dwarf fortress

I am addicted to this game. I cannot recommend this game.

It has a terrible user interface, cryptic graphics, a vertical learning curve, an extremely unfriendly user interface, a niche theme, and most of all, obsessive, overbearing, OVERWHELMING COMPLEXITY.

And yet, this game tells very compelling stories. It tells stories of simple, ambitious, emotional, hardworking dwarves, out to build themselves a new life. It reminds me most of The Oregon Trail, which I loved on the Apple IIe in elementary school. You gather your dwarves together, pick your starting skills and equipment, pick your destination on the world map, and strike out.

You then arrive, and dig your way into the mountain. Traders and more immigrants arrive as your fortress grows in size. All your dwarves have emotions and you need to keep them happy while they work. Eventually the goblins attack too. You can draft a military, or build siege weapons, or moats, or magma moats. You can build traps. You can build waterwheels and windmills to power complicated pumps and machinery. You can (and should) make individual bedrooms and tombs for your dwarves, in addition to meeting rooms, statue gardens, and dining halls. You can build a dwarven civilization from the ground up, in excruciatingly believable detail.

As a small example, in order to forge a sword, you need to do these things:
-have a dwarf with a pick mine some stone and haul it back.
-build a woodburning furnace (this uses some stone)
-have a dwarf with an axe chop down some trees and haul the logs back.
-use the furnace to turn logs into coal (this uses the logs you got)
-locate a source of ore, like copper ore, somewhere on the map.
-mine the ore and haul it back.
-build a smelter (this uses some stone)
-use the smelter to smelt the ore into metal bars (this uses up some coal)
-have an anvil (you can't build one without a forge, so bring it with you)
-build a metalsmith's forge (this uses the anvil, and some more stone)
-use the forge to forge the sword (uses up the metal bar and more coal)
In addition, for every step that requires a dwarf to do something, there is an associated skill, and the higher that skill is, the faster/better the job gets done. Dwarfs can train up their skills by doing the associated tasks. This is what I mean when I say "excruciatingly believable detail" and "obsessive, overbearing, overwhelming complexity."

So, my question is, why do I care? Why do I put myself through this?

I don't have a great answer, except that this game pushes a lot of specific buttons for me.


-It's a massive society simulator, and it takes its subject seriously. Growing up, I always wanted to make such a game, with a fully simulated ecosystem and emotional and interacting citizens. Dwarf Fortress does a pretty good job with this.

-It tells funny stories. The dwarves do a lot of wacky stuff, but they're generally easy for me to empathize with. They need alcohol to get through the working day. Sometimes they're struck by moods and go into fits where they take over a workshop and work like mad to produce some crazy artifact, or go insane if they can't find the materials they need. The dwarves remember the events that occur and record them in engravings all over your fortress, which you can look at.

-I like building things.

-I've always enjoyed thinking about starting up society from scratch, it's one of my favorite thought experiments. It's all in here, from farming to mining to leatherworking to weaving to engineering to leisure.

-I really empathize with the dwarves, and I try hard to keep them alive, well fed, and happy.

I don't know, what can I say. It's a game that I should have no interest in. It totally fails to meet my user interface standards, it's from a genre (Dungeon Siege) and medium (ASCII art games) that I routinely ignore, and I can't even mention it in polite company, because it's too goddamn nerdy, and I CAN'T PUT IT DOWN. Go figure.

Reflecting some more, this game reminds me a lot of X-COM, which I also absolutely loved, and Civilization, which I played quite a bit. It also has hints of Might and Magic, The Incredible Machine, Lemmings, and, as noted, Oregon Trail.

In conclusion, I wish I knew why I find this game so compelling that I am willing, even forced, to put up with it's bullshit. Because if I knew, I would bottle it, put it in a mass-market game, and sell it for a ton of money, and then use the money to build my castle. :-D


  1. My hypothesis is that it's because it is complex enough to be able to routinely create unexpected stories.

  2. My guess (according to my great unpublished theory of game fun, that I should really write down sometime) is that it just has a really solid progression mechaic. Complicated, yes, but engaging.

    This would actually make it very different from The Incredible Machine (which was really all about the immediate gratification), but very similar to X-Com.

    Also sounds like the meta-story is enough to keep it from falling on it's face. Would you find it as compelling if it the little mans were something other than Dwarves?

    Also, in the interst of full disclosure (and starting a flame war?), I want to say that while I loved The Incredible Machine, I hated X-Com.

  3. hm, I think your both right.

    @Sam: unexpected in that, since the world is randomly generated, there is no human storyteller and no plot, per se, and yet there are still awesome stories. It's somehow much funnier when you get a good story out of a seemingly soulless system.
    @O.H. Yeah. I think some of the specific, physicsy things remind me of T.I.M., but you're right that the gameplay is otherwise much different. And I remember arguing about XCOM with you, but I've made my peace with it. You're right that XCOM is completely unwelcoming, as is DF. I
    n each case I think there's enough meat inside to make it worthwhile, BUT! I don't say that to be snooty. There are many good games that I refuse to play, even though they have plenty of meat, because the curve is too much for me. For instance, most street-fighter-type games, most FPSs, etc. etc..
    I think it's mostly a matter of personal preference, which games are worth toughing it out for, for you, and which are not. And I guess I'm still surprised that DF was worth it for me.

    Whether it would be as much fun without Dwarves... Idunno... There's kindof a comedy element associated with Tolkein-style dwarves that seems built in to their identities, which makes them a great match. I can see enjoying the game as a human settlement, or random aliens or whatever, but I think the flavor that Dwarves bring to the table is indeed quite valuable. Especially since they have carefully gone through and changed the words, so that "craftsmanship" becomes craftsdwarfship," and so forth.
    Hm, it puts me in mind of the race selection choices we made for Evil Geniuses, which I think added significantly to the fun factor (via storytelling) of the game.
    Specifically, when your dwarves throw tantrums, or spend all day drinking, or get taken by a strange mood and have to spend a month creating an artifact, it's a lot funnier to imagine Gimli doing it than, say, Boromir. Although...

  4. I was previously aware of the words "I", "hated", and "X-COM", but it had never occurred to me that you could put them together in that order and form a sentence.