In a weird way, I feel ever so slightly sorry for the team of students who made Dorfromantik. Call it Joseph Heller Syndrome: first time out and they’ve made a classic. Does that leave them confused? Fearful? I suspect not, and this is why I only feel ever so slightly sorry for the team. The bad news is they’ve made something that will be hard to top, but the good news is that they have made something that will be hard to top. They have brought happiness to hundreds of thousands of us around the world. That kind of feeling sticks around, I think.
I play Dorfromantik an awful lot. It’s a hex-based tile game about making landscapes. You get a stack of tiles with little rivers, train tracks, forests, villages, grass or farmland on, and you plonk them down. Quests appear to connect certain amounts of a certain type of landscape, and these quests, once fulfilled, give you more tiles. Eventually, though, you run out. Game over. Defeat? Not really, because you’ve been making a landscape all this time, worrying about the details, and once you’re out, the landscape is finished. You get to see the whole thing as if for the first time. You made that!
Dorfromantik has just landed on Switch, which explains why I’m doing what I’m doing at the moment. I’m trying to unlock the Midwinter biome. Biomes are unlockable prizes that give the landscape a certain colour scheme or vibe. Midwinter does what you’d expect it to: it makes it look like winter. But more than that it transports me to Christmas, and to the bookshelves where the Christmasest book of all time lives, John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. Christmas in the countryside! Dorfromantik is the most Masefield game of all time when you’re playing with Midwinter. You hover above the landscape, above the woods and fields and little copses. I feel a bit like Santa.
Dorfromantik is very much at home on the Switch. It’s a glory to look into that screen, held in your hands, and see those winter forests and frost, of course. But also, because you’re freed of the antic speed of the mouse when it comes to placing tiles, Dorfromantik feels much more like a physical board game on Switch. The cursor moves more slowly, so the tiles you’re placing nestle into each slot as you pass with a speculative click. This in turn makes the whole thing feel more magical, because when trains appear with little smoke on the tracks of this physical board game, it all feels possessed by brilliant wintry spellcraft.
What I’ve really been thinking as I’ve been playing on Switch, though, is something that applies to all forms of Dorfromantik. I’ve been thinking about why I felt, very early on, that this game was special. And it’s not just the setting or the joy of watching a forest lazily grow across the land. It’s the fact that this is a tactics game – you can have tactics in how you approach it, so that makes it a tactics game to me – that is exciting and interesting and engrossing at every stage of the game itself.
This is something I’ve spoken about with a lot of puzzle, tactics, and strategy game designers over the years. Take a 4X – okay, strategy rather than tactics, but the point holds. Not all of those Xes are equally exciting. The first two, explore and expand, always fill me with giddiness. Not so sure about Exploit and Exterminate. And yet I know people who love those two and find the first parts of the game a drag.
Dorfromantik, however, has me from the first tile to the last. And it’s because the choices you’re making with each placement remain interesting. I think this is because they are a balance of aesthetic and tactical choices in the first place, and as the game expands, that balance may shift, but the parts of it – aesthetic and tactical – remain, just in different quantities. So early on I arrange my fields going off in one direction, trains off in another, lake over there, forest over there and it all looks really nice. I keep the forest going as I like it – tapering, and then blooming – and I wind my train tracks. But twenty minutes in, I’m struggling against my existing tile placements as I try to keep the flow of tiles going. It’s tactical at this point, but I still don’t want it look naff. The two concerns never completely over-rule one another.
I was playing the game this morning and coming to the end, and I’d bodged things badly – three different quests had created a bottleneck on a single missing tile space, and that tile would need train tracks, forest, and a river in order to fit. This is what Dorfromantik’s really getting at perhaps, I started to think: it’s a warning to not ask too much of the landscape. Enjoy it, but don’t overbusy yourself and the ground you live upon. To put it another way, Explore but don’t Exploit.