Managing Expectations: Impire And A Game Of Dwarves

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.


  1. InternetBatman says:

    I hadn’t even heard of Impire before this. It sure is pretty, but I think a Game of Dwarves is closer to my tastes.

  2. RedViv says:

    Two itches, two scratching games. Fine by me.

  3. ZephaniahGrey says:

    Much more interested in Game of Dwarves than Impire after reading this. If anyone wants to scratch that particular itch ahead of time, look up Gnomoria. Basically Dwarf Fortress, but prettier.

    • JiminyJickers says:

      Now why cant Dwarf Fortress have the graphics of Gnomoria. That would be great.

      • Podesta says:

        I disagree on that. I played dwarf fortress last year, played for 3 weeks, and than stopped, it was fun, but the interface seemed to be on the way of that. So recently I saw Gnomoria, and it was really fun, but than I realized that actually the dwarf fortress interface and graphics (no, not the ASCII..) worked a lot better than Gnomoria. So yeah, Gnomoria did help me to get back into Dwarf Fortress, but it made me realize that actually that the DF interface works pretty well the way it is… And yes, I am one of those who used to complain about those features in DF, but you do get used to it, and it does make sense after that..

        • taedkmila says:

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        • BurningPet says:

          Nothing can beat DF level of simulation and amount of content that was added to it in the last 6 years. games like gnomoria/towns can only be an answer to players who doesn’t need that depth and require better graphics/interface.

          hopefully, after they finish playing those games, they will realise they need something more and go play DF overcoming their need for graphics and the steep interface learning curve.

          for me, one reason for making Towns is to be just that, a bridge for those who never really discovered DF because the interface and graphics threw them off. its really hard for most people to go from a regular RTS or even Settlers to DF without such a bridge and it always makes me happy seeing there are many people who rediscovered DF because of us.

          • PodX140 says:

            Logged in on my mobile just for this one comment. Burning, you’ve perfectly managed to emulate dwarf fortresses complexity on a lesser scale, while still making it a BREEZE to play, unlike DF. I would like nothing more than to play df to my hearts content, but every time the ui just makes it impossible. Towns nails the same feel, but is millions of times easier to play just because of how info is given to you and how the ui is laid out. Please continue making towns an even more brilliant game.

          • socrate says:

            DF is godlike in terms of gameplay,but the interface and i admit also the lack of graphic make the game quite crappy after some time,i tend to hate the UI so much that its what made me not like playing DF,the graphic is solvable in a way so i don’t mind that much.

            That said A game of dwarf is one of the crappiest game ever made and a total rip off of something really fantastic turned into a pile of crap that shouldn’t even be mentioned,im not expecting much from Impire also seeing its video look extremely dull and crappy and that the only thing they keep repeating is related to dungeon keeper aka “inspired of dungeon keeper” or “a spiritual successor to DK”…that said i haven’t played Impired compared to A game of dwarf….so i can’t really say for sure it will be horrible but seeing as how paradox tend to screw up alots…

  4. aliksy says:

    “and also because they’ll sleep when their dead ”

    should be “they’re dead”.

    Also games look kind of interesting. Might pick up if they go on sale for a few dollars.

  5. Kestrel says:

    I’ll give both a fair shot, but man, A Game of Dwarves looks so remarkably bland. Fortunately, Dwarf Fortress is fantastic and free.

    Impire looks like it’ll perfectly scratch that years-old Dungeon Keeper itch.

  6. Dances to Podcasts says:

    I’m secretly hoping this will become the new trend once people are done cloning dota.

    • Thunderbeak says:

      Quite possibly. With sandbox games being the hip new thing and whatnot.

  7. Jenks says:

    I steered clear of Dungeons, after every review warned against it if you are looking for an experience like Dungeon Keeper. Here’s hoping Impire can do what Dungeons couldn’t.

    Side note: the closest thing I’ve played to Dungeon Keeper in recent years is, bizarrely enough, Viva Pinata. Absolutely fantastic game.

  8. wcanyon says:

    Always wondered* what architects call their toes, now I know: architectoes.

    * not really

  9. Ed123 says:

    What I’d like to know is, are they both at least 5x better than the godawful Dungeons?

  10. mckertis says:

    “Impire doesn’t concern itself quite so much with layout. ”

    Much like Dungeon Keeper, then ? You can construct a lair from scratch, but there’s really no point, since there’s no relationship between rooms. At least in Evil Genius base construction actually mattered.

    • Phantoon says:

      Unless you wanted elite units, in the later patch.

      Then yes, rooms totally mattered. Also, if you had limited space, your methods became far more important. Oh, and if you had heroes as minions.

      • mckertis says:

        “Unless you wanted elite units”

        Doesnt matter. I’m talking about core mechanics, not the deterministic pattern to get a bonus unit.
        Dungeon Keeper really is a “design in progress” that was never finished.

        • BurningPet says:

          Yes, i wholeheartedly agree. even though i loved DK and DK2, i found them to be missing its true potential. the “problem” i believe with the games is that i really cant see a design goal that followed through to the end, and that’s also the reason Dungeons failed. it didn’t realize what were DK/DK2 flaws and instead of improving/fixing what needed to be fixed they built on what was the least fun and interesting parts of the game. dungeon keeper is a dungeon building simulation. the fact some people may see otherwise (tower defense/RTS with bit of different controls) just prove they couldnt fully achieve their goal.

  11. Zepp says:

    Nothing will be like Dungeon Keeper and nothing will beat Dungeon Keeper. King of games, forever.

  12. Phantoon says:

    Game of Dwarves almost sounds like it has the same pull as The Sims.

  13. LTK says:

    That was an outstanding piece of games journalism. I think you should do these X compared to Y features more often. They have the potential to be much more informative than (p)reviews separately.

    • Spengbab says:

      I liked it too, but it only worked here because these games LOOK similar but have different ideas behind them, which isnt immediately clear to those following both games (I had no idea about the level of detail in Dorf’s roomdesign, f.e)

      There’s more depth than, say, MANSHOOTER XI – MANSHOOTING MAN vs SHOOTMAN VII – BULLETSHOOTER. Whilst both are about shooting, Manshooter clearly poses a question about the advocating of slaughter sims, and Shootman is a more playful take on the modern prose of arcade games. But it’d still be silly.

  14. MadTinkerer says:

    That settles it then. I’m buying both!

  15. Trithne says:

    Argh, that free teleporting of your minions. I recall once reading that Bullfrog actually felt, in hindsight, that letting you freely pick up and drop minions around the map was a bad choice.

    • Spengbab says:

      Im not sure – I have no idea how it works in Impire, but in DK, there’d have to be viable alternative to picking them up. The Call to Arms spell was expensive AND a horrible mess (Limited reach, summons every unit, etc). But it’s not a RTS – possessing your minions and picking them up was the maximum of your direct influence. The games were more about directing your creatures and good dungeon design (Guardposts, traps, etc).

      I wonder how Impire is going to handle it. The maximum of 4 creatures per teleport sounds reasonable vs that 1 thief they encountered, but how is it going to work with an invasion? nnnng i need this game

  16. Ghoulie says:

    Why do the dwarves from Game of Dwarves look so goddamned creepy?

    • johnki says:

      I actually think they look a bit, well…silly. But that may also be because I can’t see the portrait in the bottom corner without thinking of the thing at the title screen of Super Mario 64 where you could pull at Mario’s face and make it snap back at itself.

  17. Kyrne says:

    Both games are looking good, although I think Impire will be more to my tastes, especially as it seems to be more and more like Dungeon Keeper each time I see it.

  18. Shralla says:

    Why care about either of these games when Maia is in development?