I wasn't sure what to expect from A Game of Dwarves when I first picked it up. I had heard comparisons to Dungeon Keeper, but that didn't tell me much about it. There are just too many nuances in games today to compare them directly. A Game of Dwarves is many games: a resources management game, a (dwarven) life simulator, and a city/fortress building game.
The game starts out pretty much the way you might expect: The dwarves used to have a giant kingdom and many allies, but a sinister force of orcs and goblins controlled by a group called the Mages appeared and wiped out all but the last of dwarves. It's pretty much what we've come to expect from a generic fantasy world.
Don't let the generic plot drive you away though. The developer knows that they're borrowing from other sources and they wear it on their sleeve. And they change it up a bit by adding in some comedy and pop culture references.
You'll soon dive into the game, playing as the son of the King Father and as it turns out, you're kind of a lazy asshole. So the King Father kicks you out into the world and tasks you with creating your own clan, and eventually reclaiming the former dwarven kingdoms.
There is a decent in-game manual that explains some of the basics, that I recommend reading before diving in. Odds are though, you won't understand how a lot of the game works until you actually start playing. Which is okay, because the first settlement you are tasked with developing in the game is a tutorial that the King Father walks you through. There's still a fair bit of head scratching in the beginning but there's generally enough help to get you moving.
At its core, gameplay basically boils down to three different modes: Dig to explore and create (or discover) new rooms, build new objects to develop your settlement, and train dwarfs and research tech. It sounds basic, but when everything is running all at once it gets more complicated.
In the digging mode, you tell your dwarves to carve out specific blocks creating a honeycomb of hallways and rooms, eventually digging further down vertically. As your dwarves dig, they can come across different resources: gold, iron, silver, fertile soil, etc. These resources are limited so how you choose to use them is going to greatly affect your settlement. The fertile soil tiles especially throw a kink into things, since they are destroyed forever if you dig them up and they are the only way you can grow resources like food and wood. You might be intent on mining further for gold, only to be hindered by a large patch of fertile soil. Do you leave the soil to farm on later or destroy it and search for more gold?
Once you have enough resources you can begin building: Dwarves need beds to sleep in, tables to eat at, and food put on those tables. Managing the dwarves’ happiness is not unlike The Sims. That's just the basics though. There is plenty more in depth building both functional and aesthetic. The are a variety of dwarf jobs classes and some of them are more effective if you build them items: fighters can train by fighting dummies, scholars can research at research tables, etc. The aesthetic items serve a purpose as well though, they make your dwarves happy, and when they're happy they work harder. After all, wouldn't you rather work in a marble hall with badass banners than a dirt hole? I thought so.
After you have your settlement ironed out and your dwarves all running like a well oiled machine, you can begin to expand your research into various tech trees. Scholars provide research points that can allow you to do things like upgrade your fighters to archers or knights, build more effective objects, dig faster, place traps, and so on.
Of course, at some point your dwarves will probably accidentally dig into a pit filled with goblins, orcs, or some other nasties. That's why it's important that you actually train some fighter dwarves at some point. A nasty orc or goblin can make short work of a poor digger dwarf.
Each level has an objective that is stated at the beginning. Generally the objective (at least for me so far) seems to revolve around reaching a specific room buried somewhere on the map. This might seem like a simple objective, given that you can dig in any direction, but it’s not. There are blocks called undiggium (or something to the effect) that your diggers can’t (as you may have guess) dig through. So you can’t simply dig straight down fifteen blocks into the objective. Generally, you will have to dig and spiral down, discover rooms, unlock doors, and finally reach the objective. Fighting whatever evil creatures you unearth along the way. Even then, simply completing the main objective and moving on isn’t the wisest move. Each level has a series of “side quests” where you might have to unlock a certain tech tree, build X or Y, have a certain type of dwarf, etc in order to complete the side quest. And there’s reason to do it! After you beat a level, if you completed certain side quests, you unlock “influence” that allows you to upgrade the prince. This can range from making the prince better in combat, getting more money at the beginning of each level, or being more effective at research. It seems well worth the trouble!
There’s a lot that can happen in A Game of Dwarves, and all of that is further complicated by the fact that every level is randomly generated. Luckily, there is a freeplay sandbox mode, for those of you that might want a more laid back game. The mode allows you make a custom game by determining the size of the map, the number of discoverable rooms, the amount of resources, and the amount of enemies. You could even turn the enemies off all together, start with a maxed tech tree, and the ability to create non-dwarf items. Granted, if you wanted you could also create a map loaded with enemies and few resources. The idea of the mode though (aside from adding more missions and play time) is to allow people to create the giant dwarven settlement that they dream of from scratch! Don’t want to worry about enemies and gold while you build your giant underground castle? No problem!
That’s not to say that the game is without faults though. By most accounts, the game is pretty ugly. While I like some of the artistic cartoony design, there’s no getting around that at least some of it is probably due to a low budget. The dwarves especially are pretty homely looking… And their animations are even worse, surprisingly. Sometimes the dwarves literally float around; like the game somehow forgot they were supposed to be walking. There’s also very little voice acting outside of a few grunted sentences and phrases. The opening cutscene is voiced, but outside of that, you’re going to be reading everything else. The camera also get's a little bit wonky at times as the the levels fill up with winding tunnels and labyrinths, but nothing too bad.
Overall though, the game is fun despite a few bugs and a learning curve that’s steeper than it really had to be. I could see some people who love Minecraft getting carried away building the perfect settlement all the way from the surface to the bottom of the map. I can easily see this game becoming a cult classic for those that put the time and love in!
If you enjoy any kind of city building or resource management game, A Game of Dwarves might be worth a look! It may not be the prettiest game, but it’s fun and there’s a decent amount of content. And it’s only $10!