What if dragons weren’t all massive, dangerous beasts intent on kidnapping maidens, eating livestock, and stealing gold? What if, instead, they were small, friendly creatures who delighted in using their fiery breath to help humans in tasks like cooking and metalworking? That’s how they’re portrayed in the world of Flamecraft, a board game in which players represent Flamekeepers, people skilled in attracting, training, and placing these artisanally skilled drakes in shops and craft establishments. It’s down to you to grow your reputation and resources by making good matches between dragons and their new owners in the hope of being named the Master of Flamecraft.
What’s in the Box
There’s no board in Flamecraft: instead, the action unfolds on a neoprene mat that’s rolled up to store in the box. This mat is over a meter long when unrolled, which may be too much for smaller tables. Fortunately, you can play the game perfectly well without it, as it’s only used for organising the other components and tracking scores. It does look great on the table though, representing a shopping street with a fountain and park.
Most of the rest of the contents are cards of various sorts. There’s a deck of large shop cards and two decks of dragons: artisans, who work in the shop and “fancy” dragons that score you extra points. All of the cards are well illustrated in a compelling style that’s cute and cartoonish but also rich and detailed all at the same time.
Resources are represented by cardboard tokens you’ll need to punch out. The player pieces and score markers are wood, shaped like dragons and hearts respectively. They’re brightly colored and printed and are great to handle and use in play.
Rules and How It Plays
Flamecraft starts out delightfully and deceptively simple. You begin with six starter shop cards on the table, and on your turn you choose one to visit. Once there you can either collect resources from the shop, like bread from the bakers, or enchant it to get points and other rewards. Both mean that future visitors to the shop will get access to additional resources, so you’re making it more attractive to other players.
Gathering resources from a shop also lets you leave a dragon from your hand there for an additional reward. If there are dragons working in the shop you can claim a “flame” bonus from one of them, such as the three extra resources available from a diamond dragon. Once the three slots in a shop are full, a new one is drawn from the shop deck and added to the street. These new shops offer special abilities to visitors: the Drake of Cakes, for instance, lets you pay two bread to draw a new dragon into your hand.
Enchantments, on the other hand, cost a slew of resources but also net you a bigger reward, mostly in the form of points, which you’ll need to win the game. Enchanting a shop also bags you the flame rewards for all dragons at the location. A smattering of points are available for placing dragons but the other major source of points is fancy dragons. You can draw these during the game, and each has a condition that can be checked either during play or game end to get a bonus. Bubu, for example, gives you points if you don’t have too many resources left over when the game finishes.
When you first start playing Flamecraft, this seems like a straightforward, but fun, puzzle. You’ll look at your starting fancy dragon and the available enchantments to try and work out what resources you need. These, alongside the dragons in your hand that you can place, will determine your choice of destination. At the same time, you’ll be watching what other players are collecting and try not to leave dragons and enchantments behind that help them gather the resources they need. While the rules are easy, the challenges they pose are not.
The game is, essentially, a race. Anyone can claim a face-up enchantment, so you’re trying to gather the necessary resources and put one into play before anyone else. But if you race too hard you won’t get such a good flame bonus, as the shop won’t be full of dragons: they need to be placed first. But the gains for posting dragons vary between shops and slots, so some are more tempting than others, especially when you factor in the special powers offered by later shops. Timing is critical as you flit around, trying to balance the rewards for leaving dragons without making a shop too much of a tasty target for someone else to enchant before you do.
While you can’t mess with the other players directly, the need to watch what they’re doing very closely makes it feel quite interactive, and there’s real resentment if someone else snatches a card you were angling to buy. There’s also a common reward option that lets you get points by gifting resources to other players, a clever idea that puts positive interaction into the game. Both parties profit, so there’s lots of pleading as you decide who gets to benefit from your largesse, although ultimately you’ll be trying to pick the player it helps the least. This aspect is lost if you attempt the otherwise enjoyable solo version, which has achievements you can tick off to vary your game if you manage the tough ask of meeting the score requirements.
As players collect more fancy dragons from shop rewards and new shops come onto the table, though, the puzzle deepens. Each brings new nuance to your decisions, a slow drip of increasing options that enrich the formula so slowly that you barely notice until, toward the end game, you suddenly realize you’re juggling dozens of competing goals to squeeze out the most points. Trying to figure out the best options in these late stages, in an ever-changing game state with other players snaffling up enchantments and filling dragon slots, is a dynamic challenge — but it can be critical in determining the winner.
Ultimately, the game is about converting resources directly into points and however much you throw into that formula, it won’t ever be deep enough to satisfy die-hard fans of strategy board games.