harder as you go along. The only way to progress and keep being able to buy things is to carve the level out for resources. What was once an almost entirely black screen slowly becomes carved out into your own personal Moria. Hopefully you won’t wake the Balrog, although better be prepared just in case.

As per usual with these types of games you have no direct control over your team of dwarves, instead you assign them roles and create tasks that they’ll automatically head for. Roles include fighters, diggers, researchers, farmers, and builders, and I’m sure you can guess what each do.

You’ll need at least one of each to start with (and often you’ll get that by default) and it’s up to you how many of each you get. With the sheer amount of digging you’ll be doing I recommend having several miners, but when the stronger monsters start popping up a few fighters are vital. You only get a Dwarf Cap of 10 to start with and it costs the princely sum of 1000 gold (which you won’t make easily) to upgrade for a vital extra seven. Oh yes, and there’s the Prince too, who you have to keep alive but can upgrade with various skills.

Food has to be farmed, tables have to be built for the food to go on, cute items like statues and banners have to be placed to keep the dwarves happy, research has to be done on special tables, beds have to be built for weary dwarves to rest their heads, and all the while there’s digging to be done. That’s A Game of Dwarves in a nutshell.

If you like base management titles like Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius you’re the type of gamer Zeal and Paradox are going for. But do you actually want it? Unfortunately there are some significant problems with A Game of Dwarves. The most notable one I encountered in the very first tutorial level made me say “what, really?” I’ve used the key word regarding this problem throughout this review already, and it is this: digging.

Yes, that’s a dwarf asleep on top of a burning torch. Did I mention this game was buggy?

I may be wrong as I haven’t played every single one, but I’ve played a lot and the one thing all those strategy-management-god games have shared is the fact that they stay on one plane – you can’t go up or down. Why? Because it’s easier to manage (vital in a management game) and easier to quickly see all weak points that you need to improve (vital in strategy).

A Game of Dwarves bravely attempts to circumvent this narrow-mindedness by forcing the player to dig up and down in their pursuit of minerals, but in doing so just becomes the exception that proves the rule. Why does no other management game allow you to go in three dimensions? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why. It’s confusing and fiddly at the best of times, and A Game of Dwarves unfortunately doesn’t even represent the best.

In a product with slightly fiddly controls and a daunting amount to keep an eye on, the developer really needs to give excellent instructions, clear and concise information, and a gentle helping hand to get players used to all the baffling quirks the game throws out. In this case Zeal have once again gone against expectations by offering little to no help whatsoever.

The tutorials generally give the right idea but are in no way comprehensive – for example it says you can build ladders to get out of holes, but doesn’t say that you can’t build ladders on top of each other, so if the hole is bigger than one block your dwarf will be trapped. Past the tutorials the game utterly fails to communicate important information, such as when a dwarf is stuck and starving to death, when monsters are attacking you, or how the hell traps work. A tiny flashing ‘!’ symbol on a taskbar does not classify as adequately informing the player Zeal, especially when you’ve designed your game so that the player can’t easily see the entire map at once.

Then there are the bugs, glitches, and general unfinished stuff. Dwarves will mine standing in empty air, they can fall through the floor, teleport sometimes doesn’t work (also note: left click to disappear, right click to reappear – please tell us this stuff, guys), attacks will miss enemies entirely or be fired through walls, then there’s the frustrating fact that dwarves can’t walk through farming areas (which can take up half your opening area) despite workers doing just that… and loads more. This is an incredibly unpolished game.

Mages, those bastards.

That’s not even mentioning the AI, which is at best dumb and at worst aggravating. Dwarf warriors will dance around enemies trying to find the best hitting spot while those enemies happily wreck your homestead, and non-fighting dwarves will either run away screaming from orcs (good, funny) or just stand around tapping at a mineral vein getting swiftly and obliviously killed (bad, not at all funny). Dwarves will happily walk into danger or get themselves murdered with barely a groan of complaint, but will also do only about ten seconds’ work before needing either a sleep or food. I left the Fast Forward option on a lot of the time.

Part of the joy in these management games is organising your base and decorating it with loads of useless junk, so thankfully there’s plenty here to get your teeth into. Digging for minerals is your only source of income so you’ll have to constantly do that, and heading ever downwards will mean that you’ll need to set up mini-bases with beds, food tables and guard posts. If you’re into carefully arranging bases exactly how you like them you’ll get a certain amount of kick out of A Game of Dwarves, but even this is tinged with warning since food farms can only be built on certain squares and anything requiring a wall or a floor might have to be moved since you have to dig everywhere in this game.

With its cutesy, fun, Lemmings-like appearance I so desperately wanted to like A Game of Dwarves, but it just wasn’t to be. If Zeal had kept the mining on one plane we might’ve had a nice Dungeon Keeper clone on our hands, but instead they threw caution to the wind and ended up with a fiddly, confusing mess.

It’s unfinished, it doesn’t communicate vital information to the player very well, and – let’s be honest here – it’s all more than a little repetitive. Every level just feels like you’re doing the same things over and over again. There’s fun to be had certainly in the building and exploration departments, but it could’ve been handled with a lot more care. This isn’t a game, it’s a tomb.

Top Gaming Moment: When the dwarves dig the ground out from under their feet, flail a little in surprise and fall to the next level. When the game doesn’t glitch, that is.

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By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 09, 2012
Too bad, this looked kinda interesting.

And I agree, managing more than one plane is just asking for trouble. Ask God.
By Hammerjinx (SI Core) on Nov 09, 2012
I bought it, and find it enjoyable despite its broad range of shortcomings. When I started following it I was expecting a lot more, but I was also expecting it to cost a lot more than $10.

It's been patched some since release, and I expect there'll be more to come. I admit tho, I haven't really had a chance to try out the latest patch.

Compared to Dwarf Fortress it is very easy to come to grips with, but also very simple by comparison. I'd like the little guys to have more personality, and be more beer-swilling, headbutting dwarves, but I don't mind the look overall.

Considering the simplicity and the bugs and the general lack of things to do, I'm actually not sure why I enjoy it. Either way, I got my $10 worth imo.

fyi: you can stack ladders, but only so high, and if you dig out the floor, your ladder stack drops a level meaning you might have to clear some area near the new top to build a 2nd shaft up.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Nov 09, 2012
Some major patching could certainly improve a lot of things, but while the game as it stands is not completely broken it makes no effort to help you have fun. You can get to grips with it, even have some fun with it, but I quickly stopped playing forentertainment and just drudgingly made my way to the next bunch of question marks. Not a sign of a good game. Dungeons was better than this... just.

Thanks Hammerjinx, that's another problem I forgot to mention: the dwarves have no personality, and out of the two voiced characters the player's dwarf is atrociously badly acted. At least "King Father" puts some effort in.
By leowaud (SI Veteran Newbie) on Nov 09, 2012
its a real shame - had such a great name too.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Nov 09, 2012
Okay, this is a shame.
By Shirukan (I just got here) on Nov 09, 2012
The game is great, there are a few things to polish. I completed whole campaign and really liked it. Only thing i would change is the limited number of dwarves.
By gameloading (I just got here) on Nov 15, 2012