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A sprawling countryside landscape of villages, winding rivers, forests, and windmills Image: Toukana Interactive

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Dorfromantik’s masterful minimalism will soothe your soul

Zen and the art of understatement in game design

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The German word “dorfromantik” can be literally translated as “village romanticization.” Its real meaning is more ineffable. In a recent interview with Eurogamer, the developers of Dorfromantik (the game) said the word was “usually used to describe the kind of nostalgic feeling you get when you long to be in the countryside.” Dorfromantik is a state of mind.

That couldn’t be more apt for this exquisite chill-out game, which has just emerged from a year of early access. Dorfromantik is a peaceful game of tile placement: a sort of minimalist, meditative Catan. You build a landscape from hexagonal tiles, creating pine forests, patchwork fields, meandering rivers, spidery train tracks, and higgledy-piggledy little red-brick towns. (No roads, though.) And that’s it. There’s no resource production or cost to think about — no competition, no population, no politics, no win, no lose. You are scored purely on how well your tiles match up. Your only goals are harmony and beauty.

Playing Dorfromantik is relaxing. You could even say it is aesthetically cleansing. The landscapes, drawn in loose strokes and lazy splashes of pastel color, and animated with puffing steam engines, tugboats, and wheeling sea birds, are gorgeous and toylike. It’s just a nice place to be. Time doesn’t pass here, and nobody needs anything from you. Nothing is counting down while you consider placing your next tile; take as long as you like. The game plays just as well in five minutes between work sprints as it does across a zoned-in, blissed-out three hours.

A small landscape of hex tiles, with a town, a lake and a train track in the game Dorfromantik Image: Toukana Interactive

None of this is to say that Dorfromantik is aimless or frictionless, however. In fact, it’s quite tightly shaped and controlled. Developer Toukana — a group of four game design students from Berlin — blends elements of strategy and puzzle games, as well as solitaire-style games of chance, within a simple, finely judged design.

The tiles you place are dealt from a randomized stack that’s always dwindling. In order to keep your game going, your landscape growing, and your score going up, you need to earn more tiles by completing quests. These pop up upon placing certain tiles and ask you to bring together ever-larger numbers of each of the five landscape elements: dozens of water tiles, hundreds of houses, thousands of trees. One tile might ask to be joined up to at least 36 other houses, say, while another might require you to gather exactly 13 houses and no more. On completion, some quests raise a flag that rewards you with even more tiles if you successfully close out the town or forest or waterway by surrounding it with other landscape elements so it can’t be expanded any further.

This beautifully simple rule set has ramifications — and to Toukana’s immense credit, those ramifications operate aesthetically as well as in the realm of game balance. Dorfromantik encourages care and strategy, but discourages optimization. You can’t succeed in this game by building a sprawling metropolis in one corner of the map, a huge forest in another, and a giant farming prairie in a third. The tiles work against this notion, too, as they randomly mix landscape elements, prompting you into unexpected expansions and new designs with every quest you undertake. This is a very clean and logical system that has been designed to produce unexpected, organic outcomes. That’s an incredible achievement.

A large landscape of fields, forests and rivers stretches off into the distance Image: Toukana Interactive

The biggest challenges, initially, seem to be posed by the rail and river tiles, which can only be placed next to others of their kind or adjacent to specific terminal points. These can easily create blockages to the expansion of your map as you wait for the “ideal” tile to turn up in the stack. Unsightly knots and gaps appear, in place of the steady, even flowering that you’re instinctively looking for. The rivers and railways can introduce a niggling note of frustration to Dorfromantik’s calm and satisfying mental tune — but the game would probably be too easygoing without them.

After my first few games of Dorfromantik, the more I learned about the game’s design and tried to engage with it, the worse I would do. My scores kept going down; my stack kept running dry. What was going on? I was trying too hard to game the system. I was lumping too many quests together — four or five forest quests in a single body of trees — aiming for efficiency, but in doing so, breaking the game’s steady rhythm. This is not a game of ambition. It can be hard for a mind trained on video game reward systems to break the habit of escalation and learn its languid pace.

I eventually slowed down. I paid less attention to quests and more to tile-matching. You score points for matching the edges of tiles: tree to tree, house to house, grass to grass, and so on. A perfect match along all six edges rewards you with 60 points and an extra tile. More to the point: It looks better. Once I made harmony rather than efficiency my goal, Dorfromantik met me halfway; my scores were better, my runs longer, my maps more beautiful.

A huge strip of land with a river running straight through it, forests and fields on either side Image: Toukana Interactive

This play style is reinforced by one of the subtlest and best additions of the 1.0 update, which highlights matching edges more clearly and gives perfect placements a satisfying pop. Elsewhere, there are new music tracks, all belonging to the genre “extremely tasteful ambient that sounds OK with cows mooing over it.” You can now track more of the meta-goals that reward you with new tile types and cosmetic customizations, including the lovely seasonal “biomes.” And there are several new ways to play, alongside the Classic and anything-goes Creative modes that were already present in early access.

Quick Mode, for one, has a hard limit of 75 tiles and takes somewhere between 10 minutes and half an hour to complete. Hard Mode has fewer quests and more complex tiles to accommodate. Custom Mode allows you to tinker with the probabilities of the landscape elements, quests, and other parameters and then share your settings with other players, with or without the seed for the tile stack. My favorite, Monthly Mode, is a fixed seed and custom game setup that changes monthly, which should be a fun place for the community to challenge itself on the score leaderboards.

This is all welcome, and it makes Dorfromantik a more complete and rewarding experience. But really, this is one of those games for which early-access status was a bit of a misnomer, not because it had no room to improve or features to add, but because its premise was so fully, perfectly realized from the start. Add too much to it, or do anything that might disturb its delicate balance between friction and flow, between logic and naturalism, and it would have been ruined. But the Toukana team knows better than that. They are at peace, strolling through the countryside of the mind.

Dorfromantik is out now on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by Toukana Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.