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Dwarf Fortress: A Review

by Jason Gibbs

So I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Dwarf Fortress is supposed to be an immersive game a la Civ, something I enjoy when I have a few days to kill.  There are various warnings about the steep learning curve, and the tagline is “losing is fun.”

Well, I thought, I’ll give it a try.

The game inspired Minecraft amongst others, and has been given a facelift for its Steam release, and the new graphics clearly take inspiration back from Minecraft.  The interface is in some ways aesthetically pleasing, and in others a little painful.  Search doesn’t work very well in a number of the screens and transferring control is tricky.  But I’ll come back to that.

When you start you can set some criteria and the world is procedurally generated.  This creates a history for the world, which results in civilisations with a rich past and sometimes artefacts.  None of this is particularly relevant to the new player, but at later stages can matter.

I started by selecting the tutorial which placed my dwarves in an area with a brook, some woods and no aquifer.  Which meant I could dig.  I dug out some caverns, started setting up workshops and generally following what the tutorial told me.  At this point I thought, you know, it’s not that hard.

I built out a bit, added bedrooms and farming plots, and lo and behold, some immigrants.  Now some people seem to see this as an issue, but at this point I figure it’s a sign of success.  I continue to build.

Then I get attacked by some goblins.  I see them off, but at the loss of one of my dwarves.  It made me sad.  So I set up a couple of squads of troops so I could respond properly to the next incursion.

My fortress grew further.  Then disaster, a big goblin attack wiped out more than half of my dwarves.  I was gutted.  This was what is known as fun.  Apparently.  So I went back to a prior save and looked at my troops.  Well, they had no armour or real weapons.  And they hadn’t even been training with what they had.  So I set up a steel industry, which took several tries, and a foray into the Dwarf Fortress wiki, and I got them into a training schedule.

This time when I had a big goblin attack I tore the slimey gits apart.  I lost one dwarf, I think they lost 50.  That felt like a fair exchange.

At this point the children start demanding some time.  The tutorial didn’t have any suggestions for that, but I managed to fob them off with a new game on their tablets.

Then my dwarves start complaining about being unhappy.  I mean really unhappy.  I have plenty of alcohol, and food, and bedrooms, but no, the high maintenance creatures were getting depressed and throwing tantrums.

You know why?  I wasn’t making them any new clothes.  What they were wearing was literally falling off them.  I had to set up a clothes industry, which involved gathering silk, weaving it and making clothes, all from the task menu.

My wife then wanted to know where I’d hidden the wine, so I gave her directions to the cupboard.  I made a mental note to set up a series of tasks to keep her happy, otherwise I could see things getting difficult.

It was too late on that timeline, so I had to go back, quite a way and start again.  I got my armour and clothes industries off to a start early on, and the squads training.

Apparently the children needed to be taken somewhere.  I checked the task menu, but there was nothing obvious I could do about it.  I had to perform the task myself.

Having wasted a lot of time on that I got back to exploring the underground caverns, and got over-excited about digging out gems.  I had targeted a pillar and unfortunately let out a demon.  The demon set about wiping out my dwarves.  There was nothing I could do, it was fast and brutal.  Then my wife came in and demanded that I join the family for dinner.  I tried to explain, but she just slammed the door.

So I went back in time and made sure not to dig out all the obvious juicy piles of gems.  I didn’t want that to happen again.  And anyway, I found enough on the upper levels, and I just hoped there was no more fun waiting for me.

I now had four squads of soldiers ready to go, and as a result of my bribes my fortress had been turned into a barony.  It was going well.  I figured it was time to give the goblins back some of the goodness they’d given to me.

My boss phoned, he sounded worried about me.  I explained to him that I was attacking the nearest goblin nest and that I was starting a new project to get a waterfall.  See the dwarves like waterfalls, and while they had clothes and bedrooms and whatnot, some of them were still getting annoyed.

He expressed some surprise about my choice of task cascades and said something about me not getting paid.  But I had three jewellers’ workshops cutting and polishing gems, so I knew I’d have plenty when the next caravan arrived.

The fortress had been humming along, one of the few times when there wasn’t much to do, when I realised the house had been quiet for a bit.  The note by my cold dinner said something about taking the kids and going to stay with her sister.  

At this point one of my missions had wiped out a goblin nest and my fortress had a new holding.  But I’d made a mistake and sent too many good squads… and my fortress was attacked and virtually wiped out before I managed to force them off.

I cried.


After a couple of days I began to feel as hungry as my dwarves when I forgot to gather food for them.  I looked at the dirty plate next to my desk and saw the note.

I stumbled away from the desk, had a shower and fell into bed.


I kept trying to find the earlier save in my life before I started playing Dwarf Fortress, but I wasn’t able to find it.  I realised I’d have to play this one forward.


My wife wouldn’t speak to me.  I couldn’t send a squad as an ambassador.  I did speak to my boss.  He chalked it down to stress and blamed himself for loading me up with too much work to try and get me promoted.  I had to agree to go back to a more normal work pattern, but he did say I could work from home on Fridays, which would give me lunch times for the dwarves, and avoided one commute a week.


My fortress became the Mountainhome, which was great, it basically meant it was the best fortress in this instance of the game, and the King and Queen had come to live with me.  The downside was that I had had to build them some really shiny quarters which was a pain in the butt.

I was speaking to my uber eats delivery woman more than my wife, which she thought was wrong.  The delivery woman that is, I had no idea what my wife thought as she wasn’t talking to me directly, and the letters from the lawyers all made me out to be some kind of psycho.


My son came to visit.  He let me show him the Mountainhome before insisting that I leave the dwarves alone.

He gave me a bit of a bollocking.  OK, a lot of a bollocking.

Basically I had to choose, the dwarves or my family.


You know, there was a good patch there.  But then those **** goblins came again, and a demon attacked at the same time.  The dwarves got wiped out.  I went back.  The dwarves started complaining a lot.  Then some started turning up dead.  A vampire, but where?  Then another bloody demon.

Again and again I had to restart, and the dwarves, you know what, they’re total gits.  They didn’t appreciate what I did for them.


It’d been a week since I had looked at the game.  It was hard.  I couldn’t drink, because if I did I’d wake up in front of the computer.


I had a conversation with my wife.  It was difficult.  She had called me some names.  Said it had been bad enough when I was drifting, but this Dwarf blah blah was the final straw.  I had promised her I was clean, and would never go back.


That’s my story.

I went to my Dwarves Anonymous meeting today.  That’s a year clean.  I see the kids every other week, and my wife, sorry ex-wife even smiled at me last week.  I miss them.  The dwarves I mean.  I miss them every day, but I can’t go back.


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