The Dwarves is a Pandemic-style cooperative game for 2-5 players, designed by Michael Palm and Lucas Zach and published by Pegasus Spiele in Germany as ‘Die Zwerge.’ An English translation of the base game and it’s first major expansion, The Saga, crowdfunded in 2015. All images in this review are from the 2015 Kickstarter edition.
In The Dwarves, you play a mighty Dwarven champion who seeks to save their homeland from a horde of invaders, including Orcs, Trolls, and… Elves! Yes, the Elves (called Alfar) are bad guys in this game.
The lore underpinning the game comes from a series of eponymous fantasy novels by author Markus Heitz. I’d never heard of the series, but I understand that they are very popular in Germany. The designers have put in a LOT of effort towards injecting lore from the novels into all corners of this game. Let’s see if the game has mechanisms and fun factor to match.
How to play The Dwarves
Every player gets one character (solo players have to play two or more), which comes with a player mat to track hit points and stats. You also get a nice little mini for the game board. Your stats represent the primary means through which you will interact with the game. Attacking (red) and movement (green) are fairly straightforward. Your blue stat is your Craft stat, which you use to create equipment, fulfill many of the game’s various tasks, and also influence the council of Dwarves back in your home base. More on that in a bit.
As a cooperative game, players will need to work together to accomplish a series of story-based goals. Every turn presents a player with a choice of whether they want to use their two actions to move the story along, or to clean out some bad guys, or both!
Whether you want to fight, move, or craft, the action works the same – your stat tells you how many dice to roll, and you roll them! For movement, you get to move as many spaces as the highest die you rolled. When you attack, you apply hits based on what you are attacking. You can slaughter Orcs by the handful with any roll above 4, while the tricksy Elves require a 6. Fortunately, as you progress in the game, you will earn equipment and other boons that allow you to add to, change, or reroll your dice.
When you aren’t fighting, you are completing quests. The quests come from two decks – a main quest deck, as well as a deck of optional side quests that provide helpful rewards. The quests usually require you to travel to different parts of the board and perform some kind of test. As you move through the main quest deck, you’ll eventually hit some grander quests, including a finale that sets the game’s ultimate victory condition.
While you do all of that, the enemies flood into the kingdom and despoil everything they touch. At the beginning of every round, a counter moves along the top of the board which, more often than not, triggers an enemy surge. You enact the surge by… you guessed it… rolling dice! If five or more enemies ever occupy one hex, they ravage that hex and keep moving. Each “perished land” hex does two things: spur enemy troop movement towards the heart of the kingdom and hinder Dwarf movement. If a Dwarf wants to move through a hex, they have to either take some damage or move a Doom counter, also at the top of the board. Moving Doom basically hastens the endgame.
Here’s what the game looks like if you let the enemies get out of hand.
One final important game element is the council track. Throughout the game, two politician dwarves vie within the council to see whether they will help or hinder you in your quest. You can use actions on your turn to influence the council in your favor with successful craft rolls.
If the Doom counter and the Hero counter ever intersect on the track above the board, you lose. A dwarf dying from wounds also triggers a loss. But if you can survive the hordes and complete the final quest, you win!
What I liked about The Dwarves
I have to admit that, at first, I didn’t think I was going to love this game. Every significant action in this game depends on a die roll. The idea of a fantasy adventure with lots of dice rolling gave me flashbacks to my games of… *shiver*… Talisman. Happily, though, I found that the designers found ways to integrate the dice to encourage tension without adding too much frustration. Each dwarf can easily specialize in an area, for example. You can turn one dwarf into a mobile killing machine, while others complete the Craft rolls and other quest objectives you might need.
In terms of the game’s level of complexity, I’d say it reminded me of Forbidden Desert. The Dwarves is a bit busier than Forbidden Desert because you have to deal with multiple deck of cards, the council track, etc. However, I felt everything came together in easy, understandable ways. The game provides nice strategic choices and a good challenge without crushing you with its difficulty (you can play on harder modes, but I generally dislike when games define “harder” as “more lucky”, which this game does).
As I mentioned above, the designers baked a lot of theme into the game. I’d say the story elements themselves were fairly generic fantasy, which was disappointing. However, I really enjoyed the fact that almost every card had some kind of flavor text which represented a quote from the original books. I may not have an attachment to these characters or this story, but someone clearly does. That had an impact on my game experience.
My favorite mechanism in the game comes from the perished land tiles. I loved how they presented obstacles for the dwarves walking through them, while at the same time guiding enemy troop movement around the game board. These tiles take the very well worn “disease outbreak” mechanism from Pandemic and add some wrinkles that encourage lots of strategic choices. You can also plant your dwarf at the end of a perished land chains and recreate some Gandalf-like “you shall not pass!” thematic moments. Very cool.
What I did not like about the Dwarves
This game is not for everyone. In fact, I’d say if you don’t like Pandemic-style co-ops, you don”t like dice resolution games, and/ or you don’t like fantasy adventures, you might want to turn tail and run. The game does a lot to distinguish itself from Pandemic. However, the engine that runs Pandemic still runs here; you use actions to move around the board, fighting bad guys (treating disease cubes) and fulfilling quests (curing diseases). I feel like the game does enough to distinguish itself, but that may be because I like fantasy adventure so much that I’m a bit for forgiving.
The base game suffers from a lack of replayability. You remove very few cards from each deck in a standard game of the Dwarves, which means almost every game repeats 85-90% percent of the content. It all comes out in a different order each time, but doing the same things in different times gets old very quickly. I’d say the game requires at least the Combined Might expansion for extra cards, and probably the Saga expansion as well to mix up the scenarios and quest decks. The Dwarves is not widely available as it is, so you might be facing a significant investment if you want to track down all of that content in the aftermarket.
Finally, while I ultimately forgive the game for the generic fantasy because at least its lovingly crafted generic fantasy, I was a bit frustrated when the game directed you to generic cities on the board without doing more to tell you where they were. You often got quest cards telling you to go to different cities on the board, like “Roodacre” or “Dragon’s Falls”. I had a hard time locating those cities on the map when quests mentioned them. Further, the perished land titles covered the names. If I got a new quest, I had to turn over every tile to find where I was going. The game lets you sink or swim in terms of finding places, which I found took up more time than I wanted.
For a variety of reasons, I do not recommend this game for hardcore strategy gamers, or people who are a little tired of fantasy adventures. However, if you like co-ops, you don’t mind some luck mixed in with your strategy, and you like hacking off some Orc heads every once in a while, this game is a gem. It’s too bad The Dwarves hasn’t received wider distribution. Hopefully, that will come with time and some more positive reviews!