Dwarf Fortress

For about a month now I’ve been playing this ASCII game called Dwarf Fortress. I realize that I’m late to the game, and most people have already tired of playing it.

The game takes me back to the days of playing Oregon Trail on the public library computers in the 90s. Except with a worse interface. Or playing the Sims and carefully caring for my stupid little minions and toying with their lives. If only I could name them things like Über Von1337worth…

Dwarf Fortress screenshot
A screenshot of the first level underground of my fortress.

The idea behind the game is relatively simple – manly Sims with dwarves, as far as I can tell. You lead an expedition of dwarves to settle a new fortress, and can choose where on the map you want to settle. Once there you set up everything the fortress needs – in my screenshot you can see a variety of stockpiles, my fields, the underground parts of the lakes and rivers, and if the image were better quality, you could see my dwarves wandering around. There is no mouse interface – the entire thing is based on keyboard shortcuts. For example, to build a jeweler’s workshop, you press ‘b’ and then ‘w’ and then ‘j’ for Build, Workshop, Jeweler’s Workshop. And that’s one of the easier options to figure out. You can build staircases down (I have a workshop floor and a sleeping floor below this, and then an area for my magma-powered workshops since I’m in a volcano) and reach deeper levels of the mountain.

You also mine through the mountain looking for metals you can smelt and gems you can cut. A whole industry can be built from the silver and gold you find, selling the items to the Elves and Humans who arrive in caravans every so often. You can even brew wine, make cheese, and keep bees. Once you breach the underground caverns you can harvest the webs of giant cave spiders to make silk clothing – but be careful that none of the monsters wander up from the deep! To prevent that, and to keep the goblin thieves from doing too much damage, you have to set up squads of dwarves to train and to attack any creatures that show up.

The game is extremely micromanagerial – to the point that you make left and right gloves individually; you have to flood the fields and wait for the water to evaporate before you can plant them; and you have to dispose promptly of the offal in your butcher’s workshop when it becomes rotten. As far as I can tell it must be near-impossible to get started successfully on your own, but once you do there’s a very informative wiki that will answer your most questions (for example, what is produced when you smelt tetrahedrite? how do you make cave-ins to keep your population under control?) But in return for the mystic obscurity that shrouds the game, it rewards you with entertaining things like descriptions of scenes engraved in your cave walls that depict your Engraver engraving a picture of himself on a wall. Or descriptions of what’s on your dwarves’ relatively simple minds and their relationships. For example, my dwarf Monom Olonlerom likes rock salt, crowns, chickens for their clucking and giant toads for their strength, but absolutely detests purring maggots. Whatever those are.

It’s kind of like a digital ant farm with an economy.

Your dwarves will get married and have baby dwarves until you’re swamped with more dwarves than you know what to do with. Migrants arrive just when you were getting used to the number of minions you had. They will be adopted by so many cats that your only choice is to butcher the kittens and make leather gloves out of their remains. It’s quite distressing if you manage to kill someone’s beloved pet and send them into a fit of miserable depression though, so be careful!

Your dwarves gain skills and can become great masters of their trades – sometimes even being catapulted to fame by coming up with plans for a legendary artifact. I had a legendary cook who made “plump helmet roasts” worth more than a thousand dwarfbucks each. I think it’s fascinating to see what they all make, and what the trading caravans are willing to pay a lot of money for.

I’m not sure what the point of the game is, but losing is reported to be one of the main entertainments. Accidentally drowning your entire fortress, or getting all your dwarves to be eaten by a Forgotten Beast – or losing all the survivors to depression when a couple of squads of fighters get eaten. You certainly have to start over a lot. Personally I really enjoy how it forces you to see with your mind’s eye what is going on down there, since the interface is no help with that at all.

Apparently the next thing I’m supposed to do (after I get beekeeping worked out) is play the game in Adventurer mood.

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