Dwarf Fortress is a very old game. Dwarf Fortress is a very new game.
I don’t really know what Dwarf Fortress is. It’s kind of a simulation, like The Sims, but in a deep, horrible underground city where every one of the characters is an insane Tolkien-esque dwarf. It’s like Sim City, but instead of natural disasters and tax rates, you deal with massive, bloodthirsty orc invasions and randomly generated mega-beasts.
Dwarf Fortress is an extraordinarily complicated game, and has little in the way of graphics or audio, which keeps a lot of people from ever getting into the thing. However, what a thing it is.
The first task that the game undertakes is to generate an entire world. It first creates terrain and geographical features, and then fills out the biomes with appropriate flora and fauna – which could mean anything from rampaging skeleton elk to bloodthirsty carp.
Various natural anomalies, such as bottomless chasms and volcanoes, populate the world. The continents and natural world, now complete, are filled in with various civilizations, from the traditional fantasy humans, dwarfs and elves to more bizarre ratmen and mer-people. They fight wars, rise to power and fall from it; heroes and legends are born and extinguished. Sometimes giant, monstrous creatures lead entire countries on crusades for their own interests only to abandon them later.
This is all before you even start playing the game. An entire world, complete with history, legends and myths is generated for the player. You scroll through the map and choose a site that looks fitting for a fortress—lots of trees nearby, not too many wild animals, plenty of natural resources, a supply of water, that sort of thing. Then you pick seven dwarfs and go try to survive.
Your dwarfs are dumped unceremoniously into the wilderness, given meager resources and little organization. It is up to the player to ensure their survival by delegating certain tasks to be completed like mining out areas to live, chopping down trees, or planting farms—tasks left to dwarfs of an appropriate skill set or professions.
The dwarfs themselves are no simpletons, either, as each one has a complicated set of relationships, religions, habits, likes, dislikes, personality quirks and sometimes pets or objects to which they feel attached. They may enjoy a certain food or drink and will be unhappy if they go without it for a long time.
It’s all very mind-boggling at first. You’ve got some dwarfs. Gotta build something. Something that resembles a fortress, hopefully. Oh, sorry, were you trying to figure out how to make your dwarfs dig a hole in the side of a mountain so they could live in it? Too bad, zombie elephants have destroyed everything.
Now armed with the knowledge from the Dwarf Fortress Wiki’s Beginners Guide, you begin again. (Why is there no tutorial for this game?) New world, new fortress, new dwarfs. Another chance. You’ve dug out a decent area in the hillside—bedrooms, workshops, farming areas—and suddenly 14 new dwarfs arrive from the mountainhomes. Three of them have absolutely no skills whatsoever. Following closely behind is an invasion force of 50 goblins, mostly armed with whips.
So everything’s dead again. New fortress, and you’re going to actually train an army this time! Those S&M goblins ain’t nothing but a thang for your battle-hardened axe-dwarfs. You survive for a while, drawbridges and guard dogs preventing the goblin invasions from having too much of an effect.
You’ve gotten several waves of immigrants, and your fortress is flourishing. You’ve been trading with the notoriously tree-loving elves, and you’re making quite a name for your little fort. Wait. Why are there all these red exclamation marks on the screen? Why are all the dwarfs running around and smashing things?
Congratulations, you’ve had a tantrum spiral. One dwarf did something or saw something that made him really upset, and now he’s gone and broken this other dwarf’s favorite table ever. Now that dwarf is mad as bricks, too, and is smashing other dwarfs’ things. It goes on and on and everyone’s mad forever and nothing gets done, and oh, here come the goblins again.
That’s Dwarf Fortress, in a nutshell. You’re confused and panicking trying to figure out how to survive, and some crazy nonsensical randomly-generated beast from beyond time and space arrives and destroys all your work. Sometimes you’ll make it further than others.
The harshness of the world and the incredible complexity with which it is simulated are charming enough to keep a lot of people hooked on the game, with some players putting multiple people in charge of the fortress for set amounts of time. It makes for some great stories, both epic and hilarious.
Due to its relative insanity and sometimes ridiculous levels of player failure, Dwarf Fortress has a motto—losing is fun. And it’s true. The first time you get a Tantrum Spiral or a catsplosion (an infamous and much-feared situation when cats breed out of control and the dwarfs are too busy loving and cuddling them to get anything done), you panic and try to save your fortress, but most of the time it’s all for naught.
Boo hoo, go generate a new world or try to reclaim the fortress. Start again; learn from your mistakes. Dwarf Fortress teaches us a valuable lesson in dealing with our failures, because you will fail. And fail. And fail again.
It’s free, so try it out. It’s cruel, but losing is fun.