Dwarven Forge
Cavernous River and Walls Set

L is back tonight with a great review of a great environment for all you gamers - give us the lowdown, L!

Dwarven Forge is a small company run by a New York artist named Stefan Pokorny. They produce a line of modular terrain for 25-30mm miniatures, in a variety of styles: stone dungeon, cavern, even sci-fi. The pieces are sculpted in resin and then hand painted, and they do a fantastic job. For the most part, everything is sold in large "sets" that allow you to build a small environment -- adding more sets allows you to make bigger stuff. There are some pieces sold individually, as well, if you just want a particular piece for your collection.

All the pieces are done in the same modular design, so all the sets can be used together; combining wall elements, floor elements, and so forth, you can make almost any environment you imagine. There are limits, of course: for maximum ease of use (so nothing is blocked), the walls are only a few inches high and there are no ceilings, and as all the pieces are designed on a basic grid, the amount of "fine tuning" you can do is somewhat finite. Still, a glance through the gallery on their website, or even better through the Cool Photos section of their forums, gives you a small hint of the infinitely varied setups possible.

Now, why is this kinda thing being discussed on a site dedicated to action figures and toys? A few reasons. 

One, because the popularity of things like Heroclix makes me suspect that some collectors might want something like this for gaming. That's what it is primarily designed for, and every product includes a neat little grid in the floor to make measurements and so on as easy as possible. (With the cavern sets, the grid is neatly hidden as uneven cavern floor, though the river elements do not have a grid on the surface or the riverbed) 

Two, because these sets are possibly the best "playsets" ever made and work with a surprisingly large number of fanboy-popular properties. Even if you don't game, this product is a great environment for "figures" you may collect. Hasbro is never going to make Star Wars playsets as elaborate as this -- you just need to pick up some SW minis from Wizards Of The Coast and you're good to go. Same goes for Lord of the Rings, Heroclix for superheroes, and on and on and on. 

And if you like playsets, this stuff is cooler than any playset you've ever seen. If you like the Sideshow/WETA products for Lord of the Rings -- the cool Minas Tirith that came with the deluxe extended edition of Return of the King, or the cool little Helm's Deep or Amon Hen or Weathertop sets -- well, this is like that, but much bigger and more versatile. 

Third, because this is a neat item that may prompt some collectors to consider branching out into a new hobby. If you didn't game before, you may want to start. I didn't really have any interest in tabletop gaming before I saw Dwarven Forge -- all that changed when I started taking this stuff home.

Fourth, because even if you don't game, don't collect miniature figures, and don't want any new hobbies, this stuff is remarkably compatible with some action figure lines. McFarlane makes a ton of stuff that looks good in these setups, his monsters and Dragons in particular look fantastic. Why have dragons sitting on a boring old shelf when they can be roaming caverns and sitting in massive chambers? (check out my review of McFarlane's Dragons Series 1 -- I used Dwarven Forge sets as a backdrop)

I'll be reviewing the latest product in the line, the Cavernous River and Walls Set. This set is designed for use with other Dwarven Forge sets, primarily the core set known as the Cavern Set. If you don't have those, you won't be able to come up with QUITE as many displays -- the river set comes with elements that are mostly water, so you don't have as much land, i.e. display space for figures, or useable gaming space. It's an accessory set, really. 

(For the record, the pictures I've included here almost all use just one Cavernous River set -- but the picture of the pirates uses two Cavernous River sets, the picture of the dragon uses two Cavernous River sets and a few pieces from the Cavern set, the close-up of the bridge uses two Cavernous River sets -- everything else just shows one Cavernous River set, including the shot of Obi-Wan and Anakin)

Packaging - ****
This is a pretty basic white box here, since DF is a small company that wisely decided to spend its money on product and not packaging. So why the high score? Because the set is packed in custom-fitted styrofoam, which means that storage is not only simple, it's safe. This stuff is not overly delicate, but it is not something you want to toss around, either. It's immensely useful to have a box that fits everything neatly and securely for when you aren't displaying your rivers.

I'm adding a new category here to clarify just what the Cavernous River and Walls set includes. With this set, you get essentially two kinds of elements: you get the river itself, with the separate wall pieces, and you get other accessories for your setup. There are 8 river pieces -- 3 curved pieces, 1 T-intersection, 1 4-way intersection, 1 river dead end, and 2 straight river pieces. Each river element is exactly the same size -- slightly under 4 inches along each side. There are also 4 removable curved walls (for corners), 4 straight walls,1 "dead end wall" (essentially a circle of rock open at one end), and 4 cavernous arches (which serve as either stalactites or stalagmites). With the walls in place, the pieces are about 2 inches high. By placing the walls where you wish, you can completely enclose your river, or you can leave some areas open and unbounded. The set also includes 4 skull "icon totems," 1 makeshift wooden bridge, and 1 stone pool formation. Whew! There's a lot of stuff here.

Pictured here is also a small raft that some crafty cavern dwellers have made from an old discarded door and bench -- this was a little promo item sent to people who pre-ordered this set, but it won't come with all sets. I included it because (a) I forgot to take it out before I took the picture, and (b) it says a lot about Dwarven Forge and the neat little freebies they like to include.

Sculpting - ****
This product stands and falls with the quality of the sculpt -- if the sculpt doesn't work, nothing can make this sort of thing worth getting. And this sculpt more than works. This sculpt is nothing short of breathtaking.

The floor and walls are all magnificently detailed rock (actually the product is painted resin, but it LOOKS just like rock), with cracks and bumps and lots of neat stuff to look at. Not being a spelunker, I can't pretend to know the right terminology to describe exactly what I'm lookin' at here, but the pictures do the work for me. This stuff looks coooool.

The water is clear resin, and DF went with still cavern pools here rather than rushing rapids or trickling brooks. You can see the riverbed, you can see bits of moss and algae and fungi and other assorted muck at the edge of the water -- you can even see how the water gets deeper and deeper, the various ledges that descend into the depths. In some places you can see pale sightless cave fish swimming around. There are stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, not to mention the moveable arches, and some of the rock formations are coming right out of the water at the shoreline. It all looks extremely realistic and ornate. 

The skull totems are creepy little signs of some kind of civilization down here, as is the little bridge that's been roped together out of crudely chopped up wood. (Actually, the bridge is designed to look like it's been built out of discarded benches, which DF releases separately as furniture for their dungeons) The wood grain is wonderfully detailed, as are the ropes holding the thing together. 

The modularity of the walls and the arches allows great flexibility in what you come up with. You can make "rooms" and halls of many sizes, though the walls can't go just ANYWHERE. There are "loose" rocks and other formations sticking up in places, the floors of a cavern are uneven, and the walls obviously have to be clear of such obstacles. The edges of the river pieces are deliberately designed to accommodate the walls, but you'll have to experiment around a little to find other places where they'll work. 

The chief advantage of having removable walls is that you can use any river element anywhere you want, in any direction, without being left with a random, mismatched line of walls dotting your cavern. If DF had simply sculpted the walls on the floor (like every other set they make), you'd be far more restricted in the ways you could combine river pieces -- this was a real stroke of genius on the part of Dwarven Forge. It greatly increases the options you have available in coming up with ways to set this up.

After all that praise, I do have to point out that the sculpt is not perfect. Some of the floors are not completely lined up perfectly; in most configurations there are no problems, but occasionally there is a small gap or height discrepancy. It's subtle, and not common, but it can happen. I note it only because with an expensive, high end item like this, you notice even the small flaws. In the pictures I've included, you can get a sense of how well the floors usually line up, but you may also spot a few places where things didn't quite match up perfectly. 

I suppose I could also mention the seam in the water from where the river pieces match up, but there's really no way to avoid that with a modular river system, so I don't count it as a problem.

Paint - ****
The paint job is just about perfect. There's not even a question of bleed or unevenness -- it's all done with such realistic effect you can barely tell you aren't looking at actual weathered stone. As before, the pictures really show off how good this looks. Some of the fungi under the water is a sort of glowing blue aqua color, which is a great touch since it gives the river a slightly unnatural look, and because it adds some color to what might otherwise have been a somewhat monotonous palette. There really is as much detail in the rock under the water as there is on the surface. The paint at the deepest point under the water is extremely well done -- it looks a little like rock disappearing under cloudy water into darkness, or like kelp or algae waving with the slowly flowing water. Either way, it's remarkably effective. A lot of care and attention went into this. 

Accessories - ****
I suppose I COULD count the moveable walls as accessories, but since they are (somewhat) necessary to the set, I won't. Still, DF could have easily left out the bridge, the totems, the little rock formation, and called it a day. These little touches make the set even more fun, and if you don't have any dungeon dressings of your own, you get to spice up the place a little and give it a touch of atmosphere. I can't really think of anything else I would add, either -- at least, nothing that the set feels incomplete without.

Fun Factor - ****
Off the charts. If you have a kid who likes these kind of things, you can't go wrong. True, a lot of kids are going to care more about the figures than the environment they're in -- but coming up with new ways to arrange these elements is a blast, and the set is a fantastic backdrop for an imaginative kid with some miniature figures. It helps that the pieces are so sturdy that they can handle a lot of use. I accidentally dropped one of the arches (about five minutes after opening my set) and it survived without a scratch. Over at the DF forums, there are several people who have posted pictures of the setups their children have designed, or games they've played with them, even children as young as four or five. Not only is it fun, but this set also offers children a creative outlet, a chance to use their imagination, to refine their coordination as they manipulate the pieces, to develop their sense of spatial relationships. It's downright educational! Plus, they can fight dragons or stormtroopers or Dr. Octopus, and who doesn't want to do that? 

Value - ***
Well, the price is definitely high, at $140. There's no denying that. Also, it is a big hit for new collectors that the Cavern Set (itself $120) may feel like a necessary companion set. (The McFarlane monster figures or dragons, for example, require a lot of ground space you won't really have without the Cavern set -- so if you want a place to display them, you'd be better off with that than the River set). 

But even if you only get this one set, it's still a high-end collectible, more comparable to Gentle Giant statues and busts than to plastic toys found down the street at Target. So given the high price, why the high value score? Well, partly it's because the product itself is so well-executed it darn well MERITS a high score. But it's more than that. What sold me on this stuff originally is the modularity of it. Those Gentle Giant and WETA statues are neat, sure, but once you've had them for a year, they pretty much are what they are. You want a new one, you gotta buy a new one. 

But these sets never get old -- when one setup gets dull, you can simply re-arrange the elements and get a completely brand new environment. It's like a Lego set disguised as a museum model. You can make whatever playset you want for your figures, and when you get tired of it, you can make a new one. It's easier to store than a huge playset, it's more versatile than a huge playset. You get a brand new product every time you want one, and it never gets old. 

I did take a star away because if you want to game or to display figures on this, you're gonna almost certainly need more land, and that means you're gonna want the basic Cavern Set. For that matter, if you want REALLY elaborate river setups, you're going to want at least two Cavernous River and Walls sets. That detracts slightly from the value score. But only slightly. 

Overall - ****
This is a breathtaking set. Almost anyone who sees my Dwarven Forge displays stops to examine them, the professionalism and artistry involved is so immense. Aside from looking fantastic, they are flexible and fun, and there's really almost nothing like it on the market. One thing that really grabs me about this set in particular is the clear resin water, which is something I've always thought was neat to look at. When I was a kid, my favorite displays in history and science museums were the little models that had buildings or natural environments that included clear resin water like this -- it just seemed like magic to me. This set captures it perfectly.

Packaging - ****
Sculpt - ****
Paint - ****
Accessories - ****
Fun Factor - ****
Value - ***
Overall - ****

Where to Buy:
Dwarven Forge is a small company, and they decided recently to make their products available only directly through their website. This cuts down on costs, and on the time it takes to get new product out, and 2006 has seen a record number of new sets from them as a result. It also means you have to get this through mail order (right now they use UPS, at least for orders in the US) and it means you have to go through DF and can't support a favorite local dealer. It's a shame, but it does keep things simple. Luckily, they offer a wide variety of shipping options.

This set can be found on their website. Browse around while you're there, and see the other cool items they make! 

For now, this set should be around for a little bit -- but DF does occasionally sell out, and it can take a few months for some sets to come back in stock. Luckily, the company is extremely customer-conscious -- they want 100% satisfaction, if for some unusual reason you have a problem with a piece, they'll replace it immediately, and so forth. In general, they will stand by their product, and I've never had a problem with them.

Figure from the collection of L.

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