Dwarf Fortress

I’ve looked at Dwarf Fortress before, but was never able to actually penetrate its obscure and often downright bizarre interface.  And I say that as somebody who has ascended (ie: won) NetHack four times.

But as a concept, Dwarf Fortress sounds really intriguing.  Build your own fortress in an procedurally generated world, defend yourself against goblins, mine the depths, etc.  So with the help of this tutorial, I finally began to get somewhere in it.

After several hours of play (and three abandoned fortresses), It seems to me that Dwarf Fortress is basically doing a hardcore version of The Sims in a fantasy universe.  There’s a shocking amount of depth there.  Undocumented, often counter-intuitive depth, but depth nonetheless.

But I’m also coming to the opinion that Dwarf Fortress is a bit like WarHammer 40,000, in that it’s a game which I enjoy hearing stories about more than I enjoy playing myself.  There’s just so much micromanagement that the player has to do in order to make a fortress function.

Suppose you want one of your new residents to help dig a tunnel for your fortress.  For him to be able to dig, you’ll need to give him a pick.  Assuming that you don’t have any spare picks lying around, you’ll need to make one.  To make the pick, you’re going to need some metal.  To get metal, you need some excavated metal ore (which typically is found by digging tunnels through particular types of earth.  Since picks are required to dig tunnels to find ore to make metal to make picks, nobody’s ever figured out where the first pick came from).

So, once you have metal ore of an appropriate type (golden picks would be too soft to be able to dig), you need to smelt that ore into a bar of pure metal.  To do that, you need to build a smelter and have a heat source, which generally means that you need charcoal (volcanic magma would also do the trick, but I’m going to assume that you haven’t set up shop above an active volcano).

To get charcoal, you’ll need logs and a wood furnace.  To get logs you’ll have to chop down trees.  To chop down trees you’ll need to have an axe (making an axe also requires this whole process; see my comments about the dubious origin of the first pick), and you also need to manually tell your workers which specific trees to chop down.

Once you have the logs, you need to manually tell your wood furnace to produce a few pieces of coal.  Once that’s completed, you need to manually tell the smelter to smelt the metal using the coal you just produced.  Once that’s done, you need to tell the metalworker to work the metal bar you just produced into the tool you want.

The new worker will (thankfully) fetch the pick by himself once it has been constructed.  But the game won’t tell you when any of the above steps are complete, and you can’t queue up actions to occur once their prerequisites have been met, so you kind of have to be watching very closely throughout the whole process, or else it’ll just stall.

The thing that has me nervous is that Dwarf Fortress’s structure is very similiar to the structure of MMORPG Tycoon;  it’s built around the concept of running a simulation at a very low level, and letting the user’s creativity provide the entertainment as he builds something out of the various pieces provided.  Dwarf Fortress does this by providing lots and lots of little fiddly bits that interact with each other in complicated ways.

I’ve been trying to avoid little fiddly bits with MMORPG Tycoon..  trying to give players high-level controls, and have automatic game designers fill in all the little details.  (In the 1.0.x series, those little details are abstracted away entirely).  In effect, if you wanted to make a pick in MMORPG Tycoon (if such a thing made sense within the MMORPG Tycoon simulation), you’d select “Make Pick” from a menu, and then your minions would rush about organising all the required work to construct the pick, and you’d be notified when it was complete.  No micromanagement required at all.

The question is.. if you removed the micromanagement… is the game actually fun without all the busywork?  If all it took to make a pick in Dwarf Fortress was to give a command “Make Pick” and the dwarves handled all the intermediate steps for you automatically… would anyone still be interested in Dwarf Fortress?