Dwarf Fortress Review

By | December 7, 2022

Seven dwarves set out from the Mountainhomes to establish a new colony in world rife with gods, monsters, and ancient legends. Though small, these dwarves are the heroes of our tale: Short, sturdy creatures fond of drink and industry. In their ingenuity they will craft incredible artifacts, face great evils, and establish a citadel to stand the test of ages… or they’ll dig a little too close to a volcano and flood the whole thing with lava. Then you’ll generate another world, with brand new gods, monsters, and ancient legends, and do it all again.

All that and more is par for the course in Dwarf Fortress, perhaps the most cult in the pantheon of cult-classic video games, has been generating stories of triumph and tragedy for nearly 20 years already. Its incredible depth has long been locked behind an accessibility barrier of text-based ASCII graphics, arcane keyboard controls, and an inscrutable maze of fan-created mods and tilesets to make it more approachable. And while that admittedly high wall was already worth climbing over, its premium release on Steam brings new graphics and a slew of quality-of-life improvements that fundamentally enhance this amazing game for the next generation of storytellers.

Dwarf Fortress Steam Screenshots

Even if you never dared these intimidating tunnels yourself, you’ve almost certainly felt Dwarf Fortress’ impact elsewhere. Developer Bay 12 Games effectively founded the genre we now call the Colony Sim with its initial release in 2006, paving the way for games like RimWorld while influencing countless others, and it’s still a reminder of how this combination of procedural generation and rules-based, reality-driven simulation can create unparalleled stories on the fly. Even today, among its many successors, nothing creates a world and fills it with interesting characters so reliably as Dwarf Fortress, and it is a sublime experience to watch this simulation of a world at work as you play your part in it.

Doing so is far easier now. The refreshed graphics use a system of sprites, dynamically assembled, to show the dwarven world in all its glory. There are graphics for hundreds of different animals and animal-men, not to mention for dragons, hydras, unicorns, and the like. Even the special Forgotten Beasts, Titans, and Demons, randomized and unique as they are, have generated appearances to match. Beyond improving on ASCII symbols, the sprites and tiles – both static and dynamic – are a superb example of the pixel artist’s craft.

Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve almost certainly felt Dwarf Fortress’ influence.

This fresh coat of paint is overlaid with a lively new soundscape of nature noises, dwarven work, tavern chatter, and whistling cavern winds that provides an actual sense of place. Atop that is a soundtrack of classical guitar (an homage to the single-track guitar noodling that once accompanied the free version of Dwarf Fortress) that both fits the legacy and includes delights like singing in the actual in-game dwarven language.

Perhaps most notably, Dwarf Fortress’ Steam version brings the controls out of the early ‘90s, adding the integrated ability to use the mouse, a fully-fledged graphical interface, and settings menus rather than being forced to directly edit game files if you want to adjust difficulty. The proper mouse support alone is, to me, worth the cost of entry here: You can paint out walls, mining tunnels, and more with ease. More vital for new players, you can click a tile to easily get a tabbed inventory of everyone and everything on it, including quick buttons for basic interactions like forbidding your dwarves to touch it – you know, for when you kill that giant six-eyed cave bird with poisonous blood and your chef immediately tries to get a jump start on tomorrow’s dinner.

Dwarf Meets World

For all that improvement – and it is a shockingly huge and remarkably thorough improvement – Dwarf Fortress is still an unapologetically complex game underneath. Its new tutorials go a long way toward teaching you how to play by setting you up with a world, a relatively safe embark site, and a fortress that can supply its own necessities (e.g. food and booze). Even so, a tutorial still can’t teach a tenth of what you’ll likely want to know over the course of your adventure, and those new to this genre will need patience.

This is, after all, a game where you have to construct separate workshops to spin plant fiber into thread, then weave thread into cloth, then optionally dye the cloth, before making even a single dwarven sock. It’s a game where you’ll become an amateur mineralogist – as all good dwarves are – to figure out where in the geological strata to dig for iron, tin, coal, or gold. You’ll somehow learn the difference between gabbro and granite. You’ll almost certainly read an article describing what a quern is. It sounds like a lot – and it is – but learning real-world information and then being able to immediately employ it in your game is extremely rewarding.

One of the biggest conceits in Dwarf Fortress is that you can’t directly control your dwarves, outside of actively mobilized military squads. You’re a kind of central planner, setting up labor permissions, directing production, and blueprinting their constructions, but how soon any of it happens is up to them. They might be too busy taking a nap, or eating, or listening to the local bard tell a story.

And it’s delightful that you can’t make them do a damn thing, because dwarves each have an entire simulated inner life of their own. They have thoughts, memories, favorite things, personal skills, relationships, and physical traits, all of which you can read about in menus or sometimes see on their sprites. The sheer complexity of the simulation means they’ll occasionally make bizarre decisions because of who they are, and the procedural nature of it all means that those are sometimes hysterical, frustrating, or even poignant.

Everyone has their own tale of the time a dwarf sprinted into a goblin horde to get their socks.

For example, dwarves are infamous for leaving things outside the fortress and then later trying to retrieve them no matter the circumstances. Everyone has their own tales of the time Urist sprinted out into a goblin horde because they forgot their socks in the pasture, or of moments when a horrible beast emerged from the caverns – opposed only by your brave militia – and some hapless child went skipping through the battlefield to go and pick mushrooms in the lower caves.

That simulated idiocy can be obnoxious at times, but it can also result in some beautiful stories. I once had two dwarves, a doctor and surgeon, who decided to get married in the middle of an ongoing crisis. As nearby patients cried out in pain amid my hospital room and enemies were at the gates, they had their wedding officiated by their friend, a farmer. Poignant, as though they’d decided that if their lives were threatened they would rather die married than apart. Hilarious, because a patient was still sitting open on the surgical table and everyone involved was spattered with blood as vows were exchanged.

Dwarf Fortress is also unapologetic about how much reading is involved, which is reams, as this is a game that generates whole novels worth of tall tales. Basically, none of these stories happen without reading a dwarf’s thoughts or observing their relationships in the character menu that pops up when you click on them. The addition of graphics helps, but this is still in many ways a text-based game. You read descriptions of objects, of people, of combat, because Dwarf Fortress focuses all its energy on creating and simulating events that happen, not on rendering them in great detail as they happen.

These stories are everywhere in Dwarf Fortress, especially as your fort population climbs into the dozens, and finding them is part of play. Notifications let you know that certain things are happening, but to fully understand them you have to read the event logs, look at the life histories of your dwarves, and spend some time paused just poking around in the day-to-day of your fort. It’s deeply rewarding for those who are curious and introspective, or who enjoy roleplaying their fortress inhabitants and figuring out why they do what they do.

Dig, Baby, Dig

This is a nerd game par excellence, asking for attention and caring in a vast range of subjects and disciplines, where there is always something new to learn, a challenge to attempt, or an absurd project to try. I don’t find all its complexity scary or intimidating; it’s more of a challenge I want to rise to. Building a fort is a sandbox, and you can engage – or not – with many of the systems in Dwarf Fortress to your own heart’s desire. I don’t like fiddling with windmills and powered pumps, for example, so I rarely use them.

The sheer flexibility of the systems in Dwarf Fortress are really only limited by your imagination, your understanding of how they work, and your comprehension of the interface. The procedurally generated worlds pop up remarkably fast, letting you create new ones almost at a whim, each with its own cast of characters, civilizations, artifacts, gods, religions, stories, books, instruments, and more – all with history that stretches back centuries before the “present day” you start in. Not that you need more than one world for hundreds of hours of play, considering they come complete with biomes to build in as diverse as swamps, tundras, grasslands, deserts, badlands, mountains, coastlines, marshes, riversides, and jungles, to name a bare few, and each has good, evil, and savagely primordial variants.

You’re here to collaborate with game systems, not fight them.

As long as you go in knowing that most fortresses end in ruin of one kind or another, you understand that you’re here to collaborate with game systems, not fight them. The new controls lend so much power to that style of play; the simple ability to click through the interface makes building workshops and placing furniture a breeze, and letting your dwarves just build them out of whatever material is convenient rather than optimizing exactly what stone is used for a kiln takes some of the busywork out of common tasks. The same goes for above-ground constructions, once a laborious process of scrolling back and forth between the Z-levels of Dwarf Fortress’ 2D top-down map, now made simpler by the convenience of a default view that properly shows what’s beneath empty tiles.

That’s great, because construction is an entire subgame of its own. Placing fortifications and workshops or building guard towers is one end of it, but so is optimizing efficient fortress designs where dwarves travel a minimal distance from their beds to meals and workshops. You can set things up so your fort becomes a hub of crafts and trade, selling carved-stone tchotchkes and baubles to the wider world, or one where dwarf smiths use the secrets of steelmaking to forge an invincible military. You can build a massive statue and light its eyes with magma pulled from the earth’s depths, or create a complex system of pumps to irrigate vast caverns for mushroom farming.

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It’s incredibly fun to place sequences of devious traps, like pits that open on a pressure plate, blades that emerge from walls, triggered crossbows, or more elaborate designs: Some of my favorites are entire false entrance ways that open, let in attackers, and then seal before flooding with water or magma. I’ve used minecarts filled with swords that stop abruptly and fling their contents into the enemy at high speed – we call those dwarven shotguns. Or you can opt for the direct approach, where you train a dwarf army and send it off-map to conquer nearby towns or cities, demanding shipments of supplies as tribute.

The ultimate fate of all forts is to fall into ruin or be retired when you get bored of its success, and having a fort either get destroyed or simply peter out is part of how you learn the deep systems, gaining ever more knowledge of how to survive dwarven life for next time. The community’s motto has long been that “Losing is Fun!”, and you’ll see players describing doomed ends that range from poisonous monster breath to dwarven civil wars as a potential source of that “Fun.” You set your own goals – become the new Mountainhome, subjugate your neighbors, or just have the happiest dwarves in the world, among many other possibilities.

Sometimes a good day is seeing one of your dwarves likes frogs, then making them frog statues.

One of my favorite game challenges to build around comes when you open up the large, subterranean caverns beneath the earth, home to creatures like giant white crocodiles, impish crundles, or pale, blind cave ogres. Opening caves then attracts wandering monster-slaying adventurers who will petition to live in your fort so they can explore the depths, which means you’ll probably want to build… a really cool tavern, complete with staff and bards. All adventurers need a tavern, after all.

I love to read the combat logs of slayers against monsters. Though the most complex battles in Dwarf Fortress may look like two swarms of blinking sprites smashing into each other on the surface, diving into the details of what’s happening both during and after a fight is great. Spears get stuck in bone, limbs are severed, and wounded warriors slip in puddles of their own blood. Desperate fights come down to unarmed struggle, with one side choking the life out of the other.

This struggle really means a lot once you get to know the characters in question, by both directing and learning about their lives. Sometimes a good day in Dwarf Fortress is fighting off a dragon attack. Sometimes it’s seeing that one of your dwarves likes frogs, and then making some frog statues for their bedroom.

Peak Performance

Of course, many of the places where the new version of this vast and beautiful game has flaws are the same as they have been for years. For instance, so much is going on at any given time that performance inevitably suffers as maps grow in size and complexity. The latest version runs smoother than ever, but can slow to a low-FPS crawl when large crowds of characters or creatures show up unexpectedly. Setting high limits and building ever-larger fortresses will inevitably bring what the community calls FPS Death, with forts of more than 200 dwarves becoming unsustainable on any but the beefiest PCs. As always, generating smaller background worlds and picking smaller fortress sites helps – as does stuff like making sure your dwarves throw their dirty socks into a magma-based disposal system to reduce the number of objects that must be tracked in the world.

That comes back to the interface, which makes a heroic effort but still struggles to contain the sheer volume of content that Dwarf Fortress contains right off the bat, let alone what it generates during play. Just like its performance, this newest version is leaps and bounds better than its predecessors, but the usability is still limited by your patience with learning where any given piece of information is kept. Dwarves alone have a dozen tabs and subtabs in their information panel, and a single game tile can contain multiple objects to be clicked on and have their descriptions read.

That does mean it’s much easier to do many things, though. Managing dwarf labors and preferences – like what to do with their trash, what goods to stock at the trade depot, or how many people are on the mining detail – comes down to either a simple checkbox system or categorized lists that have a rudimentary search or sort. But it can still get overwhelmed fast by lots of items, and lacks some basic UI comforts like hotkeys for moving items to the top or bottom of lists. It’s not very fun to click a bunch of specific items, all in a row, to trade away. The updated controls are pretty flexible, at least, and let you rebind just about anything. That’s a smart, player-friendly nod to the fact that learning hotkeys and shortcuts will still be important to make any experience playing Dwarf Fortress smooth.

For me, learning where every nugget of information is kept and the fastest way to access it is part of the charm. You can’t love Dwarf Fortress and also complain that it’s too complicated to play – its complexity necessitates its form. In a similar vein, you wouldn’t buy a Porsche or Ferrari and then complain that it requires constant maintenance to reach its potential. Dwarf Fortress is complicated because it is a machine made by two dedicated craftspeople over decades, tuned for precisely one glorious purpose: to generate entire worlds and fill them with endless adventure.