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Dwarf Fortress is indescribable — but let me try

Dwarf Fortress is... hard to describe

Dwarf Fortress art depicting three dwarves in a cavern full of dangers Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games
Jeffrey Parkin (he/him) has been writing video game guides for Polygon for almost seven years. He has learned to love just about every genre of game that exists.

“What is Dwarf Fortress?” is not an easy question to answer. Sure, there’s a quick answer — Dwarf Fortress is a colony simulator game — but that glosses over so much of what Dwarf Fortress is. It’s a fantasy world-building engine and a resource management game and a city builder. It’s a game that inspired massive hits like Minecraft and Rimworld. It was featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

It’s a deep simulator. Every dwarf in your fortress has moods, preferences, skills, needs, and whims. Every chair, statue, mug, and bed you make has a quality and value. The world generates with rules for hydrology and geology and precipitation. Beyond the walls of your fortress, the world evolves as civilizations rise and fall. You make trade agreements with other settlements and, if you’re not careful, enemies.

There are no win conditions. There’s no real end goal. Building a functioning fortress (and society) is a worthy aim, but, more often than not, that’s not the point. The point is fun — more on fun in a minute.

So if the simple answer is that Dwarf Fortress is a colony simulator, let’s talk about the more complicated answer.

Dwarf Fortress has been around for almost 20 years

Dwarf Fortress is the work of Tarn and Zach Adams — the brothers behind Bay 12 Games. That’s it. Two people. Tarn started working on Dwarf Fortress 20 years ago. He’s described it as his life’s work — “As long as I don’t die, we’ll be doing it.”

With as much of a cult following that Dwarf Fortress has built, it’s never sold a single copy — it’s always been free. Since its initial release in 2006, Dwarf Fortress has survived because of — and been self-sufficient through — donations and a Patreon.

Dwarf Fortress then and now.

But on December 6, 2022, Dwarf Fortress is coming to Steam in a new, paid release with the help of Kitfox Games, the publisher behind offbeat hits like Boyfriend Dungeon and Pupperazzi. So what changed?

Zach Adams got sick recently. Thankfully, his care and recovery were covered by (his wife’s) insurance, but the brothers realized that if Tarn were to fall similarly ill, the costs could wipe out Bay 12 games — and Dwarf Fortress’s future. And that’s why we’re getting the new Steam version, which is listed at $29.99.

But it’s not really about the money. Tarn has said that his goal is to stay healthy so he can keep working on the game he loves. “People expect me to take care of myself, that’s what I’m going to do, make sure that my health is in order, make sure that the game is in order.”

The failings of the American health care system acknowledged, let’s talk about what we’re getting now that Dwarf Fortress is becoming a little more accessible.

Dwarf Fortress aims to simulate everything

A game of Dwarf Fortress begins with generating a world and that world’s history. A lore is generated with heroes and monsters and legendary artifacts and civilizations across hundreds of years. And that … has nothing to do with the game you play. It’s just there.

A screenshot of world generation in Dwarf Fortress showing information about civilizations and some of the world’s history.
The deep world generation of Dwarf Fortress.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

The health of every dwarf, squirrel, and aardvark man isn’t represented by hit points. Instead, each creature comes with its own suite of information on limbs, organs, and bodily fluids. A creature dies not when they run out of hit points, but when they can no longer function.

That’s how Dwarf Fortress works. There’s the part you see on the surface, and then there’s a wealth of detail behind it that you’ll only find if you go looking.

You’re in charge, but not in control of your fortress

You, as the player, don’t really get to make any dwarf do anything. The closest you get is deciding which dwarves are allowed to do what work (or “labors,” as the game calls them). You can make sure that at least one of your dwarves are allowed to dig, and then designate an area where digging should happen, but it’s up to the dwarf to decide to do so. More often than not, they will, but sometimes they’ll eat, sleep, hang out with a friend, appreciate some art, or run away from a ghost instead.

Dwarf Fortress screenshot showing an alert window that says construction was stopped on a farm plot because the worker was busy getting married.
Sometimes you have to drop everything and get married instead.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

And that can compound. To build a chair, you’ll need to ask your dwarves to cut down a tree, build a carpenter’s workshop, and then actually build a chair. Each step requires a dwarf to decide to do their job. And your dwarves can be… unpredictable.

A hostile world doesn’t help.

Dwarf Fortress is about emergent stories as much as gameplay

In one of my games, my fort collapsed within days because, immediately upon arriving, the only dwarf with a pickaxe got beaten to death by a gorilla.

Another fortress failed when the brewer stopped working while being haunted by a ghost — the ghost of someone who fell into a river, and whose body I couldn’t lay to rest.

One fortress failed when everyone died of dehydration because I couldn’t build a well. And I couldn’t build a well because a monkey snuck in and stole all my rope.

Another fortress never got beds because my carpenter’s pet duck got stuck in a tree and she waited at the base of said tree until she died of dehydration.

Dwarf Fortress is a simulation game whose core tenet seems to be, to paraphrase the Yiddish adage, “dwarves plan and the gods laugh.” When it’s at its best, Dwarf Fortress is barely contained chaos. It’s ridiculous, and the best laid plans can go sideways in a second.

Which is fun.

Playing Dwarf Fortress means embracing “losing is fun”

The thing about a simulator game is that, when everything is chugging along smoothly, it gets boring. Sure, there’s pride in building up a self-sufficient and nigh-perpetual civilization, but that’s not fun.

A screenshot of Dwarf Fortress showing a fortress slowly filling with water. There’s an unhappy dwarf with wet feet in the center.
It’s shockingly easy to flood your fortress.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Fun happens when something goes wrong. Fun is when you accidentally flood your entire fortress while trying to dig a well. Fun is when you dig into a cavern full of underground monsters and your fortress is bathed in blood by a rampaging cave toad. Fun is when you don’t notice the alert that a werewolf showed up and now the bodies are piling up every month.

Because losing is fun.

It’s a phrase that’s been adopted by the Dwarf Fortress community. With no win condition, the point of Dwarf Fortress often becomes losing in new and creative ways.

But to do that, you have to learn the game.

Dwarf Fortress has a learning cliff

The learning curve of Dwarf Fortress is often referred to as a cliff. In its original form, there was no tutorial. You were just dropped into a world and had to figure out how to survive. Complicated menus, overwhelming needs to meet, zero guidance, and a hostile environment all make that feel impossible.

The biggest challenge of Dwarf Fortress is often the act of learning to even play Dwarf Fortress — which is part of the draw, honestly. When a fortress fails, you learn something to try differently next time. When the next one lasts just a little longer only to fail a different way, that’s a victory.

It all makes even understanding — let alone playing — Dwarf Fortress a point of pride. That’s going to change a little with the new Steam release. There are graphics now, and streamlined menus. There’s even a tutorial.

It’s not going to make Dwarf Fortress easy by any stretch, but it’s going to make it more accessible to people who may have bounced off previous versions. And that means even more worlds, more wild emergent stories, and more exciting failures.

So, wait... what the heck is Dwarf Fortress?

Dwarf Fortress is fun.

The next level of puzzles.

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