Dwarf Fortress – A Rundown

An Overview on Striking the Earth!

Dwarf Fortress is an outrageous “story generator” created by one guy that has some serious mathematical ability. It’s hard to even say if it’s a game; it’s more like a detailed simulator of truly epic proportions. Dwarf Fortress is one of the original sandbox games with survival elements, with probably the most complicated system of mechanics of any game on the market. Minecraft, Terraria, Rimworld, and the like all owe much of their inspiration to Dwarf Fortress. If you enjoy those games in a neurotic fashion, there’s a chance Dwarf Fortress just might be the game you need that you didn’t know existed.

Oh yeah, it’s not done. It’s been in production for over 10 years and will continue to be for “at least another 20” according to it’s developer, Toady One. Dwarf Fortress is a testament to how far an idea can go if it’s fueled by obsession. Though still in Alpha, the game is completely playable and free. There’s also a wiki that is more or less a necessity if you want to learn to play, as well as a fanatical, intelligent, and friendly community of gamers who help one another and share outrageous stories from the game. The reddit is active and helpful, as well.

What It Is

It’s extremely difficult to try to explain what DF is or whether not a person is going to like it. At its core it’s a simulation with two different game types. On one hand, you can be an adventurer that marches through a randomly-generated world and completes procedurally created quests. Every conversation you have with a villager is created organically through a complex series of algorithms, meaning you’ll never see the same NPC or have the same conversation in two different games. Every person, elf, titan, creature, and dwarf has its own unique personality, a family tree, thoughts and preferences, and even life goals.

The second game type is the one I am actually most familiar with. It’s called “Fortress Mode.” You take a band of seven dwarves (get it?) into the wilderness and build what will hopefully be a functioning society complete with a trade system, a social hierarchy, sleeping quarters, an industrial sector, a temple, and so much more. The dwarves each have their own personality, just like in adventure mode, and it’s your job as the overseer (or dictator) to create a society in which they can live at least relatively happily. Otherwise you may get an angry dwarf tantrum that destroys half your industrial sector, kills several children, and offs the cats that are keeping your vermin problem in check. Disaster follows.

This is a shockingly violent video game. It’s not uncommon to have teeth flying, guts chopped out, pierced livers, sliced arteries, bruised muscles, lopped-off body parts, etc. show up on the combat log. None of this is directly pictured in the game, meaning your imagination gets to fill in the grisly blanks.

The ASCII’s Worth 1,000 Words

Actually, overall, graphics are… non-existent. Do you remember those green squigglies that the technicians read in the Matrix? Well, Dwarf Fortress is basically like trying to read those squigglies. At first it’s baffling, but before long you don’t even see the squigglies anymore. You just see your dwarves, your dogs, that Goblin siege that will probably spell the end of the fortress, and that dragon made of leprous, disease-spreading dust you inadvertently released from some ancient cave deep in the mountain.

Balancing the extreme stress of living underground, fighting horrible creatures, and drinking cask after cask of booze is a primary managerial concern. Dwarves are appeased by nice things. If your craftsdwarf builds a great chair, any dwarf that gets to use it in the dining hall will get happy thoughts. Conversely, walking through a purple cloud of stink emanating from a corpse in the hallway will cause unhappy thoughts, especially if it’s the corpse of a friend of the dwarf who finds it.

Each dwarf has a stress level. Once it tips too far to the wrong side, the dwarf will snap and cause all sorts of problems until your guards or whoever is around manages to bring them down. They may also just enter into a deep depression and stop eating and starve. Or they might jump off a bridge. Or they may take a swim in the magma. Or they may kill their mother, her new boyfriend (“YOU’RE NOT MY DAD!”), and two or three guards. It’s up to them, and a particularly strong dwarf with a low tolerance for stress will more often than not destroy the entire fortress from the inside out. It’s pretty funny (heartbreaking?) to watch.

You’re the overseer, but you can’t really command your dorfs to do anything specific. You just have to give suggestions to, say, dig out a safe place in the mountain in order to escape the zombie eagles and flesh melting rain in the haunted forest to which your queen sent you. Then you unpause the game and watch how your little guys try to make that happen. Sometimes they just kind of ignore you and go to that party Urist McLazyDwarf happened to organize at the supply wagon. This can result in some frustration, but you eventually get used to what you’re working with.

Oh, also, they are all hardcore alcoholics. That can obviously only help things.

A Losing Battle – But Losing is Fun!

Balancing food and alcohol production is a major part of the game. If you don’t get your stills up and running, you will soon run out of booze. That’s when things get really bad, because dwarves need “alcohol to get through the work day.” Withdrawal sets in, tantrums start, babies die. We mostly try to avoid this.

If you can get past the learning curve and can figure out how to decode the graphics, Dwarf Fortress offers one of the most unique experiences in all of gaming history. Literally anything can happen. Ever see a cyclops beat a werebeaver to death with a silk shoe? Or a dog give birth while it fights a pack of goblins? Or a fortress flood because of a minor miscalculation in water pressure? Oh, these things will happen.

You will lose. You will lose a lot. You’ll flood your fortress. You’ll come across zombie elk that won’t stay dead. You’ll watch your starving dwarves lose their minds and beat each other to death. There will be horrific mining accidents that kill your best craftsman and farmers. Things WILL spiral out of control. That’s why the motto of Dwarf Fortress is “losing is fun.”

It’s true! Having a happy, healthy fortress is kind of boring compared to watching sheer, utter madness unfold on the screen in front of you.

Dwarf Fortress is the game for micromanagers, cerebral daydreamers, creative sandboxers, challenge-seekers, and engineers that have always wanted to build a computer run on dwarven power. It is not a game for those looking for a casual experience, simple gameplay, graphical prowess, or general playability. Just learning to play the game is something most gamers won’t bother to do. But it’s worth it.


If you’re looking for the ultimate management/survival simulator where you can truly do anything without restriction, grab Dwarf Fortress and start googling beginner’s guides. This is a game made with love, with frequent updates and incredibly complex systems. It will literally change the way you think about simulation gaming. You will almost certainly be unable to learn how to play Dwarf Fortress without the Wiki, so you might as well have that open all the time.

Happy dwarfing, and good luck!