Developers: Zeal Game Studios
Publishers: Paradox Interactive
It's been so long since I've played a dungeon management sim that I've forgotten some of the most simple things. While expanding the subterranean domain of my dwarven prince, I manage to neglect one of two things: for starters, digging out the floor below has caused my throne room to sink into a freshly sculpted abyss, and secondly, not building ladders explains how half of my population are now dead, having literally dug their own graves.
I am an idiot.
A Game of Dwarves sees you helping out the prince of the dwarves to prove himself a worthy successor to his father. He needs to be able to create a underground dwarven domain of which his people can be proud, to plumb the depths of the earth in search of treasure and glory, and to reclaim some ancient artefacts from a band of pesky mages who've been oppressing the dwarven people for some time.
None of which sounds particularly dungeon-esque, when you think about it, apart from the underground bit. But this is a game that sees you creating a vast subterranean living space from which you go mining for resources, hunting for fertile patches of land to be turned into food sources, providing amenities and essentials for your citizens, protecting them with soldiers and well-placed traps, and exploring as much of the local area as you possibly can. All of which reminds us a little bit of Dungeon Keeper.
There's a reason that we haven't seen a huge number of dungeon management sims in the past decade, and that's because Dungeon Keeper and its sequel did such a good job that no-one's really bothered to see if they can bring something new to the genre. As it is, then, Zeal Game Studios might well be filling something of a vacuum with A Game of Dwarves.
The game kicks off with the King presenting his son with a challenge, except that his son is a lazy oaf, and that means you'll have to help him out. After a pretty comprehensive tutorial that delivers the fundamentals of the game on a platter, you're off to do some exploring and uncover some long lost caverns, ruins, and treasure. Missions see you begin with small series of chambers, a token group of dwarven attendants, and a small list of objectives. To begin with, these are quite simple - amass a certain amount of gold, stick a bunch of decorations in your cavern - and nearly all of the ones I've come across thus far have involved digging until you find a large treasure chamber, usually marked out by a fat bundle of question marks.
It's a sedate start to a game that's as much about building your own dwarven utopia as it is about management and strategic security. Indeed, off of the main menu you can set up a custom game that has no enemy threat whatsoever, so if you just want to dig and build and explore with no constraints, you can.
In order to do so, however, you'll need minions. The raw Dwarflings that are sent to you via a portal from the realm above are untrained, but can be assigned one of five roles: digger, soldier, crafter, scholar, and worker. Most of those are fairly self-explanatory, with the worker acting as a farming dogsbody, tending to the planted food sources and making sure that the long table is kept well stocked with plates of grub.
Digging widens your domain, but is also used for ferreting out minerals such as silver, gold, and stone. Soldiers can be trained up with constructed dummies and then used to clear areas of dangerous beasts, and protect your chambers from enemy attention. Scholars, once a research table has been constructed, let you research tech, and provide opportunities for specialisation within a role, making your dwarves more efficient in their chosen profession. They'll rank up through performing their task anyway, but research can deliver new abilities, structures, bonuses, and more. Crafters, as you'd expect, are your builders, making sure that you have beds where your minions may rest, ladders and stairs to allow for access to the various levels of your cavernous halls.
Speaking of which, the verticality is something worthy of note. Maps don't take place on one plane, sprawling though they may be. You'll likely end up with multiple rooms across multiple levels as you send your diggers deeper and deeper into the ground. Just make sure that you give them a way out!
A Game of Dwarves ensures right from the start that you don't run before you've properly learned to walk. There are often some pretty mean enemies not to far beyond your starting positions that will cause you rouble if you haven't taken the time to train up your soldiers, and lay a few traps for good measure. AGOD is a game that encourages you to think carefully about expansion, rather than rushing headfirst into a stone wall. How will going down a level affect the structure of your existing chambers? If your frontier is moving further and further away from your main halls, should you think about providing supplementary beds and feasting tables? You have three men carving out new pathways, but is one soldier protecting them really going to be enough?
With a limit on the number of dwarves you can have serving you at any one time, balance is key. So to is the delicate relationship that you have with your minions. Keep them happy and they'll work harder and faster for you. See that they're well-fed, well-rested, that their surroundings are adorned with trophies and braziers, and that you generally have a grip on things, and they'll be sunny and productive. Let them get too hungry, tired, wounded, or depressed, and you'll piss them off to an extent where their sullenness will begin to show in their work and they eventually go on strike.
Thus, while it may be tempting to channel most of your efforts into exploration, there are other considerations too. A few well-trained soldiers are imperative. Talented crafters can lead to better items, furnishings, and allow for better conditions for everyone. Researchers can make your life a lot easier if given the resources and time to deliver. With randomly generated loot rooms and enemies, no playthrough is identical to the last, and the challenge each time is finding a balance to suit your surroundings.
At a glance, it seems that Zeal have succeeded in creating a game that tries to take the best parts of Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress, helped by a UI that is incredibly easy to use, fantastically intuitive, and makes the game immediately accessible. We're eager to see if the depth hinted at in the early levels we played is brought out more in later stages of the game.