Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress

A dedicated renewal for an already-legendary game.

A dedicated renewal for an already-legendary game.

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14/12/2023 toolmxh.com


Review game Dwarf Fortress, A dedicated renewal for an already-legendary game.

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From the Mountainhomes, seven dwarves set out to find a new colony in a world full of monsters, gods, and old folklore. Despite their diminutive size, these dwarves are our story’s heroes. Sturdy, short animals that enjoy alcohol and work. With their cleverness, they will create amazing artifacts, battle formidable foes, and build a citadel that will endure forever—or they will dig too near a volcano and fill it with lava. After that, you’ll create a new world with fresh monsters, gods, and folklore and repeat the entire process.

All of that and more is standard fare in Dwarf Fortress, which has been crafting tales of triumph and tragedy for almost 20 years and is arguably the most beloved video game in the pantheon of cult classics. Its amazing depth has long been hidden behind a barrier to accessibility consisting of text-based ASCII graphics, mysterious keyboard shortcuts, and a confusing web of fan-made mods and tilesets to make it more user-friendly. Its premium release on Steam offers new graphics and a host of quality-of-life enhancements that essentially improve this incredible game for the upcoming generation of storytellers, even though that admittedly high wall was already worth scaling.

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You have most likely experienced the influence of Dwarf Fortress in other places, even if you have never ventured into these ominous tunnels yourself. With its initial release in 2006, developer Bay 12 Games effectively invented the genre we now refer to as the Colony Sim, inspiring countless others and paving the way for games like RimWorld. It’s still a reminder of how this blend of rules-based, reality-driven simulation and procedural generation can create unmatched stories on the fly. Among its numerous successors, Dwarf Fortress remains the most dependable game in terms of creating a world and populating it with captivating characters. Witnessing this world simulation come to life while you participate in it is an incredible experience.

It’s much simpler to do now. The updated graphics display the dwarven world in all its splendor using a dynamically assembled sprites system. Not to mention, for dragons, hydras, unicorns, and the like, there are graphics for hundreds of different animals and animal men. Even the unique and randomized Forgotten Beasts, Titans, and Demons have generated appearances commensurate with their uniqueness. The sprites and tiles, both static and dynamic, are excellent representations of the skill of the pixel artist, going beyond simply enhancing ASCII symbols.

The influence of Dwarf Fortress is probably felt even if you haven’t played it.

This new paint job is complemented with a vibrant new sound design that creates a real sense of place, including whistling cavern winds, dwarven work, and nature sounds. On top of that, there’s a classical guitar soundtrack that pays homage to the guitar riffs that used to accompany the Dwarf Fortress free version. It fits in with the legacy while also featuring fun elements like singing in the dwarven language used in the game.

Most significantly, the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress pulls the controls out of the early ’90s. Instead of requiring you to edit game files directly to change the difficulty, it adds integrated mouse functionality, a full-featured graphical interface, and settings menus. I think that the appropriate mouse support alone makes this entry fee worthwhile. Walls, mining tunnels, and other surfaces are easily paintable. More importantly, for new players, you can click a tile to quickly access a tabbed inventory of everyone and everything on it. This inventory includes quick buttons for basic interactions, such as prohibiting your dwarves from touching it. Imagine this: after you kill that enormous, blood-sucking cave bird, your chef will want to start preparing dinner for tomorrow.

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Dwarf Confronts the World

Despite all of that progress—which is startlingly substantial and incredibly comprehensive—Dwarf Fortress remains an incredibly intricate game at its core. The recently released tutorials effectively teach you how to play the game by providing you with a world, a somewhat secure embark point, and a stronghold that can provide its own needs (such as food and drink). Nevertheless, a tutorial will not be able to teach you even a tenth of what you’ll probably want to know during your adventure, so beginners in this genre will need to exercise patience.

After all, this is a game where, before you can make a single dwarven sock, you have to build distinct workshops to spin plant fiber into thread, weave thread into cloth, and optionally dye the cloth. In order to find out where in the geological layers to dig for iron, tin, coal, or gold, you’ll have to become an amateur mineralogist in this game, just like all good dwarves do. Somehow, you’ll discover the distinction between granite and gabbro. It’s highly likely that you will come across an article explaining what a quern is. It may seem like a lot, and it is, but it is really satisfying to learn practical knowledge that you can use right away in your game.

The fact that, aside from actively deployed military squads, you are unable to directly command your dwarves is one of the game’s biggest conceits. Setting up labor permits, managing production, and designing their constructions are all part of your role as a sort of central planner, but the timing of all of this is up to them. Perhaps they are too preoccupied with eating, sleeping, or listening to the local bard narrate a tale.

And it’s fun that you can’t make them do anything at all since dwarves have fully realized their virtual inner lives. You can read about their thoughts, memories, interests, relationships, abilities, and physical characteristics on menus or occasionally see them on their sprites. Because of the simulation’s extreme complexity, they will occasionally make strange decisions based only on their personalities, and because everything is procedural, those decisions can occasionally be hilarious, annoying, or even moving.

Everybody has a story about how a dwarf ran into a horde of goblins to retrieve their socks.
Dwarves, for instance, are notorious for abandoning items outside of the stronghold and then making an arduous effort to get them back. Everyone has their own stories, such as the time the Urists ran into a horde of goblins after forgetting their socks in the pasture, or the time a terrible beast emerged from the caverns, fought only by your valiant militia, and some unfortunate kid skipped the battleground to go gather mushrooms in the lower caves.

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Sometimes that fake stupidity is annoying, but sometimes it makes for some really lovely stories. I used to have two dwarves, a surgeon and a doctor, who chose to wed in the midst of a protracted crisis. Their friend, a farmer, officiated their wedding while enemies were at the gates, and nearby patients cried out in agony inside my hospital room. Somber, as if they had determined that, in the event of a threat to their lives, they would prefer to pass away together rather than apart. Funny, because while vows were being exchanged, blood was splattered all over the place, and a patient remained open on the operating table.

Given that this is a game that generates tales of grandeur akin to entire novels, Dwarf Fortress is equally unapologetic about the amount of reading required—reams. In essence, none of these tales would occur if you didn’t click on the dwarfs to reveal their relationships or read their thoughts in the character menu that appears. Although the addition of graphics is helpful, the game is still primarily text-based in many aspects. Because Dwarf Fortress concentrates all of its efforts on creating and simulating actual events rather than rendering them in great detail as they happen, you read descriptions of objects, people, and combat.

Discovering these tales is part of the fun in Dwarf Fortress, especially when the number of people living in your fort grows to several dozen. Notifications alert you to certain events, but in order to fully comprehend them, you’ll need to study the event logs, examine your dwarves’ life stories, and take some time to simply linger and observe your fort’s daily operations. For those who are inquisitive and contemplative, or who relish assuming the roles of their fortress’s occupants and deducing their motivations, it is immensely fulfilling.

Dig, Baby, Dig
Asking for care and attention in a wide range of subjects and disciplines—where there’s always something new to learn, a challenge to take on, or a ridiculous project to try—is the epitome of a nerd game. Its complexity doesn’t scare or intimidate me; rather, it feels like a challenge I want to meet head-on. Constructing a fort is like playing in a sandbox; you can interact with many of Dwarf Fortress’s systems however you please. I rarely use things like powered pumps and windmills because I don’t like to tinker with them.

The only things really restricting the sheer flexibility of Dwarf Fortress’s systems are your creativity, your comprehension of how they operate, and your familiarity with the UI. With their own cast of characters, civilizations, artifacts, gods, religions, stories, books, instruments, and more, each procedurally generated world appears remarkably quickly and allows you to create new ones almost at will. Their histories extend back centuries before the “present day” in which you begin play. Though they come with a variety of biomes to build in, including swamps, tundras, grasslands, deserts, badlands, mountains, coastlines, marshes, riversides, and jungles, to name a few, and each with good, evil, and savagely primordial variants, it’s not as though you need more than one world for hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Instead of opposing game systems, you are here to work with them.
You can work with game systems, not against them, as long as you enter with the knowledge that most fortresses eventually collapse into some form of ruin. The new controls give that kind of play so much more power; having your dwarves just build workshops and arrange furniture is a breeze, and letting them build them out of whatever material is handy instead of carefully considering which stone to use for a kiln takes some of the busywork out of everyday tasks. The same is true of above-ground structures, which were formerly difficult to navigate between Z-levels on Dwarf Fortress’s 2D top-down map. However, a default view that accurately shows what’s below empty tiles has made this process simpler.

That’s fantastic, as building itself is a whole different game. One way to do this is to strategically place workshops and fortifications, as well as construct guard towers. Another way is to optimize fortress designs so that dwarves have to travel as little distance as possible from their beds to meals and workshops. You can arrange for your fort to become a center of trade and crafts, offering carved stone trinkets and ornaments to the outside world, or you can have dwarf smiths use their knowledge of steelmaking to create an unbeatable army. You could construct a gigantic statue and use magma extracted from the earth’s interior to light its eyes, or you could devise an intricate network of pumps to irrigate enormous caverns used for mushroom cultivation.

However, this does make a lot of things much simpler. A straightforward checkbox system or classified lists with a basic search or sort function are the two main methods for managing dwarf labors and preferences, such as what to do with their trash, what products to stock at the trade depot, or how many people are on the mining detail. However, a large number of items can still quickly overwhelm it, and it is devoid of some common user interface conveniences, such as hotkeys for rearranging items in lists. Clicking a bunch of identical items in a row to trade away isn’t very entertaining. At least the updated controls allow you to rebind nearly anything, making them fairly flexible. That’s a shrewd, user-friendly acknowledgement that figuring out hotkeys and shortcuts will still be crucial to enjoying every Dwarf Fortress game.

To me, the allure lies in discovering the locations of all the information nuggets and the quickest ways to retrieve them. Dwarf Fortress’s complexity demands its form, so you can’t be a fan and still be complaining that it’s too hard to play. Comparatively speaking, you wouldn’t purchase a Porsche or Ferrari and then whine that it needs ongoing upkeep to function at its best. Dwarf Fortress is intricate because it is a device that took decades to build by two passionate artisans and was designed with one amazing goal in mind: to create whole worlds full of limitless adventure.


In the 50 to 60 years that the statistics indicate I have left, I don’t think I would run out of interesting and new things to do, so if I had to choose one game to play for the rest of my life, it would be Dwarf Fortress. It’s the ultimate world simulation and building management game, infinitely explorable in its complexity and rewarding in the depth you’ll find there. Up until now, its magnificent worlds were hidden behind difficult-to-use interfaces and inaccessible ASCII art, which only a select few could truly appreciate. However, this updated version of Steam boasts gorgeous visuals and audio, along with contemporary controls and a well-designed user interface, providing a new generation with endless opportunities to lose themselves in its amazing story engine. What’s inside is a genre-defining accomplishment that, aside from its place in academic texts, museums, and the hearts of its countless fans, demonstrates just how amazing video games can be when a developer has a clear objective and works tirelessly to achieve it, even if it takes decades.

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