It is hard to articulate what type of game Dwarfs!?
really tries to be. There are many variations of the principle formula in one package. One the one hand, it is a simple tower defense game where you have to look out for the well being of your dwarf castle. These dangers include lava flow, flooding caverns, and vicious marauding monsters. On the other hand, it could also be an exploration and survival game akin to Lemmings
Let's go over the basics first. Dwarfs!? is laid out on a randomly-generated grid, with each square containing minerals, treasure, lava or water. Using your dwarf miners, you carve a path through the underground caverns searching for precious resources while defending your home base from attacking enemies or impending disasters. Every action costs you, so you have to act smart and manage your resources between dispatching miners, training warriors, and building defenses.
The first of many gameplay modes is the Campaign which is where a basic tutorial can be found along with loose story-based challenges for you to conquer and learn the ropes of Dwarfs!. These challenges include stopping the raging flows of underground rivers and lava flows, removing a goblin threat before it destroys the dwarf fortress, and another task simply asks that you survive long enough for the citizens to evacuate a total cavern collapse. There are only a half-dozen challenges or so, which is rather slim considering these challenges are the absolute best way to learn the skills you will need to survive the cruelty of the Dwarfs!? world.
It seems the developers decided that the real draw for Dwarfs!? would be the Arcade Mode, where you select a time limit and try to earn the highest score possible (which is calculated by how much treasure you collect, how many caverns you discover, and how many monsters you kill, etc.) Between 5 minute, 15 minute, 30 minute, and 60 minute rounds, there are definitely numerous ways to enjoy your time with Dwarfs!? and the multitude of gameplay variations does extend the enjoyment to be had.
Aside from Arcade Mode and the Campaign, the other gameplay types available in Dwarfs!? are Skirmish and Base Defense, with at least one of them being slightly misleading. Base Defense is exactly as it sounds, defending the dwarf base from wave after wave of resident baddies as long as you can, which is a different way of saying "tower defense." Skirmish is the misnomer of the deal. Personally, the word "skirmish" implies multiplayer, which Dwarfs!? does not have, but while the lack of proper head to head dwarf battles is disappointing, the variety of game types under the "Skirmish" umbrella is impressive. Rush Mode, Dark Mode, and Sandbox are fun twists on the formula. Rush Mode offers extreme and fast-paced adventure perfect for those who like big challenges. Dark Mode literally keeps you in the dark with the only light source being your dwarfs themselves as they wander into the dark and mysterious caverns. Lastly, the Sandbox Mode is a way to let all your creative juices out and design your own cave system and enemy placement in an effort to see if you can best yourself.
The multiple gameplay choices that Dwarfs!? offers is a welcome value on an already modest price tag ($9.99 USD at the time of this writing.) Dwarfs!? surprises with the amount of depth it offers in a seemingly small package, which given how much fun the core gameplay can be, is a very good thing.