I played Dwarf Fortress, and I felt I won.
Dwarf Fortress is the single most demanding strategy game I ever had to play. Of course, there are “easy” starts, under the right circumstances, but I always chose my own starting spots. My first go at Dwarf Fortress was two years ago, and I was honestly helpless. I could not figure out farming, construction or management, even with the help of the Wiki. Maybe I was too lazy to understand the Wiki or I lacked the intellect boost chip I installed over the winter, but today I felt as if I won. There is no such thing as “Winning” a game in Dwarf Fortress. Instead, you can survive for a very long time and eventually see what will cause your downfall this time. Demons? Goblin Invasion? Starvation? I would say it is up to you, but in fact what makes you lose in Dwarf Fortress is not under your control.
You start off with a blank slate. The interface might be incredibly demanding to get used to, and the lack of “graphics” might confuse somebody as to what a big D is (hint, it’s a dragon) but thanks to the ever-present “Pause” option (your Space Bar) you can stop time and check your pulse. As time passes on you learn the interface and the controls, but that is barely enough. Your “Fortress” starts off as seven dwarves, with different skills and equipment (these can be adjusted, once you know what you are doing). What next? Up to you. Dwarf Fortress is not a game that will drop you hints. If you started in a zone full of some bestial creatures, it’s your own fault or challenge. If there is a lack of trees or plant life, it is your own decision. Even though the Wiki’s starter guide suggests what would be an easier start, don’t be fooled. Dwarf Fortress is not a game you will “beat” during your first, second or third attempt.
Why are things tough? Let me explain your priorities, more or less, point by point. When you arrive you have to find a spot to store your equipment, build some improvised living quarters and crafting stations. You might try building a wooden village, a hidden fortress in a mountain, or dig a hole in the ground. At the same time you have to start thinking about food and water. If you have a river you should have access to fish. Otherwise you have to begin farming, or hunting for your food. In case you thought that is easy take note how each plant needs a different season in order to be grown. Then you have plants which can grow on the surface and underground. Perhaps you could raise livestock? Capture some local wild-life, tame it, then release it into your pen in order to produce cheese, cloth, leathers or delicious meats. Your people need their own space to live, so think about rooms, or a Dormitory. What of the wild-life? Are you sure that bear won’t eat your dwarven fishermen?
Your success in Dwarf Fortress, at first, is due to minimalism. Aim at something simple. For example, occupy a small valley or mountain corner and wall it off except for one entry way. Redirect a river to provide your fortress with fresh water, or perhaps dig down untill you find a fresh underground water source. As you expand your fortress you have to hold in mind that your population will also expand. While you might have control over seven dwarves, immigrants are bound to arrive. Unlike your starting group, the immigrants will have random specializations. You could end up with more fishermen, while lacking a river, or farmers while lacking a farm. You might even have a qualified armorsmith, while not having even an ounce of metal. You can set the preferences of your Dwarves to perform other tasks, and they will learn. Some classes need equipment, so you have to either make it, or trade for it.
Speaking of trade, once in a while a trade caravan will drop by, offering goods in exchange. This is an opportunity to sell petty items, such as toys or crafts for useful tools, ores and food, as well as other items. You can never be certain what a Caravan wants the most at the time, so ask them once in a while whether your trade offer is satisfactory (or train a Broker).
Even though Dwarf Fortress can be a bit predictable, during certain stages, the in-between is what makes it magical. Perhaps your weaponsmith will run off to his workshop and work on a mysterious weapon? Perhaps your woodcutter will stumble on a Kobold Thief and chop off his head? Maybe a crocodile will eat your fisherman? Or a Moleman will terrorise your Dwarves? Anything is possible, and sometimes there is just no successful way of preparing for it.
Aside from your life threatening situations, when goblins invade, or you wake up some mystical creature, there are also your own personal projects. Maybe something small, like a moat, or full irrigation system to your surface farms, or pump system to bring magma from the bowels of the earth to your thriving industry. It’s the things that make you pat yourself on the back. The “Epic” projects which make you feel that you reached that next level in Dwarf Fortress.
The fact is, Dwarf Fortress is exactly that, a learning experience. Each playthrough should allow you to learn something new. Maybe you will perfect farming, maybe you will learn how to control your militia, perhaps you will tame a dragon. Anything is possible in Dwarf Fortress, but you have to want to “win” in it. If you lack the patience or strength of will, Dwarf Fortress will beat you. Do not be disheartened if something does not work, time and time again. Eventually you will get it, and if you find the “basic” graphics too confusing try one of the Graphic mods, which make the gameplay somewhat easier (I use Mayday’s Graphic Set).
If the big game developers ever manage to copy, even in fraction, what Dwarf Fortress is, I will salute them. So far there is no other game that would offer such complexity, while also being so fun and demanding. If you consider yourself a Hardcore Gamer, believe me when I say, Dwarf Fortress is an entirely different league.
What was it that I managed today, that made me consider myself a victor in Dwarf Fortress? I managed to farm enough food and brew enough ale for my dwarves not to starve. That is my own, personal, success (though, I still do not know where will I find the space to fit a hundred dwarves).
Alex “WriterX” Bielski