Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress Review – Old Game, New Face

The venerable management classic is back for a steam release. Is Dwarf Fortress worth getting into in 2022?

Dwarf Fortress on PC

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Dwarf Fortress is an intimidating game. It is a venerable grandfather of an entire genre. Rimworld and many other deep colonist survival sim games owe much of their DNA to this 2002 game. Minecraft holds Dwarf Fortress as an influence. This game was in the Museum of Modern Art for a time as a part of gaming history. It’s also intimidating to play, as its ASCII graphics and hard-to-learn hard-to-master gameplay give even the most hardcore management game enthusiast pause. Now a paid version of the game is releasing on steam with a new updated graphics tileset in an attempt to make the game more accessible.

Like many grandfathers, Dwarf Fortress is stern and serious on the surface. You won’t be learning to master psionic powers or turn your colonists into vampires like with your cool aunt Rimworld. Instead, you will be carefully catering to your dwarves’ evolving needs as your colony increases in size. You’ll be managing storage, logistics, trade, and the demands of your dwarven aristocracy. You’ll have to make sure your fortress is well-fed, supplied with beer, and able to trade with outsiders to fill any potential supply shortfalls. Then you can explore the robust systems of crafting that exist in the game, from paper production so you can make your own libraries to the intricate system for making clothes and other farm products.

There is a steep learning curve that will occasionally require outside guides and wikis to fully get over. So steep a learning curve that I am almost afraid to put up screenshots of my game for fear that someone experienced may point out something I did horribly wrong and I may die of embarrassment.

Dwarf Fortress Screenshot - Fortress Bedrooms
Image Source: Kitfox Games

That isn’t to say that granddad Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have some zany things up his sleeves, but you have to earn them. Most of those zany and wacky things are various terrible ways for all your dwarves to die horribly. It’s best not to dwell on that in this review too much, as part of the fun of Dwarf Fortress is discovering the world organically, but there are a lot of fantastical creatures out there that can take apart your fortress like it’s made from Lego. Perhaps the most common of these, and the least spoilerish, are raiding parties or armies of Goblins.

There are also the more mundane ways for your fortress to fall, like shortages, starvation, or unrest. In the regular day-to-day of your fortress, you are going to see glimpses of these things, like the fin of a shark below water. You may even survive something you think of as impossible, but the idea is that your fortress has a finite shelf life before its doom. Learning from mistakes and failure is a part of Dwarf Fortress.

The ‘point’ of Dwarf Fortress is very much up to you, much more so than even Rimworld. It’s up to you to find your own stories in the life of your fortress and goals for yourself. Goals can be as simple as surviving and expanding your fortress with time. Maybe you want a mighty dwarven realm with a powerful military, or maybe you want to construct the most lavish dwarven fortress possible for your dwarves to live in. Maybe you just feel the overwhelming dwarven urge to dig deep into the earth and make a home there. The Dwarf Fortress wiki has a whole section on things you can do for fun, from construction projects to challenges.

Colony Management games are at their best when you get engrossed in them. Dwarf Fortress masters that in-game flow so well that you feel excited when something goes wrong. It’s not that the day-to-day of your fortress is boring, but when your bubble is pierced and you’re reminded that there’s a whole world out there it makes the whole experience so much more meaningful. You appreciate the day-to-day when something wrong happens, yet yearn for the adventure of something cool happening as you build.

Failure doesn’t feel bad in Dwarf Fortress because it’s part of the story. It also helps that not every disaster is catastrophic. You can sometimes survive something like an unexpected goblin siege. At the same time, when something truly monumentally disastrous happens it feels like you’re in your own personal Ragnarok, the ending of your own mythic saga filled with personalities and legends that will meet a poignant, or at least notable, end. Dwarf Fortress is one of those games that gives itself entirely to the player to make their stories out of, yet doesn’t feel as if it’s forcing you to obsess over each and every dwarf in your fortress.

So if you are sold on the concept of Dwarf Fortress, there are two questions with this new release: Are you going to be able to get into it as a new player, and should you pay for this release if the original is free? These two questions go hand in hand, and I feel well-equipped as someone who never played Dwarf Fortress to answer both questions.

Dwarf Fortress Screenshot - Starting Caravan
Image Source: Kitfox Games

The answer to the former question is a resounding probably. It really depends on your appetite for fairly dry resource management and goods crafting. The graphics do help a Dwarf Fortress layperson get into the game without being completely lost. At a glance, things are much more apparent and visually decipherable. There is a tutorial that will help get you on your feet with your first fortress. None of this will magically make this complex, dry and logistics-heavy game appeal to someone without some experience in the genre. If you’ve played something like Rimworld but found Dwarf Fortress too much, then I would recommend giving it another shot with the paid version. I still had to look up a few things in the Dwarf Fortress wiki despite the in-game tutorial, but that is somewhat inevitable with something as complex as Dwarf Fortress.

Which brings me to the second question, for which I can say also yes. This Steam release is fundamentally worth your money if you couldn’t get into Dwarf Fortress because of its ASCII visuals. Yes, there are free mods that have tilesets that make the game less visually intimidating, but fundamentally they require more fiddling around and research than the Steam version. With the Steam version, you get a tileset with the game, a tutorial, and the steam workshop for mods, all of which make Dwarf Fortress a much more accessible experience.

That tileset is also fundamentally pretty great. It’s reminiscent of the visuals for other retro way-too-in-depth games like Space Station 13. It helps the narrative you want to tell if you can see and visually distinguish your dwarves and helps you have a medium-term goal of making your fortress look nice. The ambient sounds and the soundtrack are also excellent.

There are a few issues with Dwarf Fortress in this release. There are some times when you have to click more than your liking to get something done, most of it has to do with stockpiles and zones which can be a bit of a pain to manage. You also have to click on workshops to make items like beds or weapons, so if your workshops are spread across multiple levels it can be a hassle to cycle through them. The game is also quite long, with not a lot happening for long stretches of time.

These flaws and many other minor nitpicks are baked into the experience, so don’t expect patches to fix all the awkwardness from the game’s UI and controls, but at the same time, they are things you get used to with time. In fact, you should probably plan your fortress’ organization around convenience for yourself. Some of the elements of inconvenience become in-game opportunities. For example, there is a member of the nobility of your fortress whose job it is to keep a count of how many items you have. Without them, you have a rough estimate at best.

Dwarf Fortress is a hobby more than a game at its highest levels. It’s something that has enough depth and complexity to devote a small part of your life if you want. Its community is devoted and their command over the mechanics of Dwarf Fortress allows them to do incredible things with this game. That being said, it may not be for everyone. The Steam Release lets you see whether or not this game is worth your time enough to get invested in truly understanding this game.

If you’ve never played Dwarf Fortress, then this is a great $30 game with the potential for future updates and a wide array of mods. The community for mod-making is already there, so you’re buying into a game that should be very well supported from the very beginning. If you already like Dwarf Fortress, your mileage may vary.

As for me, I’m not even close to having experienced all that Dwarf Fortress has to offer, and I’m excited to see what I can learn next. After all, failure is the mother of learning, so I must have learned a decent amount from Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress
If you've never played Dwarf Fortress, then this is a great 20-dollar game with the potential for future updates and a wide array of mods. The community for mod-making is already there, so you're buying into a game that should be very well supported from the very beginning. If you already like Dwarf Fortress, your mileage may vary.
Pros
  • Great visual tileset.
  • Endless depth.
  • More approachable than the original Dwarf Fortress.
Cons
  • Somewhat dated and inelegant UI and controls.
  • Steep learning curve.
  • Questionable purchase if already invested in the game.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PC.

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Author
Ross Lombardo
Ross Lombardo wrote for Twinfinite for five months from 2022 to 2023. A history and screenwriting graduate, Ross had been writing for about a year during their time at Twinfinite. Still waiting for a Jade Empire sequel for more than 17 years, Minecraft, Magic: The Gathering, indies, RPGs and pop culture were Ross's bread and butter.