Monday, 21 May 2012

Roguelike Review: Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress - Ground Level
Dwarf Fortress(DF) is an epic(understatement) city building and dwarven life simulation roguelike created by Toady One and the people at Bay12Games. The game puts you in charge of managing, building and exploring a new dwarven fortress. The fortress' success depends on the player's choices, and one wrong move could see every dwarf under your supervision killed. Can you build a fortress to withstand nature, goblin invasion, epic monsters and the depths of dwarven depression?

Before the game begins, world generation takes place. Random generation, based on user selection, allows for both small and massive worlds to be created. Procedural generation creates a unique world of ice and fire, and everything in between. Over a period of time, random events are generated across the world, giving life to the newly created world. After world generation, players can choose a tiny section of the world to begin a new life, a new dwarven fortress.

Choosing the correct starting location is very important. Location, location, location! In real life, and in DF, location is critical; locations in DF can be pro or anti-survival. Fresh water, extensive lumber, decent metal ore and non-threatening wildlife should make life easier for the new player. Experts can choose haunted or terrifying areas that are poor in natural resources and feature hostile, undead wildlife. My last playthrough featured a glacier with three aquifer levels of undrinkable salt water separating my dwarfs from their precious stone bedrock. Real world geography is deeply represented in DF. If you know what kind of stone and metals are found in sedimentary layers of earth, you should be right at home.

You play as Snow White with seven dwarfs, no you don't, but seven hardy, booze-fueled dwarfs are your initial party of settlers. Before embarkation to your chosen land, customisation of skills and starting supplies allows you to tailor your expedition; poorly chosen skills and supplies can make life challenging or even fatal. If you are new to DF, I highly recommend reading a starting guide on DF's wiki; there is a lot of information to digest and players can be easily overwhelmed. There are numerous learn-to-play and tutorial videos on YouTube that can show you the ropes too.

The game starts with an overhead view of your location, seven dwarfs, a wagon of supplies and any animals you decided to start with. You should become familiar with the surrounding land and command list on the right-hand side of the screen; the command list is how you control your dwarven cohort's actions. Mining down or into a cliff face is a good start when constructing any fortress. Moving your dwarfs and property underground provides both safety and security. After unpacking and settling your dwarfs into their new home, you need to think about long term survival, security and fortress expansion.

As the seasons role past, events will start to trigger: trade wagons, roaming herds of animals, goblin invaders or even a mega-beast (dragon, titan or tentacle monster) might come to pay you a visit. DF pushes you into creating a sustainable and well secured fortress. Trenches, traps, bridges, magma, water, dwarven men-at-arms, defensive design and much more can be utilised to keep your dwarfs safe from unwanted invaders. As each year passes, skilled migrants from your homeland will help grow your fortress and swell your ranks; seven dwarfs can soon turn into hundreds.

Dwarf Fortress - Housing Level
Learning Curve

As the above-right picture shows, DF has a very steep learning curve. Ultimately, the game rewards how much time and effort you spend reading, planing and designing. Dwarfs don't need to be micro-managed all the time and most will go about their daily duties without much hassle. Military action on the other hand does take some time to master; during battle, a new player might find their military units wiped out while an expert wouldn't lose a single dwarf. Experience, proper training and equipment will lead your dwarf armies to victory - dwarfs are built for battle and hardship.

Playing DF can often be humorous, but sometimes quite uncomfortable. You will never forget the first time you butcher a kitten or puppy and you'll be surprised at how mundane butchering cute animals will become in the future. Butchering animals provides precious food, leather and bone. Morality is definitely relative to your situation when playing DF. Dwarfs are created with their own personality and their own likes and dislikes. Dwarfs can become depressed, even suicidal or insane. When tragedy strikes or their favorite drink is out of stock the dwarf psyche will be effected. Depression can spiral out of control and maintaining dwarven happiness is another gameplay element. Happy dwarfs are productive dwarfs.

Depending on your creativity, you may eventually start a mega-structure or project. A massive arena pitting monsters vs goblins, a huge castle or tower, massive water or magma works, mazes, air fortresses and much more. The sky(or your imagination) is the limit on what constructions you want to build. Be careful though, dealing with magma and water can lead to "unexpected consequences" and a magma flooded fort could be game over.

DF is an epic game, its depth is extraordinary, even by roguelike standards, and many hours of joy, laughter and sadness can be experienced playing the game. DF allows you to craft your own tale and personal storytelling is a defining feature. This review barely touches on most of DF's features - there are just too many for a short review. DF still has a few bugs here and there, but nothing game breaking; new features are also added and refined every few months. 

DF is free and available on Windows, Linux and Mac with ASCII tilesets here. Personally, I like using the LazyNewbPack for windows available here. The LazyNewbPack speeds up the time to configure a new game of DF and includes a few popular graphical tilesets.

Strike the earth!


  1. ha ha that picture of the learning curve is so true!

  2. You forgot to mention Adventure Mode as well as Legends Mode! D: I only play Adventure Mode.

  3. I did forget to mention adventure and legend mode. I think DF is enough for one review. I'll probably go back and review those modes later. I might go back and do another rogue survivor review featuring zombie play too.

  4. Toady one... not "Today" one

  5. Thanks, Anon. Updated to Toady.