Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress Cover
Platforms Windows, Linux, OSX
Genre Rogue-like fortress builder
MtAMinutes to Action 3
Keep Playing? Through the tutorials
Download from Developer

A few months ago I was emailed from a reader requesting I give Dwarf Fortress a try. He described it as “pretty complicated” but asked that I follow a series of tutorials written by a devoted fan. I gave the game a look, skimmed over the tutorials, and shelved the idea of playing it. Dwarf Fortress seemed a bit overwhelming and having been on a bit of a NetHack kick last year I was feeling a burned out with ASCII gaming.

I decided it was finally time to give it a chance though, so here’s my first hour playing Dwarf Fortress. The game is currently in development (and has been for the better part of the last decade), but since the tutorials I’ll be following are for a specific build from back in 2008, that’s what I’ll be playing. So keep in mind that while I have never played Dwarf Fortress before, I will be following the walkthrough site pretty closely (and using the included saved game, though nothing has been built out).

This seems like a great time to visit Dwarf Fortress, with the success of another indie darling, Minecraft, generating huge waves and sales; super-deep sandbox games are big right now. So let’s get this started and dig into Dwarf Fortress on the PC.

Minute by Minute

00 - I load up the tutorial’s saved game and the first hour of Dwarf Fortress begins. I’m looking at three different vertical screens. The far left is some kind of forest with some little people running around, the middle is a menu, and the right pane seems to be some other map. I expand the left pane to cover to panes eliminating the overhead map.

01 - The arrow keys scroll things around, I see some small lakes and large black areas. Using the greater than/less than buttons I look at different layers of the map. Kind of confusing to explain, but it seems the important thing to note with Dwarf Fortress is that you can only view one 2D plane at a time, but since this is a 3D world you need to be able to look above and below ground.

02 - I look around my map a bit more, there’s a river that shows up one level underground too, indicating that the river bed has some depth to it. This is, honestly, a lot to take in.

03 - The tutorial wants me to start building a fortress now, makes sense in a game called Dwarf Fortress. I move to a nearby mountainside and instruct my dwarves to carve out a 3x20 strip. After I unpause the game three of them jog over and start digging their way in. Nice!

Dwarf Fortress Building Digging

05 - I carve out a few more rooms for them to dig out, wonder what these will be...?

07 - Sorry to move so slow, definitely a lot to digest. My next task is to chop down some trees, so I select a swath of them in front of the fortress entrance and they get to work. I instruct them similarly to collect some plants.

10 - After a bit of a struggle, I manage to layout some underground farmland. Dwarf Fortress is a keyboard driven game, and while I definitely don’t mind this (actually enjoy not having to touch the mouse if necessary), learning the keys is always something that take a bit of time. Some dwarves run on to my 36 square farm and quickly plow it. That was quick.

12 - After plowing I tell my little ones to plant some “plump helmets.” What the heck is a plump helmet?

14 - Next I create some food stockpiles across my farm. This should make things more efficient and reduce the sheer amount of running around my dwarves are doing. They quickly move to transport all the food they originally brought with them to the stockpile room.

16 - Moving on to part two of the tutorial now, this one is on workshops. First thing is to build an outdoor carpenter’s workshop.

Dwarf Fortress Farming

19 - As I wait for the workshop to be built, I survey my fortress. Most of my farmland is planted and the stockpile room is filling up nicely. There’s some random lizards running around, hopefully not eating my food!

21 - I queue up five beds to be built by the workshop and a dwarf seems to be going at it nicely. I think. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what they’re doing exactly.

23 - To actually see the beds you need a furniture stockpile. I select a slab of land outside (though the tutorial warns that you generally want things inside, this is just temporary) and I can see the beds line up along with an anvil and barrels.

Dwarf Fortress Stockpile25 - I now have some downward stairs! Where do they lead? I do not know! For stairs to actually be effective though, you need both down and up stairs. Makes sense... not really.

28 - The tutorial asks me to build a few more levels down, all of these “upward stairways,” “downward stairways,” and “up/down stairways” are a bit confusing.

33 - I spend a few minutes laying out some large underground rooms for my dwarves to carve out. Not sure what the tutorial has in mind for them yet.

35 - Not sure if I’m missing something, my dwarves aren’t heading underground to work on construction.

37 - Oh! They’re not digging because I forgot to carve out the area immediately around the stairs. I think I just learned an important lesson in Dwarf Fortress.

38 - All right, they’re all digging away. I’m told to create an outdoor trash pile next, all these white and green bones are moved outside. Almost feels a bit like The Sims.

39 - Now for something a bit unlike The Sims, my dwarves like to drink beer, so we need a still. After building the still, you need to brew drinks, and then build some barrels with the carpenter.

Dwarf Fortress Rocky Basement42 - I queue up a bunch of beer brewing and barrel making to keep my dwarves happy.

43 - So far I have a carpenter’s workshop and a still, now I need a masonry. I build mine downstairs in the area the dwarves are still excavating. It does seem to be taking a while but this is a pretty massive are I’d like them to mine out (about 1000 squares).

46 - As I wait, a few messages appear on the bottom: “it has started raining” and “the fortress attracted no migrants this season.” The rain is a bit visible on some random squares, and I guess dwarves come and move into your fortress?

49 - I have to admit, it’s kind of intriguing watching my dwarves do their thing. Almost like an ant farm. It’s also exciting to watch them excavate the cave as a bunch of red rocks called bauxite are being revealed. Not sure what that will be used for but it makes the floor look bloody!

52 - I create a new furniture stockpile downstairs and delete my old one outside, my dwarves immediately move everything downstairs. Man, they’re efficient.

54 - My last empty room upstairs becomes my dwarve’s bedroom. I fill it with beds and put doors I made in the masonry on the entrances. Now they won’t have to sleep outdoors! Well, I have to designate that room as the bedroom. Curious, but kind of cool.

57 - Yep, now they’re sleeping in the beds. There are no specific beds for specific dwarves, they’ll just have to learn to share.

58 - Well, I’ve finished up the second tutorial, so I’ll probably just wait things out now and maybe check on my forest and berry harvesting.

59 - Oh, curious, some outpost liaison has arrived, but their wagons have bypassed by inaccessible site. Sad. They need a trade depot to unload their goods. I’ll keep that in mind.

60 - Well, the first hour is over. It would be an understatement to say that I just scratched the surface of Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress Bedrooms

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 3

What I liked: Well, if you’re a fan of depth, then Dwarf Fortress has it in spades (and pile on a few more buckets of spades for good measure). It’s not always a good thing to reveal so much depth so quickly so, but to give the freedom to play Dwarf Fortress however you want, then this is pretty much the only way to present it all. I do like depth, and I would be totally overwhelmed without that walkthrough. But since I had someone to hold my hand, I felt like I could at least take it in at a managed pace.

What I didn’t like: Hmm... I could basically put the same thing here as what I put directly above. The thing with Dwarf Fortress is that the entire game is what you make it. There are no flashy graphics, a nice sounding soundtrack in the background, and little in-game story besides some pre-generated lines. If you’re not the type of gamer that can cope with this, then you will probably not enjoy Dwarf Fortress.

Gameplay: Endlessly deep, how and where does one begin? There are huge heaps of treasures awaiting for those who are interested in putting the time in to learn it all. If there’s one thing that bothered me it seemed like there was a bit of inconsistency for navigating different menus and confirming actions.

Fun Factor: There’s a great sense of satisfaction from watching your fortress grow from nothing into a bustling little hole in the wall. It’s that same satisfaction I get from a game like SimCity where everything that happens is up to you and you’re responsible for it all.

Graphics and Sound: Hah, obviously absent, and probably for the best. The simple ASCII graphics can describe more details faster than a million polygons ever could. It’s not the friendliest mode of delivery, but once again, the rewards are there.

Story: Well, I hear there’s the option to generate an epic story for your world, but either that wasn’t generated for my save or I just never encountered any of the tale.

Would I keep playing? Yes... I’d like to at least make it through a bulk of the tutorials to figure out if this is really the type of game I would want to continue playing. Right now I definitely want to go on, but it’s all so intimidating!