The Dwarves is a co-op game for 2-5 players, it’s designed by Michael Palm and Lukas Zach and the game is based on a novel by same name written by Markus Heitz. Players objective is to survive through a deck of scenario cards before time runs out and evil forces conquer the land. Players take role of dwarven heroes traveling through a map of the realm solving scenario, adventure and threat cards as well, as fighting evil troops. Progress of evil is counted on a doom track. To succeed the players must develop their skills, work together, manipulate dwarven council track and collect special items. If the timer ever runs out or if one of the heroes dies the game ends and the players lose.
The game board displays map of Girdlegard which is divided into seven different kingdoms. A doom track goes around upper part of board, it have two tokens moving along the track. Hero token starts from another end and moves every turn excluding few exceptions and doom token on the other side moves only in special occasion, if these tokens ever occupy same space or go past each other game ends and players lose.
On the bottom of board is dwarven council track. Council track represents influence of two competitors for dwarven leadership, Bislibur on the left is evil and if the council marker ever moves to his side of the track game will start to punish players different ways and may cause players to lose life when new threat card is drawn, reroll highest die when trying to complete a test etc. On the right is Balendilin and when players are able to grow his influence by moving the marker to the right, they will gain special abilities that will help them, for example heal one player when new threat card is drawn, reroll dice or craft their own equipment. Only one ability (good or bad) of council tokens current space, may be active at once.
Board also has a round summary, space for cubes that represent evil troops and the map index. Besides the board you will have few decks of cards, perished land tiles (enemy movement), some tokens for upgraded skills and seven d6's for players and three enemy recruitment dice.
There are four type of cards: Scenario cards (that players must resolve one at a time to win the game), represent events of the main story and are divided in three stages A (eight cards), B (one card) and C (three cards). During setup an X number of stage A cards is removed from scenario deck which is the main way to adjust the game's difficulty. Below them is the stage B card and at the bottom of the deck are three stage C cards. There is one scenario card in play that players must complete to advance to next scenario card, game ends immediately when players complete one of the stage C cards.
Adventure cards are short side quests that will reward players various ways after you complete them. There is three cards from the adventure deck in play. Threat cards are shuffled into the adventure deck during setup and several times after that during the game. When a threat card is drawn it will either resolve immediately or just take one space among three active cards from adventure deck. They are like adventure cards, but instead of giving you reward after completing them they will punish you if you do not complete them before you complete the currently active scenario card.
Item cards are different items that players earn from adventures or can craft if they can get council track all the way to Balendilins side. There is no max amount of items players can have, one player just can’t have duplicates. Items can boost player stats, heal, or have different special effects.
Gameplay is quite simple, each round include three steps, active player first moves hero token on doom track, then draw and refill scenario and adventure/threat cards and lastly takes two actions. Then turn passes to next player.
When hero token is moved on doom track player immediately resolve an effect of the space token lands on, it can spawn more monsters, move council token to left or add more threat cards to adventure deck. Spawn monster spaces indicate where new enemy troops will be added, player roll three custom dice that shows how many and what kind of enemies are spawned. On normal settings when there are five or more evil troops on one map space they will move on and players draw randomly one perished land tile, which will show the direction that advancing enemy troops will take when they march on, after that perished land tiles works as highway for enemy troops and they will move among paths tiles create and land on first not perished hex. Later on in game if players move on to space containing perished land tile they must lose one point of health or move the doom token on doom track shortening game time. If the space shows council marker you simply move it one space to left on council track. If it shows two cards, you take top two cards from threat deck and shuffle them into the adventure deck.
When new cards are drawn, if during the previous round, the players have completed a scenario card, they will discard all adventure and threat cards in play, resolve effects on threat cards and then draw one new card from scenario deck and three from adventure deck. If the scenario card you draw is stage C, the game situation must match condition on the card (example have x amount of enemies on board etc.) if not just draw a new one and check the condition again. Some threat cards you draw have immediate effects that will trigger at once when you reveal the card, apply those and draw another card.
Then the players carry out two actions: they can either move through map spaces, fight enemies, send messages to dwarven council to move council marker in their favor or do some adventure, threat or scenario related tests. All tests are done by rollign number of dice determined by your character's move, fight or craft skill and cards will tell how many successes player must get to complete. To move you roll x dice and pick biggest value to be your movement points. In battle its determined by enemy type what you have to roll: 4+ to defeat orcs, 5+ for trolls and 6+ for elves. On adventure, threat and scenario tests card will say what kind of test players must do and how many successes get, active player has their whole turn to complete those and successes from first attempt will still count if they will try with second action, so they get a few tries.
I have not read the books, but I really like this game, it is quite simple to learn, turns are quick and game's arc is nice so it has good flow and time just fly when I play it. It took about 90 to 115 minutes for us to play through and it really feels like an good adventure. The Dwarves have really nice setting where it feels like you are on adventure travelling through lands fighting enemy troops and occasionally dodging them and gaining allies while trying to fulfill your quest. It was also nice that game world kind of lived its own life and changed because of player actions as well as on its own. Players are involved in world where evil troops will march towards their goals by random routes and sometimes some other factions will also destroy enemy troops or support you some other way just because you did them some favor so yeah it really felt that we were part of something bigger. Although to have such experience will rely heavily on your own imagination, but so does almost every game and I had blast with this one.
My favorite part of the game is the tension that the scenario, adventure and threat cards provide, where players have to choose when to go for the scenario, knowing that you will lose all unfinished adventures and rewards they provide and also have to suffer possible threat that unfinished threat cards provide. That creates some hard decisions for players all the time, should they complete some adventure to get more benefits while facing the possibility of drawing threat cards to replace it. Or should they push forward on the scenario cards even if they stay little weaker for now. Threat cards have nice variation and you don’t even all the time have to complete them, you can just mitigate the threat until a point where it is reasonable to face. In games I have played we have gone through little over half of the adventure and threat decks at the end of the game, so together with scenario cards they will provide quite different sets of challenges you have to face from game to game. Although I have to say, some of the tasks on cards feel kind of the same but that didn’t really bother me. And if you really like to dive into them and even do some little roleplaying you really can, cards have flavor texts on them and tasks make sense thematically if you are willing to use some imagination. Or you can just face different kinds of puzzles that combination of random cards provide. And talking about randomness, the game has a lot of dice rolling and although I’m not the biggest fan of; roll to resolve/roll to test mechanisms, in this it didn’t bother me because you can mitigate dice rolls through character skills, council track and items. The movement is also easy because you have some tunnel systems going through the map so it won’t be so bad if you roll badly at movement, although you have to defend those tunnels to keep them in use. Also it never felt really crushing when you failed some rolls, you basically just lose time. Don’t get me wrong the Dwarves is quite challenging game, it just feels fair.
You can also modify difficulty of the game two different ways, removing cards from scenario deck or by making enemy forces spread out more quickly (normally they will spread out when there is five troops in one map space, but you can make it so it only takes four) so you can really adjust game difficulty to match your group's needs. Playable characters feel little bit different there are two focused on fighting, two focused on crafting and one all around, but because of character development players are not forced on following just one role.
Also one huge plus is that it never felt like individual players turn was pointless, there was always something meaningful to do or at least try to. It’s really hard to find anything very negative about this game, maybe some adventure cards repeat same kind of quests, but that didn’t really bother me that much. Other thing is that there is only one stage B and three stage C cards in scenario deck so after few games you have seen all three endings and the B is always same, but then again all stage C cards have specific requirements so they will come active and you really can’t tell in advance. And I have really enjoyed other co op games that have always same objective so really not so negative at least for me.
I can recommend this game for anybody who likes fantasy and co-op games and I also think that Dwarves would also be great for families and non gamers. It most certainly is solid almost gateway co op experience and I really hope it will hit our table often. It also works well as a solo game.