Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

Silberzwerg

Design by:  Gerd Deininger and Andreas Michaelis
Published by:  Queen Games
2 – 4 Players, 1 – 1 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

This is one of the latest releases from Queen and is designed by Gerd Deininger and Andreas Michaelis, a team of which I am not at all familiar.  The game is one of the two ‘bright’ spots in what has otherwise been a mediocre year for Queen.  The only other ‘new’ release by Queen which I give high marks to is Metro, the re-release of Derk Henn’s previously titled Iron Horse.

The game is certainly a descendent of Sid Sackson’s classic Bazaar.  Players each lead a team of dwarves feverishly mining gems in an effort to fulfill contracts.  Like Bazaar, these contracts require that certain combinations of gems be collected in order to be met (example: 2 red gems, 2 blue gems and 4 yellow gems).  Once a player collects the correct combination of gems, he may then ‘sell’ the contract and collect income (or victory points) based on the contract’s value.  The game is completed once one player accumulates a wealth of $600 (in whatever currency dwarves use) or there are no more contracts to be fulfilled.

One thing I will say for Queen … they can usually be counted on to produce games with great artwork and quality components.  Silberzwerg is no exception.  The artwork is done by the now famous Franz Vohwinkel, my personal favorite games artist.  While the board graphics aren’t stunning, they are very functional and easy to understand, with places for the contracts, gems and tracks for victory points and gem values.  Each player also gets a privacy screen and player mat upon which to allocate their dwarves each round.  Unfortunately, the game is not being released in English and there is quite a bit of German text on the screens and mats, so a paste-up or lay-over in English is almost essential.  For those interested, I have designed these and they are located on The Games Dumpster.

At the beginning of the game, six contracts are placed on the board.  Each player has one ‘private’ contract which only he can fill, while the remaining two are ‘public’ contracts for which everyone can compete.  Each turn that a contract is not fulfilled, the value of the contract decreases, which is indicated by rotating the contract tile 90 degrees so that the arrow now points to the current value.  Once a contract has rotated four times, it is removed from the game and replaced with a new contract.  If the removed contract was a ‘private’ contract, the owner of the contract is assessed a penalty, which is taken from his victory points (money).  Thus, there is a bit of pressure on the players to fulfill their own contracts, even if their value is less than the public contracts.  Choosing which gems to collect and which contracts to fill is the important decision making dilemma in the game.

A turn begins with each player secretly allocating their dwarves to various tasks.  Each player has four ‘mine’ dwarves whose job is to mine the various gems.  Players must allocate these dwarves into the appropriate mines:  green, blue, yellow and/or red.  If they survive to the mining phase, the players will receive the appropriate colored gems in a quantity equal to the number of dwarves allocated to those mines.

In addition, each player has two ‘over-seer’ dwarves.  The ‘Silver Dwarf’ (or the ‘good’ dwarf, as Kris Gould likes to call him) will allow a player to buy or sell gems, or sell one completed contract, depending upon the space he is allocated.  So, if a player is in need of a multitude of blue gems, he can not only place his mining dwarves into the blue mine, but may also place his Silver Dwarf on the ‘Buy Blue Gems’ space.  This will allow that player to secure as many blue gems as he desires to purchase.  The price at which a player may purchase, or sell, gems fluctuates each turn based on the number of dwarves every player has allocated to each mine.  The more dwarves who are mining a particular gem, the less expensive that gem will be to purchase.  The fewer dwarves there are mining a particular gem, the more expensive that gem will be.  A player has some control over the price, but is also at the mercy of his opponents, depending upon their dwarf assignments.

The other dwarf which a player has is the ‘Shadow Dwarf’ (or ‘evil’ dwarf, according to Kris).  This dwarf can be nasty as he has the power to remove two dwarfs from an opponent from the same mine that he is allocated to. This can certainly be used to foil an opponent’s plans and force him to delay the filling of a contract, which in this game is VERY costly.  The Shadow Dwarf can also be used to steal two gems from an opponent or decrease / increase the value of a contract one level, depending upon the space to which he was assigned.  If a player is not in an evil mood, or if he feels a positive action will benefit him greater, the Shadow Dwarf can also be used to take a gem from the stockpile or trade two gems.  Thus, a player has quite a few options with the Shadow Dwarf, and he can be used to great effect. 

To add even more options, a player can decide to allocate two Silver Dwarves and no Shadow Dwarves, or two Shadow Dwarves and no Silver Dwarves! 

Deciding on where to allocate all of these dwarves is vital and a key element of efficient game play.  It also causes some stomach butterflies as you usually want to perform more tasks than what you are capable of doing. Plus, what you ultimately are able to perform will also rely on which tasks your opponents have opted for.  This is a fun part of the game and, in my opinion, offers quite a bit of player interaction.

Once all players have allocated their dwarves, everyone reveals their placements and gem prices are adjusted accordingly.  Then, in turn order (which rotates each turn), each player performs the actions of his Shadow Dwarves.  As mentioned, this may involved the removal of opponent’s dwarves and/or the stealing of their gems. This, of course, will likely affect the plans of the affected opponents, usually in a less than beneficial manner!  Quite nasty when used properly!

Gems are then collected by the players based on the surviving dwarves in the mines, after which the Silver Dwarves perform their actions in player order.  If a player allocated their Silver Dwarf to the ‘Sell Contracts’ space and they have collected the proper combination of gems, they may sell the contract and receive its value in victory points.  Remaining contracts are then devalued and removed if necessary, with any penalties being assessed.  The board is then re-filled to six contracts, replacing only those which were sold or removed.  Finally, each player must return any gems they possess in excess of twelve.

Once a contract is filled, the actual tile is kept.  Why?  Many contracts depict a symbol which grants its owner a special power.  These powers include the ability to cancel the action of a Shadow Dwarf, increase the value of a gem by three, or steal five victory points from an opponent and add them to your total.  In addition, many tiles depict a symbol, be it a hammer, ax or pickax.  If a player collects three tiles depicting the same symbol, he may trade them in for 40 victory points.  These tile symbols force players to consider their powers in addition to the value of the contracts.  So, it is not always the wisest choice to seek the most valuable contracts as the powers these symbols grant can be vital.  I especially like to acquire at least one tile containing the Shadow Dwarf symbol, allowing me to foil the plans of an opponent when they try to use their Shadow Dwarf powers against me. 

As mentioned, the game ends once a player accumulates 600 victory points (or a lower total if players agree in advance) or there are no further contracts to be filled.  If there are not enough tiles to fill the two public contracts spaces, then all contracts, including the ‘private’ contracts, become public, so one must plan carefully for this possibility. 

I find Silberzwerg to be a delightful journey requiring careful planning, with just the right amount of devious possibilities with which to hinder your opponents progress and generally annoy them.  At the recent Gathering of Friends, several folks complained that the game lacked interaction and that using the Shadow Dwarf to harm your opponents wasn’t beneficial.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I have used the Shadow Dwarf to steal gems from opponents and to remove their mining dwarfs, each time with devastating effect.  In one of my recent games, fellow Westbank Gamer Elizabeth Gonzales was clearly in the lead and looked impossible to catch.  However, on several occasions I stole gems from her and removed dwarves from her mines.  Each of these instances  aused her to fail to fulfill a contract, while allowing me to complete mine.  I was able to catch her and ultimately tie for the victory.  Only a last turn oversight wherein I failed to adjust a gem price prevented me from capturing the victory.  If you carefully monitor what your opponents have been collecting, you can get a good idea of which contract they are attempting to complete.  Timing the theft of gems or removal of dwarves can thwart these plans and greatly benefit you.  That is what the game is all about.

Another knock against the game, one which I will agree does exist, is the possibility that one player, by sheer luck of the draw, may get more valuable ‘private’ contracts than his opponents.  This certainly would give that player an edge.  This is easily fixable, however, in one of several manners.  Bruno Faidutti has suggested that the contracts valued at 120 be reduced to 100, and that a 15 victory point bonus be granted for the filling of public contracts.  Another idea is to make ALL contracts public, which would certainly add even more tension and urgency to the game.  Finally, you could simply remove the contracts with 120 value from the game, which would also shorten the game’s length, which generally takes about 90 minutes to play.  We used Bruno’s method, but failed to remember the 15 point bonus for public contracts.  It seemed to work quite well.

Silberzwerg will never be recognized as an outstanding game or enter into the realm of classics.  However, it does utilize the mechanisms pioneered in Bazaar quite well, adding some interesting and often nasty elements to the mix.  It is a game which I enjoy playing and should manage to squeeze in table-time on an on-going basis.  My rating is a ‘7’.

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Responses

  1. I only have 1 play of this and it was years ago. It was OK according to my notes. 6/10


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