You know those Dwarf books by Markus Heitz? No? Me neither! But apparently, they are huge in Germany having sold thousands of copies and now, multiple sequels too! So much so, that Pegasus Spiele decided back in 2012 to make The Dwarves board game. There was then a Kickstarter in 2015 to release an English version which came out in 2016 and I am surprised this one passed me by as it is right up my dwarven street!
Small but Mighty
The game is a fantasy adventure set within the world of the books, with the heroes, adversaries and adventures all based on the plot seen within Heitz’s epic world. At its core, this is an exploration and fighting co-operative game with a lot of dice rolling chucked in! But in practice it feels very deep in the story too and certainly creates a very enjoyable gaming experience.
The way you win is rather unique too, in that it is not points based. Rather you are looking to get through a series of scenario cards before your time runs out. Both of these simple things, the cards and timed element, offer an exciting and ever-changing game experience. First let’s talk about the timed element. That seems in vogue right now!
At the top of the board there is a Doom track. Each turn, you move one space, closer to the doom token. If you ever get so far that you meet the doom token, you lose, game over! But each time you move on a space on the doom track, you are not just marking your turns, but changing the face of the game. You can be instructed to either move back one space on the Dwarven council, add threat cards into your adventure deck or introduce enemies to the board.
The Dwarves Factor
As much as you move on spaces on the doom track each turn in military precision, the doom token is moved back towards you at more random points. Meaning the length of The Dwarves is never the same. You never know exactly how many more turns you will have to try and win the game. You need to be mindful of this as the game develops. This is a delightful way to time your experience with The Dwarves and end the game.
Now onto the scenario cards, which brilliantly thematic and bring a lot of story and variety to the game. They also offer some very interesting end-game situations. The scenario cards are grouped into A, B and C cards. The A’s are plentiful and can be removed in number depending on the degree of difficulty you want. As the way you win this game is by getting through all these scenarios with all Dwarves still alive and fighting before the Doom track runs out. Simply removing them makes this process easier. There is then only one B card where you forge ‘Keenfire’, the mighty Dwarven Axe. This is done by having at least two Dwarves on the Dragon Fire space and one of them must then succeed in two Craft tests in the same turn. This takes usually at least four-six turns to move there and accomplish.
Once this is achieved, you then come to one of three C scenarios which offer the variable end-game scenarios. This could be a mighty battle to defeat 20 enemy troops on the map, an epic fight with Nôd’onn or a map scaling quest to clear the four gateways. All these scenarios take place depending on what situation the board is in at this point and they all create a real set-piece finale to the game.
The Dwarves plays out very much in a classic beginning, middle and end, very much like (I expect) the book does. Which really adds to the theme and depth. I would imagine, were I a fan of the books, I may get a little bit excited about all this! And after only one game, I had ordered the first book so this may still happen very soon! Now after five games, I feel like the game is already very familiar in story and characters, but I expect reading the book will make much more of a rich experience.
I’m Still Standing!
Player turns happen quickly in three simple stages. You move on the doom track and follow the task as explained above. You check you have the minimal amount of adventure and scenario cards available and then take two turns. Turns are either moving, fighting, performing a craft test or sending a message to the dwarven council. All of which start with a dice roll.
Each player has different abilities for each of these things, meaning you will form a fellowship as such, where one of your merry troop will focusing on clearing the lands of those pesky trolls whilst another may task themselves with battles of skill. As you enhance your characters and gain new items, you will either even up your skills or try to max out the abilities you exceled in to begin with. It is like watching your character develop and grow as they travel through life. Again, very narrative driven. Very absorbing in the theme of the game.
When you add new threats to the board you roll three custom dice telling you to add one, two, three or no new enemies of each time. This comes in the form of Orcs, Trolls or the mighty Elves, known in this game as Älfar. As they congregate in groups of four or five (depending on your chosen difficulty setting), the land they are on becomes perished. This is very much like the outbreak rule in Pandemic and I wonder if designers Michael Palm and Lukas Zach took inspiration from the classic co-op game here. Daisy cain effects can occur with the perished land outbreaks, making a bad roll on the threat dice a very challenging and game changing moment.
The components in this game are all very good. The five Dwarf miniatures are excellent. The player board and main board are rich and detailed. The scenario, adventure, equipment and threat cards have beautiful art, quotes and clear text on them. The only disappointment is the Orcs, Trolls and Elves, sorry, Älfar, which are simple coloured cubes. There is a feeling of Century Spice road here where instead of fighting a mighty band of Trolls, you are simply removing some black cubes. I rarely look to “pimp-up” my game, but for this one, I certainly plan to do this and get the upgraded enemy components for the game which are available in the Saga expansion which also offers new challenges, quests, characters and boards.
This game is a bit of a hidden gem. It has a lot of depth and replayability, certainly once I have added the Saga Expansion. I have really enjoyed the first few plays and having tried out each of the five different Dwarf characters, I found the experience with each quite different. Different abilities can be used in each game, changing the way I prioritised what I tried to do, much in the way other co-op game with variable player powers do. The Dwarves is recommended to anyone looking to add a little more depth to their family game nights, being co-op this works well with most ages from seven up. Or to anyone who wants more of a fantasy theme to try, but is somewhat intimidated by some of the other more expensive choices that come laden with boxes of unpainted miniatures.