Dungeon Keeper was one of those late 90s genre-creating games that Peter Molyneux worked on while he was at the sadly now-defunct Bullfrog Productions. A lot of people forget that before Molyneux was making promises he couldn’t keep and waxing sentimental about lovable puppies and Kinect tech demos of creepy little kids, he pushed the sim genre in some interesting directions. Dungeon Keeper was a curious role reversal of RPG and simulation games, placing you in the historically antagonistic and long-suffering role of the dungeon master, something all pen and paper D&D players could relate to but which hadn’t been explored in a video game proper.
Dungeon Keeper was so good it spawned two sequels, one which saw release while the third game was unfortunately cancelled when Bullfrog was fully absorbed by the EA hive mind. This new Dungeon Keeper genre, however niche, also influenced a spate of related titles, including the devilishly clever Evil Genius and now the upcoming A Game of Dwarves.
Like most of the games in the DM simulation genre, Dwarves is a parody of its source material. You play as a the lazy, oafish dwarf prince, whose dad (appropriately named King Father) warns of an ancient evil—the encroaching, sinister mages—and promptly kicks his son’s butt out into the world to prepare for the mage attack. Naturally your character, the dwarf prince, is smarting about losing his life of luxury, so the game’s tutorial levels are all about proving King Father wrong. You set out onto the rocky countryside to mine yourself some riches and establish a suitably impressive kingdom.
Dwarves has a light layer of Sim-ish micromanaging and home-building, as your dwarves need not only food and beds but also interior decorating to stay happy and productive. You first must summon dwarflings from your mine’s spawn portal, and then assign the new guys their class and job in the mine. The dwarves are definitely cute little dudes and until you give them something to do, they’ll just wander around eating up all your food and occasionally quaffing a flagon of ale. Oddly enough there are no female dwarves, which I found a little unrealistic and archaic for a game made in 2012.
As is typical with this kind of game, feeling out the proper balance of unit types is one of the basic “non-tutorial” skills you’ll need to develop early on if you want success to come smoothly. Managing more than 20 or so dwarves in a limited space can be taxing and takes keen resource management. You might be tempted early on to conscript a ton of workers and builders to erect a sprawling, self-sufficient underground complex, but unless you’re playing in sandbox mode, it’s always important to remember that there are plenty of enemies lurking in the depths.
Surprisingly, skewing more toward the soldier class, at least at the beginning, can make sure that your mine is both safe from monsters and productive. You’ll want to have a solid platoon of soldier dwarves and plenty of training dummies for them to level up on, to go along with miners and food-tending workers. Of course some sustainable food supplies and rest areas are crucial, but you also need your mine to have pleasing aesthetics—paintings, sculptures and other creature comforts—or your dwarves will get depressed. I have to admit this annoyed me a little bit, but the dwarves are certainly more endearing than whining Sims who pee themselves every 5 minutes, so I actually felt some empathy for my army of fat, bearded little men.
Once you’ve cleared out some living space, navigating the revealed spaces in your mine is simple enough with both mouse and keyboard controls for scrolling and zooming, but anything that hasn’t been mined or explored is simply an endless black void. Occasionally you’ll see little question marks floating in this blackness, indicating possible avenues for expansion, but everywhere else is just empty and can be a pain to navigate. Gauging depth and declination in utter darkness is frustrating at best, especially when you’re trying to lay tiles, build ladders or set commands relative to your established spaces. This game would’ve benefited greatly from a simple 3D mapping grid, especially considering the focus is on vertical expansion, not horizontal.
I hope I can get accustomed to the controls and get deeper into this game once the full version is released, because control quibbles aside, I really like the subtle, ironic and charming sense of humor this game has. It gives a well-deserved ribbing to classic fantasy clichés from the likes of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and has a solid dungeon sim foundation underneath that humor. Dungeon Keeper-style games need some levity to keep them from descending (no pun intended) into old man spreadsheet territory, because so much of them is simply working a grid and allocating resources. So far A Game of Dwarves seems to take a parody approach similar to Evil Genius, so hopefully the gameplay stays interesting and complex well into the campaign.