Life is hard. Sometimes games are hard, and that just reminds me that life is hard, and then everything feels too damn hard. Not early access city-builder Dorfromantik, though. That game is just the right amount of chill.
Dorfromantik came to Steam early access last week. You’re given a stack of hexagonal tiles with landmarks on them, like trees, fields, cities, train tracks, and rivers. You have to connect the tiles to grow your map, and you get points for connecting matching tile edges to sprawl out your forests or cities. Some tiles have requirements: Connect exactly seven tiles of train tracks, or make your city over 200 buildings big, and you’ll be rewarded with extra points or get more tiles added to your deck so you can keep building. But you can also just plunk stuff down where it looks nice while relaxing music and lovely sound effects play.
I played a whole lot of it this weekend, promising myself “just one more round” until two whole days had drifted away. There’s a meta-strategy to the game, alongside quests that persist between rounds to earn you new challenges and tile types. For instance, I’m currently obsessed with the challenge of getting a high score of 10,000. This pursuit has opened up a world of finicky strategy: Do I prioritise the extra points I’ll get for making a “perfect” tile match, even if that tile would help me complete a different quest? Do I close off a sprawling area of fields to get the extra tiles in my deck, or do I leave it open and bank on getting tiles that will give me points for continuing to grow it? Because my brain is broken from video games and their goals, I can drive myself up a wall in this manner, debating every decision until I realise I’m leaning forward in my chair, jaw clenched with stress.
But that’s not what Dorfromantik is about. In the midst of my strategy deliberations, I’ll come across a tile that would just look lovely in a spot that won’t give me a lot of points, and I can’t resist plunking it down. Areas will start to grow naturally as I pursue points, but then I’ll be taken by the aesthetics and start shaping them how I want, creating a little hamlet by a lake or a train line through a scenic wood, points be damned. You can min-max everything and gamble on the RNG, or you can just build a nice landscape and then sit back and watch the smoke rise from the houses, the train chug along its little track, or the boats navigate your canals. Once I saw a deer!
The developers say they’ll be adding new tiles during the course of early access. In its present state, they write that “The Early Access version offers enough content to enjoy for many hours and will bring you a beautiful, relaxing experience. Also it can be a great distraction while sitting through boring Zoom calls.” I spent a ton of stressed-out time chasing my 10,000 points, but I also tinkered with building my ideal pastoral landscape while listening to a podcast and baking some bread. Dorfromantik can be stressful if you stress yourself out, or it can be a pretty, compelling distraction where you let success come as it might. There’s probably a life lesson in there somewhere.