Dwarf Fortress Review – Pint Size Insanity

Dwarf Fortress is a game that has been under constant development for twenty years and recently got a Steam release. It’s a game that’s always had it’s circles of praise, but a number of accessibility issues like where to buy it, a convoluted UI and control scheme, have kept me away from it. But now, alongside the Steam release, the game has added *gasp* mouse support, a number of guides, tutorials, and general across the board quality of life improvements. Now the game looks much less like a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and more like a pixel art game about Dwarves in a Fortress. But, in the spirit of twenty-year-old gaming, you can still choose to play the game with it looking like a spreadsheet.

Speaking of Dwarves in a Fortress, this game is a colony/construction simulator in the same vein as games like Rim World or Prison Architect. Being in twenty years of development, it actually helped inspire some of those games, which was a nice bit of trivia for me. There is no real end-goal with Dwarf Fortress, which puts it firmly alongside games like Minecraft where you’re given a world and a set of tools to experiment and make your own fun with. A true sandbox experience.

In fact, it’s so committed to this premise, that when you start a new world it generates anywhere from 100 to 500 years of fictional history utterly unique to that world before you even get to play. Then you get to choose your start location in that world, based on what materials are available, nearby friendly and hostile sites and climate effects in the region. No location is ideal, but some are definetly better than others.

On my first world I felt quite confident having completed the tutorial, so decided to pick a new and more exciting start location immediately after… On the edge of a volcano. I began digging into the volcano, because Dwarves like living underground and inside of mountains, and got myself established. But before the game could pick up, I accidentally flooded the whole place full of lava, wiping out all but three of my starting Dwarves and… Well, the colony was called a failure, let’s just leave it at that. So, I started again.

And that cycle of success/failure into a restart is what Dwarf Fortress boils down to at it’s most simplest. Not all failures result in the end of the game, but they might well do when you’re new. Suffice it to say, there are a huge amount of in-depth systems (most of which I’m still learning), and an absolutely insane amount of complexity regarding making not only a self-sufficient fortress, but an efficient one, but that isn’t the ultimate draw to this game for me. No, for me it’s the characters. Every Dwarf has ten tabs on their profile when you click on them, all displaying unique information about that Dwarf’s personality, feelings, relationships, skills and personal needs. Much more than text on a screen, these things translate into gameplay. In fact, the Steam review that convinced me to buy this game talked about how their stone-carver had a disdain for snails and, when ordered to construct statues for a new temple, made nothing but statues of snails to let the whole world know just how much she disliked them. And these are the sorts of stories that make you stick around, long after the fort’s construction.

It’s important to remember, however, the screen might just look like a bunch of 2D pixels running into and around one another because, as I say, this is effectively a twenty year old game juiced up. So to learn about how these events unfold you’ll have to *gasp* read. Every time something important happens, notifications will appear at the side of the screen, and the most important ones will have pages and pages of logs detailing exactly what is occurring. I once decided to read the training log for my military dwarves, only to learn that they were sparring with METAL weapons instead of the training ones I’d constructed. They were training in dodging, and my lead militia commander, leading the exercise was failing to dodge every single swipe her partner was throwing at her with this iron weapon. She got stabbed in the shoulder. Whacked on the head. All sorts. I’m pretty sure the only way it didn’t get bloody is because I had purchased enough armour to protect the poor little guys from themselves.

And you do need some army in this game, even though military isn’t the focus and what you can do to command soldiers is very limited. You might be attacked by dragons. Or by a cyclops. Or besieged by undead and goblins. But me? No. One of my most memorable fortresses never even had a barracks because we were a beacon of peace and prosperity. Goblins came and went without issue. Humans and Elves mingled in our great halls. In fact, I had to order the construction of a large dormitory to accommodate a travelling band of poets who came to my fortress specifically to entertain patrons of the local bar. In this dark world, I had created a poet society. In this dark world, I was all that was peaceful.

Mostly. You see, I wasn’t very good at *ahem* honouring the dead. In fact, because I was yet to build a tomb and coffins, I instead had a designated spot at the bottom of our mountain for corpse dumping. Turns out this upsets the dead, who don’t find that a particularly honourable way to go out. So, they haunted me. To be fair, in the early game, the occasional haunt probably isn’t that uncommon, especially if you have a rough start and simply have other things to prioritise before a proper burial area. But I was pretty far into my game and didn’t understand how the burials worked yet. So I had a great number of ghosts roaming around. One ghost was (how do I put this lightly) a child abuser. The Dwarf died, came back as a ghost and haunted his own child. When I say haunted, what I really mean is that he beat his child within an inch of his life, causing the poor kid to be crippled from the waist down and lying in a hospital bed. I literally had to put this Dwarf’s eternal soul to rest just so he wouldn’t beat his own child. The situation was just as dark and messed up as it was utterly hilarious to be in.

Now, if you’re someone who wants a bit of a challenge then why not add onto this sandbox some self imposed challenges? Spawn a day’s walk from a hostile site of Elves or Goblins. Better yet, spawn less than a day’s walk. Try to survive. Build siege equipment, moats and barracks for an all out war. Better yet, try to play the game as conventionally as possible in an undead biome where, you guessed it, everything is a zombie and everything that dies comes back as a zombie.

Let’s say a zombie gets into your fort. What do you do? Send a squad to kill it, of course. But then it gets back up. So you kill it again and cut off all the limbs. The torso reanimates but cannot move. Safe, right? Wrong. Every severed zombie limb also reanimates independently of one another, so you now have four zombie limbs running around trying to murder your Dwarves and an angry torso on the floor. So, if you kill a zombie you have to get rid of the body before it reanimates on repeat. You could take it outside, but that risks attracting more zombies. The next most obvious thing to do would be to build a tiny cave, move the zombie and all it’s body parts inside and then seal it so that, when it reanimates, it’s stuck in a 1×1 area unable to harm anyone again. Creative alternatives might involve digging a giant hole several levels deep (trying not to get your miners killed and turned into zombies in the process) and using it as a zombie garbage dump. Or, if you’ve found lava, try burning the zombies.

Look, what I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of ways to play this game because it’s fuelled by imagination. Want to build a secret army deep inside a mountain? Do it. Want to become the wealthiest mountain home there is by meeting the needs of the annual traders? Do it. Do anything and watch as your Dwarves independently of one and other steer you on and off the rails like the little trouble makers they are.

I would definetly recommend Dwarf Fortress. It’s complexity can be alienating, but the basics of the tutorial should guide you to enough of the fun I’ve described that you’ll want to learn the depths of the game. It took embarrassingly long to get into some of this game’s most basic systems like… making charcoal. All I had to do was build a wood furnace and burn wood. Not hard at all. Not deep. Not complex. Until then I had just been buying all my metals from the annual trader since I couldn’t forge any of my own without fuel.

But I’m digressing again. And that’s the charm of Dwarf Fortress. You click play. You click exit. Look out the window and suddenly the sun is coming up.

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