A Glimpse Into PAX East: Dwar7s Winter

Some sort of horrible half-frozen tree creature reaches the kingdom’s castle after having attacked the lumber stores, clearly upset at our attempts at resource gathering. If the castle falls all will be lost, but there just aren’t enough defenders in place . . . suddenly, the beat of drums fills the air, and another pair of dwarfs come running from the forest the creature just tore through. In a flurry of axes and hammers the tree creature tumbles to the ground, slain, and the victorious dwarfs return to their homes . . . but the Ogre King just appeared on the walls at the edge of the kingdom, natural disasters begin to hamper our food and stone supplies, and we’ve got three weeks to go until spring. We’ll have to work together in order to survive the cold and the monsters in Dwar7s Winter from Vesuvius Media!

Vesuvius Media’s Stefani Angelopoulos reached out before PAX East began and invited me to swing by the booth during the con. Appropriately enough for a game pitched as partially being about resource management, Stefani and co. were having to do some resource management of their own: the booth was something of a feeding frenzy, and over the course of the weekend the number of game boxes (along with the the variety of games) dwindled noticeably, an encouraging sign! We talked about the game, were able to get a copy into my hands to really knuckle down and learn about it, and (even better) after the con Stefani was able to pass my questions to designer and artist Luís Brüeh. What I ended up learning about was not just one game, but an entire series of them.

Dwar7s Winter is primarily the game that Stefani and I talked about at PAX East, it’s the one I’ve played myself, and it’s obviously the focus of this review, but it’s not the only Dwar7s game on the market. Out of curiosity I looked up Dwar7s Fall, and I was very surprised by how different they seem just in the gameplay blurbs – tile placement and resource trading vs hand building and tower defense, for instance. I asked Luís to write a bit about the different mechanics between the games and why they exist.

“So far, all of our Dwar7s games are independent, stand-alone games, but the story continues. They tell a tale of civilization using games. Dwar7s Fall is a fast-paced, worker placement and resource management game for 2 to 4 players (2 to 7 players with Empires Expansion, 2 to 8 players with the new Troll’s Bridge Expansion which is currently in production). It plays in about 45 minutes. In this game, you and your fellow dwarfs are building your kingdom and mining for gems so you can buy provisions for winter. BUT time is precious and monsters are lurking… you need to plan your actions wisely!

Dwar7s Fall is the first game in the Dwar7s series and won Best Game 2017 (Tabula Quadrada), Best National Game 2017 (Meeple Maniacs), Best Family Game 2017 (Premio Ludopedia) and People’s Choice Award 2017 (Premio Ludopedia).

Dwar7s Winter is a hand-building, worker placement, resource management game with tower defense elements in the gameplay. It is a family friendly game for 2 to 4 players that includes highly-detailed miniatures. It plays in about 60 minutes. In Dwar7s Fall, you built your kingdom and set up means of production. In Dwar7s Winter, you need to work together to battle the harsh elements and chillingly scary monsters!”

Alright, so here’s how it works. There are seven rounds in the game, referred to as Weeks, and every one goes through the same cycle. First, monsters ‘attack’, moving from their starting position at the wall surrounding your kingdom towards the castle in the center (depending on how many players there are, the number of monsters already on the field when play begins varies). Monsters have different effects, usually but not always related to which zones they’re on or adjacent to; if there are any dwarfs in the relevant zones, their player(s) may lose a specific resource, for instance. Second, more monsters appear on the border wall if there are fewer alive on the board than the number of players dictates. Third, a disaster comes into play, removing one zone’s abilities to produce resources (again, depending on how many players there are there may already be disasters in play when you start).

Then it’s the dwarfs’ time to shine. Starting with the first player (originally the youngest player, then moving clockwise), each player has five actions, provided they haven’t temporarily lost some to the monsters. They can place a dwarf (never two into the same zone in a single turn), move a dwarf, spend gold to add more dwarfs with stronger abilities to their deck, or play a song to activate abilities (which usually involve gathering resources or extra movement). They can also slay a monster or deal with a disaster, neither of which counts against their five actions.

Monsters and disasters both have requirements for being removed from the board in terms of how many dwarfs need to be in their zone and how many resources (wood, stone, food) the player needs to spend, and once these actions are taken the dwarfs go back to the player’s board to be sent out again later. Players can’t share resources and can’t combine their dwarfs into one force, but every time a song gets played all of the other players have a chance to reap the same benefits, so coordinating who is going to deal with what and which songs to play when can be really important.

If a Week ever ends with a live monster in the castle’s zone or four disasters in play, the dwarfs lose. If they can keep those two scenarios from happening, however, they have survived through the winter! Once their survival is assured, everyone can count up victory points (gained for slain monsters, disasters ended, powerful dwarfs added to the deck, large numbers of resources, etc.), and whoever has the most is the winner! Granted in my personal opinion it feels less like being the winner, which implies the other players are losers, and more like bragging rights for having contributed the most to your mutual success. Which, honestly, I like a lot. And it lines up pretty well with what Luís had to say when I asked about what sort of gaming experience he wanted the rules of Dwar7s Winter to enable.

“I wanted Dwar7s Winter to be cooperative. Synergy to the max. I also wanted people to learn that sometimes you have to choose the good of the many, even though it’s not the best for you in that moment.”

Your kingdom of dwarfs definitely has to be operating like a finely tuned machine, which I daresay makes the gameplay surprisingly intense. There are always going to be more monsters coming over the wall and more disasters wreaking havoc both by denying you resources and counting up to losing the game. Every choice you make feels important, and it never really feels like you have enough actions to feel entirely safe, although thankfully it’s also not brutally punishing; mistakes and bad luck (in which/where monsters spawn or disasters strike) can usually be turned around with a dedicated effort.

I also want to highlight how easy this game is to learn. First, because the individual steps of a turn’s cycle are so simple, it’s very easy to settle into the pattern. When you’re first playing you can have the game book in your hand, flip back a few pages every time you get to the end of a Week, and simply go through the steps. Second, everything that the cards do or require, like a dwarf’s ability or the resources required to take out a monster, are handled via symbols. A very quick glance at a pair of easy-to-read indexes can tell you what a symbol means if you’ve forgotten, and they’re placed in the game book right next to the relevant steps in the cycle. This makes the game’s age range of 14+ actually seem a little high, to me, as I can see much younger players getting the hang of it.

Here’s an interesting thing to note: there are actually two modes of play for the game, solitaire and multiplayer up to four players. That’s right, this can be a single-player game, and it takes very few adjustments to make it so. Personally I found the tower defense aspect to be ramped up in solitaire (you’ve got nobody to watch your back) while teamwork leads the way in multiplayer (followed somewhat closely by the competitive aspect). Why was it important that Winter have the solitaire option? What challenges, if any, did having two modes of play introduce to the game design?

“I love games but can’t always gather a bunch of people to play. It’s nice to have the option to play on your own. Also, it’s a good way to learn the game first, on your own, before you play with friends. We try to do this with all our games. Dwar7s Winter and Covil: The Dark Overlords have solid solo variants. We created a solo version for Dwar7s Fall, but it’s hard to simulate the building mechanism in an AI.”

The version at PAX East included the Legendary expansion, which added more monsters and a way to upgrade your dwarfs on the board and grant them special abilities. How long can buyers expect this version of the game to be sold? Any other Winter expansions on the horizon?

“These are the last copies we have of the Kickstarter edition of Dwar7s Winter, which includes the Legendary Expansion inside the box. We are currently reprinting Dwar7s Winter for retailers with the expansion in a separate box. We already have a new expansion in the works called The Enchanted Forest. You will be able to use it for both Dwar7s Winter and Dwar7s Spring (Dwar7s Spring will launch on Kickstarter soon!).”

So what can we expect from the upcoming Dwar7s Spring and Summer, both in terms of the story they want to tell and the mechanics they’ll use?

“In Dwar7s Spring, you will be expanding your empire throughout the world. It’s an engine builder, civilization game with a twist. Kind of like Clans of Caledonia and Terra Mystica meets Pokemon because you will also be hatching and raising dragons.

For Dwar7s Summer… I would really like to see some war. Taming beasts and training armies at some point should lead us to direct conflict… right? You’ll have to follow my Instagram game designer journal for more teasers!”

Why dwarfs, anyway? How’d this idea get started, how did it change over time, were there always going to be four games?

“At first, Dwar7s Fall was a game about mafia. But then, the daunting fear of my first winter in Canada and the beauty of fall season changed the theme.

Then I met Konstantinos from Vesuvius Media in a board game cafe in Halifax. Yes, a Brazilian met a Greek in a board game cafe in Canada! It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. He had lots of ideas for the game and we decided to work together to publish it. We have big plans for our Dwar7s… not just four games… “

When I was talking with Stefani at PAX East she mentioned that once Spring and Summer do come out, there’ll be some sort of campaign rules that work for playing through all four games in a series. I asked Luís if he could give us an idea of what that would entail.

“After Dwar7s Summer, we will release a campaign called Dwar7s World. This will be 1 expansion that combines all 4 games and extends the story. For this project, our writer and storyteller Scott Davis, who wrote the story for Centauri Saga: Abandoned (legacy campaign), has already started working his magic.”

Final words for our readers?

“Thank you for all your love and support.”

Dwar7s Winter is an easy-to-learn but surprisingly intense game that, to my experience, offers a unique blend of cooperative gameplay, competitive gameplay, hand-building, resource management, and tower defense. That it’s a completely standalone game is a plus, although I have a feeling that it’s going to prove a gateway game for myself and others: the entire Dwar7s line seems to have a creator who’s dedicated to creating fun experiences, with a crew eager to spread that enjoyment around. The Kickstarter edition may have run its course, but you can keep an eye on Vesuvius Media’s own site or your FLGS for when the retail version and the separate Legendary expansion get released, and there’s a link to download the rulebook (in eleven languages, no less).

“If something is broken, my hammer can fix it. If not, my axe can fix it. If not again, mead will fix it.” If nothing else it could help you get through the cold weeks ahead, so high-ho noble dwarfs, and try to survive the winter!

Thanks to Stefani Angelopoulos for talking to me about the game at PAX East itself and coordinating further communication, and thanks to Luís Brüeh for answering my questions about Dwar7s Winter!

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