Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Zeal Game Studio
System requirements: Windows Vista/Win 7, Dual Core 2.4 GHz or better CPU, 4 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8000/AMD Radeon 2000 or better graphics card with Shader Model 4 support, DirectX-compatible sound device, DirectX 10, 3 GB hard-drive space, broadband Internet connection
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: Available now
What would it be like to run a kingdom of dwarves? This is the central question posed by A Game of Dwarves. As it turns out, it takes some real effort to run a kingdom of short, ill-tempered, mythological sentient beings with a penchant for digging their way through the world. In the tradition of memorable games such as Dungeon Keeper, A Game of Dwarves asks you to manage your people, build them a home that satisfies their needs, and lead them to victory against their enemies, while digging to find riches and materials for them to use and trade.
And digging there is aplenty. The game features a three-dimensional map. Your dwarves can dig up, down and sideways. You can even tunnel up to the surface and run some agriculture in the sun if you’re so inclined. The only real limits on your exploration are blocks of undigium (which cannot be mined) and your willingness to endanger your dwarves by delving into dangerous areas. And it’s not just about living space, either. Silver, gold, platinum, stone, marble, titanium, iron, and a host of fictional and exotic ores are waiting for the pickaxes of your miners. And you’ll need all of them, because your crafter dwarves need a steady influx of materials to build up your kingdom. Those stone beds, marble chests and fancy training dummies aren’t going to build themselves. And since the more valuable and rare exotic materials are deeper in the ground than plain ol’ iron, you must balance your greed with caution, lest you dig too deeply, too fast.
But you can’t mine for food and wood, and therein lies the other half of the game’s economy. There are fertile patches of earth where you can plant both trees and vegetables. The catch is that trees and vegetables generally require wealth, minted from silver and gold, to plant and harvest. Thus, on every map, you’re asked to balance the population with their ability to harvest the bare essentials of life. Dwarves can and will starve to death without food, so you might have 20 percent of your population devoted to farming plants. The catch is that once a dwarf has a specific job, his task can’t change, so every dwarf you dedicate to farming is a dwarf who can’t mine, research, or fight in battles.
Did I mention fighting? The deep places of the Earth hold a variety of residents that aren’t happy when dwarves burrow into their homes. Some of them are easy to dispatch, such as gnomes or goblins. But the further down you go, the nastier they become, with wizards and shamans killing dwarves in significant numbers if you’re unprepared. Military dwarves must be trained and supported; you, as the player, can’t directly attack enemies. Thus, you must manage your kingdom and its military resources in such a way that your military dwarves are able to respond to threats, rather than sleeping comfortably on the third layer of your underground kingdom while the miners are dying in droves 20 layers below them. And if you want them to take on specialized advanced classes, from grenadier to berserkers, you have to mine the exotic materials they need, which places them in danger.
A Game of Dwarves has both a free-form custom game option, in which you have a random map and can build up your kingdom however you want, and a campaign in which you must complete missions and conquer the whole map. Because the game clearly labels all blocks in which you might find a hive of enemies, there isn’t too much difficulty to any mission. This is a game in which the challenge might be in accomplishing a goal quickly or building a kingdom whose beauty rivals Moria at its zenith. And in that sense, I really enjoyed the gameplay. However, there are some issues that mar what should’ve been a streamlined and perfect gaming experience. There are serious performance problems when you issue large dig orders. I have no idea why, but tagging a 20×20 layer of blocks for your miners to dig out causes performance to drop considerably, framerate and all. It’s weird because nothing else in the game does this, and it doesn’t seem to matter what circumstances are involved. This is a real problem because there are plenty of times when you just want your miner dwarves to strip-mine layer after layer as you pursue some goal or strive for a needed resource. Another problem is the lack of warning from dwarves who are cut off from critical services. The game has alarms for combat and dwarves nearing death. But your dwarves won’t tell you if they’re cut off from beds, dining tables or their places of work. Since you don’t get a warning until they’re nearing death from starvation, you can’t correct the issue until it’s too late. Even teleporting them to a good location isn’t helpful when they’re too far gone. I might be a cold-hearted ruler, but even I don’t want to waste the time and resources of promoting dwarflings to replace miners who starve just because they won’t tell me, “Hey, Prince of Dwarves, we broke through to some new area and we don’t have a ladder or path to food and rest. Could you give us a hand?”
If you play this game, and you have a living memory of Dungeon Keeper, then you’ll be struck by the similarities involved. However, A Game of Dwarves is by no means a replacement for that classic franchise. It’s also a smaller, less costly game, so it’s unfair to compare them too closely. Does it justify its $9.99 price tag on Steam? I feel it does. Despite its issues, it’s a satisfying and simple game that can keep you occupied for hours. It isn’t going to revolutionize the gaming industry, but it’s not priced to do so, either. I enjoyed the time I spent with it, and I hope that Zeal Game Studio capitalizes on their experience to take it to the next level.