The Complexity and Depth of Dwarf Fortress


Written by Nico Farace |
Screenshots by Nico Farace |


Dwarf Fortress is a game developed by Tarn and Zach Adams in which you indirectly control a colony of dwarves in a randomly generated world and try to create a successful settlement. It started development in 2002, released its first alpha build in 2006 and has continued to be updated since. It’s been praised for its complexity and detail, even having a place in the Museum of Modern Art.  

The game has many small parts and mechanics that all fit together to produce countless different interactions and possibilities. Its simple graphics, only made up of text and symbols, belies a uniqueness and depth that can’t be replicated. Even the way you look at the world is different from most games. In this game, the player has a top down view of 2D graphics in a 3D space. You can move the camera north, south, east, and west, but also up and down through different layers of space. The game is simply distinct and complex, different from any other.

Unlike other randomly generated sandbox games, the world creation is incredibly detailed, making worlds with realistic geography and legends stretching back to its creation. The history of a single world in Dwarf Fortress has the depth and magnitude of Middle Earth, with bloodlines, wars, civilizations and monsters all recorded.

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A World Map

If a were-beast happens to attack your fortress, you can go into the legends of your world, find the name of that were-beast, and see places it’s raided, its family tree stretching back generations, and the people it’s killed (who also have names and ancestors). There are records like this for every named creature (and every intelligent creature is named), even those that will never encounter your fortress. In addition, the area you play on is just a small part of the massive world. A world size of medium corresponds to 129×129 region tiles. Each one of these tiles is a 16×16 local area, and on each of those is 48×48 regular tiles. You play on 9 local tiles, so with one fortress you will only see 0.000002% of the entire world. Your whole experience with one fortress is a single book in the library of your world.

It’s not only the large scale of the entire world that has such detail, every single dwarf has their own personality, preferences, and emotions. At any time you can look at one of the dwarves and see what they’re like, what ideals they value, what their hopes and dreams are, and what emotions they’ve felt lately and why. Every single dwarf has a screen like this, and a fortress can have hundreds of dwarves. The sheer detail and amount of information available is staggering, even if most of it might not even be important at all to running your fortress and playing the game.

Dwarf Fortress also has a steep learning curve, referred to by many as a cliff. With no tutorial beyond a sparse help page and a confusing interface, new players who go in not knowing anything about the game will find their dwarves dead of starvation, wildlife, or exposure very quickly before they even figure out how to build a bed. However, the community is very open to newbies and there is a very comprehensive wiki with many tutorials on how to start and run a fortress. In addition, there are fan mods that can make doing things like assigning labor designations easier, and even make the graphics more understandable by changing the letters and symbols to a tileset of sprites.

While the game is still difficult, with this guidance available it is entirely possible to make a successful fortress as a newbie… that will inevitably be destroyed. Since there is no win condition, every fortress will inevitably fall to the ages. This has created the communities official motto, “Losing is fun!”. It’s important not to be disheartened by all the potential death though, since players have accomplished amazing feats regardless, such as building a giant tower made entirely of glass from the Hidden Fun Stuff at the bottom of the world all the way to the surface, lasting over 400 (in game) years, to the point where the wooden objects in the fortress started to decay (yes, that is a thing that can happen).

And if/when your fortress is overrun and your dwarves all perish,  you can start a game of Adventure Mode in the same world, where you control a single character and gain items and followers. You can eventually visit your old fortress when you’re prepared to make the journey, but beware of whatever may be lurking inside after its fall. If a dragon was what caused your fortress to fall to ruin, then that dragon will still be there upon your return. There is no respawning in Adventure Mode either, so if you die then that character is dead forever. However, all the items, treasures, and valuables created during your time in the fortress will still be there, so it could potentially be extremely valuable to venture there.

The playing of Dwarf Fortress requires skills ranging from resource management to infrastructure planning, since you need to have a supply of food and drink, make sure there’s enough seeds from farms to maintain that supply, create an efficient floor plan so stone and other materials don’t need to be hauled too far to workshops, make sleeping areas with beds for your dwarves and individual bedrooms later on, and even more, making sure it’s all secure inside of the fortress so that if there’s a goblin siege or dragon attack you can keep everyone inside and create a solution to the problem.

If you’re interesting in learning how to play Dwarf Fortress, then visit the wiki. It’s very comprehensive and features tutorials and guides for new players as well as links to fanmade utilities.

If you’re still confused, then the Dwarf Fortress subreddit has a bi-weekly question thread where you can post a question, and others will respond providing answers. There is definitely a lot involved in playing this game, but with a little knowledge ahead of time you can build something that will last for centuries. The game is completely free, so you can download it and start playing at any time.