I’ve been yearning to talk about turning lately. This might be because it’s a big part of Dorfromantik, the top-down, early access puzzle game from Berlin based studio Toukana Interactive. Turning tiles, turning the camera, turning my life into that of a full-time city planner. Maybe the cogs in my brain have been turning too much. Dorfromantik has a steady grasp on my life and I’ll tell you a secret – I absolutely love it.
You start each game of Dorfromantik with a stack of 30 hexagonal tiles, with a generic one already placed at the board’s centre, and must build an entire, tranquil landscape. Placing down tiles opens up more tile spaces, as you start building in different directions of the board. Tiles come with various different geographical features, such as houses, trees or rivers, and often have two or three of these at once. Eventually, as you place tiles down and start grouping things together, like keeping a railway unbroken across several tiles, quests will appear. Which is when things get interesting.
Quests pop up above tiles on the map, showing a symbol and a number. 30+ within a house sign, for example, means you need to expand the group of houses to an area of at least 30 connected ones. Dorfromantik communicates it all clearly without the need for complex tooltips. Hovering over the quest shows you which directions you can build in to maintain progress, and the game kindly tells you if a quest would be failed, completed or whittled down by only provisionally placing, rather than confirming, your tile selection.
Some quests require exact numbers of a feature, while others require closed groups with no more avenues for expansion. The latter predominantly emerge later in the game, being more challenging but, equally, more rewarding. Finishing them puts a cute little flag on the board, a nice touch from Toukana who have clearly put a lot of thought into the design of the game.
Throughout your tile-wrangling, you can't help but notice the refreshing art style of the pieces, with shades and renders that look plucked straight from an artist’s sketchpad. The soft pastel colours add warmth without being distractingly glaring, heightening the sense that Dorfromantik is a game imbued with calm. I feel an overarching sense of tranquillity when I look at the map - which helps, because you need to be in a relaxed mental state to plan your moves. The game aids you with a Tetris-style preview in the bottom right corner, so you can think three tiles in advance and leave the rest up to chance.
Quests reward you with more tiles, which you can use to complete more quests, and so on and so on. There are also three long term tasks on the top right corner, which will grant you special aesthetically pleasing items like windmills, boats and water train stations. None of it would be out of place in a board game, and I get the feeling Dorfromantik is inspired by tabletop games like Carcassonne and Settlers Of Catan, both also made in Germany and involving scoring tiles to earn points.
While you’ll obviously be trying to complete as many quests as possible, don’t fret if you fail a few. There are no penalties for failed quests and as counter-intuitive as it may sound, failing quests can actually be beneficial. The game is programmed to spawn quests when you’re low on them, so it’s best to tank ones you don’t like quickly as opposed to keeping them ongoing.
Navigating Dorfromantik can at times be a challenge of its own. You can use either the mouse or the keyboard for most things, depending entirely on personal preference. As boards inevitably get bigger, you’ll find yourself zooming in and out as you consider where to place tiles, as well as frequently rotating the camera. The left click is currently the only way to place down a tile, but dragging it also moves the camera. If you’re a cursed klutz like me, you might accidentally misplace a tile, and there's no undo button.
Where the game thrives is its allowance for different playstyles. The importance you place on strategy on depends solely on you. There is no time limit; take as much or as little time as you need. Personally, I’m a slowpoke who doesn’t pay much attention to the score, so much so that I wouldn’t mind if they had an option to remove it entirely. I’m just here for the chill vibes and a good time.
I largely play Dorfromantik as a town-builder, treating settlements as if they are real places with real people, that require a water supply, some crops to eat and a good transport system. Naturally there's a few random houses near the woods, but to me those are people who want to escape the busy city life and settle down in the country. To you they might be murderous loners, though – it’s all about perspective.
The tiles snap together beautifully, with the map morphing to what you place down. Each game is truly unique and if every player were given the same tiles their boards could sill look unfathomably different. Nonetheless, one of my gripes with Dorfromantik is that after a few games I grow tired of seeing the same things.
The game currently has three unlockable biomes: lavender, fjord and blossom, but none of the differences feel that impactful. Some new locations would be tremendously welcome, and as bucolic as the default nondescript European setting is, for me its novelty has worn off. How cool would it be if we went to somewhere tropical, desert-like or ice themed? We could start building rainforests, form colonies of igloos, or even build archipelagos in a water-themed expansion. And while I'm building a wishlist, more variaton in the soundtrack would be nice. I like the birds cheeping, but the cows mooing are a bit much.
But I hate to be pernickety, especially when this game makes me feel so zen, and maybe there are new biomes planned for further down the development road (a Creative Mode is "coming soon", though I haven’t the foggiest clue what it'll be - perhaps the pointless, infinite mode that I want). But the rest of the game is so cohesive, and is an impressive display of the teamwork of 4 Game Design students who made Dorfromantik possible. They've succeeded in making a game that is both a joy to look at and lovely to play. Dorfromantik is already a charming experience and I can’t wait to see how it shapes up moving forward. For now, I’ll turn back to my fictional world. My fictional people need me.