I feel like lately there has been a deluge of Zen games. You know the type. Games that eschew traditional design patterns built around completing challenges. Instead, these releases hone in on a compelling gameplay loop that allows players to zone out while passively engaging with other media, or chatting with a friend. Unpacking, Euro Truck Simulator, and Viscera Cleanup Detail are a few that spring to my mind, but I’m sure most folks could tell you their favourites if asked. With open ended objectives, players are given as much time as they need to see these games through, allowing for a truly relaxing experience.
Unfortunately, for as much as I’ve heard about how enjoyable these games can be, I’ve not had much luck with them. Every time I try to play one I feel a lump well up in the pit of my stomach as I think about how much work needs to be done. As you can imagine, that stresses me out. So, I’ll start trying to do everything as quickly as possible, but that causes me even more stress. By the time it’s all said and done, I look akin to some sort of tweaked out forest goblin, rather than a tranquil monk experiencing nirvana. These supposed Zen experiences end up being anxiety inducing nightmares for me.
So, when I finally found a Zen game that actually gelled with me I thought I was dreaming. At last! I can enjoy the chilled out vibes everyone else experiences. It is therefore with a degree of excitement that I present both a game which gave me many stress-free sessions, and one of the best games of 2022: Dorfromantik. Yes, that is seriously what it’s called. You say it like dwarf-romantic. Odd name aside, it is one of the most satisfying, and relaxing puzzlers I’ve played in a good long while, and is absolutely worth your time to check out.
What is a Dorfromantik though? For the board game enthusiasts among you, it’s a lot like Carcassonne. For the rest of you: it’s a game where players are given a stack of random hexagonal tiles that they place adjacent to one another. Each of the six sides ends in a biome, and players are awarded points for matching these biomes with neighbouring tiles of the same type. Quick example: if you have a tile that ends in a forest and connect it with another forest then you get more points compared to if you connected it to a village, or lake. It’s a relatively simple concept that can be understood within seconds of starting your first game.
Despite the initial simplicity, Dorfromantik hides a bit of depth. Players don’t just earn points by placing tiles: they also earn additional tiles. Every time a tile is matched perfectly on all 6 sides, an additional tile is added to the player’s stack. Scoring perfect tiles leads to a higher score, so players will naturally start planning ahead leaving gaps throughout their board awaiting the perfect pieces to manifest. What really gets me is how the tiles pop and play a jingle every time they match all of their neighbours. It’s just so satisfying, further encouraging players to seek those perfect placements.
Scoring plenty of perfects may be your focus, but Dorfromantik doesn’t want players to get too stressed out by it. As such, they’re given several supplementary goals throughout their time playing. These take the form of quests that ask for a set number of tiles of a specific type to be connected before rewarding the player with several additional tiles. As an example, players could be asked to connect 50 houses, so they’ll need to link up village tiles until they amass a township of 50 or more properties. These goals are often easier, and more immediately rewarding so they’ll dominate the early game until perfect placements pop off persistently in the later game.
If quests and scores don’t tickle your fancy, there is also a creative mode. Here players are provided an infinite deck to play however they see fit. The same mechanisms that drive the core of Dorfromantik are present, but quests are absent as they’re no longer needed to help stack the deck. Players can also opt to transition over from the standard mode to the creative mode once they run out of tiles, provided they want to continue playing the same board. Personally, I prefer the standard mode, but creative offers a similar sort of experience with absolutely zero mechanisms to stress the player out.
All said, do I recommend Dorfromantik? Yes. Absolutely. The simple premise of placing hexagonal tiles to match their neighbour is so easily understood, but immensely satisfying. There’s even a splash of hidden depth in the experience for players that want to plan ahead to pull off crazy wombo-combos of perfect tile placements. Dorfromantik is an easy game to recommend, and one of 2022’s finest. It’s well worth your while to check it out, especially if you’re in the market for a chilled out puzzler that’ll let you achieve Zen-like nirvana.