In this day and age, there’s something comforting in truth in advertising. Or maybe more accurately, simple clarity. There are thousands of games with (nearly) as many titles. Yet the vast majority of them are utterly unhelpful in telling you what the game is about. Sure, the back of the box generally has some descriptive summary, but even then things aren’t always clear (I’m looking at you, Euro games). Every now and then it’s refreshingly welcome to know what you’re getting into by the plain, in-your-face title, right there, on front of the box.
[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it. The final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]
How it Plays
So, yes, it’s exactly as it sounds. You are dwarves. With swords. Specifically, you lead cohorts of dwarves (who have swords) in a knock-down, drag-out brawl against other vertically-challenged legions (who have swords of their own) to claim your place as King under the mountain.
The design is an interesting one in that the real game begins before the game starts – that is, in building your armies. You form two such formations to direct on the battlefield, placing all of your hopes and fortunes, as well as tactics, upon them. Each of your two armies move and fight separately as one entity.
An army itself comprises nine units, which can be one of four types – Broadsword, Longsword, Magesword and Brewmaster. That’s right. This deadly brawl could just as soon devolve into a drunken melee. Each type of unit provides various attributes, collectively influencing how strong, armoured and/or magically adept its army is, which heavily impacts performance in battle. Additionally, the actions available to you depend on having specific units in particular formations. Because not only do you choose which fighters to include in the army, but you’ll arrange their corresponding tokens in a 3×3 plastic tray denoting that formation’s ranks.
After you’ve mustered your two armies and collected the action cards that those battalions can utilize, the war for the throne – or at least a frothy brew – begins.
On a turn you designate one of your armies to act. That army can then resolve one movement card, one attack card and one defensive card, in any order, as long as the army’s formation meets a card’s specifications. Cards are not expended or discarded, but available at all times to any army on the board that meets its requisite parameters. You may also move the selected corps a number of grid spaces according to its speed, which is equal to that of the slowest unit in the army. Again, you move and resolve actions in any order, and may even interrupt a march with an action, before moving the remaining number of alloted spaces.
When resolving cards, most have an immediate effect, while many of the defensive cards provide an ongoing benefit that aids in defense until that army is activated in a future turn. Additionally, some actions involve imbibing of some liquid courage and thus increase your drunkenness. This is helpful in combat (somehow) by boosting relevant attributes. But also naturally decreases your army’s speed and memory as you stumble around and forget where you placed your battle axe. If a regiment’s memory drops to 0, all of its soldiers black out and are removed from play. Which I guess is at least a more attractive fate then dying by sword, even if more embarrassing!
When engaging your activated army in combat, you’ll first choose an attack card that your formation can legally employ. Old-fashioned physical attacks are resolved when your army’s formation is essentially abreast the enemy. Magical attacks (with dwarves?!) can be ranged, up to four space away. Each are resolved a little differently, but both in tossing lots of dice and then matching up low to high pairs in a similar vein as classic Risk, but if the mechanic was hyped up on a Monster energy drink.
Physical attacks involve two rolls. First you roll your battalion’s Dexterity versus the defender’s Armour rating. The assaulting army’s attack card will specify what size die to roll, which can include all the main variants from d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12. After determining the size you look at your rating in the appropriate stat and grab that many dice, adding any modifier form your attack card. Similarly, the defender prepares a barrage of dice based on the army’s defense card currently in play. Both combatants roll and pair up their results beginning with the lowest numbers and proceeding up. Any offensive die greater than its pairing counts as one success while a critical hit – the highest number possible on that die – scores two. Unopposed assaulting dice are automatic successes, unless the result is a ‘1,’ in which case it’s a critical miss. Similarly, all critical hits on matched defending dice automatically block their pairs. However, unopposed defending dice are omitted.
In that first roll any successes reduce the number of dice that the defender can use in the second roll. This time the attacker’s Strength attribute is pitted against the defender’s Armour rating, less any successes achieved in the previous role. Dice are matched up in the same way, but now successes deal damage to the army’s health. If an army is reduced to zero, they are eliminated.
Magic attacks work in a similar way. The first roll tests the attacker’s Knowledge rating against the defending army’s Wisdom stat. Again, the current attack and defense cards may modify the number of dice. After matching and comparing results, the number of successes determines how many dice the attacker gets to roll to inflict damage. Again, the attack card stipulates which dice to roll (or a d4 by default) and then this toss is unopposed. The aggregate resulting value reduces the target’s health by that amount.
Drunkenness is another stat that’s a little more fluid than the others. Some actions require that regiment to “bottom’s up,” which increases its inebriation. However, each point of drunkenness adds one to any and all relevant attributes in combat. It’ll slow them down, sure, but once you’ve made contact with the enemy, do you really want to run away? Other than that, just beware. Drunkenness also reduces Memory. If an army’s mind is wiped out…so is it!
Drinking and playing continues until either of two end goals. First, there are maps and scenarios with objective points that award victory when controlling a specified number. Otherwise, the last dwarf standing is the victor – either from pummeling their adversaries in combat or drinking them under the table.
You Just Made the Most Stereotypical Dwarf Game Ever? Here…Hold My Beer.
If we fantasy adventure fans know one thing, it’s that dwarves like to forge weapons, fight, drink beer and live under rocks. Dwarves with Swords already references fighting in its name. Includes drinking beer as a mechanism of game play. (They’re like a rugby team that gets together at the local pub after the match…except the don’t wait until the game’s over!) And all for the right to be named King Under the Mountain. All that’s left to be explained is the dwarven magical element…
Which is ironic, because magical attacks are where you can really bring the hurt if you can manage to rack up your army’s Knowledge pool against the defender’s Wisdom. Potentially, that gives you a pot load of dice to toss in the damage roll, which can really add up to a devastating blow. Once you’ve wrapped your mind around wizard dwarves!
Otherwise battles centrally revolve around attrition and the long game, in which you will be rolling lots of dice. A nature that creates unpredictable scenarios and session lengths. Physical attacks, particularly between two evenly matched armies, may take many turns to conclude as both ranks pound away at each other like Vikings bands locked in an epic shieldwall. Fitting, as that culture is often seen as the model of the eponymous fantasy race here. Then again, the situation could prove completely opposite given an extremely luck – or unlucky – roll. Or perhaps combatants woefully mis-matched in relevant stats vis-a-vis the type of attack.
Depending on what maps become available, maneuver is a little sparse in Dwarves with Swords. Indeed Gimli reminds us that dwarves are great natural sprinters, not built for long distances. That’s good, because sprinting is about all you’ll be able to manage on these battlefields, especially in 3- and 4-player tilts. That said, with the option of ranged magical assaults you’ll certainly spend time marching a few spaces here or there. Just be warned that those ranks principally suited to physical bouts will rarely have trouble closing ground when needed, at least once the show has began in earnest.
So there’s not a great degree of tactical nuance. It’s all rather personal and visceral. You do have options to fine tune movement and adjust positions. In fact, the design’s tendency towards a see-saw dice-fest can even incentivise players to use a little creative movement to curb its martial randominity. But then again, many gamers are just fine with chucking quantities of dice.
The most intriguing aspect to combat is the matching mechanism, which favors the attacker, but still gives the defender a puncher’s chance. High defensive stats might allow you to roll more dice in a single toss. But since pairings commence from least to greatest, your high rolls could easily be undone by low results if you end up having a lot more dice than the attacker. Because some of your dice – typically the better results – will go unopposed, and therefore unused.
However, the attacker enjoys the opposite. If that army has a bunch of extra dice over and above the defender, it may use the unopposed as automatic successes. Now, having said that, many defensive action cards apply generous modifiers to Armour and Wisdom so that an army isn’t solely reliant on its base stats.
Despite all of that and even given its endgame nature, however, the combat element often feels secondary to the pre-game build. Melees are essentially the testbeds for your successful recruitment and mustering. Sure, there is reward and fun to be had in tossing handfuls of dice and whittling away your foes and maneuvering around for a killing blow. But all of your strategic energy is spent in deciding what units to place in which armies and in what ranks. That determines the battalion’s abilities and strengths, therefore what you want to do. The rest is just releasing the hounds and enjoying the chaos, bashed heads and passed out bodies.
I’ll be honest. One of the first desires for which players will yearn for are miniatures, ala CMON’s A Song of Ice and Fire. This style of game is a perfect fit for them. Indeed the pre-built armies, attribute dice rolling, and measured movement and combat are staples to tabletop miniatures wargaming in general. And specifically, the rank-and-file units set in racked plastic trays is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, if slightly different sizes. Right now, such scultps are included as a stretch goal reward…so perhaps it’s in the cards? I’m sure there are several reasons why minis were not considered from the start, but the system works cleanly, intuitively and cleverly nonetheless.
Where Dwarves with Swords will really find an audience is those gamers who like to customize character/army stats, analyze min-maxing scenarios and discover how those two elements interact for effective combos that create powerful abilities and strong play. Also, those who like combat games that don’t take themselves too seriously, aren’t bogged down by tedious minutia and involve copious dice rolling. Between its impressive variety of army creation and wild combat, this design can potentially deliver new experiences every session. Oh, and it includes a place to hold your beer! What other game can say that?
Dwarves with Swords is currently seeking support on Kickstarter. For a pledge of $65 (and worldwide shipping available) you can support this project and receive a copy of the 4-player game, tabbed to be shipped in April 2019. If you’d like to throw down in this dangerously drunken brawl, head over now to the campaign page. Get in on it today before the keg run dries!
This is a paid promotion.