22 December 2022
The cutest game of the year is coming in hot
Words by Christopher John Eggett
Cute dragons named after desserts (crème brûlée), or things that people name their pets (Potato? I can imagine it) and a Kickstarter campaign full of plushies, pins and add-ons are the way I was introduced to Flamecraft. And while this game’s humble beginnings started with the adorable dragons themselves beyond all this cuteness is a truly great game (read our review on p58) – but where did it all spring from?
Flamecraft is an idyllic game of retail. Players build up small shop tableaus of dragons whose actions you’ll take around the board. You grab some resources and buy enchantments, but importantly never own a single shop itself. There are no landlords here, or even haggling over the price of French toast (the food item, not the dragon). This is an economy of kindness. Players are here, much like the dragons, to make their little community better. Plus, the nicer you are the most points you’re going to get, and that might win you the game.
There’s lots of games that try and use their soft fuzzy underbellies and large-eyed looks to lure us in cynically. You know, games about cats or unicorns and whatnot. They appeal to a certain tweeness within the ‘nerd’ community that many happily embrace. Flamecraft however is the real deal – this is a game with a good heart. It’s plentiful in its resources and the closest thing to a ‘tax’ that anyone pays is gifting an opponent materials or cards to gain points or use the shop slot they’re on. Everyone wins (except those that literally don’t).
This kind of kindness in games is underrated. So often a market based Eurogame will sneak in a bit of nastiness, or frame any costs to players in a way that suggests someone is getting one up on another. Sacrifices are made for a longer term gameplan. Here, not so much.
We settled down with Manny Vega, the game’s designer, to work out the game’s origins and why a game about small dragons doing useful things has hit home with so many gamers.
Hello, would you mind introducing yourself?
Hello there. So yeah, my name is Manny Vega, I’m the designer of Flamecraft and the Sparkle*Kitty series of games. I’m a bit of a freshman in the boardgame arena, but I’m pretty happy with how things have been going so far.
What was the inspiration for Flamecraft?
During the production phase of Sparke*Kitty Nights, we needed some realistic illustrations for a special dragon card and we wanted it to be epic. So, I did what I always do, I started searching Art Station and Deviant Art for some of the most badass dragon artists around. I would say I was about one day into the search when I realized that 70% of the dragons I instinctively clicked on were by an artist named Sandara Tang. I decided to message her out of the blue, and scored big with some amazing dragon artwork and a cool connection. Then a few months after the game shipped, I started seeing a drawing of a small dragon sitting on a waiter’s arm, torching a creme brulé, and I just instantly fell in love with it. To me it oozed charm and was such a fresh take on the idea of dragons as fire-breathing menaces. It was a crazy coincidence that these cute, cartoonish dragons were also created by Sandara and that she trusted my crazy idea to make a whole village of dragons helping humans make cool stuff.
Tell us about the world of Flamecraft?
I think the main thing we tried to focus on with Flamecraft was that these dragons enjoy making things and helping everyone around them. We wanted to stay away from conflict as much as possible and just let the dragon personalities shine through in the art and adorable names. Even before they came into the town to mingle with humans, we wanted to establish that dragons just love using their abilities to make friends but humans didn’t quite understand them. The turning point for this world was when some people found that they could actually understand what the dragons were saying and feeling, and could translate for them. These became the Flamekeepers, which are the roles the players take on. During the campaign we got to tell a bit of the story through the starter dragons (the first to arrive in the human villages) and there’s even more details in the art book as well.
Can you give us a rundown of the main loop of the game?
Every turn the player must move to a new shop in town. There they decide to either Gather or Enchant for their action phase.
When you Gather, you get all the goods produced by the shop, including any dragons already placed there. You may then place a dragon from your hand in a matching open slot to gain some rewards and then “fire-up” any one dragon at the shop. Fire-up is a term we came up with for how a Flamekeeper inspires the dragon to use their special ability. At the end, if the shop also has a special ability, the player may activate that as well.
On an Enchant turn, the player can turn in all those goods they have gathered to craft a special recipe that grants them reputation points and sometimes more rewards. They then place that item on the shop to improve it, and may fire-up ALL the dragons there.
There are also Fancy dragons in the game, and they don’t generally work as much as they like to party and reward you for doing wild things. The fancy cards act as hidden goals that the players can complete to score reputation points during, or at the end of, the game. In the end, the player with the most reputation points is the winner!
What are you most proud of within the design of Flamecraft?
The bulk of the strategy lies in finding the right combos that can keep you scoring with every turn, while keeping in mind that every move you make improves the town for everyone. I set out to make a game where players had to share in order to progress, and I can tell you it was not easy. A few times we debated hotly about whether or not it needed to be cooperative to actually force people to share, but I think the subject matter actually helped in bringing people together. There are still some ways of maximizing gains and minimizing losses, but our players were happy to find Loaf the perfect place to stay, or have Venti move all over town. I just love seeing the town grow with everyone’s turn, and how players find new and interesting ways of scoring big by giving other players fun opportunities.
Tell us about your favourite combos in the game? What’s the most ‘unexpected’ thing to have happened?
The thing that drove us crazy for a good chunk of playtesting was the original Scale Mail Post power which allowed players to place an Enchantment on any shop from the post office. It seemed like a cool idea, until everyone was at the post office shipping enchantments all over and firing three dragons each time. It was a seemingly benign power, but it made us realize that a big part of the balance was having the starter shops without powers because they were likely to fill up first, making them ideal enchant spots. Meanwhile, all shops that came after had powers, making them great for gathering, and also it filled them up. I credit the original Scale Mail Post for helping us nail down the perfect pacing for introducing new shops into the game and ramping up the difficulty.
My favourite shop, hands down, is Guilty Treasures because it always causes a flurry of activity as players are trading coins for points or trying to get the most coins, just like kids in a candy store. My favourite combos are when you line things up so you can Enchant a shop, fire up the dragons in a way that you get all the items you need to enchant next turn, and complete a fancy. It’s extremely satisfying to pull off.
Let’s talk about the art – I understand you picked the artist and the style?
I fell in love with Sandara’s art as soon as I saw it. The style was different than her usual fully painted work, but she developed it well before I got there. We worked together to get the right feel for the dragons, and I actually do all the icons and graphic design. You can’t just have sweet little bread dragons without including the adorable toast tokens.
There’s something a bit ‘collectable’ about the design of the dragons, was that intentional?
Not really, mostly because the idea was that you weren’t collecting them as much as finding them perfect homes on the town mat. People love to hoard the goods and coins for some reason, but they love seeing all the dragons line up as the town grows.
What was the biggest challenge in creating the game?
I like to make games that bring new people into the hobby and can still excite the “artisan” gamers. This project was tough to get a handle on because Covid made it difficult to find fresh faces and get their feedback. We relied a lot on friends and family at first, but eventually we had to get it out there. We were pleasantly surprised by the reactions we were getting by both sides of the coin. Like I was saying before, the key was in slowly rolling out the shops so players could learn them one (or two) at a time while allowing gratuitous potential for sick combos.
What’s your favourite dragon here, and why?
DEATHFANG. The name was a joke I made about how she was just hardcore and worshipped the ancient dragons, so took on the old ways with her name. This kind of snowballed into all the crystal dragons being “old-school” and taking ancient names as well. The kicker was when Sandara drew this amazing “goth” crystal dragon with dark lines and that “what are you looking at” stare. She is my favourite dragon bar none, and there’s a dragon named after me!
What’s coming next for you as a designer?
Working hard on a Flamecraft sequel mostly. It’s such a rich world to play with, and I know we are far from done seeing everything it has to offer. That said, I do have a few other games that just need to find the right home. If you know of any Flamekeepers that can understand publisher dragons, point them my direction.
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