Dorfromantik’s masterful minimalism will soothe your soul

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

It could not be more appropriate for this exquisite chill-out game, which has just emerged after a year of early access. Village romance is a peaceful game with tile placement: a kind of minimalist, meditative Catan. You build a landscape of hexagonal tiles, creating pine forests, patchwork fields, meandering rivers, spider train tracks and tiny, tiny red brick towns. (There are no roads, though.) And that’s it. There is no resource production or cost to think about – no competition, no population, no politics, no victory, no loss. You score solely on how well your pieces match. Your only goals are harmony and beauty.

Player Village romance is relaxing. One can even say that it is aesthetically cleansing. The landscapes, drawn in loose strokes and lazy splashes of pastel colors, and animated with breathable steam engines, tugs and seabirds, are beautiful and toy-like. It’s just a nice place to be. Time does not pass here and no one needs anything from you. Nothing counts down as you consider placing your next tile; take as long as you like. The game plays as well in five minutes between work sprints as it does across a divided, blessed three hours.

A small landscape of hex tiles, with a town, a lake and a train track

Photo: Toukana Interactive

None of this is to say it Village romance is, however, purposeless or frictionless. In fact, it is quite tightly shaped and controlled. Developer Toukana – a group of four game design students from Berlin – mixes elements of strategy and puzzle, as well as solitaire-style games, in a simple, well-judged design.

The tiles you place are dealt from a random stack that always gets smaller. To keep your game going, your landscape growing and your score going up, earn more tiles by completing quests. These pop up when you place specific tiles and ask you to collect ever-increasing numbers of each of the five landscape elements: dozens of water tiles, hundreds of houses, thousands of trees. One tile may require to be joined up to at least 36 other houses, for example, while another may require you to assemble exactly 13 houses and no more. Upon completion, some quests raise a flag that rewards you with even more tiles if you shut out the city or forest or waterway by surrounding it with other landscape elements so that it cannot be expanded further.

This beautifully simple set of rules has ramifications – and to Toukana’s enormous credit, those ramifications work aesthetically as well as in the balance of the game. Village romance encourages care and strategy, but discourages optimization. You can not succeed in this game by building a vast metropolis in one corner of the map, a huge forest in another and a huge agricultural prairie in a third. The tiles also counteract this notion as they randomly mix landscape elements, encouraging you to unexpected expansions and new designs with every single task you take on. This is a very clean and logical system designed to produce unexpected, organic results. It is an incredible achievement.

A vast landscape of fields, forests and rivers stretches into the distance

Photo: Toukana Interactive

The biggest challenges initially seem to be the railway and river tiles, which can only be placed next to others of their kind or next to specific terminal points. These can easily create blockages for the expansion of your card while you wait for the “ideal” tile to appear in the stack. Unsightly bumps and holes occur instead of the smooth, even flowering that you instinctively look for. The rivers and railways can introduce a niggling note of frustration to Village romance‘s calm and satisfying mental melody – but the game would probably be that also relaxed without them.

After my first few games of Village romance, the more I learned about the game’s design and tried to engage with it, the worse I would do. My scores kept falling; my stack kept running dry. What happens? I tried too hard to play the system. I put too many quests together – four or five forest quests in a single group of trees – for efficiency, but by doing so I broke the game’s steady rhythm. This is not an ambition game. It can be difficult for a mind trained in video game reward systems to break the habit of escalation and get to know its sluggish pace.

Eventually I slowed down. I was less aware of quests and more into 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. When I first put harmony before efficiency to my goal, Village romance met me halfway; my results were better, my runs longer, my cards more beautiful.

A huge strip of land with a river running right through it, forests and fields on both sides

Photo: Toukana Interactive

This style of play is enhanced by one of the most subtle 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 that all belong to the genre of “extremely tasteful ambient that sounds OK with cows rumbling over it.” You can now track several of the meta targets that reward you with new tile types and cosmetic customizations, including the lovely seasonal “biomes”. And there are several new ways to play, along with the classic and all sorts of creative modes that were already present in early access.

Quick Mode, for one, has a hard limit of 75 tiles and takes anywhere 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 probability 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 startup and custom game setup that changes monthly, which should be a fun place for the community to challenge themselves on the scoreboard.

It’s all welcome, and it does Village romance a more complete and rewarding experience. But in reality, this is one of those games where the status of early access was a bit of a misleading designation, not because it had no room for improvement or features to add, but because its premise was so complete, perfectly realized from the start. Add too much to it, or do anything that could upset its delicate balance between friction and flow, between logic and naturalism, and it would have been destroyed. But the Toukana team knows better than that. They are at peace and strolling through the landscape of the mind.

Village romance 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 affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find further information on Polygon’s ethical policy here.