Best. Game. Ever.

2.6Mb, free, singleplayer (or we would have reached the nirvana on earth), in full development and frequently updated, all done in ASCII text.

Name is: Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress

The concept of the game is simply fascinating: a huge, persistent world, completely auto-generated and dynamic, with climates, seasons, rivers, civilizations, towns, wildlife and so on. You begin organizing and setting up a colony of seven dwarves, buying them some necessary skills and supplies. Then you start the game, giving orders and managing your seven dwarves to excavate your fortress and refuge right inside a mountain. If all your dwarves die, your fortress is saved, with the game sometime creating a “legend” out of it. You’ll begin again setting up a new colony of dwarves in another location. With even the possibility to visit again the ruins of your old fortress.

Dungeon Keeper meets The Sims. Others have defined it “SimCity: Moria Edition”. This tiny game has an incredible depth and complexity, and it is dangerously addicting.

(This was my second settlement. The bigger room is a dining room/meeting hall, with a few tables and chairs in the middle. The four “I” represent four support pillars and to the north there’s a small room leading to a well for the water. There is also one dwarf eating a plant on a table and a (c)at. The western wall looks odd because it is engraved. The room next to the dining room is the bedroom with the beds (8) near the walls. Then there’s the main tunnel that leads to the farm to the east, out of the screen, and below the smaller rooms with a workshop in each. Outside the mountain there’s an (H)orse, a (M)ule and two stockpiles for the stuff I excavate. The smiling faces are my cute dwarves and the different colors on them help to recognize the different professions. Yellow carpenter, grey miner, green farmer.)

Do not let the ASCII interface scare you. Believe me. I also approached the game *very* sceptically. I found it through a long thread on Q23, I’m not a great fan of roguelikes so I just initally glanced at that thread with little interest. Then I had a moment of spare time and decided to give it a look. On that thread you can read all sort of incredible stories and I was just wondering how you could really get into that with just a messy-looking ASCII graphic.

I thought that I would never “get” this game. But… Oh, I was so wrong.

This thing is a masterpiece. I’m TOTALLY addicted and refreshing the development page regularly to see if there are any updates (you know I’m a patch whore). I usually get very attached to little creatures in games. But this one surpasses everything.

What surprised be more is that the game has some of the best *game design* I’ve ever seen. Mechanics, AI, interface. It’s truly amazing. See, usually these kinds of games may be interesting and have nice ideas, but they are usually made by “progammers” who don’t have a so great grasp of game design and usability. So they finish to be just unplayable. Instead in this case we don’t have just a great programmer, but a programmer who is even better as a game designer. A rare case of talent in both areas. The game hasn’t just an interesting concept, but also a great execution.

There’s a Wiki that is very useful to consult while you play, but I was just amazed by how this game is usable and intuitive, even if it’s just ASCII. And now I’m even hoping it will never be converted into graphic tiles, because I grew fond of the style and now I don’t feel the need of anything else. Really, this game is to my eyes as pretty as it can be. And I love my dwarves.

The most impressive thing is how immersive it is despite the lack of graphic. I started sceptically poking things around last night, and was hooked for eight hours straight. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because those dwarves have cute, round faces always smiling.

Considering that you may be skeptical about trying this thing I’ll try to give you some ideas about how the game plays and feels, so that you understand more what kind of game it is. To begin with there are four different gameplay modes:

– “Dwarf Fortress” is the city-building simulation, the one more feature complete and the one that gives the name to the game.
– “Reclaim Fortress” only appears after you have abandoned your first fortress and lets you guide a band of dwarves to reclaim it now that it is overrun by evil creatures.
– “Adventure” is a roguelike classic mode where you control just one dwarf and explore the world seeking power and glory (and discovering world legends that will be enabled in the fourth mode). Though this is currently the more immature mode.
– “Legends” allows you (I think) to read in detail the legends you discovered through the Adventure mode and take again a snapshot (.bmp) of the whole world.

The first one is the one you want, as it is the main game that I’m talking about. Before you can choose between those modes you still have to generate your own unique persistent world where all your adventures will take place. The worlds created will be truly massive and the generation process can take a while. The game will give them silly random generated names and if you want you can create many different worlds. You can then have different games on different worlds, but you cannot create different saves on the same world as everything you do is “persistent”, so without the possibility to be undone.

When the world is ready you can start to play. You have the possibility to start right away (Play now!) with a standard “setup” but I recommend to go with a custom build, as it would already help you to parse the different professions in the game and have an idea of the different kinds of duties that your dwarves will have to perform. The initial setup is very important because it will determine your possibilities to survive the first winter. This phase is divided into three screens: one showing your seven dwarves and their skills, one showing the supplies and equipment you are bringing along and one that lets you choose the location around the world where you want to settle. You have pool of 200 points you can spend between the various options, so you’ll have to plan wisely (the wiki will help).

One important thing to notice is that for the whole game all the commands you have access to will be shown on screen, so you never need to memorize commands and keys. That’s something that this game got right and that instead has always crippled similar games. Despite it’s just ASCII, it’s still easily accessible because everything you need is displayed on screen. The interface is really well designed.

Once your group of seven dwarves is set up, you enter the location chosen and you can start the real game, with your dwarves deployed right next the mountain wall that will soon become your home. At a first approach you need a few minutes to understand what is shown in the small client window. People usually expect to be able to select one dwarf and move it manually, or assing each to a task, or a “go here” kind of command, but what you do is more indirect, and yet still very usable. You basically create a list of “jobs” and tasks and then the dwarves themselves will start executing them depending on the skills they have, their stats, priorities, preferences and so on. You can enable/disable the active skills for each dwarf (select the unit, (p)ref, (l)abor) and even start training your skills from zero. Each dwarf has his owns needs, drink beer or water, eat, rest, sleep and so on. Luckily you don’t need to micromanage much as the dwarves will take care of themselves without any babysitting. Basically for the majority of the game your duty is to provide them the resources and design the environment to avoid disasters, then the dwarves will use what you give them.

The most basic activity is “digging”. This is why you just cannot play without one or more “miner” as your fortress will be carved right out of the mountain. What you need to do to start digging is enter the “Designations” menu (d) and then select “mining” (d). As you do that you’ll be able to move a cursor on the graphical window, by pressing (Enter) you define the starting point where you want to dig, then you move the cursor till the point where you want the tunnel/room to end, and press (Enter) again (you can dig a rectangular room by defining a starting point on the upper left and the ending point at the lower right). The area flagged for digging will then be shown in a muddy green tint and one of the miner dwarves will automatically start digging the tunnel. You’ll see him moving near the wall of the mountain and the block near him starting to blink till a hole is produced. It’s like watching ants working through a glass!

With (Space) you pause/unpause the game (and also exit menus), so that you have time to observe what is going on without getting overwhelmed. With (j) you’ll access a menu where all the jobs you have issued are listed, with the name of a dwarf next to it in the case the job is currently being performed. This menu is quite useful as it allows you to quickly track what your dwarves are or aren’t doing. By scrolling you can select one of the dwarves and by pressing (c) you center him on screen. Another similar menu can be accessed with (u), showing a list of the units in the area, including your dwarves with relative current job, pets and more or less friendly creatures. Even here you can select and press (c) to zoom to the selection and find out exactly where the unit is.

Your first duty in the game should be about finding the river that runs inside the mountain as you’ll have to use it to flood an area to cultivate. As the cultivation is really slow, you need to start as soon as possible or the winter will arrive and your dwarves will starve to death (or better, to madness), so a good idea is to just start digging straight in the mountain till you hit the river. As you hit it, you risk the tunnel and other rooms to flood, but the dwarves should be fast enough to run out without drowning. You then wait for the water to reflow and then you can continue (I suggest to put a door and lock it where the river is, or you risk another flood as the level of the water can raise during the spring).

The rest of the game is about digging rooms. Beware to dig them too big or the ceiling will crumble. In the case the room starts to be risky you should start to place support pillars around. This can be done through the (b) Building menu. In that menu you can scroll pages through (/) and (*) on the number pad of your keyboard. The support pillars (support) are on page two, but they don’t have a letter shortcut, so you’ll actually have to scroll and select them. Then press (Enter) select the material you want to use for the pillar, Press (Enter) again, place the pillar with the cursor and then press (Enter) a last time to confirm the job. As one dwarf with the active job is available the pillar will be built.

You’ll need a dining room with chairs and tables, a well to get the water from (or your dwarves will have to travel to the river every time they are thirsty) and a bedroom with beds. The well requires a stone block and a bucket, so you’ll also need workshops where you can craft items to use. A workshop is quite simple to build as you just need a room of 2×3 (beware getting stuck, though). As the workshop is made you need a dwarf with the skill to use it. For example to craft the bucket you’ll need a Carpenter dwarf and his workshop. Then the correct resources to craft the item, wood in this case (that you can chop outside, designating trees as with the digging). To create a work order you use the “Set Building Tasks” menu (q) and then move the cursor on the workshop you want to use. Instead to examine a building to see if the orders are completed and the items ready to be used you use the “View Items in Buildings” menu (t). When a bed, chair, door or table is ready you can then place it using the “Building” menu. One dwarf will then came to grab the item and then place it.

That’s pretty much all you are going to do at the beginning. Dig tunnels and rooms, designate trees to cut down, create stockpiles where to store and categorize the goods you produce, start building workshops and then craft the items you need. Initially you need Carpenter, Mason and Mechanic workshops. The priority should go to build a “farm”, so that you can start planting seeds that will then provide you something to eat later on. Your first “game over” will likely be about your dwarves starving and going mad through the winter, so the food is the main priority. Setting up a farm is already a quite complex task but you can read the wiki for precise instructions. To finish one you’ll need two “floodgates”, a lever and five mechanisms, so you also need the mason and mechanic workshops ready before you can finish the farm. Then you open the floodgates by pulling the lever (P, after selecting the lever through the task menu, q), flood the area to get the ground muddy and then build there a farm plot (b, building menu), set up a task for it, type of plant/seed and then let the farmers do their work. The first plants will came later in the game and if you have a kitchen and the right ingredients you can even try to cook meals.

A lot more opens up in the later game, as you can craft a lot more stuff and will need to defend your fortress from sieges. Your dwarves won’t be always seven as you’ll get many immigrants (so more workers, but also more mouths to feed). The colony will grow bigger and bigger and you’ll finish to manage a huge group all at once. The risks also go up as you’ll find monsters that attack you or even sieges from hostile populations. Even if there’s so much to discover you can have an idea of the game. Your dwarves will improve their skills as they practice and your fortress will soon become rather big and complex. But at that point you won’t need anymore to read what I write here because you’ll be totally absorbed.

I also point out that the guy behind the project is really well organized. He divided the development into three groups: “core components”, “requests” and “bloats”. And he also defined a long term plan for the game that spawns multiple years, with some incredibly good ideas. This game not only is awesome already, but it has a VERY LONG way to go as there seem no end to all the plans that the guy had. There isn’t anything else I know that is more worthy of being called as “Vision” as this.

The most interesting thing is that once you get the game you’ll feel completely immersed in a way that not even the graphical games seem to achieve. The ASCII symbols will become easily understandable as if you had read them since forever. The point is that the more you play, the less you feel the need of a graphic interface. And it’s beautiful. I mean, nothing can be compared to what your mind will see in those symbols.

And that’s one of the greatest achievements of this game: it just doesn’t let you miss the graphic.

Plus you can generate at any time a huge bitmap of your very own fortress and show it to your friends :) So that you can even study how others have organized their fortresses. At the end the greatest fun is that you are really free to build your own as you like, with your very own style and feel. And the result will be unique, as if you created a small piece of art with its own story. Along with your dwarves.

Here are some examples taken from the forum threads:
Fortress 1
Fortress 2
Fortress 3
Fortress 4
Fortress 5
Fortress 6

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