Under the mountain, there is gold to be found. Lots of gold. And where there is lots of gold, and mountains (and dragons), you will find dwarves.
And where you find dwarves, you will always, inevitably, find bureaucracy.
Lend the pickaxes of your dwarves to eight different mining companies, invest in their dealings when the time is right, and take home the largest share of the treasure to become King Under the Mountain–or just a really, really rich dwarf–in Dwarves Inc.!
How It Works
Dwarves Inc. is a stock-holding game for three to six players. Players are dwarves working for various mining companies and striving to earn a share of their profits. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.
To begin, players place the camp tile in the center of the grid, then shuffle the other eight map tiles and align them in a three-by-three grid. A gem of matching color is placed on the start space of each mining company, and players choose a start player.
Each turn comprises two phases: dig and change investments.
On each turn, a player can expand one mining company on the board by placing gems in up to three orthogonally adjacent spaces. If gems cover a special space, the player takes the action. Actions include adding dwarves to your party (increasing how much you get paid), drawing special action cards, adding investments (stocks) to your safe, tunneling to other parts of the board, or triggering a payout for the mining company that is digging that turn.
In a player’s first change investments phase, the player takes one gem from four different mining companies and places them in the investments section of the player board. On each subsequent turn, a player may change one investment gem for a gem of another color.
When a payout is triggered, players receive money based on how invested they are in the company receiving a payout (with the player who triggers the payout getting a minimum amount as a finder’s fee). Only the player with the most and second-most gems invested in a company receives a payout.
Once all payouts have been triggered, the game ends, and the player with the most money wins.
And My Ax, or Delved Too Greedily and Too Deep?
A stock-holding game that involves dwarves? If that premise sounds odd to you, you know why I initially had trouble finding other players interested enough to try Dwarves Inc. with me. It sounds a little like “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”–a way to trick your American-style, theme-loving gaming friends into playing a Euro. And to some degree, this is true. But what surprised me about Dwarves Inc. is how compelling the stock game is underneath the dwarven trappings.
Dwarves Inc. is a solid game built on an arguably shaky premise: players are dwarves who work for and invest in various dwarven mining companies. So they reap the benefits of the cavern by finding things on the job and get payouts whenever the company strikes the mother lode. This sounds, again, gimmicky–a con to get thematic gamers to play a Euro. But the theme, while not especially strong, does work here. Because of the spatial placement of gems that determines what special actions trigger, the mining patter makes sense. And the special action cards all have a humorous dwarfy flavor to them, which further enhances the game. I’m not sure gamers who are looking for a fantasy title will be pleased by Dwarves Inc., but as a mechanics-first player who is kind of meh on fantasy, I found a lot to enjoy in this box.
The key thing that makes Dwarves Inc. interesting is that there is always more to do on your turn than you have actions for. You can place only three mining gems per turn, which will usually allow you to reach one special action space but will very rarely allow you to reach two (unless the player before you in turn order has been very kind…or sloppy). This means that players have to carefully budget what they can do on their turns, especially because the board can change a lot before it’s their turn again. Similarly, there are eight companies on the board in which to invest, and unless you expand onto more investment gem spaces, you will only have four investments total. Only one investment gem each turn can be swapped out, so it can be hard to wrest control of a profitable company from the majority shareholder in a single turn, and you can’t be invested in everything. Players have to be very crafty to work within these constraints.
Another interesting aspect of Dwarves Inc. is the shifting alliances of the stock market. Everyone’s investments are open information, and players can easily see who benefits from a mining company payout. Do you wait for one of your partners to trigger the payout? Do you try to get more investments before the payout? Do you trigger the payout even if you’re not invested just to claim the finder’s fee? All of these are interesting considerations, and they make the “change investments” phase every turn exciting. It is also exciting that the “change investments” phase happens after a player expands a mining company so players have to plan ahead if they want to cut into someone else’s pie.
Unlike many stock games, where your stock has intrinsic value in addition to providing a bonus for holding the majority, the only thing that pays out in Dwarves Inc. is the majority and second-majority position. While diversification may be key in real-life stock portfolios, it’s specialization that pays off in Dwarves Inc. Or at least that’s how it seems to begin with. But because each round players can shift their investments, there’s a lot of space in the game for cleverly worming your way into other payouts. Did someone else just abandon their green investment? It might be time to capitalize on green. Each investment is precious, so this decision can be excruciating. You don’t have to win everything, but if you can have your hand in many coffers, you might be able to surpass a juggernaut.
The pay structure is also a good space for interesting decisions in Dwarves Inc. If a player has an uncontested majority, he or she gets two coins for every dwarf in the party, and the second-place majority holder gets one coin for each dwarf. However, if there’s a tie, the money is split in half between tied players and other players are eliminated. What makes this interesting is that the finder is always guaranteed one coin per dwarf. This incentivizes other players expanding companies they may not earn big payouts from simply to be cut into the loot. In one game, I noticed that there were two other players tied for majority shareholder in blue, and I was completely left out of it. I triggered a blue payout, and because I had more dwarves than either of them, I ended up with more money than them even as just the finder. There is lots of space for this kind of opportunism in Dwarves Inc., which I think is enjoyable.
The spatial aspect of the game serves to make Dwarves Inc. strangely compelling. Because each player can see where the special action spaces are located, they can gauge which companies are likely to payout and divest themselves from dormant companies. However, tunnels can throw a wrench into this shortsighted planning. In my first game, all of the players undervalued tunneling. It seemed like such a waste to use two of our three expansion actions to place gems from which another player would likely benefit more. But tunneling is key to keeping mining companies that are not in resource-rich areas solvent. It can also be key to forge a comeback in a company you are heavily invested in that looks like it’s limping toward the finish line.
All of this adds up to an enjoyable game, but what elevates the game is the special action cards. In addition to being funny, these cards are always useful, but they vary in what actions they provide. Some offer free investment gems that can’t be changed, others affect what you will be paid, and still others break the rules in key ways–either offering to let you start a new line on any danger square on the board or letting you cut all other players out of a payout you find. While you aren’t ever guaranteed to find the card you’re hoping for, it’s often worth gambling on an action card space to see if you can gain a leg up on the competition. The action cards are a welcome addition to the game.
As much as I like the game, there are a few things that some players won’t like. For starters, it’s possible to have a seating-order problem similar to Puerto Rico. If a player who is less deliberate plays before a more experienced player, the experienced player will likely exploit any opportunities the poor player exposes. This can sometimes be a huge windfall to the experienced player, to the consternation of the rest of the table. Thankfully, with information in Dwarves Inc. being fully open and the board state being easy to read, this shouldn’t often upset the balance of the game.
Also, the beginning of the game feels almost too open: with eight mining companies and very little expansion, it’s hard to know where to invest, and your choices seem almost like a shot in the dark. This isn’t a huge deal, as the deer-in-the-headlights look lasts only for the first few turns, but it can be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, this is just the inevitable buildup that makes the endgame satisfying.
The component quality in Dwarves Inc. is also a little lacking. Now, the quality of Dwarves Inc. is quite good for a self-published game, and I don’t want to knock the game too hard on this point. Yes, there are some things I would prefer–more money tokens (so making change isn’t as frequent), double-sided grid tiles (to mix up the board state each game), artwork more suited to my taste (admittedly, this is quite subjective)–but these don’t inhibit what is otherwise a fine game. What did occasionally make the game harder to play was the gems. There are eight different colors of gems, which is cool, and I had no trouble telling them apart on the game board, but once the gems became investments on players’ personal boards, it was hard to distinguish some of the colors. The pink, purple, and “strawberry” gems all look similar, and since there are no distinguishing markers or shapes to them, my guess is that the game will be nigh unplayable for colorblind players. As it was, we simply asked if we couldn’t tell which color gems a player was holding, which wasn’t a huge deal but was annoying. The cardstock for the special action cards isn’t great, but the cards are serviceable, given how infrequently they are used. Some of the wording on the cards is ambiguous, but we were mostly able to rule what the intent of these cards was without too much argument. The production isn’t as polished as you might expect from a larger company, but again, it’s very good for being self-published. The included plastic container for the gems is a huge boon, the map tiles and player boards are on thick cardboard, and it’s fun to handle the acrylic gems during the game.
The game advertises play for three to six players. I played at the three, four, and six counts, and each of them played differently. At three, it’s much harder to be cut out of a payout, and so the game is subtly maneuvering to get more than your opponents. At six, there’s no hope of being included in every payout, and so the game is about forming uneasy alliances with players, hoping that they don’t box you out when it’s your chance to make bank. The six-player game was riveting, although it was a little nerve-wracking not to be able to influence the board 5/6 of the time. I was in the last seat in my lone six-player game, and I despaired most of the game. But I don’t think the balance was off, since I won this six-player game (tied with the player who went first) and even had one less turn than four of the other players. In other words, the advantage of choosing investments last was balanced by getting to influence the board last. One of the players was vocal about his hatred of the six-player experience, and it did require a different kind of thinking and involved more passive influence than at other counts. But I wouldn’t avoid a six-player game in the future. Still, I think four was a nice count and possibly ideal for the game. It does scale nicely, though, if you need something to satisfy a larger group.
Dwarves Inc. is a surprisingly interesting game. I initially had trouble finding others to play with me because the cover art was not encouraging and the theme is a little strange, but once I convinced other players to join me at the table, we found a lot to enjoy here. The rules are simple, the gameplay is engaging (offering lots of tough choices), and there’es enough interaction among the players and variability in the setup to keep this from growing stale too quickly. Dwarves Inc. isn’t my favorite stocks game (that’s probably still Acquire), but it is a very good choice for lunch breaks or other shorter blocks of time (none of my games, even including teaching, exceeded sixty minutes). I wouldn’t get this one based on theme alone (it’s not all that dwarfy, although my group pretended it was anyway), but if you like perfect-information stock games, this one is a great choice. I’m glad I dug in.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Assa Games for providing us with a copy of Dwarves Inc. for review.