I very much love a management video game, especially those where I get to design the layout of the game’s world. Let me build a city and I’ll work to make the most efficient damn city you’ve ever seen. My citizens will be the happiest, best served, and yet least-taxed people there are! Or, in the case of Evil Genius, my lair will be the most maniacal, insidious beacon of villainy possible.
The beginning of a management game is when I have the most fun; the blank canvas offers exciting potential. But, invariably, the game reaches a challenge plateau—a point where I’ve either figured out the game’s algorithm for success or there is nothing new to do.
I had long stayed away from the game Dwarf Fortress as it terrified me. Even before playing I could tell the game was a magnum opus of video games—an epic masterpiece neither the world of gaming nor I had ever experienced before. The stories I read from people who play the game were incredible, wholly unbelievable, and utterly enticing. Trying to get started, I half-heartedly read wikis and tutorials thinking they would instantly help me understand how to play the game but they only revealed that this was a game that had to be taken seriously in order to be enjoyed.
The problem was that Dwarf Fortress has a terrible user interface—simply the worst. The options in the game feel nearly endless but the game takes little responsibility for actually teaching its players to play. It’s completely up to you (and thankfully, the internet) to figure what to do and how to do it. The game’s ASCII art, while allowing its developers to focus purely on mechanics, is tremendously overwhelming with the sheer amount of information being relayed. I’ve already made the “it’s like I’m trying to read The Matrix” joke with the game Brogue, but with Dwarf Fortress that truly is the case—it’s simply too much for a beginner to possible decipher without screaming and running away in terror.
I couldn’t ignore Dwarf Fortress’ siren call forever. I kept coming across articles describing players’ sessions with the game, whole epic tales written as short stories or even drawn out into graphic novels. It was just too hard to believe that a video game could produce such random and emergent game play and yet be able to keep its randomness from descending into nonsensical silliness. I found some decent tutorial videos to at least get me started. I decided I simply had to play and didn’t care if I bumbled through the game at first; I would figure it out despite every obstacle the game presented.
If I hadn’t already made this clear, Dwarf Fortress is a beast. The game simulates hundreds, if not thousands of details in a huge, randomly generated world. You pick a place in that world and lead a team of dwarf pioneers to try and establish a colony. You don’t directly control the dwarves but manage every aspect of the colony’s day-to-day life by issuing orders and assigning skills and professions to your people. Your colony’s population quickly grows and your citizens soon tire of the meager crops they’re growing, the dirt floors they’re forced to sleep on, and low quality booze they’ve brewed, among many, many other issues. Time seems to be your biggest foe as there are always a host of problems to deal with and never enough hands to help.
Whenever I start a new expedition in Dwarf Fortress I can’t help but say out loud to myself, “And this is the story of how your people came to die.”
The game is brutally difficult and it takes several tries to even get the basic mechanics down. So far my expeditions have starved, died of thirst, drowned (I accidentally diverted a river into my base), been slaughtered by a forest giant, been massacred by a goblin raid, and, most recently, brutally murdered by one of my own dwarves who went on a rampage after being possessed by an evil spirit.
Dwarf Fortress is at least consistent in one thing—even if you’re managing forty tasks at once, there will always be one detail you overlook that spells your doom.
My earlier pronouncement of “magnum opus” really isn’t some gross exaggeration. The level of detailed simulation in Dwarf Fortress is incredible. Every dwarf is randomly generated with their own hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, relationships, religious beliefs (and so on), all of which have an impact on their happiness with how you’re running the fortress as well as how they act.
Further, just about everything your dwarves use must be created from their very basic constituent parts. Soap, for example, doesn’t just “exist” in the game to be used in cleaning and in your hospital (once you have built a hospital that is). You must create it by rendering animal fats from your hunters’ kills into oil and then combine it from the ash you’ve collected from burning wood. Or, if you’ve settled in a region that doesn’t have enough wild animals to hunt, you can make oil by growing, harvesting, and milling a particular kind of plant. Just creating this one item takes many steps and a lot of focus— focus that is constantly tugged in many other directions as crises erupt everywhere.
Sessions with Dwarf Fortress deliberately end abruptly. The developers have adopted an approach where they don’t expect you to “win”. It’s definitely hard to get used to the idea that your fortress is not going to last forever and instead you must turn your mind to the goal of living longer than you did the last time you sent an expedition into the wild. I continue to get better and better at the game but have barely scratched the surface.
My next big goal is getting a stronger grasp on the game’s military system since not being able to properly defend my dwarves is currently my biggest failing. Soon I’ll learn how to deal with those bastard goblins (or die again).
Dwarf Fortress has an incredibly high barrier to entry and while I’ve praised it effusively here, it admittedly has a lot of flaws. I highly recommend using a few of the many mods that players have created for the game, like Dwarf Therapist (which allows you to better manage your dwarves’ skills) and a graphical tile set since the ASCII art is just too hard to interpret long term. The Dwarf Fortress wiki is a god-send and the game would frankly be unplayable without having it always open as a reference.
Despite hours of game play, I have a lot more to explore with Dwarf Fortress and haven’t even mentioned (or tried) its other mode of play called “adventure mode” where, in turn-based, roguelike style gameplay, you take a single adventurer into the world you’ve generated, fight monsters, and search for treasure. You can even delve into your former fortresses that were lost. Just reading the sheer depth of options available to playing that section of the game blows my mind all over again.
By far, Dwarf Fortress isn’t a game for everyone. But if you like management video games or have grown tired of not being challenged by your games, I can’t recommend this game highly enough. I’ll be playing Dwarf Fortress for years to come, knowing that it’ll keep sending surprises and the challenges my way.