Cheap PC Gaming: Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is actually an incredibly difficult game to recommend. In past CPCGs I’ve recommended things that are all very simple, in essence. It’s not difficult to pick up Orcs Must Die or Terraria, nor would there be any trouble getting into Quake 3 or Red Faction Guerrilla. Sure, Minecraft, Towns and perhaps Armadillo Run are quite complicated, but you can still just jump in and figure it all out for yourself.

Consider, for a moment, Minecraft. It’s unique in the way it works, unless you have prior knowledge you’ll take a while to start punching trees, but you’ll figure it out. Towns? Well, it’s a strategy game and it’s even got built-in tutorials now. Armadillo Run is a puzzle game, its very being revolves are you figuring things out, that’s the idea – so it starts off easy whilst you learn the mechanics.

[drop]Now, I’d like you to take a look at the screenshot on the left. That is a screenshot of Dwarf Fortress (DF) completely vanilla. Do you know what’s going on there? No, me neither. DF is entirely presented in ASCII by default, so if you’re at all like I am you’ll open up the game every month or two, look at it for 10 minutes and then turn it off again. I spent a long time doing this until I finally discovered /r/DwarfFortress – the DF subreddit. I read about the game and people’s experiences that all read like they were ripped from a Tolkien book and I had to figure it out. My resolve was strong but my mind was not, so I downloaded the Lazy Newb Pack. It comes with utilities (such as the incredibly useful Dwarf Therapist), options and, most importantly, graphic packs. I loaded one up, started the game, and realised I still didn’t know what I was doing.

Then I discovered 51ppycup’s Let’s Play. Everything I know about Dwarf Fortress, everything I learnt and everything I’ve managed to do in-game has stemmed from my watching that Let’s Play. It’s a tutorial, he explains what he’s doing as he’s doing it and, as a result, it has led to me finally finding a way to slowly break through the ice of what is the most inaccessible game I have ever encountered. It literally took me months to figure out just how to play this game. There is nothing else that plays or controls like DF, no other game works in the same way.

And do you know what? I like it. From the outside looking in I felt like it was needlessly complicated, incredibly unintuitive and shockingly badly put together – how could someone design something so difficult to use? Something that I, a ‘gamer’ of about 15 years, couldn’t figure out? Now I’ve broken through and I understand how to do enough to know what I’m doing (though far from everything I need to know) I can see that it actually makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, DF’s interface is difficult. There is barely any mouse usage at all, other than using it to designate things, which is less convenient than using the keyboard anyway, so  you have to do everything with the keyboard. It feels unintuitive to me even now. It also requires the use of a numpad. Pretty much every standard key on your keyboard has a use (some of them even have two with a capital counting as another command) as hotkeys for commands, and your numpad is used for navigation.

I lost my first fortress on Christmas evE. I had some spare time to resume my game, so I did – I had 160 dwarves, my fortress had been going for numerous in-game years and, to be honest, hadn’t really progressed that much. I had a surprisingly effective squad of 8 dwarves that made up my entire military. It had taken me many hours to get to this point, as I had been figuring the game out as I was playing. Every time I wanted to do something I didn’t know about I went to the wiki or watched some more of the Let’s Play linked above.

Suddenly, I had my first goblin siege. As you probably know, a siege in this type of game means that a group of something appears and attacks your fortress. I wet myself multiple times with the game paused, then sent my military out to attack them. My squad didn’t lose a single man as they took them out, but there were 30 or so civilian dwarves outside doing stuff and I hadn’t set up a way to get them all inside, so they were slaughtered before my militia could take the goblins out.

[drop2]I had about 130 dwarves left and I thought I’d done all right. If you didn’t already know, dwarves in DF form connections with other dwarves; they gain friends, get married, have children, etc. When a close acquaintance of a dwarf dies, the person gets some rather bad thoughts. They can go insane, basically, and they tantrum, which consists of them attacking anyone that happens to be near them.

My Captain of the Guard, the most powerful, best trained dwarf in my entire fortress, decided to tantrum whilst in the meeting area, which is where all the dwarves congregate when they’re idling. He took out a lot of dwarves, including my entire military. Eventually he calmed down, but there were others doing the same thing, fighting dwarves who didn’t really last long at all. As more died, more tantrums erupted until, eventually, there was barely anyone left, and they were still fighting. I left the game in disgust, immediately starting another. I was frustrated, sure, but it was me that did this. I didn’t protect them well enough, I didn’t set up defences, I didn’t bring them inside when the siege appeared. Next time, I will not be so stupid.

You’ll probably notice that I’m not explaining how exactly you play the game. It’s best you follow the link to 51ppycup’s Let’s Play and watch that, as explaining it purely via text would not work. And I recommend you do. DF is incredibly difficult to figure out on your own but, once you’ve got some of the basics down, you’re playing what is possibly the most richly detailed strategy game this side of actually being god in real life. Whether it’s building pumps to control water or magma; the way every single dwarf has personal traits, relationships and preferences; the sheer volume of things you can make, build, etc; the random nature of the game; the enemies; the obscene amount of different types of stone, ores and gems, your fortress’ defences, from traps to militia; no matter which way you look at DF, you are looking at the most detailed, complicated and rewarding strategy game to have ever existed in any format, bar none.

It’s a game in which FUN is a euphemism for losing (that is, losing your population of dwarves entirely). Do you know what? It’s true – losing is FUN.

Dwarf Fortress is completely free from the official website, but I highly recommend the Lazy Newb Pack for newcomers. I also recommend watching a Let’s Play, such as the one linked above and liberally dipping into the wiki when necessary.



  1. I never thought I’d see graphics that’d make Minecraft look good. Cheese and crackers, that’s bad. Ha! :-)

    Watching the video now.

  2. can you play this alright on laptop with no numeric pad? that’s killed a lot of roguelikes for me before.

    • when I was first learning about dwarf fortress, I read alot that you needed the number pad too. you really don’t have to use it at all, in my opinion. the arrow keys work just as well.

  3. i’m not a graphics whore by any means, but that may be a little too basic for me.

    i’ll give the videos a watch though.

  4. Still not sure my laptop could handle this… :P

    Doesn’t really seem my type of game, even if it had AAA graphics.
    Still, great read.

  5. If you want to see the kind of fun people have with this game i highly recomend you search for a lets play called “Boatmurdered”. its not a video its all in text form with screen shots. The Basic idea is one person takes a year running the fort and passes it to the next person and they record their experiences untill eventaully the fort fails and crumbles. Boatmurdered is an epic tail of a war on elephants, magma flood gates and insane leadership, if enough peple like it it could even get a game of it started on the fourms

    • Thanks :)

    • I was hesitant in recommending reading that due to it being roughly 8 Lord of the Rings worth of text, but I’ve heard it’s pretty great.

    • Thats one of the best LPs ive ever read on that site and thats saying something when you have the GalCiv, Simcity and Alpha centauri ones, not to mention Mr Swoons series of monster rancher ones :D

  6. excellent read, i asked for this to be featured when the humble bundle was done so im pretty chuffed :)

    This alonside Minecraft is an absolute timesink for me, i could write stories at least as long as the LOTR trilogy about any one of my 17 fortresses, its simply brilliant but it is a nightmare to learn.

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