Annotated Dwarf Fortress

Losing is “FUN”

Annotated Dwarf Fortress
Annotated Dwarf Fortress map, courtesy of roBurky on Flickr.
Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Dwarf Fortress might be the greatest game in existence.

I don’t mean to say that it is the most fun game in existence, though there’s plenty of fun involved. While addictive and exhilarating, Dwarf Fortress is not inherently more addictive and exhilarating than some other strategy games. It’s certainly not the most visually-appealing game either—indeed, its incomprehensible user interface and convoluted game mechanics will turn off most casual gamers.

So what makes Dwarf Fortress special? In terms of exquisite detail, imaginative scope and creative potential, nothing I have ever experienced rivals Dwarf Fortress.

The game itself, officially entitled “Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress,” is difficult to explain. It’s like the bastard child of Minecraft and SimCity, with the ASCII graphics and Tolkien-esque feel of the dungeon-crawler Angband.  If you’re curious, I highly recommend you give it a try—the game is free to download and play. Gameplay seems ludicrously difficult at first, I know, but there is a plethora of helpful YouTube videos, tutorials, guides, and a very helpful fan community that can help you dive right in. I suggest starting off with the Lazy Newb Pack, which includes enhanced graphics and some utilities to manage gameplay.

At its core, Dwarf Fortress is a building game. The player commands a group of dwarves—colonists in a foreign land, forging a new settlement in a hostile environment. You manage every aspect of their little dwarven lives—as is standard for this type of ant-farm strategy game, you appoint leaders, build their housing and workshops, and tell them to make food, clothing, and weapons. But every dwarf is simulated in minute detail. They have families, lovers, children, gods, favorite pastimes, pets. They get sad when it rains and happy when they take bubble baths. Your appointed nobles can go mad with power and demand you craft magnificent statues in their honor. Your ordinary dwarves might just go plain mad, or get depressed and lock themselves away in a room. Managing your fortress is an elaborate balancing act of keeping your dwarves happy, healthy and fulfilled, all while keeping them safe. Dwarves have a penchant for acts of outrageous stupidity, falling off bridges into a pit of spikes or trying to pick berries when there’s a rampaging weremoose on the loose.

Every game of Dwarf Fortress starts by simulating an entire world: every human, dwarf, elf and monster and every action and event for centuries. Each monstrous forgotten beast that attacks your fortress has a rich history, a comfort when an ancient creature made out of aluminum, glass, and poison is tossing your miners around like dolls. Playing Dwarf Fortress is like living out a fantasy novel, one that almost inevitably ends in tragedy for the dwarven pioneers you’ve grown attached to. Indeed, there’s an avid fanfic community that’s grown around Dwarf Fortress. Creating narratives around your fortress is natural. Even a basic summary of the events of your fortress begins to sound like an epic legend. The random nature of Dwarf Fortress’ world generation makes strange, ridiculous and unexpected events are the norm.

Take, for instance, the story of Tholtig Cryptbrain, known as the Waning Diamonds. Tholtig was queen of a declining dwarven civilization who led a century-long war against besieging elves, eventually defending her castle single-handedly for more than a decade. Tholtig killed nearly two thousand of her enemies before dying of old age.

Or take the legend of Urist Borushdumat, One Dwarf Against the World: a fortress built by the insane, lone survivor of a doomed expedition to a haunted jungle. Or the fable of Catten and the Eagle, or the ongoing Journals from Zolakog, the Dwarven Republic or the countless other epic tales that have evolved into Dwarf Fortress lore. Or just play the game, and build your own stories.

Dwarf Fortress is not for the faint of heart. The game is complicated, frustrating, confusing and entirely immersive. You will lose, and lose a lot, but losing is just a part of the fun!

Read more about the majesty of Dwarf Fortress in the New York Times and The New Yorker