Dwarf Fortress: The Epic Fantasy Game That Will Blow Your Mind

Colony building games have been capturing the imaginations of gamers for years. Games such as Warcraft, SimCity, Age of Empires, Rimworld, Cities: Skylines, Settlement Survival, and hundreds more have tasked players with building a colony, city, or empire and eventually achieving some specific goal, whether that be related to worldbuilding or to gathering an army strong enough to destroy a neighboring enemy. And one of the oldest and arguably most important games in the genre, Dwarf Fortress, has seen a widespread boost in attention recently, thanks to a revamped graphics engine and its first-ever listing on Steam. In Dwarf Fortress, there are no main objectives and no win conditions. In fact, finding out all the fantastic ways you can fail is what the fun is all about.

What is Dwarf Fortress? 

Dwarf Fortress is a highly complex colony simulator game that was started as a hobby by a development team of two brothers: Tarn Adams and Zach Adams. The gameplay premise is simple: keep your group of dwarves alive as you expand your underground base, mining deep into the subterranean world. Although it may sound straightforward, it is most definitely anything but, thanks to the complexity of the game’s mechanics and the vastness of the world. The game has been in active development for 20 years, during which time new features, ideas, and improvements have been continuously added to it, and its historic influence can be seen in many of today’s popular titles. Until recently, the game had never been offered for sale—it had always been free, with development supported by fan donations and a Patreon page, which had been consistently drawing in monthly contributions of $8,000 to $10,000. But Dwarf Fortress’s development took a drastic turn in December 2022, when a new and improved, paid version of the game was released on Steam.

Why is a game made decades ago suddenly popular now?

Despite being in development for so long, the classic Dwarf Fortress never reached mainstream adoption. For several reasons, the game had really only been playable by the most diehard of fans, primarily because of how complicated its interface was but also because it had a very basic graphics system—the classic version of the game is displayed and run using entirely ASCII characters.

The premium Dwarf Fortress on Steam features a dozen game-changing improvements that make it far more accessible to a wider audience, not least of which is a revamp of the graphics engine, bringing color and life to what was previously a text-heavy experience. 

About Dwarf Fortress

Before you even start a game of Dwarf Fortress, you have to generate a world and that world’s history. You have to decide the size of the land, how abundant the resources are, and how ferocious and inhospitable the world is. A lore is generated with heroes, monsters, legendary artifacts, and civilizations spanning hundreds of years. All these rules and selections affect you, your dwarfs, and how hard things will be for you.

Unlike other colony building games, in Dwarf Fortress, you have very limited control over each individual dwarf in your colony. You designate specific tasks to be performed, but the decision to actually perform any task is up to each dwarf. It is common for dwarves to carry out their tasks, but they may also choose to eat, sleep, socialize, create art, or run away from a ghost instead. This can become problematic when it comes to building objects, as multiple steps are involved. For example, to build a chair, you will need to somehow get a dwarf to chop down a tree, then construct a carpenter's workshop, and finally make the chair, and at each step along the way something could go wrong.

Task categories that can be assigned include ​stoneworking, woodworking, metalworking, farming, crafting, leatherworking, butchery, clothes making, gem cutting, glassmaking, pottery, and combat training. Dwarves can be assigned any labor, but their work depends on their relative skill with it, which increases as they perform related tasks.

Building a functioning fortress (and society) is a worthy aim; however, that is far easier said than done. The range of things that can go wrong is vast, and with no real end goal, Dwarf Fortress rewards players by presenting them with ever more ridiculous ways to fail. Here are some examples of how one player’s fortresses failed one after the other:

  • The player’s fortress collapsed within days because, immediately upon arriving, the only dwarf with a pickaxe got beaten to death by a gorilla. 
  • Another fortress failed when the brewer stopped working while being haunted by a ghost—the ghost of someone who fell into a river and whose body the player could not lay to rest. 
  • One fortress failed when everyone died of dehydration because the player could not build a well. The well could not be built because a monkey had snuck into the fortress and stolen all the rope. 
  • Another fortress never got beds because the carpenter’s pet duck had gotten stuck in a tree, and the carpenter had waited at the base of said tree until she died of dehydration.

Steam version vs ASCII version

The ASCII version of Dwarf Fortress will still be available for free on the Bay12 website, whereas the premium version is available on Steam. This will basically be the same game, but the Steam version will have:

  • A built-in tileset/graphics 
  • More music tracks 
  • Mouse input 
  • Steam integration (e.g., workshop, and later achievements)

You will also be able to play with ASCII using the Steam version by disabling the graphics/tileset, although why you would want to do this is unclear, as the revised graphical interface makes gameplay far easier. The Steam version is basically like a Minecraft texture pack.

Other recent improvements to the game (both the Steam and the free ASCII versions) include the following:

  • A user-friendly tutorial. 
  • Menus make more sense, having been rearranged to be more logical and accessible. 
  • Keyboard shortcuts also now make more sense. 
  • Controlling labor and skills is different. The labor window has been made smaller, and it is easier to issue instructions. 
  • Logs and announcements have been removed to simplify gameplay. Popup alerts notify players of events as they occur, but once announcements are read, they cannot be reread later, because the information is not saved.

Should you try this game on Steam?

Anyone who has wanted to try the infamous difficulty of Dwarf Fortress but has always been intimidated by the user interface or steep learning curve will find this new version a blessing. And players getting started can take full advantage of the guidance available on the Dwarf Fortress wiki. We think it is worth trying out a game that has unlimited worlds, wild emergent stories, and epic failures just waiting to be discovered.

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.

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