This is going to be a tough post to write.
See, most of my dissections take the form "look, this is an excellent game, it is a lot of fun, let's talk about what it did wrong". Some of them are "I'm not sure what this is, but it's worth talking about".
For the first time, I want to talk about a game I flat-out didn't like.
You're not supposed to do this as a game developer. You're especially not supposed to do this as an independent game developer while talking about an independent game, and I feel sort of bad about it. But we're doing it anyway because I have an important point to make.
Now, before we continue, a bit of a disclaimer. Game preferences are very subjective. The fact that I don't like the game does not, in any sense, mean that the game is bad. Also, I wouldn't bother writing about the game if I thought it was awful. I had a lot of hopes for it, and it almost works for me, it just shoots itself in the foot after about two levels.
So let's talk about Dwarfs!?. And, no, I'm not going to keep including the punctuation.
Dwarfs places you in command of a town hall and a squadron of dwarves. The dwarves are mostly autonomous, mining semi-randomly in every direction. As they mine, they produce gold, which goes straight into your coffers. You can command dwarves to mine in specific directions, aiming them at caches of rare minerals and gems, but that costs the very same money they'd be mining for you, so it's a bit of a tradeoff.
The problem with autonomous mining dwarves is that they may mine in directions you don't want. The game field includes several unidentified caverns, which may be empty or contain gold. Worse, they might contain water or lava. Water spreads in all directions, drowns dwarves, and will eventually destroy your town hall if you permit it. Your only hope is to stop the water with a temporary wall (costs money), surround the dangerous cavern with unbreakable walls (which can be placed only on intact areas of the cave, and cost money), and then use explosives to create bottomless pits at every choke point before your dwarves blindly mine through the temporary wall again and release the flood. The explosives, unsurprisingly, cost money.
Lava works the same way, except it doesn't spread as quickly and it slowly burns through temporary walls.
Monsters will happily kill off your dwarven workers. For a fee, you can recruit dwarven warriors at your town hall, then give them instructions to go fight the monsters. You can also build outposts which allow warrior recruiting, allow mining dwarf recruiting, allow warrior training, and have a big cannon on the roof so you can launch your warriors around the map rapidly.
I've just described the entire game.
No, seriously. That's it. The whole thing. You've got one command you can give your dwarves ("move here"), four ways to interact with the world ("solidify", "explosive", "temporary wall", "build outpost"), and five outpost commands ("recruit workers", "recruit warriors", "train warriors", "launch warriors", "retrieve warriors").
Now, I don't mind minimalistic games. But they need to either polish that minimalistic game mechanic to a mirror shine (Canabalt), ensure that all the "simple" game mechanics interact in complicated ways (Desktop Dungeons), or create varied and well-designed game levels for those simple mechanics to interact with (Super Mario Bros. 3, which was admittedly not minimalistic by the standards then, but sort of is now).
Dwarfs, unfortunately, does none of these. It feels empty and cluttered, simultaneously. As I was playing, I kept running into these difficult questions that I had no good answer for. Why are there both lava and water, when they behave so similarly? Why do dwarves have levels? Why does dynamite require a dwarf to trigger it? Why are there travel instructions that tunnel through walls, but no way to say "travel to this destination as fast as possible, don't bother tunneling unless you have to"? Many of these features feel less like gameplay mechanics and more like click consumers.
Which is what I was mulling over until I ran into this level:
And suddenly it all made sense.
Dwarfs isn't a strategy game, and it's not a tactics game. Dwarfs is a micromanagement game. All those mechanics that I called "click consumers"? That's exactly what they are! The game isn't about optimizing the movement of your dwarves, or building a cave structure, or building an army. The game is about making as many points as possible in the shortest period of time as possible. Optimal play means speeding up the game as much as possible, and only slowing it down when doing otherwise would cause you to lose. Practice, in this game, is maybe one third strategy, and two thirds simply clicking faster.
Now, again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is similar to why I don't play Starcraft II and I'm never, ever going to claim that Starcraft II is a bad game.
But I also don't think it makes for good gameplay. If the difficulty is in micromanagement, then the player is left playing the interface. Take Dwarfs, and add a "route automatically through tunnels" option, and the game gets easier. Add a "automatically dispatch dwarf to trigger dynamite" feature, and the game, again, gets easier. Take Civilization and add whatever pure UI change you want and the game is left unchanged. When I'm playing a game, I want to play the game, not the UI, and Dwarfs is all about playing the UI.
If you look through the campaign levels, this becomes increasingly obvious. The game contain a tutorial plus five "campaign" levels. The tutorial is about what you'd expect (and is admittedly well-done), but the campaign starts gimmicky and ends gimmicky.
To Battle!: Defeat a number of enemies with a small squad of warriors. There's no standard mining in this battle, it's solely about choosing the right group of enemies to fight next, with a bit of micromanagement if you want the best result.
Castastrophe: You start on a map with at least a dozen pools of water and lava about to be breached. Survive for several minutes. Again, there's no standard mining, it's just learning to very quickly deal with all the mining disasters.
To The Point: The screenshots provided above. Get a number of points within a strict time limit.
The More The…: Create a large number of dwarves within a strict time limit. Again, this comes down to "hold the speed button as much as you can", with a slight emphasis on building outposts (which you can avoid in earlier levels.)
Godspeed: Survive for several minutes with a Speed button that is never released.
None of these missions introduce significant new mechanics. The first two are gimmicks where a large chunk of the gameplay mechanics are removed, without any new gameplay mechanics added. The latter three are "play the game quickly", and aside from a slight difference in scoring on "The More The…", are essentially "hey, go play the game".
The game also includes a handful of variant modes. Rush Mode, in which dwarves spawn faster. Dark Mode, in which the board is blacked out and you can only see where you've dug. Sandbox, where you can create cave layouts and spawn monsters and dwarves at will. And, finally, a Tower Defense mode. Now, to me, these feel like old development experiments and tools, not fleshed-out game features. The "Sound Test" of modern games.
Sometimes, I complain about games because I don't think they figured out what they wanted to be. I don't think that's what happened to Dwarfs. I think the real issue with Dwarfs is that they had a game in mind, and they made the game, and then instead of polishing their base gameplay to a mirror finish, they threw in a bunch of other features for the people who didn't like their base game mechanics.
And while many may like those game mechanics . . . I will admit that I don't, and the rest of the game doesn't save it for me.
I'll be watching for the next thing the developers do, because it's clear they're skilled, but I'm not going to be playing any more Dwarfs.