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Learning to love Dwarf Fortress, gaming's deepest simulation

When it comes to 4X, the first two x are the best x, aren’t they? The peeling away of mystery, the bringing of light to the world – rolling back the fog of war to expose terrain, neighbours and sweet, sweet resources. Adventure, discovery, the era of Magellan rather than Cortes: this is what drives me to the genre again and again. It’s why I’ve started thousands more games of Civilisation than I’ve ever finished, why so many games of Endless Legend are left to digitally moulder: I am a scout, not an administrator, a Lewis and Clark, rather than Pricewaterhouse Cooper. The fine print exhausts me.

But…Dwarf Fortress. A game of almost pure administration. A game of such Byzantine complexity that, after ten years of incremental releases and updates, the number of people who really, completely understand it is negligible. A game which is definitely 4X, but in which the last X is impossible. There is no win condition, no end game – the only way out is through death or abandonment. A game in which it’s all you can do to try and fly as high as you can before your wings catch fire and the death spiral takes hold. A game I have played obsessively for nearly a decade and am still terrible at.


See? Easy.

I love it. Dwarf Fortress is ugly and hard and broken and unfair and I honestly think it might be one of the most important games ever made.

Perhaps I am ahead of myself. Let’s roll it back a bit.

What is Dwarf Fortress?

Dwarf Fortress is essentially a game about making a house for some dwarfs. (At least in the game’s main mode, but more on that later). It’s completely free, relying on voluntary donations for all monetisation, and has been since the first alpha was released in 2006. It’s also built almost in its entirety by one person: Tarn Adams, with his brother Zach pitching in occasionally. The current version of the game, 0.43.05, is so named because Adams sees it as 43 per cent complete – not even half way through the ever growing list of 2600 features he’s adding. It’s very much a magnum opus.

At its heart, DF is a management sim with a rogue-like twist. Taking control of a small expedition of dwarfs (seven, naturally), the player picks a spot, packs their kit and sets out to dig a hole containing maximum gold and minimum hideous monsters. They build an economy, repel invaders, trade with locals. It’s just like Sim-City, or Theme Hospital or XCOM or Dungeon Keeper, or Civ. Except it’s like all of them. In one game. With a UI made for calculators by cold-war era NASA.

Everything in DF is absurdly over complicated, which is exactly why people love it. Starting a game goes like this.

  • Set up the parameters for world generation
  • Generate the world

Annnnnnnddddd, let’s just pause there a moment.

Parameters are pretty easy. Set a planet’s age, climate, topography, its mineral richness, how stabby it’s likely to be. All the notes God made on the back of a phone bill on the morning of day one.