Review copy provided by developer
I love building games, I love puzzle games, and the combination of the two have produced some of my favorite experiences to relax with ever. That’s right where Dorfromantik falls, with its genius combination of challenging mechanics and practically no pressure to get them right. It’s rare to find a puzzler that lets you engage with it entirely on your own terms, but you’re really quite free here to go as light or as hard as you want. There’s even enough to work with here where you can play rounds with any number of goals in mind, from chasing high scores to unlocking new tiles to just making the prettiest landscape you can manage. Any part of that would make a fairly compelling game on its own, but here, you’ve got a lot to look forward to no matter how you approach it.
I’m not even going to hazard a guess at why this one’s called “Dorfromantik”, as there are clearly no dorfs and no romance that I could find. Each run of this puzzler hands you a stack of hexagonal tiles with different features on each edge. You may find grasslands, towns, forests, rivers, farms, railroads, or a mix of elements on each tile. Your job is to place those tiles to form a landscape, ideally with as many matching edges as possible. It sounds a bit like Carcassonne but it isn’t, really. Outside of water and rail features, there are no rules about where you put anything. However, you gain bonus points and extra tiles for making “perfect” hexes that match their surroundings on all sides. Also, matching edges makes everything look nicer, and in a game this pretty, you had better be playing for aesthetics.
Some tiles also come with missions, in the form of numbered tags. These tags tell you how many of the tagged feature (houses, trees, fields, etc.) need to be linked together to complete the mission. If there’s a plus sign, you just need to link up at least that many features, otherwise you have to hit the number exactly to get credit. Tags can also come with little flags that give you a follow-up mission to close off the linked features. Completing these missions give you plenty of points and a lot of extra tiles, which is your main way to keep going. After all, the game ends when you run out of tiles, so the more missions and perfect tiles you complete, the longer your run will last.
I think it’s really important to recognize that the game never really pushes you to do any of this. There’s no pressure to place tiles perfectly, no unpleasant effects or alerts when you fail to match edges. The indicator showing how many tiles are left doesn’t do anything other than turn a bit pink when you get to the last few tiles, and it’s so unobtrusive that I sometimes forget to even check it. You do, however, get a lovely bit of fanfare when you do complete missions and perfect tiles, so it’s really only positive reinforcement here. If you build things way out, you’ll also uncover hidden tiles with unique features on them. Linking these up and completing their mission unlocks new challenges that are tracked passively as you play, like making giant forests or placing consecutive matching pieces. These in turn unlock new colors of tiles and even new features that can show up in your deck, so the game experience grows as you get deeper and deeper into it.
This is the beauty of Dorfromantik, that it has all these missions and challenges and mechanics going on, and still never demands you to engage with any of it. You’re absolutely free to start a run and just place tiles wherever you feel like, matching or not, until you run out. Some of the challenges like placing tiles without rotating them even encourage this in a way, giving you unique twists on the gameplay that you can take or leave as you like. This extends to the many game modes that have made it in with the full release, including several challenge modes, a custom challenge mode where you define your own rules, a hard mode, and, of course, a creative sandbox mode. Perhaps most telling of how much the developers want you to chill and enjoy the game is that, whenever you run out of tiles in a regular run, you are offered the chance to continue playing in creative mode.
I’m not sure a game so relaxing and low-key would work without a suitable look and feel, but Dorfromantik hits all the right notes there, too. The simple 3D tiles and animated wildlife do so much to provide a sense of comfort and familiarity, and the way some features like water morph along the edges to make more natural-looking lakes and rivers is a lovely detail. I especially like how the color palette of your tiles changes as you go further and further from the start in different directions. The sound effects are rich and satisfying, and the music is just the right kind of subtle cheer that this game needs. If it seems like I’m gushing about this game, it’s because I want everyone to have a title like this to kick back and relax with whenever they want. Cozy experiences like Dorfromantik don’t come along every day, and they deserve to be celebrated when they do.