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2-6 Players. Designed by Michael Palm and Lukas Zach. Illustrations by Jarek Nocon. Published by Pegasus Spiele

The DWARVES is a board game that was launched around 5 years ago but has only recently come to my notice. At the same time as "finding" The DWARVES I was lucky enough to also gain the SAGA EXPANSION which came out a few years later and so I dived straight into putting the two sets together, as they are supposed to be, and therefore our playing has been with both boxes from day one. I should add to this introduction by saying that the game is based around a series of books written by Markus Heitz, which I say shamefacedly, I hadn't heard of before. Perhaps though that's a good thing because this game may now lead other people to locate and read these books especially as they can be found in English and German languages. The first book follows the story of a single Dwarf and his adventures in the Secondling Kingdom and the Fifthling Kingdom. To be honest apart from the fact that the players take on the roles of Dwarves on a map board, (that is split into five Kingdoms) I can't really associate the book and the game, but don't let my thoughts put you off either.

   
Camera trickery makes all Dwarves look to be the same size             Gandogar and Tungdil Goldhand

In the original THE DWARVES box there was a minor error made during packing with the miniature of the King of the Fourthling Clan, Gandogar Silverbeard, being accidentally omitted. In the SAGA Expansion this is corrected, though I have to be honest and say that when we saw the miniature Gandogar for the first time we couldn't help but giggle because the mini really is mini - compared to the other figures Gandogar Silverbeard is more of a Hobbit than a Dwarf but it is still a nicely detailed model, as well as being a fun talking point.

The DWARVES (and SAGA Expansion) is a cooperative game where the players either win or lose, there is no partial win, nor is there an individual winner, the forces of Orcs, Trolls and Älfar will defeat the Dwarves if they can defeat at least one Dwarf, or if time runs out; the players win if they complete the predetermined number of Missions/Quests (aka Scenarios), the finale being the defeat of one of the 3 "C" card scenarios, there being 8 x A, 1 x B and 3 x C Scenario cards. The challenge can be made easier (note I don't say "easy") by removing a number of the A cards but you must keep the B card and the 3 x C cards. The reason for this is the less A cards you have the more amount of time you have. The B card is always the same - Forge Keenfire - which after one game (or even if you check it out before beginning play) you can work towards during play. The reason there are 3 x C cards is that during the game the required condition for each may be reached before, after or during the advance to the C scenario, thus if you get past the As and the B it is fair to say you should win. However! Yes there is a "however" and that is there is every possibility that you will run out of time before or, frustratingly, as we have three times now, you reach the final scenario; "just one more turn and we would have won" is out mantra. Please do not think that winning is impossible, it isn't, and we have indeed defeated the evil hordes on a number of occasions, each time being a very close call and we have been defeated many times also, though apart from those aforementioned three close calls we have ignominously (i Gnome iously ?) failed. 

 

Obviously each game is similar but the random element of the dice roll ensures that each game is also different. Yes, the dice rolls can favour either side, but player decisions are also very important. Do you gang together to fight as a unit of proud Dwarves or do you trust each other's skills and abilities and allow everyone to hold the fort (so as to speak, there isn't really a fort to hold so don't go looking on the board/map for it, it isn't there). Speaking of the map board this is another reason why you should get the SAGA Expansion. The boards are almost exactly the same, the only differences being the spaces on the SAGA board are large and much better for the number of pieces that can occupy them, and that on the original board the Dwarven Council and the Scenario card spaces are actually on the board with direction to lay the cards below the board on the table; the SAGA board has a separate board to handle these mechanics. Each of these boards has spaces for the cards marked as I have mentioned but neither have actual marked spaces for the required decks and discards. This doesn't matter but it would have been that bit nicer seeing as everything else has been designed so specifically.

 

The game and expansion arrive with a range of excellent plastic miniatures for the DWARVES and small wooden cubes in three different colours for the Horde; Green for Orcs, Black for Trolls and Purple for Älfar; there are also a few grey tokens for keeping track of the Scenarios. As well as the coloured blocks for the Horde there are also wooden shapes for the Horde so you can have the aesthetic look and understand that the wooden figures represent the races of the Horde, but that they will fall over and also take up a lot of space, or you can go for the less pretty but more practical option of using the small wooden cubes - needless to say we prefer to use the cumbersome but visually effective wooden figures, especially with the SAGA map board.

There are several elements to the mechanics of this game. The first is the Doom Track which starts off high up the left side of the board where the Hero token site, travels across the top of the board until it ends several spaces down on the right edge where the Doom token begins. In SAGA you get two beautifully sculpted pieces to take the place of the round card counters, these minis actually do make a difference to play because it is easy to knock the board and jostle the counters off of their spaces whereas the miniatures are more likely to remain in place, plus, of course, the figures look better. The first thing that happens on every player's turn is the Hero Marker moves one space along the Doom Track, the Doom marker does move towards the Hero but thankfully not very fast. Some players on seeing this"timer" mechanism immediately think of the awful LotR game where Sauron and the Fellowship move towards each other; this is nothing like that, this is fun, nerve-wracking and often flipping frustrating.

 

The Horde of creatures are placed in three separate areas at the top of the board, the Orcs in Tabaîn, the Trolls in Urgon and the Älfar in Gauragar just North of the Fifthling Kingdom. There are four types of cards, Scenario (brown border), Adventure (white border), Threat (black border) and Equipment cards (red border). I have already mentioned the Scenario cards and how they are set so that leaves three other types. Of these the Threat cards are put to one side and the other two decks are shuffled separately with three cards being removed from the top of the Adventure deck and placed face up in the appropriate spaces on the Council board. Three random Threat cards are then shuffled into the remaining Adventure cards and the deck is placed face down on the Baledilin side of the Council board, the Equipment card deck is placed to one side - this is what I meant when I said that there aren't specific spaces for some of the card decks and discards (above).

 

The players choose from the six DWARVEN characters (there are five in the DWARVES plus one from SAGA), Gandogar Silverbeard, Boïndil "Ireheart" Doubleblade,  Boëndal Hookhand, Bavragor Hammerfist, Tungdil Goldhand and last but not least the female Dwarf, Balyndis Steelfinger, taking the miniature (extreme miniature for Gandogar - apologies but am still guffawing at size of the King Dwarf) and character board for each, along with a wooden life marker (a red heart). Each character has either 3 or 4 lives (hit points), a dice number for Strength (red axe), Craft (blue hand) and Speed (green boot), and a special ability natural to the character; there is also a I, II or IV Roman numeral which depicts which of the four Kingdom Gates the character begins from - one Dwarf begins at I, three begin at II and two remaining begin at IV - there is no Thirdling Kingdom and only the Horde can enter the board from the V gate.

 

Now we get to what I consider the cleverest mechanics; the Doom Track's other function (apart from just being a game timer). At the start of each player's turn the Hero marker is moved on one space (most of the time, there are exceptions but they can occur during play and are not an actual part of the mechanism) and the effect of that space is immediate. If there is a Roman Numeral at the space reached then the player has to roll the three Creature dice (one die for each of the Orc, Troll and Älfar) which determines how many (if any) of each type arrives on the board, coming on at the Gate of the Roman Numeral shown at the Hero space entered (for example the Gate for V is "Dragon Fire"). Now whenever 5 (or more) Horde land on the same space then they destroy the terrain, turning it into Perished Land. When this occurs a random Perished Terrain tile is placed onto the space, matching the main arrow on the space to the one on the tile, and then the Horde units may spread out onto other hexes according to the Perished Terrain tile. If, when these figures move on to other hexes, they create another group of 5 or more then another Perished Land tile is placed and the Horde moves on. As the game continues the Horde can arrive at a Gate and swiftly move along the Perished Land tiles as these present no problem to their movement - but Perished Land does cause DWARVES damage (with one exception). Therefore the Horde not only becomes stronger as the game progresses but they also move faster. The rolling of the dice for the Horde means that there is a random number of creatures for the players to combat every game, though the Doom Track remains constant so you always know where and when the Horde are going to appear, just not how many.

Combat is something you cannot dodge, in fact you don't want to dodge it (most of the time) you want to get stuck in, though it is always your choice whether to fight or not. The Horde are being summoned to the hex where all the arrows from all gates eventually meet up, "Blacksaddle", so they aren't interested in fighting you, it's up to you to move in amongst them and whirly-dervish your axes and swords (unless you have Gandogar the minor whose ability allows him to hit from adjacent hexes). Fighting is not a fine art, it is a dice roll, tossing the number of dice equal to your Strength value and hoping to hit at least one monster. Many characters and special cards allow for rerolling of dice and you don't have to declare which of the Horde in a mixed bunch you are aiming for, thus if you roll a 6 you can kill any one of the Horde minis in the space. You need a 4 or over to kill Orcs, a 5 or over to kill Trolls and a 6 to kill Älfar. If, for instance, you are on a mission to kill Orcs and there are 2 x Älfar and 2 x Orcs in the hex and you roll two sixes you can choose which of the creatures to kill (remove back to their supply) so 2 sixes will let you kill the Orcs and ignore the Älfar, you are not obliged to hit the Älfar just because you rolled sixes. The main upside to attacking is that you can stem the flow of the Horde and the downside to attacking is that if you do not kill a minimum of ONE creature during an attack then you lose one life. Characters have a set number of lives that can be added to but all Horde units can only take one hit.

 

Each turn players have 2 Actions chosen from a list of four. You can do two separate actions or the same action twice, though each action must be completed fully before you attempt the next: Move on the map, Fight, Send a Message to the Dwarven Council or Perform a Test. You roll dice equal to your speed value for movement points, one per hex, fighting has already been discussed, Messaging the Council is important because you generally need to get the Council marker as far to the right as possible, though there are times when keeping it in one specific place is more beneficial due to the power the Council give you depending on what space you are on. Whether to Move, Fight or Message should always be discussed amongst the players as these are your possible tactics and you really need to work together.

Performing a Test occurs often when you are trying to complete a Scenario or Mission, often having to gain a number of successes in the same turn - the word "turn" being very important. It is possible to move onto a hex and then perform a Test successfully if you roll the necessary numbers on the dice - one dice roll (ie a dice roll of more than one die) can result in more than one success, though on the Dwarven Council track one or multiple dice showing successes only count as one success.

 

The DWARVES (plus SAGA) is a most impressive game of many parts. It is part wargame, part strategy, part Euro-game, part luck and part thoughtful cooperation. It only works if you play well together and take a moment or two on each player's turn to discuss the best tactic or strategy. There is no room for players showboating, so be prepared to give up at least one of your actions to message the Council or help another player. Having said that, it isn't an oppressive cooperation game where you feel that you are being led by the nose by the most beligerent player or the mechanics. There are always options but there is something about a community of Dwarves that makes you want to work together. It is very easy to be focussed on killing or stopping the Horde and dismissing the Scenarios until later in the game, this is a mistake. Focussing completely on the Scenarios is also a mistake as the Horde will win by turning the world to Perilous Lands, preventing characters from moving without killing themselves. The balance is very well created.

As well as the Scenarios there are Adventures. To begin with there are three Adventures that you can use your actions to complete. When you do so you may get a reward or you may just make a space for another, better Adventure to take the place of the just completed one. There is another balance mechanic that now comes into play for when you complete a Scenario all the Adventure cards on display are discarded and new cards replace them. This may seem like a good idea but you have to remember that there are nasty Threat cards in the Adventure deck and as the Hero token moves around the Doom track there are times when instead of adding Horde to the board it adds Threats to the Adventurers (two Threat cards are shuffled into the Adventure deck). The further along the Doom track the Hero gets the more Threat cards are introduced and the more scenarios you complete the better the chance of a Threat turning up instead of an Adventure. Threats have to be immediately read and any necessary action taken before play continues. Threats are cool because they are just that, Threats! If you don't fulfil the demands then the imminent Threat comes to force.

I really enjoy playing the DWARVES (and SAGA). I think the miniatures are great, the carved Horde figures are not great but are better than the wooden blocks, and the cooperation factor works extremely well. As I said earlier frm the little I know about the series of books I cannot see how the gameplay is directly linked to the story but as far as a theme to hang a number of good mechanics on the DWARVES is a superb choice. Great for family players, strategy players, miniatures players and Euro gamers. It is for up to 6 players (with SAGA) and comes from PEGASUS SPIELE. Expect to pay between £50.00 - £80.00 for the pair (not each). If you can find them cheaper than that you are on a winner. Do remember though that SAGA Expansion cannot be played without the DWARVES original game.

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015