Review: Dwarf Fortress Is Breathtakingly Complex

I’ve always had a certain fascination with Dwarf Fortress. I haven’t played it before now, but I’d always stumble across stories of dwarven madness, or those that dug too deep and paid a hefty price. I always wanted to make a few tales of my own, but admittedly, its complicated systems on top of its ASCII graphics made Dwarf Fortress seem impenetrable. The addition of graphics to replace the ASCII representations does a bit to make Dwarf Fortress feel  more accessible, but there is a intricate array of mechanics to familiarize yourself with if you want to dive deep into Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress is a colony simulation game where you usher a group of dwarves through early settlement, all the way to a spanning kingdom. What makes Dwarf Fortress unique, and legendary, among colony sims is its depth.  Developer Bay 12 Games has aimed to simulate every aspect of existence with Dwarf Fortress, from the needs and desires of one dwarf, to the entire world that the dwarves inhabit.  It’s a pretty big deal, and served as inspiration for many colony sims like Rimworld.

Screenshot: Dwarf Fortress

While Dwarf Fortress has a shiny new pixel graphic exterior, its inner workings are the Dwarf Fortress you might know and love. Personally, I’ve tried to get into Dwarf Fortress on a few separate occasions, and I found this release to be the perfect way to get my foot in the door. It has a tutorial that explains the mechanics just enough to get you started—but you’ll have to rely on internet guides to answer questions about some of the mechanics. While I’d like to say I knew what I was doing, even after a few dozen hours, I felt like I was learning new things and better ways to do things.

And the things you can do in Dwarf Fortress are surprisingly expansive. You can create a society dedicated to created items, waging war, or delving as deep as you can into the core of the world—and everything in between. But it’s not only what’s possible in Dwarf Fortress, but also the crazy events that pop up and force you to deal with them, like terrible forgotten beasts from the deep that may appear if you delve too deep, and too greedily, as dwarves are wont to do.

Screenshot: Dwarf Fortress

To succeed in Dwarf Fortress is really about what your goals are. To create a society full of happy, productive dwarves you have to ensure they have places to rest, food to eat, and water to drink. Dwarves die from monster attacks, accidents, plague, madness, and from the loads of other dangers that can be found in a fantasy mine.  And even if you don’t achieve your goals, losing can be massively fun, and often result in some of the best stories.

I can’t say I recommend Dwarf Fortress to just anyone. But in a way, it transcends the colony sim genre in some ways, mostly because of its insane amount of simulation and generation. Apparently even hot and cold air masses are simulated to create weather.  In new world created has generated poetry and musical instruments that are unique to that world. It’s graphics might not be a huge step from ASCII, but even its pixel art does a lot to help me get into the world of Dwarf Fortress. It’s not just a normal colony sim, it’s a game that’s been 20 years in the making, and its still growing with a massive community of enthusiasts behind it. Dwarf Fortress is one of the most important video games ever made, and this Steam release is a great excuse to check it out for yourself.

Dwarf Fortress releases today on Steam.

A Steam key was provided to us for this review

Antal Bokor
Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian.
He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.

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