Dwarf Fortress is a not really a game and, in my opinion, it’s been misnamed. It was originally imagined as a story telling simulator, but it’s actually a world simulator. I say it’s misnamed because the Fortress part of the name refers to a single game mode, albeit the main one.

In order to play any of the modes, you first have to generate a world. The world generation process simulates an entire word for hundreds of years complete with biomes, geography, civilizations that rise and fall, historical events, artifacts, deities, and important historical figures. I don’t mean they are just named and created, they have detailed descriptions and histories which can be explored in the Legends mode or played as a role-playing game in adventure mode.

I think this is such an important aspect that often gets overshadowed by the desire to just jump in and “play” the game. I know I played for a long time before I understood how significant of an achievement this represents.

Another important aspect is that most of the processing power goes into the simulation itself. Dwarf Fortress began with ASCII graphics and only keyboard commands to access and interact with menus and interfaces. That evolved over time with tilesets and mouse support, but it still had a huge learning curve to play. To some, that’s part of the appeal. To others, it was an insurmountable obstacle.


Let’s back up a bit. Dwarf Fortress began as a freeware game and has been in development since 2003. Tarn (Toady One) and Zach Adams (ThreeToe) are brothers that form Bay12 Games. They have been giving the game away this entire time and were only relying on the generous donations of a very dedicated community of enthusiasts (read: cult-following). Tarn has stated that Dwarf Fortress is his life’s work and may not achieve version 1.0 for 20 more years.

Dwarf Fortress has been stated as an influence or inspiration by the develops of games such as Prison Architect, Rimworld, Terraria, and Minecraft. It’s very likely there are hundreds of other games that were influenced by Dwarf Fortress directly or indirectly.

I think the Adams brothers would be happy to continue developing and giving the game away for free or for donations. Severals years ago, they ran into some realities of life and realized that they needed provide for their healthcare and retirement. As a result, they made the decision to release Dwarf Fortress for sale on Steam and Itch.io (now called Dwarf Fortress Premium).

Graphics and Interfaces

They didn’t just take the freeware version and slap it in the Steam/Itch.io stores to make a quick buck. They knew that to achieve mass appeal they would need to update the esoteric user interface with a modern interface and update the graphics. They partnered with Kitfox Games to hire artists and consultants to make this happen.

What About Free?

The freeware version is now called Dwarf Fortress Classic, but it’s getting updates too. The next version will have the new user interface with the original graphics. Dwarf Fortress Premium will have a switch to revert back to Classic graphics. Both versions will continue to be developed and will have feature parity. You can play for free or pay $30 USD for updated graphics and music.

Launch Week

For me and many others, it was so exciting to see all of this work result in so much success for Tarn and Zach. The prediction was to sell 160k copies in 2 months and Kitfox has stated that they sold that in less than 24 hours. Even after Steam’s 30% and the split with Kitfox, I would say they accomplished their goal.

The Reviews

As of this post, Dwarf Fortress on Steam is listed as Overwhelmingly positive with 8,696 reviews.

Some notable reviews:

  • A review stated that it was just a clone of Rimworld. That’s a view of someone who only plays games that are released on Steam.
  • So many reviews marveling that people would pay $30 USD for a free game.
  • “I waited 15 years to give Tarn my 30 dollars. If it released on sale I would’ve waited for the sale to finish before buying it. 20/10 game”
  • “I just want to give Daddy Toad money.”
  • “Losing is fun! There’s never been a game so layered and deep. There’s so much to it, but with a bit of patience and practice you can eventually get your fortress to last for over 2 in-game years! If you feel overwhelmed, don’t even worry about it – you don’t know everything about the world you’re already living in, right?”
  • “My dwarf got ambushed by a giant bat within an inch of his life and had his spinal cord severed so couldn’t walk. Minutes away from death, he became creatively inspired, dragged his half-lifeless corpose up thirty flights of stairs, crafted a masterwork coffin, and claimed it as a family heirloom. Then he died, I threw his body in a pit and sold his coffin for several thousand dollars”

There was an entire Steam forum thread where someone noted how many reviews had been left in such a short amount of time and asked, “did everyone just wait 20 years to pay $30 for a free game” followed by 120+ pages of posts that simply said, “yes”.

That is so wholesome, I don’t even know how to process this in a hobby that can be so toxic and negative.

The “First” Fort

At launch, I bought the game and had to wait all day until I could finish up my workday because I wanted to stream my gameplay on my Twitch and YouTube channels. I wanted to be able to put all of my attention into really sharing the “newbie” experience on my stream.

I’m not new to Dwarf Fortress, I’ve played the classic version off and on for years. I’d come back to it every few years to see what changed. I understand the concepts and know the basic of getting a fort up and running.

Despite that, I still feel like I’m a newbie compared to many others whose videos and streams I watch. I’m always learning something new. I wanted to experience the new graphics, the new interface, and the new tutorial in order to share my genuine reactions.

Here’s what happened:

I started through the tutorial which automatically picks an embark location. It apparently picked a location at a very high elevation which, I didn’t realize, meant that there was a frozen snow-covered river one level down from the surface. I started digging into the earth and unknowingly dug through the ice wall that was the frozen river.

When summer came, the frozen river melted, and flooded my brand new fortress. Despite that, I managed to evacuate all but one miner who died in the initial flood and save most of the items that had been stored in the new fortress. I set the dwarves to digging at a different location and started to move everything, but everything froze again and all but 3 dwarves died of dehydration.

I was sure that this would be the end of my fortress and, from reading some of the Reddit threads, several others had a similar experience with the embark location chosen by the tutorial. However, the 3 remaining dwarves (a child and two adults) were heartier than I expected. I got a still up and running to produce alcoholic drinks (they will only drink water if no alcohol is available) and hoped for migrants to come and replace those that died.

This resulted in some significant challenges. First, I needed to bury the bodies of those who died to prevent them from rising up and haunting the living. Plus, their rotting corpses decomposing really make dwarves have unhappy thoughts. In fact, the child had several bad thoughts remembering watching his mother’s corpse decomposing. He throws regular tantrums because he’s so upset by the experience.

For the dwarves whose bodies were unretrievable (due to being underwater), I had to have the remaining dwarves create a memorial slab in a tomb to allow their spirit to pass peacefully into the dwarfy afterlife. I was lucky enough that the remaining dwarves had the right skills to accomplish this quickly.

The second challenge was to build and operate an entire fortress with just a few dwarves. They need to chop wood, hunt, fish, brew, haul things, and other tasks to meet their own needs and the needs of the others. Usually migrants will come every season, but more than a year passed without any migrants. Not that I can blame them, who would want to live in a frozen tundra.

In the third year, I decided to build a tavern hoping that it would attract outside visitors. It did! So many bards and poets came and started requesting to become citizens that I had to start turning them away! Then we finally started getting some regular migrants. We’re up to about 30 dwarves by now and they have started to generate some valuable items and word is starting to get around through the trade caravans.

Soon I will need to set up my dwarf military so that they are ready for the inevitable goblin invasion or forgotten beast. Maybe it will be vampires or some kind of werecreature. There’s a reason that the community says, “Losing is fun!”.