Flamecraft is as Good as it is Adorable
I’ve been on an fairly long absence from writing reviews. Between two relocations and a new house, the parts of the WTMG inventory that stay with me saw a lot more travel than table time in the last six months. Now that we’re settled in and setup our dedicated game room, we’re back at it and just in time for Kickstarter season. What better way to start than the adorable fall season hit, Flamecraft from Cardboard Alchemy?
Flamecraft is a light to medium weight game that uses cute dragons and shops in a quaint town to create a resource engine accessible to all-players. The rules are simple. On a player’s turn, they must move their dragon worker to a shop on the board and either Gather resources from that shop location or Enchant the shop to make it more valuable for future use. Regardless of whether a player chooses to Gather or Enchant, the whole town benefits from their decision and every player will have the chance the leverage that growth for their own benefit. The challenge is understanding how to increase the town’s prosperity in a way that helps you, and not your opponents.
At the start of their turn, the active player must move their dragon meeple to a new shop in town. Once there, they choose one of two actions: Gather or Enchant.
Choosing to Gather grants each player resources equal to the number of resource icons present on the shop card and Artisan Dragons in that location. If the active player has an Artisan Dragon (brown backed cards) in their hand that matches an empty spot in the shop they occupy, it can be placed there to immediately gain the reward depicted on the slot. These rewards are most often a coin or Fancy Dragon, but on the occasion can include victory points or wild resources.
Each Artisan Dragon also has a fire up ability depicted by a small fire icon toward the bottom of the card. As the third step of Gathering, the active player can choose any of the fire up abilities from a dragon present in the shop. Depending on which dragon is selected, this could grant the the active player additional resources, an extra card play, or perhaps an extra fire up ability.
As the final step to the Gather action, the active player can trigger the ability on the shop card printed in a black banner. These are shop powers unique to each of the shops revealed after the starting locations. Once that’s complete, the turn moves to the next player.
Alternatively, players can choose to improve a shop through enchantments. After moving to a new shop, players can claim any of the five face up Enchant cards for victory points by spending resources depicted on the card. The card is then attached to the active shop to increase the number of resources that can be gathered from it later. Then, the active player can trigger the fire up ability of every dragon in the shop.
Flamecraft comes to an end when either the Artisan Dragon or Enchantment card decks are empty. At this stage, each player gets one final turn wrap up any of their outstanding objectives. Once that’s done, players total up their scores, adding one point to their score for each coin in their possession, and any points that might be awarded from end-game Fancy Dragons.
Fancy Dragons are the only type of card that players will keep in their hands other than the Artisan Dragons. Fancy Dragons are kept secret from other players and award victory points for completing particularly challenging objectives. Within the Fancy Dragon deck are two types of objective cards depicted by either a sun or a crescent moon. Fancy Dragons with a sun icon immediately award victory points when the player meets the objective criteria.
Fancy Dragons are helpful but won’t individually win anyone the game. Most of them score no higher than placing an Artisan Dragon on a late game shop location might. There are a few high scoring end-game cards, but they are highly conditional and have counterparts of other suits, increasing the likelihood that an opponent is directly competing against your own objectives.
For example, Umami is an end-game Fancy Dragon that awards the holding player with one victory point for every two meat Artisan Dragons (red suit) that have been placed in shops around town. If red Artisan Dragons are the majority of dragons in town, the player holding Umami gets and additional three victory points at the end of the game. It’s also very likely that another player might have Gemma in their possession, a Fancy Dragon that scores the same criteria as Umami but for the light blue suit of cards. Even though both players can earn points for the dragons placed in towns, only one suit can have majority and grant the extra three points.
End-game Fancy Dragons make it difficult, if not impossible to anticipate a who the leading player is until the end of the game, making for a very swingy experience. Other dragons, like Frazzle, require that any two shops in town contain one of each of the six Artisans suits at a time. Every player will be altering the contents of a shop on their turn making Frazzle’s objective and ever-moving target. It would only take a single player to suspect someone has Frazzle to actively undermine that goal and effectively make it impossible. The very nature of the shared town tableau reduces the amount of control any individual player has over the board state, increasing the difficulty of achieving already the challenging Fancy Dragon objectives.
At its core, Flamecraft is little more than a resource gathering and conversion game with extra steps. It’s simplistic and likely a bit on the lightweight side for regular hobbyists, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Much like Res Arcana before it, Flamecraft doesn’t need to be complex to be a great experience. Its design simplicity and number of action choices limited to two, Flamecraft is an easy game to teach new players, assuming they have a pre-existing understanding of some basic gaming mechanics like set collection.
At the start of Flamecraft, decisions are easy to make. Players have a hand of cards, need to collect resources, and have open shop spaces to place cards. Choosing to Gather is the natural and obvious choice early on. As the shops in town fill up, choices become more difficult and players need to rely more on the fire up abilities to rearrange placed Artisan Dragons. It’s this shift in the decision space which makes Flamecraft such an interesting game to me. The longer the game goes on, the more it becomes a puzzle of arrangement and resource generation.
Players who are looking for a deep game with a calculated strategy won’t find it here. After playing a euro like Trickerion: Legends of Illusion, Pax Pamir, or Vinhos my friends and I will inevitably talk about our strategies; what worked well, what went wrong, and what foolish mistakes I might have made. But in doing so, there’s learning opportunities and takeaways that empower us to make better decisions in the next game and enjoy a tighter and more heated competition.
Flamecraft’s randomly distributed objective cards and shops limit the effectiveness of those conversations and learnings. Insights or interesting approaches taken from the previous game may very well not be applicable to the next if the opening card deal isn’t in your favor. For many players, myself included, this isn’t an issue whatsoever and Flamecraft’s mid-to-light weight complexity can simply be enjoyed for what it is. But there’s a good chance that players looking for a more calculated experience won’t find as much joy amongst all these dragons.
I wanted to leave the most obvious topic for last, and you simply can’t do Flamecraft any justice without discussing it: the absolutely adorable presentation. This is without a doubt Flamecraft’s greatest strength. The box art alone is so visually appealing that its very presence on my shelf derailed game nights where we planned to play Wingspan or Argent: The Consortium. Upon arriving at my house, Flamecraft’s charming dragons sitting outwardly on my shelf would catch my guests attention so much that they would rather take the extra time to learn what’s in this mystery box than play a group favorite.
The Kickstarter edition is a wonderful presentation of dragon meeples and minis, metal coins, wooden resource tokens, and a neoprene mat. It’s absolutely a premium product. But even the retail edition with the meeples and all cardboard tokens instead of wood and metal, includes a beautiful neoprene mat as the board instead of cardboard. This is a recent trend that I’ve started to see emerging, and I’m here for it.
There’s certainly a case to be made about how much more space a rolled up mat takes in a box over a foldable board, but it’s a small price to pay for durability. Nemesis is one of the most played games in our collection, and the board is starting to show that with natural wear and tear on the board, and the unnatural split in the board from a friend who accidentally packed it away wrong. Life unavoidably happens to our precious games and I’ve since replaced the Nemesis board with a mat to extend the game’s lifespan. The inclusion of the Flamecraft playmat, event at the price of $40 for the retail edition is an absolute steal. Most playmats sold separately run from $20 – $40 USD any way. You’re practically spending $40 on Flamecraft’s mat and getting the rest of the game for free.
But as much as we love the overall production of the game, it’s the illustrations that really capture our hearts. Each of the Artisan Dragon suits are designed around a particular type of trade: alchemists for the potion resource (purple suit), bakers for bread (yellow), gardeners for plant (green), blacksmiths for iron (dark blue), chefs for meat (red), and jewelers for the diamonds (light blue). Each card includes a cute depiction of an Artisan Dragon enjoying their craft and an adorable pun for their name. Gardener dragons like Lotus and Twig are depicted tending to their beloved plants. Baker dragons like Loaf, Pan, and Cinnabun proudly show off their delicious looking baked goods. I could typically do without the puns but they so perfectly fit the illustrations and cute dragons that it’s hard not to appreciate the details.
But those are just the individual Artisan cards. Together as a composition of shops, town square, fountain, and dragons, this looks like a world I would want to live in. I love narrative games with monsters and combat like Gloomhaven, Nemesis, and Kingdom Death: Monster (to list some favorites), but no matter how much I love the game, never in a million years would I want to spend a day in any of those worlds. I would happily live out my entire life in this little town and never set foot outside its borders.
Tiny little dragons working alongside humans in crafts their passionate about, crafting high quality goods, and bringing life to a quaint looking town. The vibrant colors in the food illustrations, complete with wafts of steam rising from fresh cuisine, just screams inspiration from Hideyo Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Perhaps that’s why the artwork is so effectively engrossing. Despite its competitive design, Flamecraft’s entire aesthetic and theme is about making a small town come to life and adding the wonder of charming dragons to mundane every day tasks in a way that sparks our childhood imaginations of magical worlds.
Flamecraft isn’t a particularly deep game, nor does it particularly stand out for any reason beyond its incredible artwork. It won’t wow anyone with how its mechanics come together or replace another game in your collection. It’s too long a play time to be a game night warm-up or filler game, but not quite satisfying enough to headline for hobbyists. But I don’t believe it’s trying to do any of those things.
This is the game that entices new gamers with beautiful artwork to go deeper into the hobby than Catan with a friendly theme. This is the game that teaches newcomers the core concepts of engine and tableau building in a gentler way than Wingspan. Flamecraft to bring cozy charm to the shelves and hearts of gamers who are typically busy slaying dragons to learn how lovely life alongside them can be. Flamecraft may too light or random for hobbyists to consider owning, but its cozy theme is a welcoming change of pace, and after the last few years, everyone could use a friendly dragon in their lives.
Two, three, and four players.
One to five players.
60 – 90 minutes.
Thanks to the limited number of action choices, Flamecraft is a very easy game to understand, regardless of a player’s comfort level with board games. However, the Fancy Dragon scoring objectives are moving targets that can be hard to achieve in an ever-changing game state and is likely to disadvantage newcomers.
It can’t be understated just how cute the artwork in Flamecraft is. Sandara Tang’s art brings the dragons and shops in town to life in a remarkable way that is only made better by the generous offering of the vibrantly colored playmat.
Mileage may vary. Since getting Flamecraft no other game has hit my table as often for casual game nights with family, friends, and neighbors. Players who enjoy complex games who deep strategy exploration are unlikely to play anywhere near as often.