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Dwarves is a game about mining different kinds of Gems from the board. Your aim is to collect one Gem in particular, as your score will increase when you have more. Knowing which Gem to collect and keeping hold of the Gems you have acquired is all part of the strategy of playing Dwarves. But the worst -- if not the most important -- is the card play, for if you run out of cards or leave yourself with little choice, you will not accomplish your task or win the game.
Dwarves is a card-driven game about mining for gemstones. It is also another instance of a gamer designing a game and deciding to publish it himself.
The components consist of a deck of cards, a mass of hexagonal tiles and a rather complicated board on which the tiles are stacked in four layers. Each tile shows either plain rock or a gemstone. Frames on the board hold the tiles in position and permit a construction in which the layers get smaller in area as you go down. The cards have a central picture corresponding to one of the types of tile and a corner symbol showing a piece of mining equipment.
Your aim is to collect gemstones, of which there are seven types, and a non-linear scoring system means that you will do better if you focus on getting gems of the same sort. Five emeralds, for example, will be worth a lot more points than two emeralds, two rubies and a sapphire.
At the start of each of your turns there will be five cards lying face-up in the middle of the table and the first thing you do is discard two cards from your hand. The two cards must both have the same corner symbol. You then take three of the cards from the middle. The upshot is that your hand-size has increased by one. Furthermore, if you are managing your hand well -- and this is a game where hand management is central -- the cards you have acquired will be more useful to you than the ones you have got rid of.
In the second phase of your turn you get to dig. Digs come in two sorts: basic and special. At the start of the game you will find that you are only able to do the former. To perform a basic dig you hand in two cards having the same central picture and take a corresponding tile. So two ruby cards will net you a ruby. The tile you take must be one that is completely exposed. In the early stages of the game this means that you are restricted to the top layer of tiles. Those lower down will become exposed as the game proceeds.
The two phases together have left you with one more tile and one fewer card than you had at the start of your turn. Since you begin the game with only eight cards, this would soon lead to problems if there weren't ways to halt or reverse the shrinkage of the size of your hand. This is where the options come in. The first of them occurs in phase one. Instead of doing the "two for three" exchange, you can hand in your entire hand and take all five of the face-up cards. However, there is a price to be paid if you do this and it is that your turn ends there. You don't get to dig this turn and so won't be gaining a tile. Since it is tiles that convert into victory points, this means that this is not something you will want to do too often.
The other method you have for halting the loss of cards lies with the special digs. There are five of these and each of them requires that you hand in a tile (of the appropriate type). You then play 0, 1 or 2 cards - the number depending on which special dig you have gone for - and acquire two tiles. Only one of the five requires the use of two cards and so with the others you have made a net gain of one tile without losing any cards. And with the special dig that requires no cards, your stock of cards has actually gone up over the turn.
Full details on all the special digs is only of relevance if you are playing the game, but to give you some idea of the flavour of things, one is called "Lucky Strike" and with it you can dig two identical cards with just one matching card. Another involves the gems that players have surrendered in order to gain the right to do a special dig. These are put into an area called the "Rubble Pile" and if you hand in a piece of plain rock, you can take two tiles of your choice from this pile. A third results in a change of the "gems to specials" match-ups, a fourth is the only method of digging diamonds (this gem type doesn't have any corresponding cards and so can't be got by means of a basic dig) and the fifth sees you moving the "mining camp". This is an extra piece that sits on top of a tile that would otherwise be exposed. Shifting it gives you the tile underneath and enables you to place the camp where it will inconvenience someone else.
In order to make good use of the special digs you need to plan ahead and manage not just your cards but your gem store as well. Dwarves is not a game where there are any perfect plans or where you can sit down and decide on your strategy before you start. However, neither is it one where you can let things drift.
My group has taken to the game. It is original, well-themed and the mechanics mesh well to produce interesting play, but there are flaws and they are the sort that you would expect from a first-time effort by a designer publisher. One is a case of over gilding the lily and the other one of over ambition.
Many years ago Derek Carver wrote an article for the magazine Games and Puzzles on the subject of designing your own games and one of the points he stressed was that after you have created your masterpiece, you should step back and decide which of the brilliant bits of decoration it would actually be better without. With Dwarves, Markus has done a very good job as far as the game system is concerned. Everything pulls its weight, you aren't kept waiting too long by other players' turns and the total playing time is just about what it should be. However, there is one tweak too many when it comes to the scoring system. The idea is an original one and I can understand why he would be reluctant to get rid of it, but it introduces a large random element into a game where the scores are likely to be tightly bunched and that makes for an unsatisfying finish.
There are seven gems of each type and, with the exception of diamonds, the scoring is based on the triangular series -- 1-3-6-10-15-21-28. No problems so far, because players can do the sums and make their decisions accordingly. Now comes the tweak. Each tile has part of the picture of a dwarf on the back. Put the tiles from a set together in the right order and the full picture appears. The arrangement consists of a centre tile surrounded by the other six. When you are scoring for groups of gems, they have to be part of the same set and contiguous in the picture.
Example: Number the tiles so that they go 1 to 6 in clockwise order round the outer circle and let the tile from the middle be number 7. Now suppose that I have four rubies and that they are tiles 1,2,3 and 5. My score is 6 for the run of three plus 1 for the singleton. Total 7. Now exchange the 2 for the 7. This time all four are in a group and my score is 10.
In our first game the position as we neared the end was that no one had been collecting rubies and there were four in the rubble pile. I was on turn and already had one ruby. I surrendered a rock tile, took the two rubies nearest to me and lost by 1 point. Had I taken the other two I'd have won. That sort of lucky dip is no way to determine the result of a 90 minute game that expects to be taken seriously. We have now dropped the adjacency rule and just use the triangular series on the number of gems of each type. So three emeralds score 6 points no matter which three emeralds they are.
The other problem concerns the components. If you make due allowance for the fact that this is not a professional production, they have done a reasonably good job considering the task they set themselves, but the specifications of that task were not within amateur capabilities. If you are going to fit hexagonal tiles into a frame and make the fit exact, every tile has to be a perfect hexagon. If even one is slightly out, the tesselation will buckle and that is what happens here. As a consequence, assembling the board at the start is a tricky operation involving a lot of trying first one tile and then another to make things fit and lie flat. Hitting the layout with the flat of your hand also comes it! What they should have done, of course, is what the makers of 18xx games do and that is make the tiles slightly smaller than the grid.
Then there is the physical mechanism that enables you to change the correspondence between gems and special digs. The part of the board that holds the tiles is fastened at its centre to a base and is supposed to rotate. In my set getting it to move through more than 30 degrees would require a wide-jawed monkey wrench. We gave up on it and instead placed six markers in the relevant six gem colours next to the edges of the board and just shifted them round when the alignment changed. Much simpler!
Final conclusion: Some things could have been done better, especially with the components where they have overreached themselves, but the problems are solvable and the game is a good one.