When I started playing Dorfromantik I was transported to tabletop game nights with friends. Dorfromantik’s hexagonal environment tiles reminded me of hours spent strategizing over Terraforming Mars, swooping up an opponent’s greenery bonuses by plopping a city in the middle of their hard work. I also thought of Settlers of Catan, a game I love less for its strategy than for the way it brings out my friends’ most chaotic selves—my best memories include impractically long “longest railroads,” and friends amassing sheep fiefdoms after ill-fated dice rolls.
But the comparisons to Catan end with the visuals. Dorfromantik, which is currently available on Steam in early access, is more puzzle strategy than resource gathering. With a focus on tile placement, specifically, it’s a pretty genius little city-builder. It takes that mechanic that’s core to so many tabletop games and makes it the entire premise—a kind of distillation I’ve come to appreciate, thanks to similarly singularly focused games like Forager (which made the foraging grind its entire premise).
Dorfromantik’s closest relatives are tabletop games like Patchwork, in which players build a quilt with tiles that look like patches. This comparison has a different look and feel—but it’s fundamentally about making the best use of the tiles you’ve been dealt, with the objective of getting the highest score based on how well the new tile connects with the existing plot.
Dorfromantik tests your on-the-fly urban planning skills, with points for the way you piece together procedurally generated hexes of forests, houses, railroads, and more. The game offers players “quests” in the form of specific bonuses when a player creates a contiguous forest of 112 trees, for example. There are also non-quest bonuses, like when you’re able to match every part of the hexagon perfectly to the regions that abut each edge, as well as bonuses for when regions are neatly closed off. Completing tasks rewards players with more hex tiles—which lengthens gameplay—as well as opening up new tile types, like a depot that can connect railways with waterways.
It all feels designed to get players into a passive flow state, the same way I lost significant parts of 2014 to starting and restarting 2048, or sinking deep into rounds of Tetris. I played the Dorfromantik demo (which limited players to 75 tiles) more than ten times in one sitting, determined to beat my own high score. When I played the early access copy, which didn’t strictly gate my progress, I found I was restarting the game consistently too. I kept running out of hex tiles, thanks to the challenge of completing tasks to unlock more.
Like other popular “chill” games, ambient music and nature sounds like chirping birds and tiny moos make it easy to fall into the bucolic little universe, hexagon by hexagon. The visual aesthetics are also deliberately calming. The interface is pleasingly minimal and uncluttered—your town is built on a cream colored backdrop, and the tiles are queued on the lower right hand corner. The simple art style would be at home in an artist’s sketchbook, with a charming touch of animation—spinning windmills, little trains and boats that chug along as you build out transit lines—to bring your city to life.
These ambient trappings balance out what is actually a fairly challenging game. Because you can’t pass on a tile, you’re consistently making a series of tradeoffs. Do I want my forest to abut the forested house tile? Or should I point the forest tile outwards, connecting at the houses, in order to anticipate building a larger forest? Where am I supposed to put this tile that has both a railroad track and a bend in a river on it?
Though there isn’t technically a “fail state” that will immediately boot you out of the game, you can absolutely screw up the plans you’d envisioned by laying down a tile in a wrong spot. A successful or unsuccessful bonus is signalled by a visual marker alongside a victory or failure sound, the latter of which will haunt me for the rest of my days. But even this is a welcome challenge, one that encouraged me to fiddle with strategies, especially as the deck kept shifting. And if you’re not looking for that level of difficulty, the game has a sandbox mode that lets you lay down hexes to your heart’s content.
Like many of my favorite small strategy games, Dorfromantik activates what I think of as my meditative lizard brain, thanks to the tiny thrill of getting those hexes to fit together. It’s well-suited to casual engagement, and challenging enough for the score obsessed (myself included) to play it over and over.