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Tao plays: Dorfromantik
Pastoral tile laying goodness
I’ve always liked setting up board games. It may be that this inclination was nurtured through necessity, as I have two aunts that are addicted to playing Settlers of Catan. They rely on me to randomise and place hexagonal tiles quickly and efficiently, so that they can roll dice and feel the dopamine hit of receiving wood, brick, wool, grain and ore. There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing each unique island take shape; of seeing those endless combinations of beautifully illustrated tiles. A few times over the last 2 years I have been denied this very particular satisfaction. When limited to board games online, we all arrive with each virtual table already setup. This makes for lightning fast rounds, but removes the need for administering tokens and cardboard. This removes the simple pleasure of putting hexagons next to other hexagons.
Enter Dorfromantik. A game designed and created by four German students, its entire hook is centered around this single mechanic. You begin with a lone hexagonal tile on the map, and a stack of fifty other tiles. You take the tile on top of the stack and place it down next to your starting tile. Continue this rhythm until all the tiles in the stack are gone, at which point you will have a gorgeous map sprawled out in front of you. This game loop is made for avid tile placing fanatics such as myself. At the risk of stereotyping a great board gaming nation, I have a feeling there are many such people over in Germany. I can’t imagine a game which doubles down on such a beautifully simple loop coming from anywhere else, and I wonder whether the game was partly inspired by a lack of tile placing moreishness in recent times.
Every side of each tile is randomised to include a certain terrain characteristic: forests, villages, fields, train tracks and rivers. These features are drawn as if to imitate a paper cut out or pop-out card, a style reminiscent of Don’t Starve or The Flame in the Flood. The colour palette is wonderfully blended, mixing pastoral hues so that everything feels warm and welcoming. Animation is scarce, but just enough is added to make the land feel alive. Smoke puffs peacefully from chimneys; boats and trains chunter along waterways and tracks; and windmills revolve peacefully above fields of lavender and wheat. It feels like it has been designed by a talented children’s book illustrator, and that they have provided you with all the necessary materials to construct an idyllic world. Although you are the architect of this world’s geography, they retain creative control over the details, tone and style. You’re more than happy to let them have this responsibility, as you fondly observe the ever-growing map from a bird's eye view.
With the core mechanic and artstyle dealt with, we can move on to the puzzle these twin pillars support. You score points for every side of a tile that is placed next to a tile with the same terrain characteristic. For example, pop the village side of a tile down next to the village side of another tile and you’ll get ten points. If you manage to match every side of a tile correctly you’ll earn yourself a bonus sixty points, as well as a few extra tiles for your ever dwindling stack. Tiles might also come with a challenge to earn you more points and tiles. You could be tasked with growing an interconnected forest of one-hundred trees, by placing your tiles in such a way as to fill the required quota. These challenges become more intricate as the game moves forward. A set of fields might only need a specific number - any more and you’ll fail the challenge. Furthermore, some challenges will require you to close off the set, and you’ll need to surround them completely before you’ll be given a few more precious tiles to play with.
Following this pattern, Dorfromantik becomes a deceptively intricate puzzle. You can only continue growing the world for as long as you have tiles to do so. Since tiles are granted for perfectly positioned tiles and completed challenges, the potential opens up to keep playing indefinitely, so long as your tile placement is optimal. As with the best puzzles, this is far more easily said than done. As your borders expand, it becomes ever more difficult to know which challenge to focus on. You are only given a preview of the next three upcoming tiles, which is hardly enough to plan a long term strategy around. It’s unclear whether the game generates a set of balanced tiles in the background based on your challenges, but hedging your bets in the hope that certain tiles will eventually appear seems to be the most viable approach for chasing a high score.
There is a wonderful difficulty curve to each game of Dorfromantik. It’s initially straightforward, with the options for placement limited based on the small number of tiles in play. However, there’s a point at which you realise you’ve lost the thread of the optimal placement coveted in the early game. There’s only so many little forest, village and field borders that you can hold in your head at once, weighing the merits and demerits of shaping and expanding one over another. Your decision is further complicated by the placement of trains and rivers, both of which act as natural barriers in the world. Although both aesthetically and mechanically discouraged, other tile sides can be mismatched to serve a greater purpose. Not so with trains and rivers, which enforce placement of the corresponding tile. This encourages you to weave these opinionated tiles away from your main landmass to avoid conflict, but in doing so you forsake their other precious sides, which could contribute to filling other parts of the map.
I don’t in any way consider myself an expert Dorfromantik player. For me, wrangling with the late game puzzle quickly transforms into acceptance that my tiles will eventually run out. I choose a few of my challenges to focus on, but I don’t agonise over making the best decision on every turn. Similar to the zen mindset of the board game Carcassonne, you’re gambling that you’ll pick up the tile you need to complete the section of the map which is important to you. I find juggling these vague probabilities satisfying, but it won’t suit players who want a chess-like puzzle that it’s always possible to solve. My mind begins to wonder to the next game, where I can once again begin to simply turn over and lay down pretty tiles, creating a world that is different to any that has come before.