Dwarf Fortress. If you don't know what it is, you should, so I'll start out with a few links.
Dwarf Fortress Homepage
Dwarf Fortress Wiki
Dwarf Fortress Graphical Pack
Interview with Tarn Adams (Dwarf Fotress developer)
It had been a while since a played Dwarf Fortress. You can see my previous blog entries on the subject here.
But recently there have been a number of changes, the most notable of which is the addition of a z-axis! That's right! Now your Dwarves can merrily burrow their way through three dimensions rather than just two! It adds a whole new dimension to the game (both figuratively and literally)! You can do all sorts of interesting things such as building channels with water and then adding grates on top so the Dwarves wont fall in, multi-level rooms with balconies, pits to trap enemies in and even free-standing three dimensional structures!
The z-axis has also led to a lot more variety in starting areas. For my first game, I just went with whatever region popped up first and found myself on top of a low plateau next to a secluded valley. I immediately dug downwards and began construction of my fortress.
This change, along with a host of others has made the game much more interesting. But one of the biggest hurdles has been the horrifically cluttered ASCII graphics and the obtuse, inconsistent and confusing interface. Well the interface is pretty much the same, though some additional management options give the player more control over how the Dwarves interact with the environment and items. However, the ASCII graphics can be replaced by using the graphics pack linked above (the pack also includes the latest Dwarf Fortress release so you only have to do one download). The screen still looks very cluttered, and there aren't cute little pixel drawings for every item type due to certain limitations, but having that readily identifiable visual reference makes a huge difference!
Since it's an alpha version and still under development (at one point in the interview, Tarn mentions that he considers the game ~27% done), new features are constantly being added. He's currently working on having historical armies and figures interact during world creation, which will then extend to allowing players to build their own armies during Fortress mode which they can then use to have an effect on the world outside the immediate fortress area.
If you have a chance, I recommend listening to the interview linked above. It's pretty long and very interesting. One part in particular stood out for me. Tarn didn't seem to really understand the concept of sharing a game world online and dismissed any discussion about an MMO Dwarf Fortress. He seemed to assume that it would be about fighting directly with other players. But I think just the ability to find other peoples fortresses in adventure mode, or to try and reclaim one that was abandoned by someone else would be an incredible experience. It was also a bit strange to hear him say that he had no interest in selling t-shirts or other such memorabilia because he didn't want to commercialize the game. I'm not really sure how slapping an ASCII dwarf onto a shirt with a pithy saying and allowing those hardcore fans (such as myself) to purchase it would be a bad thing (websites like Cafe Press will even deal with all of the hassle of printing, mailing and taking payments). But this just seems to be another area where the developer is a bit out of touch with the modern Internet.
But on to the good stuff! Here are some other changes that I noticed with the recent versions.
Stockpile configuration: You can micromanage this to a very detailed level now. For example, you can make a 'refuse' pile that only accepts shells.
Mayors are now elected: Not exactly sure how this works, but the Dwarves seem to have an election once a year deciding who will be mayor. Kind of interesting as different mayors will have different personalities. But annoying in that I have to reassign the mayor's rooms everytime a new one is elected. It would be nice if I could assign a room to a Noble position rather than to a specific dwarf.
The addition of outdoor farming and the ability farm underground with soil layers: Farming is much, much easier now. Unless you start in an area that doesn't have soil, you don't even need to worry about using floodgates to create mud.
Ore is harder to find: And the various ore types are not guaranteed. And since you have ~16 levels of ground to search through, exploratory mining shafts are even more important than it was before the introduction of the z-axis
Ability to melt down items: Great for getting rid of all that junk the Kobold thieves leave lying around.
Rivers, chasms and magma are no longer givens: In fact, I had none of the above on my first fortress.
Ponds and water flow: Your ability to interact with water is much more interesting. And water tiles have depth. A depth of 1 is basically just a few muddy puddles while a depth of 7 is deep enough to drown a dwarf. Water flows and responds to terrain changes as you might expect. You can completely drain ponds as well as creating moats or other such creative ventures.
Overabundance of rocks: WAY too many rocks are created during mining. Sure they're useful to your Dwarves, but they are in serious overabundance.
Job types have gotten more granular: Now including such fun tasks as cheese-making, milking and bone-crafting!
Ability to forbid items: This can be useful in a variety of ways. For example, you can forbid Dwarves from trying to interact with a dead dwarf and their equipment because its near a bunch of angry elephants.
The game still has its issues. In addition to the painful interface and massive volumes of rocks cluttering every hallway, CPU lag has begun to rear its ugly head. Its definitely noticeable once your fortress reaches a certain size. I guess trying to path 80 Dwarves through a three-dimensional space takes a lot of calculations. Supposedly you can alleviate it somewhat by turning off various options in the config file such as weather and temperature calculations, but I haven't tried any of that yet.
Overall, Dwarf Fortress is still an amazing adventure with an astounding amount of variety and depth. I can't recommend it enough if you have interest in this sort of game and also have the time and patience to learn how to play it (referencing the wiki is pretty much required). And its also important to remember the unofficial motto of Dwarf Fortress; Losing can be fun!