'A Dark Room' Is the Most Fun You'll Ever Have with a Spreadsheet
A Dark Room withholds the one piece of information that is traditionally the very first thing established in the rulebook of games: the object of the game.
Beginning in a dark room that is cold, the player is given a single option to interact with the game by lighting a fire. I'm hesitant to say a great deal more about the game at this point, though, as I think a great deal of the experience of playing it has to do with with not knowing what you are getting into. So, if you haven't played the game and don't want to have anything spoiled for you, I would recommend that you stop reading right here and go try your hand at it yourself at one of the links above.
The reason that it is difficult to say why A Dark Room is so enjoyable is maybe related to its presentation. It is so simple. Essentially, featuring merely a text based game world, the game might best be understood at its core as a numbers game, a spreadsheet of sorts, whose mechanics largely concern resource management.
Following the initial lighting of a fire to transform “a dark room” into a “firelit room” and then several times stoking that fire, the player is introduced to another occupant of the room, a stranger that stumbles in declaring herself a crafter who will build things for you if you begin gathering wood from the forest outside of the formerly darkened room and if you continue to keep the room warm by stoking the fire.
As I mentioned, at this point the game becomes a resource management game in which you begin to gather basic resources (wood from the forest and meat and fur as a result of hunting there), begin building means of acquiring resources more efficiently, and building basic structures that will attract people to what slowly becomes a village that surrounds the now firelit room.
Now, I'm exceptionally drawn to resource management games, both as a video gamer and as a a board gamer (I'm an avid Eurogame player, loving games like Agricola, Puerto Rico, Caylus, and the like). However, while it clearly may be my enjoyment of economic simulations that drives me to having played A Dark Room fairly unceasingly for two or three days now, I feel like there is something else about A Dark Room that sets it apart from other resource management games, making it compelling for somewhat different reasons than what normally makes these games interesting.
I believe that the central mystery of the game is what drives the player's desire to persist in what otherwise seems like simple spreadsheet management. That there even is a mystery lurking at the heart of the game is something that doesn't become clear immediately, though. Indeed, it only does so essentially incrementally as more and more of the systems of the game are revealed through repetitions of the acts of resource management.
While the dark room is a place that you visit to craft and the forest becomes a place to gather resources and to assign your villagers to jobs that will help to generate your village's economy, eventually the purchase of a compass reveals a third and even larger space in the game world. The dusty path that is revealed by the compass leads to the ability to explore a world map that is essentially graphically represented in ASCII.
It is this revelation that changes one's understanding of the game entirely. Yes, this is a resource management game, but it is not one whose end goal is merely to create a thriving economy, as it would be in games like Tropico or most Tycoon-style games. This is a resource management game in which you manage those resources in order to support your ability to explore a world and come to understand it.
Thus, what A Dark Room does so beautifully is to wed the slow and initially incrementally revealed game systems (which then grow exponentially larger, just as a room becomes a village and then becomes a region) with the slow incremental revelation of its world (from room to village to region). Essentially, this is a game that withholds the one piece of information that is traditionally the very first thing that is established in the rulebook of a board game: the object of the game.
Instead, A Dark Room relies on the curiosity of the player in first exploring the systems of play made available to him or her, and then on an even greater curiosity that the player is expected to have about why and what significance those systems are supposed to have. This is something that most economic sims really never bother to spend much time considering.
Usually games of this sort have worlds that are painted on to them to give them atmosphere (Zoo Tycoon, Airport Tycoon, Restaurant Tycoon) and little else. In other words, A Dark Room assumes that the player will want to know the reason for managing these systems, and what is it that these systems support.
Since all of the game's systems exist in service initially (and in some way continuously) to survival itself (first, the player needs heat, then food, then weapons, etc., etc.), it is a game that recognizes that work is not an end in itself. Mere survival is not in and of itself interesting. At some point, human beings ask what the reason is that one continues to persist in surviving.
A Dark Room suggests that we work for, that we work towards, a desire for meaning and significance for our actions, that subsisting is not a sufficient motivation for existing. Thus, resource management is merely the substructure of a game of exploration and the illumination of a larger mystery. What is this world and why is it the way that it is?
I have not yet uncovered the mystery of what happened to the world of A Dark Room and why I am surviving in it. However, like everything in this game, its systems and its world, I'm being fed snippets here and there that have given me some ideas about what it is that I am managing my people, my materials, and my life for within the context of this slowly expanding game world. The object of this game is to find the object of this game, and I am completely hooked on the simple act of doing so.