It’s been quite some time since there’s been a new dedicated minion management strategy game, a genre arguably kicked off by Dungeon Keeper and then perfected by Evil Genius. Developer Zeal Game Studio and publisher Paradox Interactive, a publishing house well known for its niche strategy titles, are trying to revive the genre with A Game of Dwarves. Their efforts are very reminiscent of Dungeon Keeper, allowing you to command and organize a horde of jolly, bearded little men in their quest for treasure and retaking their homeland, but whether A Game of Dwarves breathes new life into the minion management genre is a more complicated question.
You play as an arrogant and lazy dwarf prince, who is kicked out of the mansion by his dad, the aptly named King Father, and sent off to the ancestral dwarf homeland to reclaim it from sinister encroaching mages. It’s an amusing setup and more original than “you are god/a military commander, go control all these little dudes.” It’s just too bad that there is so little voice acting in the game; more would have given the various characters some personality. This game is about the dwarves themselves and ordering them around, and the plot setup at the beginning of the game is mostly an excuse to get you doing that.
The campaign starts out pretty slow, with tutorial missions that teach you the game’s mechanics. The basics—spawning new units, assigning them jobs, establishing a simple self-sufficient mine with food, barracks and guard posts—are all covered here, and while the tutorials do teach you how to play the game, they don’t exactly tell you how to succeed at it. That takes some guesswork and trial and error, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about these types of games.
You have various classes at your disposal: miners for gathering resources and expanding your mine, workers for tending food sources, and soldiers to fight the enemies that you unearth in secret passages. The trick is learning how to leverage each one, and in this regard there isn’t as much flexibility or strategy as I would have liked. Sadly the dwarves are kind of stupid, and this naturally places limits on how you plan your mines and progress through the game.
For one, you learn very early on that you need soldiers, lots and lots of soldiers. If you don’t have a solid platoon or two when your miners break through and unleash a horde of giant spiders, or even worse, when you run up against a mage, you’re pretty much screwed. This is also frustrating because the combat is hands-off; you can’t point a solider at something and tell him to kill it, whereas you can tell a miner to pick away at a specific grid square or direct a worker to harvest from a specific fruit tree.
This means you need to place guard posts near suspicious areas you are expanding into so that you have several troops milling around in case of an emergency. It’s also a good idea to keep beds and food supplies nearby as well, because any dwarf class will wander off in search of rest or food when they get tired or hungry. It’s amusing at first how bumbling, self-absorbed and incompetent your dwarves are without your guiding hand, but it quickly grows tiresome, especially as the difficulty ramps up.
The mines are difficult to navigate, which doesn’t help matters. Your cleared areas appear to be floating in an endless black abyss, which makes moving from floor to floor quickly a pain. There are floating questions marks that denote possible new areas and hidden treasures, but sometimes monsters are hiding in these caves as well. It doesn’t help that to progress you usually need to dig down, and the vertical scrolling is rather awkward. I can’t tell you the number of times I tried to mark a new grid block for clearing, or tried to place a ladder, only to click on the completely wrong block or place ladders horizontally on walls. If you have patience this isn’t a huge issue in regular day to day building, but when there’s a catastrophe you must respond to, it can be needlessly difficult to scroll and pan your way all the way back to the action. The game also doesn’t do the best of jobs notifying you when an emergency is taking place; you really need to keep an eye on your HUD’s status bars so you don’t miss several dwarves biting it during a spider invasion happening clear on the other side of the map.
The monotony of the environments also tends to drag a little. Now I don’t want to imply that the game is ugly, because it isn’t—I rather liked the cute, angular art style and on purely technical merits Dwarves is an attractive, if not groundbreaking game visually. Zeal did some cool things with specular highlighting on the dwarven armor and helmets, and having dozens of the little guys chipping away at your mine, all arranged on different floors, is pretty impressive. I just wish there was more variety in the environments. With a world made entirely of 1x1 meter blocks you really need some color to liven up the grid, but Dwarves is mostly constructed in orange-brown stone and earth.
I hope I’m not sounding too down on this game because it really isn’t that bad. This becomes hugely apparent when you take a break from the story campaign and venture into custom mode. Here, you can scale down the quantity of enemies or turn them off entirely, and you have a more lax resource system. Without the need to scrounge so many resources or train and field huge numbers of soldiers, you can really flex your building skills and create a sprawling underground dwarven paradise.
Here the more aesthetic aspects of the game—the various creature comforts, architectural design elements and strategies for building huge mines—come into focus. The goal isn’t to destroy mages or creatures but to challenge your own imagination, and personally I had a lot more fun doing that. People who played Minecraft in survival, then switched to creative mode to really let their imaginations go wild, will have a similar sensation here. It opens up the game and shows what is possible with the engine and the gameplay, without distracting you with difficult-to-manage battles or huge swathes of starving dwarves. With access to more artful setpieces, like elaborate furniture, paintings and other fixtures, custom mode also lets you liven up the game so it isn’t one homogenous brown dirt grid after another.
With A Game of Dwarves, Zeal has a decent crack at an admittedly obscure genre without many examples of good design. That said, Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius are both spectacular examples, so it’s a little disappointing that Dwarves doesn’t revive the genre in a spectacular way. That said, Zeal has a strong engine and they clearly have skill at this genre, so I’m interested to see where they take it next. With better micromanagement, smarter unit AI and more graphical variety, Zeal could make a very impressive sequel.
As it stands, A Game of Dwarves is a slightly above average dungeon management game, but for only $10 on Steam you definitely get your money’s worth. Here’s hoping Zeal can improve upon the solid foundation they’ve established here.