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I've seen a lot of questions, on this site and in many gaming forums, about Dwarf Fortress. I know that it's free, and I like dwarfs and mining, but I never tried it — mostly because I've heard that it's learning curve is so high that you need to invest a lot of time before starting to have fun.

A couple of days ago, in a thread discussing game difficulty and learning curves, I saw this image:

Learning curve of popular games

So I decided to ask something about it here: Is Dwarf Fortress' learning curve really that bad? What are the difficulties of this game?

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10  
Just for the record... the original learning curve is for Eve Online. –  Cyclops May 7 '11 at 1:07
19  
I think this illustration is much better at capturing the spirit of Dwarf Fortress. –  sjohnston May 7 '11 at 16:58

6 Answers 6

up vote 24 down vote accepted

I'm a brand new player of this game, so I admit my knowledge of the later things are limited - keep that in mind when reading this answer.

Dwarf Fortress is a hard game, in that there are so many things you need to take care of, and if you don't, things can go horribly, horribly wrong. You have to keep all of your dwarves both happy and safe, and if you don't, you can get into some serious trouble. When you fail, you learn something new about how to manage this task.

Of course, the curve is exaggerated, but the reason it stays so high is because there are so many things which can go wrong if you don't keep a close eye on things. A dwarf goes into a rage? Kill him before he kills everything else. Goblins started a siege? Get your civilians to safety and get your military ready to take them on. Discovered a cavern? Make sure you block it off until you are ready to deal with any monsters in there.

The list goes on, and that's what makes the game hard. But it also feels rewarding to successfully deal with these threats.

There are of course a number of things you can do to remedy that:

  1. Install a texture pack so you can more easily tell things apart. I personally like the Ironhand texture pack, but there are several others. This will make it so much easier to recognize things at a glance.
  2. Get Dwarf Therapist. It's a much more convenient way to manage your individual dwarves.
  3. Choose a really good location for your fortress. I actually ended up discarding several worlds before finding one with a site I really liked.
  4. Watch tutorials and Let's Plays on e.g. YouTube to get a feel for the game. There are a lot of helpful tutorials out there - my favorite is Djrodw's series on the FogeyGaming channel, which covers all of the basics; he also has a Let's Play on his own channel where some other stuff is covered.

I recommend getting the Lazy Newb Pack, which contains a frontend to configure the game, the game itself, a bunch of tools (including Dwarf Therapist), and a few texture packs (including Ironhand).

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16  
5. Losing is fun! –  Kaivosukeltaja May 6 '11 at 15:41
    
Djrodw's series looked good. For a second opinion, I learned the game using qpingu's tutorials. Start at youtube.com/watch?v=cXae1zfKR6I –  AndrewKS May 7 '11 at 0:37

TL;DR: No nice UI/graphics, no nice way to manage all your dwarfs.

What has always put me off the game are basically two things.

The first is that there is no way (in the game itself, Stonesense does this, but afaik most mods break each update) to get a sort of isometric perspective of your fort.

The second is that it's quite impossible to give orders in a 'natural' way. I want to point and click, basically. For this there's also a tool, called Dwarf Therapist (which presumably also breaks (almost) every update of the game).

The third, though less important, is that there is no really graphical way to convey information, in other words, you're basically staring at ASCII-characters (I know it's not only ASCII, but generally) to see what is happening. This is remedied by tile-sets, but again, they might break on update.

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2  
Tilesets don't break on update as a general rule—it's not like the next version of DF will come out with new ASCII or something. (The exception is tilesets that also require modified object files, which just seems like a bad idea to me.) –  SevenSidedDie May 7 '11 at 15:13

Haha, love that picture, and it might be accurate, but one of the most amusing aspects of the game is what it's fan base calls "fun" - that is to say "losing is fun". This might sound bad, but you invariably learn something from each experience and can come back a stronger player.

So, don't expect to "win" on your first play through, and don't expect to have a massive efficient fortress without losing a few times - but at the same time don't expect that first play throughs to just be an exercise in frustration.

There's little to no in-game help, so keeping the wiki handy while playing is probably a good idea. And importantly if you want to avoid trouble and have an easier first play through be very careful in selecting a safe starting zone.


Unfortunately, the game's interface also provides some issues as well - it's all text based so requires some learning, however you can install a graphics set which helps a lot (at least, I've previously used MayDay's version, which helped me a lot and has a lazy install).

Additionally, it doesn't provide all the tools you really need to manage your fortress effectively. As such I'd recommend at least one external tool once you're a little way in to your first fortress - Dwarf Therapist (but make sure you're playing a version of the game it is compatible with!) - but there are many other tools available.

You may also wish to read the question How can I make Dwarf Fortress easier.

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Yeah, it's tough but doable.

Getting along without the mouse is Really Really hard in a game this huge and complex-no context menu!

The menus are displayed though, and once you figure out a few tricks, you can get over this.

There are graphics that make the game much more recognizable to new players.

Something called the "Lazy Newb Pack" helps a lot, it installs some default graphics for you and a few add-ons (the most important being Dwarf Therapist)

In general it's just got a terrible UI but is a massively deep game.

To play you just start going--watch a video and dive in. You'll die--expect it. Each time you die you'll learn a little. First time you probably won't get very far. Second time you'll get stuck trying to get a farm going, etc..

Also you apparently have to pause A LOT and look around (k key)--look at everything. Your dwarves will have long text descriptions with lots of info--as will rooms, animals and just about everything.

Honestly it's more like reading a book and building your own story than playing a game. When you hear people discuss their games it never sounds like a game, it sounds like an epic novel.

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The bulldozer at the top pushing dead dwarves off the side is a perennial favorite, as are the spikes and things at the bottom where the other dwarf has apparently just thrown himself off.

That said - Once you get past the initial hurdle, Dwarf Fortress is a barrel of laughs. It seriously is exactly like the picture: there's this enormous terrifying cliff at the beginning, but once you've understood the initial "cluster" of concepts (how to do an embark that doesn't completely suck, how to dig, how to get reliable food and booze, how to defend against goblins) it's a pretty open game and there are only a couple of things after that point that will summarily slaughter your fortress, many of which are your own stupid fault anyway. Heh heh heh.

If you're just starting out, download the latest version of DF (0.31.25 as of this writing). It has a couple of rather crippling 0.31.19 bugs fixed (specifically, traps are no longer gimped to hell). Also download Dwarf Therapist from http://code.google.com/p/dwarftherapist/. It says it's only good up to 0.31.21 but if it encounters a version it doesn't know about, it tries to download a new memory layout file, which is currently working fine. Dwarf Therapist makes the game playable. WE ARE NOT KIDDING HERE. The sole purpose of Dwarf Therapist is to give you an overview of what labors your dwarves have turned on, so you can quickly identify e.g. your new immigrants have completely illogical labors turned on. It also serves as a check to make sure e.g. legendarily skilled dwarves actually have their legendary skill turned on, and aren't doing stupid things like going outside to pick flowers. For some reason the Toady One hasn't gotten around to making a usable UI for labor allocation yet, so Dwarf Therapist is really essential.

You WILL lose your first fortress, probably to a lack of booze. You WILL lose your second fortress, probably to a lack of booze or food, or an excess of goblins or water. You WILL lose your third fortress, probably to an excess of goblins (you've figured out food and booze by now). You WILL lose your fourth fortress, probably to an uninvited guest of some sort. You will MOST LIKELY lose your fifth fortress, usually to a particularly hostile uninvited guest or an extreme excess of goblins. You will MOST LIKELY lose your sixth fortress, to one of a number of causes such as shortage of booze (yeah you forgot to make sure your booze industry was still working), excessive justice, excessive water, excessive lava, uninvited guests, elite goblin siege, !!monarch butterflies!!, &c.

If you don't like the sound of the preceding paragraph, Dwarf Fortress might not be for you. If you think it's funny to watch your dwarves die because they walked around in magma and their feet burned off, while their lungs are rotting away because they breathed a breath weapon that causes instant severe necrosis on inhalation, then Dwarf Fortress is the game you were always looking for!

But you shouldn't feel frightened that you need to spend a month figuring out how to play before you can start having fun. This is absolutely not true. As long as you can find fun in watching your dwarves get slaughtered by goblins, or emo your entire fortress to death because they're out of booze, or get flattened because you accidentally dug out an entire layer of a hill and dropped the top half 5 ft onto the bottom half, you really don't need to know much of anything to play.

The wiki has a number of starting guides to give you a leg up on getting started. Basically the most important things for a starting fortress to secure are 1) booze, 2) shelter, 3) food. By the time you get to your 3rd or 4th fortress it's important to know the exact behavior of each digging designation, but probably not until then. Just sort of, fire it up, go ahead and "Play Now!" (although you won't want to do this after your first try because it gives you VERY messed up starting skills), and just do some stuff!

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Besides, if you can't see the hilarity factor in watching the bottom 80% of your fort drown because you made a single point error digging out the new well, dwarf fortress probably isn't for you. :) –  Shadur May 7 '11 at 22:33
    
The hallways in the top level of my bedroom area are currently full of mud because I forgot that using up/down staircases instead of up staircases in my plumbing would make a hole in the floor, and a corresponding hole in the ceiling of the hallway below. Oops. Fortunately the problem was after the flow-reducer so it didn't instantly flood the entire living quarters and I could get the plumbing turned back off in time. –  Paul Z May 18 '11 at 20:30
    
Some one in another question mentioned a Mega Beast knocking a dwarf unconscious and trying to kill him with a sock... –  Russell Mar 19 '12 at 15:58

Dwarf Fortress is hard because, no matter how well you think you've planned and got things under control, there's always a new curveball the game can throw at you.

Sometimes your pump stack is invaded by a skeletal lizard, which will then kill everyone in a hilarious fashion, such as happened in this brief illustrated history of the fortress Bronzemurder.

Sometimes you'll lose fortress after fortress trying to settle a desert island, and then when you finally get one to survive, you end up in an epic battle with demonic forces unleashed by a hapless dwarf that Dug Too Deep and broke the seals of Hell, such as happened in this epic illustrated history of the fortress Oilfurnace.

The game is hard, with myriad ways of losing due to emergent gameplay challenges… but every fortress is unique and awesome in its own way, whether at its height of power and steel-smithing or at the lowest point in its tragic fall into chaos and miasma. After reading about Bronzemurder or Oilfurnace, it's hard not to want to tackle that and get a crazy, complicated, ever-changing fortress all your own.

It's like an ant farm, except the ants carry adamantine axes and tangle with skeletal elk while forging mighty artifacts in their deep lava forges and paving their tunnels with gold.

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