First impressions of Gnomoria

Dig your way to victory but not too deeply, or too greedily!

Dwarf Fortress is a game I’ve so very desperately wanted to love and be loved-by in return. A blend of roguelike RPGs and city management you say? How could I not give it a go?! Disregarding the game’s crude ASCII barely-graphics, which isn’t a problem for me personally, to call Dwarf Fortress’ learning curve steep is akin to calling the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro “a bit of a climb”. Now I’m no stranger to brutal, unforgiving games as my love of XCom: Terror From the Deep will attest to. A huge part of scaling Dwarf Fortress’ learning cliff-face however is grappling with the interface, which is slightly more difficult than wrestling a giant squid underwater with your hands cuffed to your ankles. That’s just to learn the basics. If you want to master Dwarf Fortress then you’d better be prepared to put A LOT of time into it.

For people like me who don’t have a supercomputer for a brain there is now a rather spiffy little alternative. Gnomoria by Robert West is a sandbox strategy game for people like me, who want something approaching the depth of Dwarf Fortress without having to devote a year of our lives to penetrating a byzantine interface. Gnomoria takes the core concept of Dwarf Fortress, strips away a lot of the unnecessary complexity – I really don’t need to know Bolbi Hobbitbreath has broken the little finger on his left hand – and wraps it all up in charming pixel-art isometric visuals, courtesy of one of the team currently working on Terraria successor Starbound.

You don't HAVE to live underground like some bearded alcoholic yob.

As the invisible omnipresent caretaker of a bold band of gnome pioneers you’re tasked with leading them in the construction of a glorious gnome kingdom out in the harsh, unforgiving, randomly generated wilderness. Instead of controlling your gnomes directly however you issue general orders such as “dig this tunnel”, “milk this yak”, “build a distillery here” or “chop down these trees” and your gnomes will get them done when they’re able to. In the beginning your hard-working gnomes will literally be living in holes in the ground scrumping for apples and cobbling together crude furniture out of twigs. As you attract more eager mine-fodder to your kingdom, build up your infrastructure and expand your technology you can end up with something as grand as the halls of Moria from Lord of the Rings, minus the dead dwarves and goblins. You know, if you’re lucky.

While Dwarf Fortress is acknowledged as the game’s biggest influence there are also obvious elements of Sim City and especially Dungeon Keeper in there too. If you’ve played the latter you’ll find the perspective and a lot of the mechanics very familiar, particularly since the interface is also primarily mouse-driven. Right-clicking opens up a options menu allowing you to allocate tasks for your gnomes to do and you can issue these orders while the game’s paused. With a few clicks you can plan out a few corridors and rooms, designate areas for storage and sleeping, then unpause and watch your brave little settlers scurry off to work. Double-clicking on items brings up a little window telling you what it is and displaying any pertinent details, and in the case of gnomes it brings up their stats and what their job is. Performing some common tasks can be a bit long-winded with options nested within options within other options, but as interfaces go it’s far easier to grasp than hotkeys and reams of text.

Got wood?

For a game still only in alpha Gnomoria is impressively stable although that’s not to say it isn’t without its issues. As in many games with a fixed isometric perspective it can sometimes be difficult to see exactly where things are in relation to their surroundings, even with the ability to rotate the map in 90 degree increments. Sometimes I’d lay out plans for hallways that I thought lined up perfectly with others only for them to be off-target by a square or two, requiring another burst of mouse clicks to sort it all out. It’s not so bad when you’re designating stockpiles and construction on explored terrain since you can see the boundaries of the tiles, but unexplored underground areas are a featureless mass of grey or black. The lack of a toggle-able grid is a puzzling, easily-fixed omission that would really help alleviate this.

My second issue is with the AI of the gnomes, who are otherwise pretty good at doing what you tell them to, with regards to digging. Specifically digging holes which removes floor tiles along with the supporting wall beneath them. If you highlight a large area to clear out and leave your gnomes to just get on with it you’re likely to come back to a bunch of dead gnomes stranded on pillars of rock, having starved to death for want of a staircase or ramp to get back down with. Digging a massive quarry without floating floor tiles all over the place therefore requires a bit of micromanagement, and while I don’t mind that too much it can be a bit fiddly. Speaking of floors, there doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy way to replace the horrible dirt floors in my gleaming marble hallways with something more grandiose and appropriate.

Anyone touches my yaks, strawberries, wheat, cotton or apples and it's WAR!

Despite these very minor gripes I’ve had tons of fun with Gnomoria so far. If you’re one of those people who loved what they’d heard about Dwarf Fortress but could never get into it then this may well be precisely what you’re looking for. Beneath Gnomoria’s charming visuals and easier-to-use interface is a level of complexity deep enough to be satisfying without plumbing the insane abysses that Dwarf Fortress does, with its meticulous recording of individual dwarves’ broken finger bones and psychological problems. Like its chief influence and other immersive strategy games like Civ, Gnomoria is also one of those games you can start playing at 5pm with the intention of only spending an hour or two on it, and then all of a sudden it’s 2am and you’re panicking because you have work in the morning.

The alpha version of Gnomoria is currently available on Desura for a modest £5.59 “pre-order” that also gets you the full game when it’s eventually released. No firm release date is confirmed but developer Robert West is not planning an indefinite, prolonged alpha period, and firmly intends to support the game with free updates after release. If you’re a penny pinching little miser or just want to try before you buy you can download a demo version from the Gnomoria website. The demo is limited to six in-game days but you can continue where you left off if you decide to buy the full version.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and erect an impenetrable marble wall around my yak pasture to keep out those pesky goblin raiders. It should only take me an hour or so.

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About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.