If there’s one thing I knows about dwarves it’s this: Dwarves love to dig! So it’s only appropriate that this is the topic of Kenzer & Company’s DungeonQuesty game DWARVEN DIG! In this game for 2 to 4 players, your goal is to use your party of four Dwarven specialists to tunnel to the vault at the center of the mountain and escape with the treasure. There is always less treasure available than players, so at some point, there’s going to be a conflict, probably quite a few of them. That’s another thing I knows about dwarves: They love to fight!
When you dig into the game box you’ll find you’re getting some fine bits for your money. The game pawns are all detailed metal figures, brightly painted a solid color. A more artistically inclined gamer can buy extra dwarves from the publisher’s website that can be painted up as fancy as you please. The Grit stones that keep track of the game’s currency are also metal. The hexagonal tiles that make up the game board are nice and thick, and the cards, while the stock is a little thin, are oversized. On the other hand, the six-sided die included is wee. You may want to sub in a larger die. A nice large marbleized d6 would fit the theme nicely. Overall, it is a quality production.
The game begins with a fairly involved building process whereby you combine hexagonal tiles to form the game board. You do your best to give yourself an easy route while making life hard for your opponents. Unless someone’s asleep, this usually balances out, giving everyone a moderately tough road to hoe. The board adjusts in size depending on the number of players. The treasure vault sits in the middle of the board while a spoke radiates out to an entrance for each player. To win, you need to dig to the center, grab the treasure, then exit by way of any entrance.
The gameplay is broken up into ordered phases that make up each complete round. Each phase is taken by each player before the next phase. All players take a digging and movement turn, then all players get their combat phase, followed by an optional extra turn, then finally a phase where earned Grit is collected. Your dwarves progress through the mountain by digging into adjacent tiles. Each tile edge is blocked by a dirt, granite, or basalt wall. The types of rock on the edge of the hexes you are digging from and to determine your chance of successfully breaking through. Dirt to dirt is the easiest while basalt to basalt is pretty tough. Once you successfully dig, you place a passage tile between the hexes and that way will (usually) be open for the rest of the game.
The essential currency in the game is Grit. Grit symbolically represents hard-earned experience, and is physically represented by little silver stones. Think Nerds candy but less delicious. An innovative game mechanic is that you earn Grit not through success but by failure. The more your dwarves flounder, the more determined they become to succeed next time. Can’t dig through that basalt wall? That’s worth a Grit stone. Lose a dwarf to a monster? Be comforted that you’ll earn a few Grit for that as well. Think of those Grit stones as petrified tears and you’ll get the general idea.
Grit is used for a variety of things. You can add to most skill rolls for a price of one Grit per point, but you’ll need to spend your Grit before you roll. Grit can buy you an extra movement or combat phase each round. Grit can also be used to purchase Quarry cards. These are generally very useful and let you do things like automatically plow through walls, sic monsters and hazards on your opponents, and even teleport around the mine. One of my favorite moves is to go through a previously dug basalt-to-basalt passage, then use the cave-in Quarry card to collapse the passage behind me, forcing a pursuing party to make a very difficult dig or go around before they can follow. The more powerful cards require you to spend additional Grit to enact them; this prevents a lucky card draw from unbalancing the game.
Your initial four-member party comprises a Miner, an Engineer, a Warrior, and an Elder. These dwarves can stick together in a single party or split off in different directions any way you like. Each specialist has a unique ability. The Engineer can Force March, granting your party an extra move at the cost of some Grit. The Miner can set off a Shockwave that can blow up dwarves in any other tile on the board. This ability comes with the troubling consequence that it is just as likely to kill the dwarves setting off the shockwave as the target. The Warrior can pick a single opposing dwarf to Duel rather than having to engage the entire party. Finally, the Elder, if he can manage to sit quietly by himself for a turn, will generate a variable amount of Grit for your team with his Commune ability.
Digging into the next space, safe navigation through tiles with hazards on them, and combat depend on making skills checks. Usually, two of your four dwarf specialists can help you make your skill roll by adding +1 each. For example, the Miner and Engineer will help you dig through walls. The strength of the Warrior and the wisdom of the Elder will help you avoid being trapped by the Pit Roach. Consequently, a four-dwarf party is best prepared to face any challenges that come their way. However, there are also good reasons to split up your team. Sometimes you need to cover multiple escape routes to intercept a party trying to sneak out with the treasure. Also, the special abilities are best used by solo dwarves. You’ll need to leave the Elder behind at some point so he can meditate up some Grit. The Warrior’s duel and the Miner’s shockwave attacks are safest to use if those dwarves go at it singly. Similarly, the Engineer’s forced march doesn’t cost any Grit if only the Engineer takes the extra move. However, if you ever want to engage in straight-up party-to-party combat, sheer numbers are your best ally. Determining the time and place to peel dwarves out of the party and re-partner them is a key strategy for the game. There are numerous tactics to explore to find the best ways to split and combine dwarf parties in response to fluid situations. This aspect adds a lot of interest and replayability to the game.
The main thing I admire about the game is its balance. The progression through the various trapped tiles is reminiscent of DungeonQuest, but this game is much fairer to the players. In DQ and many other games of this type, there’s a lot of random, sudden death. In Dwarven Dig, this problem is solved somewhat by the fact that all tiles are exposed. You usually have the option of going the long way around a dangerous tile at the cost of time. While there is a lot of dice-rolling, you are able to evaluate the perils and rewards for each potential action; you know your odds of success, and can plan your tactics according to how much risk you are willing to take. You can mitigate your risk if you have and are willing to spend Grit. Play will most likely be fairly conservative at the beginning of the game, with players keeping their parties together and going the long way around traps. However, once someone gets to the treasure, the race is on and you’ll be willing to imperil some dwarves in order to steal or hold onto the booty. This gives the game a nice escalating pace that leads to an exciting conclusion.
Because the ending is so good, it is fortunate that the rules are designed to make it likely that most players who are not overly reckless will still have some dwarves on the board until the end of the game. Whenever you fail a skill check, you get to make a Luck roll to avoid the nasty consequences. This is essentially an unmodifiable saving throw for you old-school gamers. As you start to lose party members, the remaining dwarves become luckier so there’s less chance of getting knocked out entirely. A full party of four needs to roll a 6, three or two get lucky at 5+, while a lone dwarf makes his saving throw on a roll of 4+. This means your last dwarf has a 50% chance of surviving no matter how hard he gets thumped. This also has implications for splitting up your party; smaller groups and solo dwarves will have a harder time with skill checks, but a better chance of escaping scot-free should they miss the roll.
The Grit mechanic is also a clever way to keep a player that has fallen on hard times from dropping out of contention. Beat-up dwarves earn a pile of Grit to help them reverse their fortunes in the next turn. While the player who manages to keep all their dwarves alive will definitely have an advantage, the luck and Grit rules synergize to make losing parties more resilient as they take damage. Consequently, usually most players stay alive to enjoy the typically exciting endgame.
Another thing that sets Dwarven Dig apart from other games of this type is that it is more directly competitive than most. You are definitely battling the other players more than the dungeon itself. Someone will always be trying the beat you to the vault or steal your treasure from you by whatever means possible. Encountering hazardous mountain spaces usually only occurs when you decide you need to take a shortcut to save time on your way to snatch some gold or to administer a bashing. The other player, of course, will try to force you to brave as many of these hazards as possible.
Whether or not you like this game is going to depend on how much you enjoy the theme and the competition. I’m at a loss to find any faults with the game mechanics. There’s no character advancement here; if anything you get weaker as the game continues and you start to lose dwarves. However, this also keeps the game short and the tension high. The game length is usually about an hour or two depending on number of players, which feels about right. There’s a lot of replay potential because of the random board setup and the many different tactics to explore. So in conclusion, if you enjoy this type of game I think you’ll enjoy Dwarven Dig! while finding that it puts a new spin on some old ideas. Just no crying when you lose your Engineer to a lava pit. The last thing I knows about dwarves is this: Dwarves hate whiners!
This review was originally published in Boulder Games Notes #19 June 2004 (http://www.bouldergames.com).
I just bought this game at a yard sale and it has no directions. Can you help?