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Wot I Think: A Game Of Dwarves

Deeper and down(er)

Paradox's A Game Of Dwarves appeared, ethereally, on the imaginary wooden shelves our internet shops this week, and so I set to work digging holes in the floor with my pickaxe. I also spent some time playing A Game Of Dwarves.

Here's wot I think.

A Game Of Dwarves sits design buttocks firmly on the management game template that was drawn up and rolled out by Bullfrog and their imitators. Gosh, it's good to see people going down that road, isn't it? And it's easy to discern other possible, albeit distant influences, of course, such as Dwarf Fortress, although all it really has in common with that is dwarves, digging, and the death of said dwarves, via digging. Nevertheless, we're in a place where people once again recall and desire the dainty process of management games, with their satisfying piles of resources, and their endless scurrying of minions. This is a game of indirect control and third-person building – one that pins a picture of Dungeon Keeper in its bedroom wall and wishes it could be just like that guy, only better. It has items aplenty for you to craft and drop into to your world, there are things to buy with your gold, there are systems you must hone if you want your population to not simply survive, but grow. Management as a genre is not strategy, as much as some folk want to conflate them, and Dwarves stands resolutely in the management category. We must praise it for that.

A Game Of Dwarves' central appeal is possibly the campaign in which you – a dwarf prince – must colonise his way across a lost continent, guided by the commands of the King. This entails of series of scenarios in which you have to chase after a set of objectives – usually involving digging up something lost underground – while at the same time managing your community of diminutive beardymen. As you progress you find yourself embroiled in a struggle against "mages", which look suspiciously like the Magicka wizards, and things become trickier.

The game is presented in 3D, obviously, and you can fully rotate the camera around your dwarf-populated tunnels, as you might expect. Only brighter and less pretty than you would expect, for some reason. Complicating this 3Dness slightly is the fact that the game is grid-based, so you are mining through a block-based world. This creates an issue for the Z-axis: you have to hit keys to take you up and down through the layers. This is important because you are digging through that space, which is represented either as black nothingness, or as a series of question marks, indicated a mystery target for excavation.

While it didn't take long to grasp this verticality system, I had a nagging feeling that the decision to make the game based in a series of layers – from the grassy surface to the depths below – might be one that made sense, but to the detriment of how the game actually played. Not matter how long I played, I never quite came to terms with having to move up and down across so many layers, or having to “dig” in black space, or have to track my activities across the multiple layers. Time and again I buzzed with annoyance, or clicked on the wrong segment of nothing. And I say this as someone who never really loses track of things in 3D space: I've never had spatial issues with even the most head-twisty of videogames. This isn't one that is overly complicated, just clunky. There's a reason other games of a similar ilk have restrained their diggings to a single layer: it's just more immediate, and has a better feel to it. Often, it looks better, too. I suspect that this decision, which lies at the very heart of Dwarves, will be the one that dogs it the worst.

Anyway, other aspects of the game are as you might expect: you have to take care of resources to keep things ticking over. Gold can be dug from the rock by miner-class dwarves, which can be traded to purchase the other resources you need to build the many things with which you must furnish your world. Food must be grown, and that requires fertile ground, some kind of magic stone, and dwarves to collect it. Dwarves must be summoned from a magic well (food permitting) and from there given a purpose. Without the right flavours of dwarves, you are doomed.

Then, of course, there is your touch of danger: orks, spiders, goblins and even nastier things lurk underground, ready to be released into your base by hapless miners. They're extremely dangerous, so you need to be ready before cracking the seal on those void-entombed question marks that I mentioned earlier. Baddies require military chaps to see them off – and it's very easy to be overwhelmed if you don't have enough muscle on-hand to tackle an invasion. Sadly, other than deploying defences and perhaps teleporting soldiers around, there's not much you can do to influence battles, you just have to hope your soldier dwarves and man enough to deal with the situation they find themselves in. I found this area of the game fairly weak, and I was sometimes reduced to spamming newbie dwarves into the world to make up the military (only for them to be rapidly killed because they were new.) Worse, there's no good way to launch an attack on enemies that you've discovered, and you have to rely on military dwarves finding their own way to a rally point, and not deciding it's time for bed.

Anyway, you can also, fortunately, create custom games – which I'd imagine will preoccupy anyone who really spends serious time with this game – since these allow you to explore the game at an objective-free pace, and with your choice of combat event frequency and resources. And...

Oof, excuse me... I'm just. Oof. Very tired.

Could do with a nap.

Anyone else feeling sleepy?

Perhaps just a few minutes of closing my eyes. Just a few...

Sorry. Look, I'm know this Wot I Think isn't spilling over with my usual energy. Let me be honest: I am not really enjoying writing about A Game Of Dwarves. I didn't really enjoy playing it. It didn't ever draw me in to what was going on. I didn't care about the dwarves, or the project of building and digging. It's not that it's a dreadful game, no, that's not it at all. It's fine. It just that it's a game without enough of any of the resources a management game actually needs. It's lacking something vital: the matrix of story, activity, and presentation just left me cold. I didn't really care about seeing more of the game, and there was no satisfying consequences for having looked after my dwarves properly. Perhaps it needed more things pinging out as having been unlocked, or perhaps the discovery of things in the depths of the game needed to have more magic to it. And the pace of it doesn't help - to be left waiting for something to happen because the the dwarf you need to do something is having a nap does not make for great videogame time. And that happened regularly: I hit “fast forward time” just so that I could get through watching the AI sleep.

Yeah. I understand though. Sleeping is good.

So let's wrap it up in a duvet and drop it down a mineshaft: a Game Of Dwarves doesn't manage to be like Dungeon Keeper, or any other management game from that era, which is a shame, because it's an admirable thing to aim for. It does manage to be a slightly awkward management game, with tonnes of dwarf stuff, that isn't half as charming as it should have been, and works only half as well as it might have done. Hmm, I seem to have started talking like a Hobbit, for some reason. I dunno what that's about.

Time for bed.

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