I see board games in the store and they always look so cool and then I buy them and bring them home, I’m so excited to open them, and then I play them, like, twice… This column is dedicated to the love of games for those of us whose eyes may be bigger than our stomachs when it comes to playing, and the joy that we can all take from games, even if we don’t play them very often.
Something I’ve discussed since the earliest days of this column is the role that art plays in what games I pick up and try. Naturally, that’s a bit like judging a book by its cover but, as I have discussed before, the look and feel of a game is actually every bit as important as how it plays. After all, you’re going to spend a lot of time looking at the game and futzing around with the bits, especially if you only play it, like, twice.
So I can say without any shame that the art by Sandara Tang is pretty much 100% what made me back the Kickstarter for Flamecraft. I think the folks at Cardboard Alchemy knew this, too, because the Kickstarter came with all sorts of extra odds and ends featuring her drawings of the game’s incredibly cute dragons, from bookmarks to enamel pins to coasters.
And the dragons are adorable, each one ready-made for treatment as a plush toy and filled with individual personality. Plus, there’s a lot of them. However, the selling point of the art doesn’t end with the dragons. Tang’s art is represented throughout, from the shops that make up the little town to the roll-out neoprene mat where the game is played. It’s all bright and cheery, with a Europe-by-way-of-anime feel like the kind of thing you might find in, say, Kiki’s Delivery Service – there is even what feels like an explicit nod to that classic anime in the art for the Pizza Coven shop.
As important as art is, though, it’s only part of what makes up a game, and while it’s what got me to back this Kickstarter, if the game didn’t play well, all I’d have would be an unwieldy art book in a box. Fortunately, the game, which is designed by Manny Vega, offers what feels like it will be a lot of opportunities for fun. In fact, it plays much like a former column favorite, Ex Libris.
The premises of the two games are even quite similar, with books being replaced here by dragons. Once again, you are trying to become the preeminent something in a small fantasy town. In this case, that’s “Flamekeeper,” basically the person who helps wrangle all the friendly little dragons who add panache to the various shops in town. As the game goes along, you pop around town, picking up goods (represented by tokens) from the shops, dropping off dragons who add more goods and other various effects, or spending the goods you’ve collected to enchant the shops, which causes them to produce even more goods.
The only resource that’s actually worth anything, though, is Reputation. You get Reputation in all sorts of different ways, and record it by moving a wooden token around a track in the middle of the neoprene mat. When the game comes to an end, it’s the person with the most Reputation who comes out the winner. All the game’s (many) other moving parts are just a means to that end.
And if there is a significant flaw in Flamecraft, that’s where it lies. The game’s core mechanic is simple, but there are countless little things happening all around it. Each dragon has its own unique ability that can be used when you “fire it up.” You also start the game with one secret “fancy dragon,” and can gain more as the game progresses. These add hidden ways for you to score more Reputation.
As shops fill up, new shops are put out into play. At least from a preliminary exploration of the experience (I have, after all, only played it, like, twice) Flamecraft feels a bit too busy for its simple core mechanic. It needs perhaps just one fewer moving part.
Now, that could simply be an issue of a learning curve. It could be that the game would click together better after a few more sessions. But I’m also comparing it to Ex Libris, which is actually more complicated, but feels like it fits together ever-so-slightly better in some indefinable way.
Take the neoprene town mat in Flamecraft, as a microcosm. It’s a clever and aesthetically pleasing way to track the game. There’s a long town square where you can put cards and such, as well as a spot for each of the various shops to go. The art on the mat matches everything else nicely, and you can roll the mat up and store it in a clearly marked spot in the box.
At the same time, though, the mat is perhaps a bit too long, making it difficult for people at one end of the table to see what’s happening at the other end. And while there’s space for most of the game elements, there’s not any place on the mat to put the various goods tokens, of which there are, necessarily, many.
Flamecraft obviates some of these concerns with the inclusion of some useful play aids, including cards that helpfully summarize the order of gameplay, what you can do on your turn, and the abilities shared by the various dragons. It helps, and maybe in time it will help enough. For now, though, Flamecraft remains a delightful yet ever-so-slightly muddied take on the resource management genre.
Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, game designer, and amateur film scholar who loves to write about monsters, movies, and monster movies. He’s the author of several spooky books, including How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. You can find him online at orringrey.com.