Game designer Manny Vega spent more than two decades in video games, surviving tours with Pandemic (Mercenaries 2), Midway (NBA Ballers), and Electronic Arts, among others. But the game he may likely be best remembered for doesn’t have any wise-cracking operators or fade-away jumpers. Instead it’s filled with charming, pint-sized dragons and a whole lot of love.
Flamecraft, the latest game from Cardboard Alchemy, is an absolute joy from start to finish. And while Vega’s keenly balanced systems hum and whirr in the background, it’s Sandara Tang’s soul-crushingly adorable art that steals the show. It’s the sweetest blend of art and design that I’ve seen in a tabletop game since Scythe, and a top-tier contender for my personal game of the year.
Flamecraft is a collaborative engine-building game where players work together to populate a Ghibli-esque town with artisan dragons. Together, these highly skilled little critters and their human companions churn out goods like metalwork, meat dishes, and fresh-baked bread. The puns are off the charts, with storefronts featuring names like Fogo de Char (a butcher), Gnome Depot (which sells cauldrons), and Saving Throw (for all your pottery needs). That same sort of playfulness extends to and through every element of the game — even the dragons themselves, with monikers like Cutlet, Dandelion, and Flint.
Back to that engine-building bit, though: Traditionally, in an engine-building game players are working by themselves using a stack of cards or a sideboard to create a set of buffs and bonuses that they can exploit to earn maximum points on their turn. As a side effect, some engine-building games can turn into fairly solitary affairs, with players sticking to their knitting, running the numbers on their side of the table in between turns.
Flamecraft pulls the action, and player’s attention, back to the center of the table with a singular engine — the town itself — that everyone contributes to on their own turn. None of the little dragons are static, either. They can move and migrate all across the board, torpedoing your best-laid plans to score big and opening up new opportunities for alternate strategies. Best of all, the huge variety of shops (28) and dragons (78) in the box all but guarantees that no two games will ever be the same. It’s both satisfying and thrilling, and rewards both planning and careful attention.
Like many European-style board games, there’s no direct conflict in this game. The points that players earn are a stand-in for reputation, and the most popular player in town is the winner at the end of the game. That helps to reinforce the appeal of the game for families. Flamecraft is an exercise in continual discovery, where the town itself expands with charming new shops and artisan dragons at every turn. Even the manual is a delight, with step-by-step instructions that easily introduce new players and an authoritative and easy-to-navigate FAQ detailing individual rules in the back.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the last decade or so about the onboarding new players into the world of modern board gaming. While Flamecraft is a bit too sophisticated to be called a children’s game, it absolutely fits the bill of an excellent gateway game. This is a AAA-quality experience that opens the door to a thriving and fascinating world — in more ways than one.
Flamecraft was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Lucky Duck Games. 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.