Forests worldwide are threatened by various environmental and anthropogenic hazards, especially tropical forests. Knowledge on the impacts of these hazards on forest structure and dynamics has been compiled in empirical studies. However, the results of these studies are often not sufficient for long-term projections and extrapolations to large spatial scales especially for unprecedented environmental conditions, which require both the identification and understanding of key underlying processes. Forest models bridge this gap by incorporating multiple ecological processes in a dynamic framework (i.e. including a realistic model structure) and addressing the complexity of forest ecosystems. Here, we describe the evolution of the individual-based and process-based forest gap model FORMIND and its application to tropical forests. At its core, the model includes physiological processes on tree level (photosynthesis, respiration, tree growth, mortality, regeneration, competition). During the past two decades, FORMIND has been used to address various scientific questions arising from different forest types by continuously extending the model structure. The model applications thus provided understanding in three main aspects: (1) the grouping of single tree species into plant functional types is a successful approach to reduce complexity in vegetation models, (2) structural realism was necessary to analyze impacts of natural and anthropogenic disturbances such as logging, fragmentation, or drought, and (3) complex ecological processes such as carbon fluxes in tropical forests – starting from the individual tree level up to the entire forest ecosystem – can be explored as a function of forest structure, species composition and disturbance regime. Overall, this review shows how the evolution of long-term modelling projects not only provides scientific understanding of forest ecosystems, but also provides benefits for ecological theory and empirical study design.