Playing Dwarf Fortress is an amazingly deep and interesting experience, but it is not without a learning curve. The pairing of the enchanting, emergent stories the game produces with a nearly impenetrable interface has created a market for games that provide a similar experience with a prettier and more approachable interface.
This is no easy task. Gaming history is littered with barely-started projects that have been abandoned by their creators. Lately, however, it seems that an increasing number of these games are getting to playable states and showing varying degrees of progress and promise. Many of them have playable releases and I’ve tried as many of them that I can get my hands on; this is a report of my findings.
What is a Dorflike?
Put another way, what makes Dwarf Fortress the game that it is? Mechanically, DF is a settlement management simulation that features heaps of procedural content generation, but mostly indirect unit control. If that were all there was to it, we’d have no shortage of alternatives. What really makes Dwarf Fortress shine, however, is the emergent gameplay and the storylines that the insanely detailed simulation engine produces.
Games that attempt to do those things can be rightly understood as being “Dorflike”.
This is, so far, the gold standard. The interface is cumbersome — even with tilesets and graphics packs — but that obscures a wonderfully deep simulation. The procedural content generation is outstanding. If you can get past the graphics, the worlds take on an enthralling life of their own. That’s the hook. I’m not sure what’s more impressive, that thousands of people have become fluent in the worst UI in gaming or that the game produces such amazing stories that thousands of people love to read about other people playing this video game.
Unlike DF, which displays a three-dimensional world to you in discrete, horizontal slices, Towns is one of a number of games that show you the 3D representation. This is not always for the best. It looks marginally better and it is certainly more approachable. The graphics themselves, however, are a bit awkward and it can be difficult to figure out which cube you’re actually interacting with at any given time.
The UI is better than DF’s in many ways, but it still feels a bit stilted. It lacks smoothness and polish and feels a bit cumbersome.
Towns has decent mechanical depth; there are a variety of animals, vegetables, and minerals to harvest. Unfortunately, Towns utterly fails to grab your attention with good stories. If there’s a hook at all, it’s the graphics. The screenshots highlight the kind of neat looking things you can build, but this game will probably scratch your Minecraft itch before it scratches your Dwarf Fortress itch.
At this point, I don’t count on Towns being best at anything: the UI, graphics, emergent gameplay, and narrative qualities are all done better elsewhere. This was one of the first “next-gen” Dorflikes, but Towns doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the rest of the pack.
Gnomoria’s attempt at a 3D representation and interface is a bit more solid than that of Towns, but it can still be somewhat confusing to navigate. I’ve found the easiest way to manage it is to pay close attention to what depth (z-level) your camera is on and basically operate the way you would in DF, moving up and down to do things on those levels. That being the case, Gnomoria would drastically benefit from being able to switch to an orthogonal working view similar to DF’s.
All things considered, this seems like a more solid attempt than Towns. The UI feels better and the world feels a bit more cohesive. Minor differences aside, Gnomoria’s major weakness is the same as that of Towns: there’s just no narrative. There’s no attachment to any of your gnomes.
Gnomoria has potential. As the cheapest entrant into the market, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, but I would probably hold off for the time being.
The entirety of the Prison Architect world is a plot of land on a single Z-level. There’s not a whole world of simulation taking place outside of your prison and there aren’t depths to mine to or heights to build to. It also differs from DF in theme: rather than managing a fledgling colony of dwarves, gnomes, or goblins, you’re building and managing a new prison. The game is still in alpha, but still shows tremendous polish. The game mechanics differ from DF’s, but the game portion of PA is solid.
There are a lot of story elements in the game. Each prisoner who comes in has a history, including the crime committed, but the theme (at least so far) hampers the story telling in a big way and leans against lots of emergent gameplay. The prisoners are the ones with the interesting stories, but they’re also the ones you’re trying to keep locked up and under control. They’re the main characters, but there’s not a lot of depth exposed in inter-prisoner drama. That may change as development continues.
One thing PA does exceptionally well is the interface. I may be a bit crazy on this, but I think the game’s planning mode is absolute genius. It allows you to pause the game and draw out your whole prison as a guide. When you return from planning mode, you see faint outlines of your plans that you can build over the top of as a guide.
All in all, it’s a solid game that’ll provide hours of entertainment as you try to build larger and larger prisons, but (as with the previous entries) games don’t yet take on lives of their own and most of the entertainment will be inherent in the game rather than arising out of the simulation.
Definitely one to keep an eye on. It’s a different kind of game, but there’s a lot of good that will likely come out of this dev team.
Spacebase is also in early access Alpha. The current release is very light on both game mechanics and content; it probably wouldn’t be fair to draw too many conclusions yet, but there is some promise here. There are hints of narrative that come out in the game already. Specifically, each settler has a “Spacebook” (Spacebase + Facebook) profile that you can read. It contains “status updates” of the things they’ve been doing and thinking. The colonists have friends and enemies as well as likes and dislikes. The emergent gameplay element is a bit shallow still, but the focus on social ties is interesting.
The game has a 3D style but is actually a grid-based 2D game (which currently takes place all on a single z-level). The artists have done a pretty good job of making it easy to navigate, although it is a little weird to be building a completely flat base in the vast expanses of space. The UI is decent, but not as polished as that of Prison Architect.
The game has a long way to go before it stands on its own, but Double Fine appears to be pointing the spaceship in the right direction. It will be good to see what the team’s future updates hold.
RimWorld is the most recent project to emerge from Kickstarter to offer early-access alpha to some of its backers. Like Spacebase, the content and game mechanics are a bit light (although I’d put RimWorld ahead of Spacebase on that front). It is, right now, a 2D game with charming (and suspiciously Prison Architect-like) graphics with an orthogonal projection. Currently the game is played entirely on a single z-level.
As in Spacebase, there’s cause for optimism here. The difference is that while Spacebase provides a good foothold for inter-colonist interaction, RimWorld’s emergent gameplay is already quite interesting. Bad things happen to your colony. Things catch fire. Your colonists are assaulted by Muffalo. You get invaded by raiders at exactly the wrong moment. Despite the early-alpha shallowness of content, there are already stories being told in the forums. That, alone, has a very Dorflike feel to it.
This is yet another early-access alpha game, but it currently seems like the most likely one to blossom into a true competitor for Dwarf Fortress.
T&S is, far and away, the slowest game of the bunch. The voxelated, minecraft-like art style is really nice and there’s a lot of depth in the game already. I want to love this game. It has several advantages over 3D competitors like Gnomoria and Towns in that the camera can be rotated and zoomed, allowing for much easier control and an all-around better experience.
Timber and Stone also has relatively mature, with a well-developed (if not terribly well-balanced) tech tree.
Aside from the pacing, one really critical gameplay issue is the work system. Each settler can have only one job at a time and there are more important jobs than there are settlers to do them, which leads to a not-fun level of profession micro-management. Being able to allow the settlers to wear many hats or reducing the number of different “jobs” would be really beneficial. Right now, it’s a lot more work to do basic things than it probably ought to be.
One thing that strikes me about this game is how good the interface is. It’s the only game of the bunch whose interface I think could actually work for Dwarf Fortress. There’s a lot of information but it’s laid out well and isn’t too painful to get at.
Like many of the other options listed here, Castle Story is still early in the development life-cycle. Right now, I don’t think I’d call this game a Dorflike. The interface is slick and the graphics are beautiful, but it lacks some of the dorfier qualities. The game currently consists of two modes: “Sandbox” and “Survival”. In Sandbox mode, you’re placed on a floating island and left to build whatever you want simply to build it. In Survival mode, waves of bad guys come to try to destroy your crystal and you must mine, chop, and build to fend them off. There is pretty much zero emergent gameplay or story telling and short of having some randomly generated/assigned names, each bricktron is like every other.
I’d love to see a game mode added that pushes the game a bit toward the Dwarf Fortress style, but even if that doesn’t come to pass, there’s still potential for a good game here, but probably not a Dorflike.
Stonehearth was a Kickstarter-backed project that raised three-quarters of a million dollars (their goal was $120,000) and looks amazing. I suspect that it might be a little bit more Minecraft and a little bit less Dwarf Fortress, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it to find out for myself.
This game will supposedly be released to steam in the next month or two and I can’t wait. It’s described as a city-building strategy game and, so far, looks gorgeous. One of my favorite mechanical elements of Dwarf Fortress is getting farming and livestock systems running at peak efficiency. I’m not sure if it will be as fun when I can’t have a herd of war alligators that occasionally dismember their handlers, but I’m excited about the possibilities presented by large farm plots shown in the trailers.
CE has been described by the developers as a “Lovecraft-laden steampunk city-builder”. I’m not sure they could have moved the nerd-interest-needle any farther with a single description, but it definitely has my attention. Between the description and an interview wherein the team says “Things going spectacularly wrong makes a great story”, I’m hopeful that this will be a great entrant into the world of Dorflikes.