A Fun Fortress Of Complexity

Dwarf Fortress
Reviewed On
Available For
Very Hard

Let me say this right up front, Dwarf Fortress is not for everyone. In fact, many people probably can’t even play it, not so much because of high system requirements, but because it happens to be one of the most, if not the most, complex computer game ever created. It’s so complex that I actually ordered a help book, which is published by O’Reilly, which I read cover to cover before any of my dwarves started to swing their axes. My review of that book will run later this week.

Dwarf Fortress is both freeware and a work in progress. Since I’ve been playing the game, lead programmer Tarn Adams has made several improvements and additions. He’s been working on the game since October 2002, so it’s doubtful that it will ever actually be completely finished. You can get the latest version of the game for free at www.bay12games.com/dwarves/

There are three game modes in Dwarf Fortress, though the simulation is the one that is so complex, and the reason most people play. One other mode involves a Rogue-like adventure where you take a hero around the world, and one of the coolest aspects of that is being able to explore all of your failed fortresses (you will have quite a few) and see all the ghosts, bloody bodies and loot you left behind. The other minor component in the game is reading the randomly generated histories in the world, and this can actually be quite fun as you can see all the kills a dragon or other powerful monster made until being slain themselves. The game actually creates a world and then lets thousands of historical figures and creatures of legend rise and fall within it, coming in to conflict with each other, building up towns and fortresses, and attacking each other, all documented in the historical record. Those of us who have created Dungeon And Dragons type fantasy worlds will be impressed with how easily Dwarf Fortress accomplishes creating thousands of years of history with several distinct civilizations. It does take a while though, even on a fast computer, and it slows down as history advances and more people (and more important people) are tracked from year to year.

But the meat of the game, and where players will probably be spending the most time, is fortress mode. There you will take a party of seven dwarves out into the deep wilderness of that world you just generated and create a dwarf fortress to rival Moria. Or, more likely, they will all die in horrible and sometimes hilarious ways. It’s said that all dwarf fortresses eventually come to an end, and if my track record is any indication, they are correct. Sometimes you dig into water or magma and flood your fortress, sometimes goblin armies will overrun your defenses, sometimes one of those aforementioned creatures of legend will visit your place, you might starve, your dwarves might go mad, zombie badgers may invade, or some terrible event may spiral out of control (running out of ale) and end in murder, suicide and an empty fortress of bodies that would confound the most advanced CSI teams on the planet. Losing is a part of playing the game, and it can be quite fun if taken in good spirits.

You control everything about your dwarves, and nothing at the same time. You can give them direct orders like ‘build here’ or ‘throw this lever’ but how and when they decide to follow your orders is up to them. Each dwarf is an individual, with a long list of skills and traits, so it’s more about assigning the best-suited dwarf for each job than micromanaging the whole enterprise.

For example, when you start out, you will need to get your dwarves underground. To do that you have to designate an area to dig into, like a low hillside. Then you have to dig out bedrooms, workshops and a trading post. That will at least get you started. You also have to clear trees, plant crops, hunt and fish and designate where all these new resources will go. Then dwarves can turn all that into buckets, bricks, walls, crafts and dinners at the various workshops. Then you have to designate where to store everything, including all the waste your fortress produces.

Literally, you are planning for absolutely everything in the game. You have to breed chickens or other birds to get eggs, but you have to make sure they are not harvested for a while until you have a stable supply. You also should be breeding cats to hunt down vermin, and also for your dwarves to keep as pets. Other creatures like dogs can be trained to defend your fortress in times of distress, and can be very helpful. You have to brew beer, cook food, make armor, train a military and dig ever deeper as you expand your realm. If you do well enough, settlers will show up and want to join your ranks. Then you can assign them jobs and your fortress can grow. But on the other hand, it means more mouths to feed, and there might even be a vampire hiding out with your new residents (true story).

What most surprised me was how amazingly complex the game lets players become. Literally, if you can think it up, the game will probably let you do it. On the forums, I’ve met other players with far more skill than me who actually created working computers in the game using power sources and what amounts to circuits. One clever player even used computers to control the traps he set up around his fortress, which is quite an achievement for a fantasy dwarf in a medieval-type world.

Dwarves also will surprise you at how life-like they become. As they socialize, they will form friendships with other dwarves and even take lovers. This tends to make them happy and they work a little harder, move a little quicker, sleep a little bit less. However, the downside is that they also develop rivals and enemies, which has the opposite effect. And if one of those dwarves loses a love, or even a favorite pet, in a cave-in or other accident, they might go into a homicidal rage, especially if they had a fragile mental state to begin with.

Dwarves are also clever, and if you make buckets in your workshops, they will commandeer them to carry stuff and make their jobs more efficient. However, I made the mistake of making my buckets out of gold that I found, and this actually slowed them down until I looked at their inventory and realized they were all carrying around too many heavy golden containers. Switching over to wood solved that problem. It’s really amazing what your dwarves will get up to as you play. Part of the charm of the game is not only seeing what is possible, but also figuring out how the world works and how you can work the system to your advantage.

Graphically, Dwarf Fortress is not much to look at. It uses the old extended ASCII character set popularized by really old school PC games like Rogue. However, they are functional and you will quickly get used to what everything represents. It only took a couple hours of play before I started seeing blue wavy lines as water and little green spades as trees. And walls are solid lines, as you would expect. There are sixteen colors including black, and eight backgrounds, so a lot of information can be represented. There is also a utility called the Lazy Newb Pack you can find in the forms at the Bay 12 Games site which enhances the tiles some, and a few others that can add a little more flair, though I found the vanilla textures to be fine. They took me back to the days of my old IBM PC and the first computer games I played. If only Dwarf Fortress was available back then’

Recently sound has been added to the game, though this mostly consists of music while you wait for the world to be generated, though some tones within the game can call your attention to things. Still, I am not grading the sound in this review. The game plays fine without it at all, I left my speakers off most of the time, though adding it in is a nice touch.

Dwarf Fortress shows that games don’t have to beautiful and full of eye candy to be great. The complexity and open-world sandbox feeling is truly epic. If you get together with friends who also play Dwarf Fortress, or mill around on the forums, you will for sure be treated to lots of stories about crazy things that happened while people were playing. And in no time at all, you will have your own stories too.

That said, one does wonder what would happen if all the complexity of the game were somehow simplified, given a beautiful graphical front end and mouse support. Simplifying the commands alone might open up the game to more players, though I could never really see it as anything resembling a casual title.

As it stands now, Dwarf Fortress is a gem, but only to those crazy enough to mine (quite literally) for it. I spent two weeks reading the guide book and another week experimenting with the world and dying horribly before I became what I consider to be mildly proficient. And that is quite an achievement. The right kind of player will absolutely love this game, and since it’s free, you might as well see if you’re that type of gamer. You only have time, and the lives of hundreds of screaming dwarves, to lose.

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