Dwarf fortress: crossing vi with the Matrix

Warning: This blogpost has been posted over two years ago. That is a long time in development-world! The story here may not be relevant, complete or secure. Code might not be complete or obsoleted, and even my current vision might have (completely) changed on the subject. So please do read further, but use it with caution.
Posted on 24 Mar 2011
Tagged with: [ dwarffortress ]  [ game

What do you get when you cross the vi editor with Keanu Reeve’s “The Matrix”? A cool game called dwarf fortress. A game that is awesome in many MANY ways. I’m not much of a gamer. As a matter of fact, lot of programmers aren’t and are more interested in actually creating games than playing them. However, dwarf fortress is an exception to that rule but beware: it’s not your average game. Everything but…

What is it?

First off, what is Dwarf fortress? Their slogan is “Loosing is fun”, which hints you cannot win the game, you just merely stop playing or - well - loose :). The game is about you being in control of dwarfs in a detailed world where your job is to run their community. This would mean you need to order your dwarfs around to mine some halls and rooms inside a mountain or underground (dwarfs do not like sunlight), you need to order dwarfs to catch fish, chop trees or create furniture from wood. Oh yeah, there are cats too.. cats are EVERYWHERE..

So, this all sounds like another farmville or simcity or but it's not. It's way more detailed and powerful you might expect. Let me put it this way: you must take care where you will mine, because if you are near a river and the bedding is clay or sand or any other soft material, spring-floods can actually increase the pressure in the river, causing your mine shafts to collapse.

Dwarfs will mourn when their spouse died. They will take revenge when their friends are killed and sleeping inside a noisy area will affect their daily job.

Or what about this: a dwarf might be able to left heavy rocks, but it cannot do mining because of a broken middle finger he sustained a year earlier during a combat with an orc. These are the details you can (and must) work with. Or to sum up in one sentence: the game modelling is very VERY detailed.

Controlling the game

The learning period for the game is extremely steep. Don’t underestimate it. Just take a look at the display: it’s a text-mode game, which means everything is represented with symbols and colors. For instance, dwarfs are represented by a ‘@’, cats with ‘c’ etc.  It’s very hard to see your way through the screen, but as soon as you “get it”, a massive world will open op. It’s like reading a book: you can visualize how it looks like in your own mind, but still you can play it interactively.

Second hard thing: the key commands. Everything is done with a keyboard so need to know all the commands (well, after a while things go automatically, just like in vi).  Creating a new staircase will be hard in the beginning because you need to find the correct commands, but after a while you don’t even think about it anymore).

Finally, the game-play itself. As said, everything is extremely detailed and you need to take care of everything. Water can be used to power inventions you create yourself. You can even create traps for orc and other enemies and if you like, you can kill cats, skin them and make nice warm coats from them. Whatever you want to do, it doesn’t matter. Everything is possible. For instance: Once I’ve created a big winding staircase surround by a waterfall (in which case, we need to drain the water from the lower levels back upstairs again by a series of pumps. All water powered of course). Lots of dwarfs hang around the waterfall, playing in the fog and doing some serious thinking about life (off course not too long, they still need to do some work).

Sounds great, I want to try

Even though the game is in text-mode, don’t kid yourself: you need some serious hardware to run it on. Once you hit like 100 dwarfs or so, things tend to slow down a lot on lightweight computers. As said: everything is emulated, from water-pressure to gravity and that reflects back on the speed. Normal notebooks and computers nowadays are good enough.

Great thing: it’s available for Linux, windows AND mac osx.

Another great thing: the game is completely free! The programmer runs entirely on donations so I urge you when you like this game, send over some money. Even if it’s only 5 euro or dollar to spare, doesn’t matter. He will even send you a some nice colored art as a thank-you (as if the game wasn’t enough).

If you like to try, do can take a look at the (very detailed) tutorials from capnduck:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koZUS2h-Yzc

Try it, look at some tutorials, read the article and order your dwarfs around. It’s a complex but extremely addictive game. Download the game at:  http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/

An excellent tutorial can be found at http://df.magmawiki.com/index.php/Bentgirder. It’s a savegame so you can start right away.


I cannot be held responsible for loss of sleep, time, work or anything else that happens when you start playing this game.