Dwarf Fortress

A Game from a Parallel (and Better?) Universe

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System Requirements:
Windows 98+/ 128MB RAM
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Dwarf Fortress is an amazing game. I mean "amazing" at the level of Sim City and Civilization, as amazing to encounter today as they were when first released. I'm not sure I can offer higher praise.

And yet--it is also frustratingly difficult to get into, and utterly obtuse in terms of its UI.

Dwarf Fortress is a game from an alternate universe. Clearly, no one in his right mind would have created it in our own. I deduce this from its main characteristics, and I think can very clearly describe the alternative universe it came from--let us call it "Earth B."

In Earth B, there never was a revolution in computer graphics, all games are ASCII; and VGA was never invented.

In Earth B, Moore's Law has progressed just as it has in our own, so that most computers now have multi-gigahertz processors.

In Earth B, computer games have existed since the inception of the computer revolution, as on our own world; but lacking the need to spend the vast bulk of their processing power pushing pixels to display pretty images on the screen, game developers have instead harnessed their power to produce incredibly detailed and sophisticated simulations that are presented to the players thereof entirely in ASCII.

In Earth B, Crawford's 1980s claim that "process intensity" rather than "data intensity" was the future of games has been brought to fruition, and Dwarf Fortress is an example--this little 5 megabyte application spends tens of minutes of processing time building the world you play in, rejecting multiple worlds as not being sufficiently balanced to play effectively -- and consuming virtually all of the cycles of your modern, high-end device as it does so, as you can readily see by how slowly other open applications respond while it's world-building -- even though all it's doing is processing, not throwing polygons onto the screen.

So far so exciting, but Earth B has its problems as well. On Earth B, possibly because graphics never evolved as they have on our world, there don't appear to be any common interface conventions. HCI and UCD have never evolved, and every application has its own bizarre interface. Moreover, computer games are apparently still limited to a small audience of enthusiastic, highly intelligent computer geeks for whom no learning curve is too steep. This game doesn't have a steep learning curve; this game throws you against a cliff that you must navigate with the expertise of a seasoned rock climber. Don't even try to play this game without first reading "Your First Fortress" on dwarffortresswiki.net (yes, its fans are so fanatic they've put together a wiki on how to play).

So... What is it?

Dwarf Fortress is a sandbox-style sim game in which you control a party of dwarves in a fantasy world, working to build a new dwarven settlement. Starting with seven people and a handful of supplies, your job is to build a dwarven city, attracting new immigrants and growing through your own internal birthrate. There's no win condition, but it's damned easy to lose--either through bad management, or through any of the various disasters that can easily happen to you, from goblin conquest to flooding of your fortress.

One of the game's slogans, in fact, is "It's fun to lose" "Losing is fun." And you'd better adopt that attitude, since you will, often.

Let's start with the world. Dwarf Fortress generates a huge world, complete with terrain, continents, and bodies of water. It generates it in 3D too--not "3D" as in "here's a mountain," but 3D as in "we track everything in this world not just at the surface, but at many levels below it as well"--reasonably, since your dwarves, and you will be building mainly underground, and your success depends not only what's on the surface, but on what lies below it too. "Jungle at the top" is only one datum, but "silver ore at level 6" may be more important.

It populates that world with a variety of civilizations you may encounter during play, including goblins and humans. Goblins seem to be innately hostile, but humans you can co-exist with, if you're careful.

Initial play is much like playing an RTS; your basic resources are stone (of many different varieties) and wood (ditto), which you get by mining or cutting timber. Your immediate task is to build an infrastructure that can keep your dwarves in decent comfort: places to store resources and the things you build from them, a barracks, workshops for the essentials (like a carpentry workshop to make beds, and a mason's workshop to build stone doors and tables), a dining hall. Then you'll need to build something to generate food, which is non-trivial; dwarves farm underground, and you need to have a way to irrigate your underground farms from nearby bodies of water. And of course dwarves can survive on water, but it doesn't make them happy; to keep your population satisfied, you need to start making beer right quick.

Every dwarf's skills and characteristics are tracked individually, and having the right mix of skills at game start is critical; the game allows you to micromanage at fair detail, including excluding some dwarves with more critical skills from the toting and lugging activity that winds up being a lot of the work they need to do. But later on, you won't have the time or inclination to micromanage--it feels a bit like Masters of Orion in both its offer of the ability to micromanage and its "bait-and-switch" that says "but you don't want to."

You never give orders to individual dwarves, however; instead, you establish tasks you want done, and hope that the AI's priorities relate to your own at least somewhat, and if not, look for ways to take less-vital tasks out of the queue.

Traders show up at your fortress entrance, often with vital things to offer, and you really need to build the infrastructure to produce trade goods for the things you need; other civilizations discover you, and more likely than not, try to crush you like a bug, and if you haven't built your fortress with defensible choke points and lots of traps, and haven't invested in arms and armor and military skills, well, perhaps your ancestors will welcome you in Valhalla, but in "this" world, you'll likely be restarting from scratch.

Contrariwise, if you're doing extremely well, you can try your hand at exterminating the evil goblin scum yourself.

Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto do a good job of creating the sense that there's a living world that goes on beyond what you see on the screen, that you're a mere part of a world with a life of its own? Yes, they do. But so does this bizarre little pure-ASCII title with its own fanatic following. I've barely scratched the surface of the detail and complexity it offers, in fact.

Someone should take this game, surgically attach some serious UI gurus to the hips of the developers, introduce them to the concept of a tutorial, plow in fifteen million bucks, and...


And, oh well, increase the audience for this game by an order of magnitude, and probably still lose their shirt. The mass audience still wants eye candy over gameplay.

So let Dwarf Fortress be what it is, then; a cult classic, a game that challenges its players to master its abstruse (nay, obtuse) interface and its difficult learning curve, holding out pleasures that only an elite few will ever experience, but in doing so, pointing to a type of gameplay that one can imagine as utterly dominant in some alternate universe, where clever use of processing power, and not processor-intensive graphic gimmickry, is the dominant aesthetic among those who prize games.


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Dwarf Fortress

Overall an insightful writeup, although there are a few things to take issue with.

It is misleading to state that you "control" your dwarves, for one thing. There is no direct manipulation of anyone. You can assign tasks, but the dwarves decide who does them. You can define stockpiles for different types of stuff, but the dwarves do the carrying, and decide who does it, and which objects precisely go into them. You can go so far as lock doors, but nothing the player can do can force a dwarf to take a step he doesn't want to take.

The UI is challenging, and inconsistent in places. There is a help screen, but it takes up serious real estate and people won't want to turn it off for many games. This is a problem, but it's shown itself to be something less of one than expected. A lot of the effort of developing of a game, really, goes into UI, which is an art convoluted enough that there's an entire genre of programming software dedicated to letting developers draw their interfaces using quasi-drawing tools instead of coding them from scratch. To attach a detailed UI to Dwarf Fortress would be to severely slow its development. A game like DF -cannot- be developed in the manner it has, which requires a lot of energy both physical and mental from a single programmer, in a way that's loaded with work that's petty and unintersting to him. Of course, Toady One can't entirely escape the blame: he's refused to open the software so other programmers could supply the features he doesn't want to implement. He refuses to open it precisely for the reason that it'd make development less interesting to him, though.

Perhaps the biggest thing the writeup is missing is the ethic of not just experiencing a world generated by the computer, but in participating in its development. When the player loses, his abandoned fortresses are saved to the world files and can be either reclaimed by other parties of dwarves or explored in a special Adventure mode. The game recognizes that the act of play, while entertaining, -is also a form of work-, and harnesses that work to provide further playfields for other game modes, an idea that's been little explored in game development outside of Nethack's bones levels.

I've tried

I've tried to play DF before, and as much fun as it sounds, the obtuseness of the interface was a barrier to entry. I might try one more time, but if it doesn't work out, I don't think I will try again.

It's actually kind of sad really. I think that with a halfway decent GUI this could easily become one of the most popular games of all time. The seeming unwillingness of the developers to make a GUI, and the love of the ASCII by the existing player community I think does them both a disservice. Though, there is no doubt ASCII does have its charm.

It's still in ALPHA!

I'm not posting this to say "the interface is fine, get over it," because it is really obtuse. But what makes me excited about the game is that, as of now, it has an amazing amount of detail and depth, and it's still only an ALPHA RELEASE! It's version .27! Meaning it has the potential to be 3 times as deep in the future. The UI will be improved, I think, once the features are done being added, but to spend a lot of time on the UI would mean not spending time on the features and then having to redo everything anytime a new feature is added on.

Seriously, this is one of my current favorite games AND one of the games I'm most excited about for the future.

DF is a fun game and one of

DF is a fun game and one of the sources of my favorite quotes: "Elephants are like big, wrinkly ninjas." It does have a rather steep learning curve, not the type of game you'll figure out everything in a couple of hours... um weeks? But, there is definitely a depth to the game that is impressive.

It's "losing is fun"

I am one of the "enthusiastic highly intelligent computer geeks" who play this game. Though everything but the enthusiastic is probably completely wrong. All I wanted to say is that your misquoting of the motto makes me cry on the inside.


A game like DF -cannot- be developed in the manner it has, which requires a lot of energy both physical and mental from a single programmer, in a way that's loaded with work that's petty and unintersting to him.

This view seems overly pessimistic to me. The game may not be coming along quickly, but there *has* been obvious, steady progress. A major interface redesign is also apparently in the works:



The seeming unwillingness of the developers to make a GUI, and the love of the ASCII by the existing player community I think does them both a disservice.

From what I hear, one of the upcoming features is to allow graphic sets for things other than creatures.

You've summed up many of my thoughts

I've never gotten very far with Dwarf Fortress, but I do really admire it. The UI is awful, and my patience is not what it used to be (I don't have the time I used to). But what a concept.

Maybe I'll give it another go this weekend.

Oh god I'm so addicted

I'm not even that hardcore, but the first night I played this, I must've started at 10 PM and then when I looked up again it was FOUR IN THE MORNING. I love this game so much--it's fantastically deep and interesting once you figure out the UI.

Also, the "Your First Fortress" link helped a lot, thanks. <3

Good to see Dwarf Fortress

Good to see Dwarf Fortress listed at Manifesto.

I'm sure that when/if the interface is made comprehensible and easy to use, and when/if its overall presentation is made more aesthetically pleasing, Dwarf Fortress would rapidly transcend its cult status. It so deserves a larger following than it has.

As it is, few gamers --very few, almost nobody-- I know would put up with it, which seems a shame until you recall first grappling with it yourself! ; )

Earth B would not have

Earth B would not have Microsoft Windows and as a result Dwarf Fortress could not exist on Earth B. Creating an ASCII graphics game that only works on a GUI OS is a dazzlingly bizarre design decision.

There are graphic sets of DF

you can get a version of DF with graphic sets here - makes it a bit easier to tell what things are.


ASCII ain't the problem

You can have a great interface that is still keyboard and ASCII based. The DF interface really is awful. It wouldn't bother me so much but there is a fantastic game lurking behind it.

UI Challenge

There is in fact a very good reason for not having a good UI yet.
The game -isn't finished-. You can't design a UI around features that haven't been /implemented yet/ or even /designed/. There are parts of the game required for release that haven't even been coded yet, and exactly how they're going to be added is still unknown, but they're going to have to be tacked into the UI.
Where would you put the Siege Enemy Civilization screen? Where would you put the Lighting Fixture? How would YOU handle all these unknowns to manage everything from picking up a sword to changing a light bulb to automatically chasming refuse to flooding the world with magma? And the way you do these things mutates with every tweak of the game engine so what was once intuitive now is completel inapplicable.
There's no point making the UI shiny if it's going to explode into !!cat spleen!! the moment you try to continue development and block off the feature the developer is trying to add.
The game is an UNFINISHED ALPHA version. I imagine by the time the game is ready for BETA it will have a decent interface. Right now though, it's more important to get the gameplay elements in.
"The interface is coming - it's not coming in your lifetime, but it's coming." -- Toady One

Sleepless nights

As it's now clear that this game is a big piece of coded awesomeness, I'd rather talk about that criticised UI.
I never thought it was that hard to get through. Of course, if you never played something apart from console FPS's, it'll prove difficult to adapt to that, but as I played some rogue likes before, I was kind of used to use the keyboard and the keyboard only.
When I think back to all the hours I spent on this game, the think that comes to my mind is "fun" rather than "hard to handle" or even "difficulty".
The game is still getting deeper and deeper as Tarn Adams keeps putting features into it, so don't worry, it's going to be even more obtuse very soon !

dwarf fortress tutorial videos..

There's a serie of video tutorials for Dwarf fortress on youtube.

So far, 18x 10-minute videos giving precise info on how to start your first citadel and traps to avoid.
Very very interesting.

For those who snub ASCII,

For those who snub ASCII, there just came out a graphical update that gives it a nice, albeit isometric, 16-bit update called stonesense.


I haven't given this game a proper go, but this gives me more reason to do so. I just scored a copy of Civ II and System Shock II, so I won't be needing any new games anytime soon. Once I free some time up (give me a year or so) I'll definitely give this a shot. Hopefully the UI will get the next booster shot.

Much easier to grasp with a tile-set

Possibly top 5 best game ever (as an ALPHA!), and only going to get better.

For those out there totally overwhelmed by the UI and ASCII graphics, updating to a user made graphical tile-set will go a LONG way in decreasing the learning curve for you. Much, much easier to grasp and little easier on the eyes to boot.

It's listed on the DF wiki, but to expedite things for you, go here for an excellent pre-installed grapic/tile-set. You won't be disappointed.

A bit more than a quick "You should play, Yo."

I am a 35 year old gamer - one of those guys who recalls the shiny Commodore 64c he got for Christmas as a kid with great fondness. I've been playing video games since before they had backstories (not quite as far back as pong, but close). I have grown so disillusioned with what THE FUTURE holds. For example:

This entire site is dedicated to showcasing the truly innovative (at least as far as I see it), but the problem with innovation is that no one knows what to do with it. The games they make simply aren't that great without their innovation, I'm sorry but they just aren't. Their not BAD at all, but they're certainly not anything special. I played Braid...yeah neat, but no better a game than Ultima I, or Battleship; it just presents itself in a way we haven't seen before, and for that we raise the hooplah flag, but it's really just a platformer with some surreal adventure text. You can read the Portal review to get a feel for what I mean here, if you need to, anyway...

THE FUTURE! Gamers always talk to me about what THE FUTURE must be like...years ago the FUTURE game they described was EQ, er....WoW....hell whatever, an MMORPG. They used to hope that in the future we could play a real alternate life where everything was do-able....any world we can imagine.

Yeah, that was a great dream, and it came true. We got WoW, EQ, SWG, STO, City of Heroes, etc. Tons of alternate worlds we can explore and adventure in with our friends. WoW's great, don't get me wrong...but it isn't exactly what we thought it would be. It's...finite. They all are...all MMOs...all games.

The real deal is simply that we're humans and so the new got old. Just like every other thing that we will ever encounter as a species. We will never be satisfied, and I know that now. But we DO still crave the next thing, don't we? Open world games were it for a bit there, right? But now they're all the same, too.

All the MMOs are the same, just different details, same goes for FPSs, RTSs, TBSs, and every other acronym you can snap a game into. If they don't fit, then it's only because they've found something innovative and it sets them apart, but if you take away that innovation, they all fit neatly into place just like the rest.

So you probably want someone to take a ton of these innovations and make you a neat-ass new kind of game, right? Same as everyone - you want the next thing...it's been too damned long in coming, it's WAY overdue. And you know I'm here to tell you that Dawrf Fortress is it!

Well, Dwarf Fortress is not it. It's a game that, at its core, resembles Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius...a take-a-map-and-build-a-base-and-manage-my-peeps-while-making-money-and-defending-from-bad-guys type game. You've seen them. They're nothing special.

Except - it is special. Please take that simple thing from this disillusioned old-school gamer who can't stand paying good money for the same game in a new shell month in and month out. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of Dwarf Fortress fanatic. I still play GTAIII and Saint's Row. I play Rock Band 2. I just bought CoD:Modern Warfare 2 just like everybody else, and I'm still looking forward to what Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2 have to offer me, just like everybody else.) I promise you that even though I'm not fond of the fact that Dwarf Fortress has no clear end goals (making it a super neat toy, rather than a game), if you can just watch the videos and give the game a good 5 or six hours of your time to play around with and see what's possible, Dwarf Fortress will sneak its way into your standby list. You will play for a time, maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks, a year...who knows...but then you will put it away and not think of it until one day you do, and damn it if it won't just be one of those games...you'll just have to pull the thing out and throw a world together and build yourself up an amazing 'completely freeform' dwarven (well, whatever...mine, kingdom, lair, citidel, forest village, whatever you like).

If you take my advice, and check it out...bookmark the wiki, and know that it is your friend. Also definitely look into the tilesets that folks here are referring to, they make the game a hundred times easier on the eyes.

Okay, my plea is done, but if I can even persuade 10 people to investigate this game with serious determination, then I know that 10 people will fall in love with its potential and forge some great stories of their dwarven civilizations.


PS: Obviously, I'm terribly sorry for writing a book, but here's an epilogue :) For anyone who tries it and feels too overwhelmed and confused and doesn't think they can get into it,...do what I did. Start watching all the videos on the wiki...the big tutorial set of like 20 or so, and by the time you get to video 5 or 6, you should be really eager to dive in and play. That's the kind of fire you need to last you through the learning curve.

Dwarf Fortress Learning Curve

Just as long as you listen to the tutorial and help manual, you can have A LOT of fun in DF; DF is very fun. What you should be aware of is that, although the learning curve maybe harsh, games with this much content are bound to be difficult and confusing.

Once you get the jist it's going to be well worth it, trust me. I played this game for a month now and it's as addicting as HELL.

Read DF Stories and play

Yes, the game is quite complex, but it is worth a try. You can read stories on www.dfst.org and see this.