The Dwarves* is a fantasy themed co-operative board game which plays out in just over an hour. It is listed as two-to-five-player but also works very well solo and plays well across all player counts.
The game-play is classic co-op, as you’ll find in titles such as Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm. It is very much suited for families as well as gamers who like thematic games.
Each player has a character with individual abilities and decides what to do on their turn, but this is discussed as a group because you’re working towards a common goal. The tension mounts the longer the game goes on, and the group of players will either win or lose together – there are no individual victory conditions.
In the box you’ll find a gorgeous game board, five player boards with matching cute plastic minis, 100-ish wooden cubes (the encroaching enemy horde), 10 dice, 50-ish cardboard tiles (mainly marking the enemy’s taken land) and 80 cards. (Those lucky enough to get the ‘special edition’ got more of just about everything, including monster meeples, but the ‘Saga Expansion’ looks to include the same ‘more of everything’ for the rest of us).
First released in Germany in 2012 under the title Die Zwerge, it is set in the world of the books of the same name by author Markus Heitz. While huge in Germany the books have failed to have quite the same impact elsewhere, often blamed on what are seen by many as pretty poor translations.
This lead to a reluctance on Pegasus Spiel’s part to release the game in English – hence their decision to crowd-fund the game via Kickstarter. It smashed its €30,000 goal (passing €118,000) and is now on general release.
It is also worth noting the design team behind The Dwarves, Michael Palm and Lukas Zach, were the pair behind celebrated 2013 party game ‘Bang! The Dice Game’.
NOTE: The version you see pictured below has a paste-up board and cards from the original German version. Expect big changes in the ‘proper’ version.
One of the beauties of classic co-op games is that they’re very easy to teach and The Dwarves is no different. There is no hidden player information and you’re all on the same side, so in fact helping is beneficial to all!
A player’s turn follows a simple structure: move the hero token (bad stuff), draw new cards (if any were completed on the last player’s turn), then carry out two actions – the turn structure is even printed on the main board.
Taking a hit from the bad guys (boo!)
Moving the hero token will do one of three things: shuffle threat (read: bad) cards into the adventure (read: good) deck, roll dice and add bad guys to the board, or move the council marker in the wrong direction – all of which I’ll discuss below.
The key to winning the game is completing a number of scenario cards before either one of the heroes (that’s you guys) is killed, or you run out of time (marked by the hero token track). Each scenario card has a condition that needs meeting before you can move onto the next and the harder you want the game to be, the more of them you include.
Alongside the scenario card will be three adventure cards. These are non-essential side quests but a handy way to gain items (in the form of cards) and other benefits. When you finish a scenario you also clear out the current adventure cards and replace them – but as the game goes on some will be threat cards (see ‘moving the hero token’ above). You’ll face dire consequences if you didn’t complete them, making for some tricky situations.
The hero token starts on the left side of the hero track, but there is also a doom token at the other end – and like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, if the two meet the heroes lose the game. The doom token will rarely move early in the game, but f the enemy troops get some traction you may need to start worrying about it.
Most hero track actions involve rolling the recruitment dice, which slowly bring enemy troops onto the board. They come in from four locations that all have paths leading to a central square (Blacksaddle). Once they start arriving here the doom token can start to move at an alarming rate – time to wrap up or face defeat!
While this sounds like an old mechanism it is done well. When five enemy units occupy a hex they burst it, turning the land ‘perished’ (making it a pain to move through) before moving on. A tile is flipped and placed on the hex – its detail showing the main direction of troop movement and which headed to neighbouring tiles instead. Bad luck sees several tiles burst in a row while paths can also meet – speeding the enemy’s path to your door.
Finally there’s the council track. It starts in a neutral position and can be moved right by the players (giving nice advantages), or left by the enemy (predictably giving penalties).
Sticking it to the bad guys (huzzah!)
Each hero has a health level, three stats (attack, crafting and speed) and a special ability. You get two actions on your turn, all revolving around stat-check dice rolls.
While luck is of course a factor, it can be well mitigated. Tests see you rolling a dice for each number you have in a stat, so asking Boindil to complete a 5+ crafting test when he has 1 crafting is a desperate or stupid act – especially if it is Balyndis’ turn next and she gets 3 dice for crafting, plus a re-roll of them all. But it means things are never certain, which again adds tension.
Your actions allow you to move, fight, influence the council or try to complete a scenario or adventure/threat card test. For movement you can move as many spaces as the best dice you roll; for the council, you need to get a certain number to move it one space (there are four each side of the neutral space) – needing a six to move into the best two slots.
Fighting is also simple. There are three enemy types, the easiest (orcs) killed with a 4+, trolls a 5+ and elves a 6. Simply go to the space you want to fight in, roll your dice and deal damage accordingly. The risk is that if you manage no hits at all, you take a wound in damage.
All cards – scenario or otherwise – revolve around these same actions. You may need to move from A to B, fight creatures on the card at a certain location, or go somewhere and craft some items. But importantly the theme is felt throughout.
The final twist is in the last scenario card, which is actually three cards you turn one at a time until one equates to the current state of the board (how many enemy troops are on the board, or how many perished land tiles have been laid). This adds a nice element of surprise to the game’s finale.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: One thing that really impressed me were the ways you can change the difficulty level. Adding more scenario cards makes the game harder, but a little longer; while changing the number of enemies that bust a hex from five to four makes it harder and shorter. Doing both simply makes it insane, but it’s great to have more than one way to change things up.
- The thinker: The Dwarves sang for me as a solo experience. There is something to appeal to the table top miniatures fan here as the lava-like flow of the enemy movement combines with the dice rolling for attacks. And while it has quite a few components only the cards felt fiddly, but certainly not unmanageably so. But for me there is not enough decision making to make it more than a solo game.
- The trasher: At the right difficulty level, The Dwarves really ramps up the tension. You can choose your own character, letting me grab one of the warriors and get right into the think of it. Battles are fun if simple and by the end you can be rolling seven attack dice if you play your cards right – with a re-roll! But then you’re relying on the crafters to do their thing too, making it a great co-op.
- The dabbler: As always I was worried about the alpha gamer problem, but it hasn’t really cropped up in our games – but this may be the group, not the game. Whatever happens it will be you rolling the dice though, so no one can stop you doing what you want to do! The theme is great too, while the dice mean you’ve all got something to cheer – or as often commiserate over. Great with the right group.
There aren’t many English reviews or comments on the game yet, but those I’ve seen raise some valid points. The biggest are the game lacks decisions while the amount of randomness makes it too much of a luckfest.
Yes, there is a lot of random – which is why I wouldn’t (and didn’t) recommend The Dwarves for groups of more advanced euro gamers. But this shouldn’t worry those who enjoy lighter games, or a dice fest; and especially those with an interest in the fantasy genre. And personally, as a euro gamer myself, I really enjoy it solo.
I think the lack of decisions is covered by the same argument: those getting into the theme or playing with less experienced gamers will play their own game can get a real kick out of it – especially fans of the books. But this is generic fantasy 101, which isn’t going to sway those who are looking for high culture.
One frustrating random situation can occur early on: you get the ‘Gear Up’ scenario card (have three items equipped) and then get a run of adventure cards that don’t reward you with items. But even this can be overcome by raising the council track to the limit (very advantageous anyway) then crafting your own items.
One fair beef with The Dwarves may be on replayability. Despite having three end game scenarios I can see the game getting samey if you played it to death, but after five plays I’m still enjoying myself – especially having now found a challenging game level. I could name many games that failed to get to five plays in our house.
Finally you can find you don’t need to pick up equipment or fight monsters, as you simply work through the scenario cards and do what they tell you. If you’re in this situation, you have the difficulty level wrong: ramp it up and watch the sparks fly.
This is probably my longest review, but as this game hasn’t had many English write-ups yet – and because I’ve really enjoyed it – I thought it was worth the extra time.
While it isn’t the biggest or cleverest game out there, from a design perspective I love the way the enemy moves on the board; while as a simple soul I love rolling dice and crushing orcs: The Dwarves has become my favourite co-op and is a keeper for me.
There are definitely players I won’t be putting this in front of and a lot of people who won’t like it. But when the snobby elves head home, this will regularly be hitting my table.
* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review. It was an early paste-up version of the base game using some components from the German version, so please be aware there will be significant changes in the final release.