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“It has often been said that if you want something done right then you do it yourself.
This idea is absurd.
We here at Dwarves, Inc. firmly believe that if you want a lush and abundantly overflowing garden, then you hire a gardener. If you want a new wagon wheel then you hire a wheelwright. And if you want a tunnel dug or a site excavated then you hire a professional digger and there’s nobody that knows digging better than a dwarf. Dwarves, Inc. has been in business for over a hundred years and we know everything there is to know about digging. We’ve dug canals. We’ve dug mines. We’ve dug latrines. We’ve dug just about everything that can be dug. Our work is safe and sturdy and backed by our guarantee that it will not fail and, if it does, you’ll get your entire investment back… and we’ve never had to repay anybody ever.
So, if you’re looking at a large upcoming dig project and you don’t mind a few collapsing or flooding tunnels and the idea of losing several workers and having to pay a fortune to their families doesn’t bother you, then by all means, do it yourself. But, if you want it done right, then you’d be wise to hire Dwarves, Inc. You won’t regret it… and that’s our guarantee!”
In the game of Dwarves, Inc. the players will be taking on the role of a group of dwarves that have been hired by one of eight different mining companies to excavate some ancient ruins. Along the way the players will have the opportunity to invest in the companies that they are working for and hire on more workers to increase their company’s profitability. This is accomplished by means of a clever worker placement/area control mechanic. As the board fills up, the opportunities for advancement become more scarce. In the end, only one player can emerge as the wealthiest. Will it be you?
Now, before I delve too much further into this review, I would like to take a moment to thank Andrei Burago at Assa Games for sending me the pre-release copy of this game that I am basing this review upon. While his graciousness and generosity are appreciated, this has not had any effect upon my overall opinion of this game. You can rest assured that if this game is terrible, I will tell you so.
As you read this section and the following sections, please keep in mind that the copy of the game that I received is a pre-release copy of the game. As such, the rules and the components themselves may change by the time this game finally hits the market. That being said…
The first thing that you’ll notice about Dwarves Inc. is the goofy imagery right there on the front of the box. Three dwarves are riding in a fast moving mining cart. One dwarf holds a broken piece of wood in his hand that is clearly labeled “brake” while another holds a torch and is busily trying to extricate his beard from the clutches of a large tentacle that has emerged from the darkness. The third dwarf is riding in the front of the cart and he is pointing at something, his eyes wide in terror. The art style reminds me of an old early 80’s Rankin-Bass feature. If ‘The Last Unicorn’ had been less about unicorns and more about dwarves riding around in mining carts, this box art could have been the movie poster for it. It just has that kind of feel about it.
Opening the box we find a plastic box overflowing with little plastic gems of various colors (white, yellow, red, purple, blue, green, black, and pink), a collection of dungeon tiles, several player mats, a deck of cards, a collection of tokens, and a rule book. The tiles and tokens are nice and thick and the cards have a firm, plastic feeling about them. These components are of pretty good quality and I have no doubt that they will be able to hold up for a very long time.
The dungeon tiles are all divided into 6 x 6 grids. Most of these grid spaces are empty, but there are several icons sprinkled across each of the tiles and we’ll get to the meanings of these icons momentarily. There is one tile that stands out from all of the other, though. This tile has a picture of a campground in the middle of it and this campground is surrounded by flags of various colors. This is the center tile and it is where all of the action begins.
The cards come in one flavor - Chance cards. Each Chance card contains an illustration and a text box containing the card’s title and a description of what the card actually does. The effects on these cards vary and provide some kind of game changing benefit (i.e. - extra actions, extra gems, extra dwarves, etc.) when they are used. We will discuss the usage of Chance cards later on.
The player mats contain a scoring remind along the leftmost edge of the card. The right side of the card is divided into two sections. The upper section is where the dwarves are kept as players acquire them. There are already four dwarves pre-printed onto the mat. In the area beneath this is where a player will store their investment gems and gold (referred to hereafter as ‘the bank space’). Trust me, all of this will make sense very soon.
Of the tokens, there are three types - money, dwarves, and overtime tokens. The dwarf tokens feature the image of a dwarf with a pickaxe slung over his shoulder. The money tokens come in one of four different values - 1, 3,10, and 25 - and the value is printed on both sides of the token. The overtime tokens bear the image of an hourglass on either side of the token. The art style on these tokens is consistent with that on the front of the box.
Last but not least is the rule book. The rule book comes in at just under 8 pages. Everything is clearly written and there are plentiful illustrations everywhere you look. There is even a handy list of each of the various Chance cards included that describes just what each card does. After having read through the rule book one time I never had to refer to it again. As far as rule books go, this one isn’t too shabby.
Setting up the game is pretty easy. The center tile is laid out and then the other tiles are shuffled together and placed onto the table in such a way that they surround it. If laid out properly, there should be a 3 x 3 cluster of tiles on the table when you’re done. These tiles can be spun and turned in any way that you like. This variable layout helps to add some replayability to the game. And then, once the tiles are laid out, a single gem of the appropriate type is placed atop the flag whose color matches the gem (i.e. a white gem is placed atop the white flag, a red gem is placed atop the red flag, etc.).
Once the board has been set up each player will receive a player mat. The Chance cards are shuffled and set aside along with the various tokens and a starting player is selected. Now you are ready to begin.
This game is played in a series of rounds and each round is comprised of each player taking a single turn. Each turn is broken into two phases. In phase one, the player will have an opportunity to dig, earn profit, and perform various actions. In phase two, they will have the opportunity to change their investments. Since that doesn’t exactly clear anything up, let’s tackle each of these phases one at a time.
The first thing that a player will do during phase one is to dig. To dig, a player will take one to three gems of the same color and place these into empty fields on the board being sure to place these gems in fields that are adjacent to fields that already contain gems of the same color. Thematically, this represents that player’s dwarves working for that color of mining company for the duration of that turn. So, if a player wants to lay down green gems this turn, for instance, they will take one to three green gems from the supply and then place these gems onto the board one at a time. The first green gem would be placed orthogonally adjacent to a green gem that is already on the board. Then they will place the second green gem orthogonally adjacent to one of these, so on and so forth.
As for the collecting profit and taking actions, that all comes down to the icons that appear on the tiles and whether or not you cover them up on your turn. Here’s a list of the different types of icons and what they do:
Gold: whenever a gem is placed on top of this, it triggers a payout. The player who has the most gems of the color of gem used to cover the space will then earn two gold per dwarf they have in their supply. The second place player earns a little less.
Safety Deposit Box: the player may take one investment gem from the supply and place it onto the bank space of their player mat.
Dwarf: the player may place a dwarf token into the dwarf token area of their player mat.
Treasure Chest: the player may draw a Chance card. Some Chance cards must be used immediately and others can be held onto for later and it will say so directly on the card.
A red-bordered space: no gems may ever be placed on these spots.
Tunnels: the player may not place a gem on a tunnel unless they can place a second gem on a different tunnel entrance elsewhere. These tunnels tie two different parts of the board together.
After the player has placed their gems and taken their actions (if any) they will then have the opportunity to change their investments. If this is the player’s very first turn, then they can take four gems of different colors from the supply and place them into the bank space on their player mat. In subsequent turns, the player may replace any one of the gems that they have collected with a gem of a different color.
END GAME and SCORING
The end of the game is triggered as soon as the last gold space is covered and scored. Then each player will count up all of their money and whoever has the most money will win the game. And that’s it. It’s that easy.
Dwarves Inc. is a game that defies easy categorization. It isn’t exactly worker placement or area control. In fact, it isn’t like any other game that I have ever played before. On the face of it, it seems like a simple game of placing plastic gems on a board, but it’s so much more than that.
This game is like a snowball that turns into an avalanche. At first it’s not very impressive but as things progress it really picks up speed and starts to become really intense. During my first few turns I wasn’t terribly concerned about where I placed my gems. One spot seemed just as good as any other and it wasn’t until that first scoring took place that it really began to click. That’s when the competition began to get fierce and that’s when things really began to get fun.
While playing the game I found myself in a lot of situations where I was about to score big only to find myself cut off at the last second by players colluding to drop a line of gems between me and my goal and I found myself doing the same to others. The key to playing this game well is in creating scoring opportunities for yourself, but being careful to never tip your hand. It’s like trying to play poker with all of your cards revealed and it’s frickin’ hard. Because of the open nature of the game, it can be agonizing trying to figure out where to place your gems at times and this is about the only negative thing that I can find in this game…. good ole’ analysis paralysis. However, unlike most game where someone taking a long time to take their turn might seem to make things feel intolerably slow going, this game has so many different opportunities that waiting for someone to make their move is almost welcome as it allows you time to plan out yours.
I love the artwork in this game and I love how easy and fun it is to play. I love the way that the board shifts constantly and I love the way that forces me to have to constantly re-strategize and adapt to play effectively. Dwarves Inc. is a game that will challenge you. It is equal parts pumping your fist in the air in victory and flipping your opponents the bird in defeat. Each playthrough will leave you thinking about what you could have done better and what you’re going to do next time. And if that isn’t the hallmark of a great game, I don’t know what is.
Can I get that number? I need a moat dug by Wednesday of next week. Entertaining review.