The Dwarves is a cooperative fantasy adventure board game based on a series of Fantasy novels of the same name. The Dwarves novels are a major phenomenon in Germany “Die Zwerge”, but have never really caught on in the English speaking world probably due, at least in part, to a rather clunky translation and a confusing array of characters whose names all begin with “B.” That’s a shame, as The Dwarves the game actually has quite a lot going for it, but might easily be overlooked by people unfamiliar with the IP.
The Dwarves: what’s in the box?
The Dwarves comes with a board which represents the land of Girdlegard, miniatures for your individual dwarves, scenario and adventure cards for players to complete, dice, cubes for the monsters you will fight, and an initially bewildering set of cardboard hexagon tiles.
The components are good: the Dwarves themselves are the focus of the action, so it makes sense for them to be given the plastic miniature treatment, whilst the more generic enemies are represented in cube form. The cards are generally clear, with the graphic design enhancing rather than obscuring the text, although there are still a few points where you’re reminded that this is a game that has been translated from another language.
So what do we do?
The aim for the players is to work their way through a scenario deck, completing various tasks set before them. Whilst remaining mindful of this endgame though, they will also need to keep fighting monsters which invade the land, sending letters to influence the dwarven council, and generally keeping things at bay so that the game doesn’t end too soon.
The overall objectives that players have to work through won’t vary that much from game to game. You do the same stage A quests in a random order (although with a few randomly removed, depending on difficulty level), then the one stage B quest, then one of the 3 stage C quests to complete the game (the Stage 3 quests have “Conditions” so the board state when you complete stage B will influence which one you end up doing).
Despite this fairly limited structure, the game still varies a lot from play to play. The enemies that you get will vary, as will the Adventures and Threats you have to face.
A player’s turn in The Dwarves begins with something bad happening, as depicted by the doom track which runs around the top of the board. Most of the time, this will be in the form of more monsters showing up, but it can also be more Threats added to the Adventure deck, or the Dwarven Council turning away from you. After this, you get 2 actions, which will typically be a mixture of moving, fighting, writing letters(!) or performing attribute checks against cards in play.
Each of the dwarves has stats for combat, craft and movement, in each case indicating how many dice you roll for that type of check. For movement, you can move as far as the highest number you rolled, for combat, you look at all the dice, and for craft, it will depend on what you are trying to do.
Enemies all around – the land is perishing!
As already mentioned, most turns in The Dwarves start with more enemies spawning. Any time you need to spawn new enemies, you roll three dice: the green dice, which has the most symbols on its faces, represents orcs. The black die, with a middling number represents trolls, and the Purple die, with the sparsest set of symbols represents alfs – dark elves. When your dwarf is in a space with enemies, you can use an action to roll your combat die – a 4+ allows you to remove an orc, 5+ takes care of a troll, and you’ll need a 6 for that alf. If you fail to hit anything, then you lose a point of health (if you ever drop to zero health, you die and everyone loses the game).
One of the most distinctive things about The Dwarves, as well as a major key in its replay value, is the concept of Perished Land – the magic power behind the forces of evil in The Dwarves novels is shown to be something all-pervasive that entirely corrupts an area once it takes a hold. This is represented in The Dwarves board game by perished land tiles. As soon as a space on the board has 5 or more enemies on it, it perishes, meaning you draw a perished land tile from the supply and add it to the board.
With this much Perished Land, any enemy that enters the map at the First, Fourth, or Fifth gate, is going straight to the centre.
Each perished land tile has a coloured arrow at its centre, which you cross-reference with the board to see which way you need to point it. It will also have 2 coloured cubes on either side of the arrow indicating which types of enemies fan out to the side, occupying nearby space – the remainder will follow the arrow, moving on to the next hex.
Once a space is perished land, it loses all its former elements, such as access tunnels, and becomes simply a stage in a funnel – new enemies which spawn will always go straight to the end of the chain of perished land tiles, meaning that as the game progresses, you will find more and more enemies getting closer and closer to the centre of the map. It also hurts your dwarves to enter perished land – they must either lose a health point, or advance Doom, effectively shortening the game by a turn.
Off on an adventure – time to write home!
For most people playing The Dwarves for the first time, the bulk of the actions make a lot of sense – fighting monsters with your combat stat, moving around with your movement, even crafting new equipment with your craft skill. Somewhat more puzzling, is the option to write letters to the dwarven Council.
In The Dwarves (the novel), the events take place against a backdrop of the Dwarven king nearing death, and the dwarven council trying to decide upon a successor. What they don’t know, is that the advisor to the dwarf expected to succeed is secretly in league with evil, and trying to bring down the dwarven lands. Fortunately for dwarvenkind, an unknown dwarf, the point-of-view character and amiable everyman just happens to arrive at this exact moment, leading everyone to wonder whether he is a long-lost heir. The Dwarves recounts how this triggers a formal contest, in which two groups of dwarves are sent off on a series of challenges to prove their worthiness.
This is represented in The Dwarves (the game) by the Council Track along the bottom of the board – your dwarf can take an action to write a letter to the council – if they roll high enough, the token will move to the right, giving players various benefits. However, Doom Track events and Threat cards will move it back the other way, undoing the benefits, and ultimately throwing further perils at your courageous band of dwarves.
An Adventure! – or just a Threat?
Aside from the main quest card, a game of The Dwarves will also typically have 3 Adventures in play – subsidiary challenges that you can complete to gain equipment, restore health, remove enemies, or simply buy yourselves more time. At the beginning of the game, 3 Adventures are dealt out, and each round you re-fill any gaps. However, as the game goes on, the doom Track will force you to shuffle more and more Threats into the Adventure deck – a Threat is a lot like an Adventure – it appears, and will generally give you a task to complete, or a penalty to pay. The big difference is that where Adventures give you rewards for completion, Threats punish you for not completing them.
Whenever you advance the main quest in The Dwarves, you discard all Adventures and Threats in play – discarding an incomplete Adventure is of no consequence, unless you were really desperate for the reward, but discarding an incomplete Threat can see large swathes of land perish, your heroes take damage, or other harmful effects.
By late game, it’s basically just a threat deck
I really like the interplay between Threats and Aventures – it means that even when you know your overall goal (complete the current quest), you have to think about what you do right now. You might find yourself able to advance, but knowing that half a dozen hexes will perish if you do. Can you afford to lose all those spaces? Can you afford to take the time to deal with the threat and not advance the main quest. The answer is unlikely to be the same twice in a row, and it all helps keep The Dwarves fresh and interesting.
So that’s The Dwarves – should I get it?
Someone’s ready for a fight
The main thing I really like about The Dwarves is the way it maintains tension – this isn’t a game where you can really be all that “on top of things” – enemies are going to spawn and spread faster than you can kill them, and large amounts of the board will get overrun, making your life harder. Chances are pretty high that you’ll end up fighting a last-ditch battle, whether that be trying to defend the centre of the map, hoping to kill a certain number of enemies, or trying to seal the gates to the dwarven kingdoms. Yet for all that, the outcome isn’t predictable. The very first time we played, we were convinced that we were staring defeat in the face, only to snatch a win at the very last moment.
Obviously, the more you play The Dwarves, the more you will improve at the game, and may find the challenge of the standard mode lessened – again though, it’s very easy to tweak, and come up with something better suited to your play-style. Removing fewer stage A quests lengthens the game, giving evil more time to gear up, but if you like to give yourself a real challenge, you can play so that map spaces become Perished Land with 4 enemies instead of 5!
Sadly, most people playing The Dwarves will miss a lot of the thematic nuance, simply because they haven’t read the books, and if you are a big fan of fantasy fiction, they’re worth checking out. If you play this regularly, you might want to seek out the “Combined Might” expansion which adds some needed variety to the quest deck, and is only about a tenner if you can find a copy. Overall though, this is still an interesting game, with some clever and unusual mechanics: I think we’ll be playing it for a while, and I’d give The Dwarves an 8.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.