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Managing Expectations: Impire And A Game Of Dwarves

Pit Personalities

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Impire is quite a lot like Dungeon Keeper and it may well be worthy of the comparison. A Game of Dwarves, however, doesn’t have very much in common with Dwarf Fortress, apart from the dwarves and the tunnelling. In fact, it has more in common with Impire but there are huge differences between the two and I reckon it’s all about their personalities.

Seeing one-on-one demonstrations of Impire and A Game of Dwarves, one directly after the other, is an odd experience. The games have enough similarities that it’s a bit like the release of Volcano and Dante’s Peak in the summer of ’97, except without the super-ridiculous tagline, “The Coast is Toast”. Two studios releasing films that were superficially similar enough that the one with the lesser marketing campaign would seemingly be doomed to failure. But these dungeon management games aren’t direct rivals, at least Paradox presumably wouldn’t want them to be since it’s publishing both, so where do the distinctions lie?

On one level, and Impire only has one subterranean level with no vertical construction or expliration, the games offer opposing perspectives. The dwarves, led by an exiled prince trying to prove his worth, are trying to build a home and occasionally uncover treasure or monsters. The imp is now the demonic equivalent of a toy poodle and his goal is to grow stronger and become, once more, the monster that he used to be. This involves kidnapping, torture, theft and murder.

If the dwarves were to dig into an Impire player’s dungeon they would cack their beard-weave trousers and seal it back up again. They’re not ready for the kind of comedic horrors that are contained in the vats, birthing pools and soul wells that are kept in those particular dungenous depths. The dwarves are a rather sedate and sedentary bunch, just as likely to be feasting in a dining hall or catching forty winks in a rickety bed as training their axe-arms.

A Game of Dwarves is about building a settlement, so the placement of buildings is important to ensure the inhabitants can find what they need quickly and efficiently. While individuals have roles, including military assignments, they all have to eat and sleep, so a functional habitat might well have a central sleeping area, with food and storage close by, while various training rooms branch off in a different direction entirely. Spokes around a hub, with the prince’s throne room somewhere nearby.

Digging tunnels, which is completely freeform, can uncover caverns and chambers, some hollow and little more than commas in the story being constructed, others hiding treasure or goblins and other unpleasant beasties. Guard stations can, and should, be placed at the boundaries of a fresh tunnel so that if something is disturbed, it can hopefully be slain before it reaches the unarmed diggers and farmers.

Impire doesn’t concern itself quite so much with layout. As the game progresses, new types of room are unlocked and these can create new types of monster, including a toothy orb that is half cacodemon and half beholder, and a whip-cracking succubus that is pure Dungeon Keeper. The animations for every creature and room are impressively detailed and it’s not only the design and theme of the game that channels Bullfrog. The humour, less broad than a verbal description might suggest, has the same roots, with exaggerated interactions, and evil acts made disquietingly adorable by the actors performing them.

A Game of Dwarves, it’s fair to say, lacks character, but that is the heart of the differences. Watching a member of the development team play A Game of Dwarves shows an attention to detail, the detail of process and creation. With its minerals to mine and aesthetic embellishments to add to each floor and wall, it’s a game for builders and designers.

The pace is slow, intentionally so, and there is time to decide exactly what colour and style a new bedroom should be decorated in, or indeed what kind of beds it should contain. A better bed might allow a dwarf to regain his energy faster, but many of the improvements are simply cosmetic, even though resources must be mined in order to craft them. A Game of Dwarves is for people who want to build and to experiment with design, with the occasional nest of goblins thrown in to keep them on their architectoes.

While I was watching the demonstration of Impire, I asked about visiting the surface, having seen that the map had icons scattered around it. Some of these are campaign missions, such as abducting an archaeologist from his dig site, while others are random quests, offering resources or treasure in exchange for a foray across the map (time spent away) and perhaps a quick battle. As I queried, I noticed two messages at the bottom of the screen, the icons meaningless to me, although I’m fairly sure one of them was a picture of swords crossed, which is a universal symbol for ‘somebody is fighting somebody else’.

I didn’t mention the messages because I felt it would have been rude to interrupt the description of surface quests, specifically their randomness, and when he spotted them, my guide was slightly alarmed. A hero had been killing his workers, the ones responsible for the building and the tunnelling. He teleported a squad of succubi into the room where the thief was stabbing the walls with destructive intent and that was the end of her dungeon run.

It wasn’t a particularly hectic moment because the ease of teleporting a squad (up to four creatures, with some combinations offering bonuses to the group) to the location combined with the slow speed of the heroes means that intrusions can be dealt with provided the resources are in place. A setback rather than a disaster, then, as the workers can be replaced fairly quickly. But the constant threat of attack, as well as the need to increase your own threat by levelling up the imp and the dungeon, unlocking new abilities for both so as not to fall behind in the fantastical arms race with the sorcerers and swordsmen of the surface world.

Positioning and layout seem less important than in A Game of Dwarves, and that’s partly because your minions can be relocated, in a group, almost instantly, and also because they’ll sleep when their dead and eat the flesh of their victims. Something like that, anyway. They do eat, actually, but the resources you grow for them put a limit on production rather than being actual objects to be consumed.

A Game of Dwarves, then, is more toward the simulation side of this particular sort of management game, and I suspect the freeplay mode, with its huge chunks of rock to carve into works of art, will be the part of the game that appeals most strongly. Impire has more of a strategic sensibility, with resources spent on units that have various abilities, some combining well together against specific types of threat. The ‘away’ missions, to the surface world, also focus attention on the grouping of units into squads, as does the drive toward levelling those units and gaining additional abilities.

On the surface there are similarities, but both games take place underneath that crust and it’s there that the differences are almost immediately apparent. Impire is a game for the conquerer, the jester and the fiend, A Game of Dwarves is for the constructor, the contemplator and the aesthete. That latter is in spite of the fact that Impire is by far the more attractive game. A Game of Dwarves doesn’t impress the eyes but the wide-ranging and apparently meaningless customisation options will have meaning for a certain audience, made up of those who like to build something and make it uniform, erratic or functional as much for its own sake as to unlock any achievement or to fulfill any criteria.

There are objectives but they’re not like the objectives in Impire, which has a clear forward momentum, with a better or bigger version always dangling in the gloom ahead. A Game of Dwarves has its feet up on a sturdy table, a mug of mead in hand, and the blueprints for a better way of living mapped out in its mind’s eye. But it might not put them into action today because, after all, there are tiles to lay and living quarters to decorate. All things in their own time.

While Impire could well be a charming take on Dungeon Keeper, and one that has ideas of its own to go with the well-chiselled template, I came away from the meeting quite startled, realising that I’m more interested in A Game of Dwarves. That wasn’t the case beforehand, but its rough edges and plain appearance had failed to make me realise how calm and creative a game it’s shaping up to be. That’s a pleasure, to see something that’s designed to look at and manipulate as much as to compete with, and it’s certainly a very different feeling than the hunger for power and advancement that Impire inspires.

So, two management games set in the depths of fantastical worlds, but with moods and personalities entirely their own.

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Adam Smith

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