The majority of city builder games come with a generous helping of stress. Unsatisfied residents, death, disease, pollution, waste, looming energy crises… the list goes on. But with Dorfromantik, I've put it straight at the top of my list of the best city-building games because it comes with absolutely zero drama. Quite the opposite in fact. Dorfromantik provides you with a stack of tiles and asks you to create a world that's utterly peaceful, filled with forests, fields, rivers, and villages, with the only whiff of real civilization coming from the quiet puffs of smoke that will emerge from your train lines or tiny boats - but even those are more toy than transport.
In German, Dorfromantik literally means "village romanticization", and that describes this game perfectly. Created by a group of four German students, it's an arable idyll, built one hexagonal tile at a time. Almost board game-like in its functionality, akin to something like Carcassonne, each round starts with you being given 40 tiles to play with. These tiles will have different elements on them, from villages and woodland, to train tracks and river bends. Some are completely dominated by a single tile type, but the majority will have contrasting edges that you'll have to work to place in the most effective way.
In essence, it's just a case of matching tile types, using the edges to bring different locales together, and starting to build out your own little hexagonal paradise. The more tiles you successfully place, you'll start unlocking more tile types, including windmills, wild deer, and town squares. None of them will add any more complexity to your little world-building, just the option to make it all even more aesthetically pleasing.
And that's the real allure. The more you place, the more your little world grows, with just the vaguest hints of life emerging from within it. A deer nibbles on a patch of grass, a windmill's vanes turn slowly in the breeze against a sea of yellow fields, a flock of birds flies in a v from one side of the screen to another. It's a serene way to build that's the opposite of real-life - completely free of hustle, bustle, and drama. And it's utterly aspirational. I don't really want Let's Plays, but I have seen some people achieve the high scores that I could only dream of, with their tiles laid out for miles end to end, rivers weaving through like spaghetti dropped on a lush green carpet.
Although it initially won't seem like it, there is a scoring system at play in Dorfromantik too. The soothing music and tranquil aesthetics might be enough for many players, but if you want the tiles to keep replenishing, you'll have to get involved in how Dorfromantik's win conditions work. Some tiles will have numbers and a plus sign on them, which indicate that you need to connect at least a certain amount of additional tiles to that one. Spinning the tiles to make sure that you achieve a good flow for each of your areas, and there's such joy when you start building up a long chain of forests or villages, with rivers and train lines weaving through them.
Others though will need a specific number of additional connections, which is where Dorfromantik gets quietly complicated. It won't just be a set tile count in some cases, but a specific number of trees or tiny chocolate box homes to add. But again, there's no inherent panic in these tiny tick boxes, only the allure of more tiles to lay to keep advancing your little paradise.
There are also longer-term objectives to explore if you so wish, hidden in little circles that hover in the top right of your screen. They're much more fluid goals, like creating a train line with at least 50 tiles involved, and you'll find yourself ticking them off without even trying.
The only stress comes from desperately wanting to see a certain tile come up in the pile.
It's the kind of game where minutes turn to hours without you even realizing it, and when you do it's like exiting a meditative state. It's hexagonal peace and serenity in a world where that's seriously hard to find, and will quickly become your go-to escape after a busy day.
Dorfromantik is out now on PC and Nintendo Switch