When you start a region in Dwarf Fortress, you set your computer the task of building the history of a world. You wait, and you wait, as it works through the ages. You see empires rise and fall before you in ascii art as your processor creaks and groans for whole minutes (which, of course, is a relative age, when you think about how long it takes for the average game to load), and, eventually, you’re presented with a map, and asked where you want to embark.
The world always, always looks completely impossible to survive in. At least, it does to me. I’m sure that a professional Fortress enthusiast sees their fresh map and thinks “Great, a massive mountain range to hollow out! We will do well here!”, but when I look at the map I just see my dwarves, shivering in the frozen wasteland, cursing my name again and again.
You’re expected to pick a location to start out. The region is massive. You think Grand Theft Auto V is big? You have no idea. The game includes a handy search tool to help you pick out an ideal place, which, again, takes actual time to run: you see it narrow down possible areas of jungle and mountain until it picks you a plausible place to start your adventure. You take a look, check for a river, some metal, some soil, and, happy with your findings, you embark. This jumps you into a close-up view of the game where you’ll actually play out the lives of your dwarves. You press “Embark!” and find yourself looking, top-down, at a little wagon, surrounded by seven dwarves.
Gameplay is not carried out through directing your dwarves: rather, you define a job to be done, and a dwarf with the appropriate qualifications goes and does it. Your first move, then, is to mark out an entrance hall for your fortress so that your dwarves can get digging. As soon as you mark out a stockpile, the other dwarves will start off-loading goods from the wagon and piling them up inside. At that point, it starts to feel like you’ve moved in. From there, you need to get food growing, find somewhere to put the rubbish, build some bedrooms, and generally make a happy place for dwarves to live.
It’s easy to get it wrong. In my first fortress, I neglected to build near a river, and my dwarves ran out of drinking water. In my second, I couldn’t find soil to grow any plants. My third ran ok until I realised, far too late, that I had no military: I was taught this important lesson by a goblin horde that laid waste to my fortress in seconds. On the plus side, all my dwarves were unhappy because they wanted a well, so it was only a matter of time until I flooded the fortress trying to build one anyway.
All my failed experiments live on in the world: ruined and abandoned, they’re there, somewhere, for me to find again. The world keeps on ticking while more dwarves pile in and, under my leadership, fail to get anything done and perish. The history of the world feels deep and storied. This is a game that runs deep - succession games of Dwarf Fortress span years and create stories that are retold again and again. Trying to explain to anyone else why you’ve built your fortress the way you have involves explaining all the other things you’ve tried, and all the dwarven moods that meant you simply had to build the crypt before you had time to build a farm. Anyone who’s never played the game will boggle at the complexity of what you describe; anyone who has played will nod, knowingly, and regale you with a tale of the time their fortress was overrun by elephants.