Dwarf fortress is a mandatory game to play. Partly because it’s free, and mostly because it is awesome. What makes the game so good, and annoying, is how complicated the game is. I should say it looks complicated because majority of what you are doing is fairly simple once you have the mechanics memorized.
The level of detail this game takes towards combat is staggering; allowing you to keep track of each limb, organ and even tooth that your dwarves have. They can be afflicted with diseases, such as vampirism or weregeckoism, they can be injected with venom from wandering snakes or covered with a dust that causes necrosis. The level of micromanagement can also reach such fine details with this game. You can design vast rooms for your nobles with valuables lining the walls, while the commoners share a dormitory with rickety beds and nowhere to store clothes;seriously they will wear those clothes until they fall apart, and not even bother to wash them once. You can build a vast lava project to give your smithing operations an alternative source of fuel than trees.
The dwarves can get into “moods” while spending years underground. Moods affect your dwarves’ actions like wanting to craft a legendary sock engraved with history, or go mad due to the lack of materials for this project they have been waiting months to create. You can detail which exact piece of equipment your warriors should wear such as armor consisting of only one boot, one glove, no weapons other than your fists and finally whatever war animals you assigned to protect the drunks.
The level of micromanagement can lead to complications when small things are overlooked such as using all lava safe materials for a magma pipe project but forgetting to use lava safe material for a pump. You can forget to hook up a hatch to a lever, then flood your fort having no way to access it other than causing a cave-in to stop the water flow. On the topic of cave-ins, you can cause 20 urist high cave-ins onto a dining hall full of dwarves while excavating a fancy room for a noble or arena. Urists being the unit of measurement the dwarf fortress community has taken upon themselves to use when describing a dwarf they don’t remember the name to, the temperature, or units of measurements for distance or height.
There are numerous ways to make the game unplayable through Frames Per Second (fps) issues. Having far too many dwarves, pets, enemies, pathing, as well as projectiles and water flow calculations, going on at once can grind your FPS down to a crawl. Since FPS determines how fast the game is, only getting 5 FPS can make the game incredibly slow when compared to 60 FPS on arriving at a new site for digging your underground lair. For example, the game used to have issues termed as “Catsplosions”, where the cat population would get out of control and cats adopt owners without your say. Trying to fix this Catsplosion would end up in a tantrum spiral so most players would abandon the fortress to the cat ladies and cat men. And yes, despite everything being so simple graphically your computer can slow down when playing this game. There are ways around this issue such as culling your livestock herd, making a smaller embark site for your castle to reside in, altering the population limit, and manually overriding the weight dwarves put on pathing to areas of your fortress.
The graphics, by default, are displayed in glorious ASCII. If you need picture to look at because you cannot make out that a table is represented by a horizontal line with a T under it, I can understand as it was a bit overwhelming for me at first. I know it’s not the latest in 3D graphics, but I grew up on Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and DOS. Yes I actually managed to navigate the school computers’ DOS framework as a kid to get games like Wheel of Fortune running. I remember having a DOS computer at home too, with floppy discs with not as cool games. At any rate if this game had to render in 3D it would be worse than the Sims; In that game you only control a handful of characters and teach them peasant skills like cooking and they travel off screen to work the last version I played. These fortresses can accumulate 200 dwarves depending on your processor power and you can get your dwarf badass enough to shoot a dragon in the eye. But I mean you do miss out on things like blocking a Sim into the kitchen with a chair they could easily move out the way then watching them melt down at this puzzle you have put in front of them that prevents them from going to the bathroom.
Instead in this game you tend to end up locking a door in your mine, then a dwarf ends up dying of thirst or starvation because they were behind that door hauling a bit of rock to the stone pile. That or you put them into a danger room to train their dodging skill and forget to put in wooden training spears and instead line the traps with spears of steel that puncture their armor easily and you end up with a dead dwarf that starts the aforementioned tantrum spiral.
In terms of complexity, the majority of what you are doing is pretty simple. It is not like you are aiming a gun at a precise point on your screen to score a headshot. This game is just designating who owns what room, telling your army to stand somewhere where they will charge straight at an enemy on sight. The difficulty is mostly in learning what mistakes to avoid. Such as forgetting to link a bridge to a lever with the intention of the bridge keeping invaders out and only realizing your mistake when your drawbridge doesn’t close with the invaders at your doorstep. Or forgetting to build some coffins for your dwarves to receive a quick and proper burial before a dwarf goes ballistic that his wife died and was left to rot in the hallway. Or in keeping enough varied stock so that a dwarf who wants to build something worth talking about in one of those moods does not become depressed that no one cared they wanted to build a legendary toy made of adamantine. Well you would care because adamantine is expensive. But the other dwarves in game would not care will continue walking right past them as the guy in the mood either shouts for such materials or works in secret while mumbling to themselves.
The game controls are so complicated that they alone require a guide. I mean if you are not told that shift + < changes the Z level you are viewing down one level you might think you broke the game. Once you do learn things like that you tend to remember it. I like to read the “face palm moments” thread on the game’s website forums to see things that cause even experienced players with the game to wonder why they wasted all their time doing something when there are easier ways of solving their problems. I especially like reading things such as how they tried trading a captured beast to the traders and ended up releasing the beast inside the cage and dragging the cage over to the trading area. I understand a more polished game would present a notification that you are ordering a dwarf to do a dangerous thing but this is dwarf fortress where bugs are features and your dwarves are so drunk that they thought the order made as much sense as a uniform consisting of only one boot.
Like I said at the beginning this game is mandatory to play. Either download the lazy newb pack or the vanilla version. If not to find your own stories of grandeur then to understand what you are reading when occasionally browsing the dwarf fortress subreddit for its stories. Or maybe you just want to write a story about something and need some off the wall things to happen for inspiration to a dwarf that you rename. The game even has a legends viewer available on Android devices.