Posted by: gschloesser | August 2, 2011

Elfenland

Design by:  Alan R. Moon
Published by:  Amigo / Rio Grande Games
3 – 6 Players, 1 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review also appeared in MOVES MAGAZINE #104

Refreshingly different.  This is not your run-of-the-mill game design that you may have experienced hundreds of times before.  There’s no dice rolling and moving your pawn around a track.  There are no event cards to read and alter the flow of the game.  There are no attempts to get majorities or secondary positions in various stocks or provinces.  No, this game is different.  It is a pioneer and has charted new paths in terms of game design … and that is an EXCELLENT achievement. 

Although I’ve been heavily involved in the board gaming scene since my pre-teen years, I was sort of sheltered since our local hobby shops primarily carried traditional war games.  In fact, they didn’t begin stocking German style games (or ‘Designer‘ games, to utilize the new term of choice) until very recently.  So, I really didn’t begin to be exposed to these new, revolutionary types of games until I joined the internet world and began exploring the various game forums and websites available in cyberspace. 

It wasn’t long before I began hearing the name “Elfenroads” whispered with reverence by numerous other gamers.  Many considered it to be the Holy Grail of gaming, the pinnacle of game design and development.  Unfortunately, the game was about as difficult to locate as the Grail itself, as only a very limited quantity (1200 numbered copies, according to the game’s designer Alan Moon) had been produced by White Wind Games, the designer’s own game label.   Those few rare copies which would surface on e-bay or other internet based sales forums would often fetch $300 or more.  The mere thought of my wife’s violent reaction if I spent that much money for a single game was enough to frighten me away from even considering the possibility.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would be forced to content myself with a quest to at least play the game, as I would likely never own a copy.

Then, in late 1997, the news broke:  Amigo, a German game publisher, was working with Alan to re-release this elusive gem, albeit in a bit more simplified version.  There was joy in the bayou … and the entire gaming community, for that matter.  Finally I would be able to experience … and even own … what would undoubtedly be the gaming experience of a lifetime.  I was giddy with anticipation.

It was at Alan’s own exclusive gaming get-together (known as The Gathering of Friends) where I first had the opportunity to experience the new Elfenland.  To be honest, I wasn’t immediately blown away.  In fact, I played my first game in a bit of a fog, attempting to get my mind wrapped around the unusual mechanisms and card management skills required by the game system.  It wasn’t as though I disliked the game.  Rather, it was that I just didn’t completely understand it and therefore couldn’t appreciate the incredibly clever mechanisms that were at the heart of the game.

Fortunately, I continued to play the game, and with each subsequent playing my esteem for it, and it’s designer, increased by leaps and bounds.  I now have nothing but admiration for the amazingly unique game system, which provides a true breath of fresh air in what is far too often an industry that gets stuck utilizing familiar, stale patterns.  The game was justly rewarded, being named the recipient of the prestigious German game award, the Spiel des Jahre (Game of the Year), in 1998. 

So just what is this gaming sensation?  As you can probably guess by the game’s title, the setting is a fantasy world populated by elves and other fantastic creatures.  However, it is not your typical ‘good versus evil’ story.  Rather, it is more of a travel agent’s version of life in a fantasyland.  You see, the object is to travel the countryside utilizing various modes of transportation, the ultimate goal being the visitation to the most towns and cities.

The board and components are richly decorated by the talented Doris Matthaus, a much sought-after illustrator (who, along with her husband Frank, happens to also have several game designs to her credit) whose talents have graced many games.  Each player is represented by a giant wooden elfin boot, which is moved from town to town during the course of the game.  Each player has a correspondingly colored marker on each town … twenty in all … and these markers are also made of sturdy wood.  My only real complaint regarding the components is these wooden tokens, which are cylindrical in shape.  The problem is that the cylinders are easy to topple.  That, in itself, is not a serious problem, but due to their shape, they have the tendency to roll when toppled, causing players to scramble to retrieve these wayward tokens.  It would have seemed more prudent to utilize the square wooden blocks, which are so prevalent in many German style games.

Also included are an abundance of transportation counters, made from heavy duty pressed cardboard.  These counters depict the various modes of transportation available in the kingdom, including troll wagons, unicorns, dragons, bicycles, wild hogs, rafts and even clouds.  There are also six ‘trouble’ counters, which players can use to upset the plans of their fellow travelers.  The components are completed by an assortment of high quality, durable cards, which can withstand repeated handling.  There are several varieties of cards:

1)  Transportation cards – These correspond to the transportation tokens and are used to execute your movement around the kingdom.

2)  Town cards – One card for each of the 20 towns in the kingdom. 

3)  Round cards – These are used to keep track of the current game turn.

4)  Player aid cards – Handy little reference charts that depict the types of transportation available on various terrains, as well as the number of corresponding cards needed to actually move across that terrain.

5)  Start Player card – This rotates from player to player at the beginning of each round.

To prepare the game, each player places one of his cylindrical ‘town’ tokens on each town on the board.  His elfin boot is placed in Elvenhold, the magnificent ‘start’ city for each player.  Each player also receives eight Transportation cards.

Finally, each player then receives one town card, which is to be kept secret throughout the game.  The object is to end the game on, or as close to this town as possible.  The further away a player is from this ‘goal’, the more victory points he will lose.

Each turn begins with players ‘drafting’ transportation counters.  Each player draws one at random from the face-down mix, after which five counters are revealed and set face-up on the table.  Players then take turns choosing either one of these face-up counters, or randomly selecting one from the face-down mix.  If a face-up counter is taken, another is drawn to take its place.  Thus, there are always five face-up counters to choose from.  This process continues until all players have selected a total of four counters.

This is a very important element of the game.  You see, in order to travel the various paths and routes on the board, one and only one transportation counter must be available on that path.  Once a transportation counter is placed on a particular path, no other modes of transportation are available on that path for the duration of that turn.  To complicate matters, not all types of transportation can be used on every path.  For instance, the wild pigs balk at the mere thought of trudging through the desert, while no self-respecting unicorn would be caught dead in the open fields.  So, other forms of transportation must be provided if one wishes to travel these paths.  Otherwise, an alternative route must be sought. 

So, players must carefully examine their hand of transportation cards and select the transportation counters which will best match the hand of cards they possess.  Oftentimes, the counter, or counters, a player may need are not among the group of five face-up counters.  Thus, a player is forced to cross his fingers and select one at random from the face-down mix. 

But wait … there’s much more to consider here.  You see, all of this requires a player to pre-plan the paths he wishes to take on the current turn.  These paths will certainly be dictated by the hand of cards you possess, as well as by the transportation counters you were able to nab.  The factors a player must consider, ponder and decipher can be quite immense:

Examine the cards you have in your hand.  Then, calculate how these cards can be utilized to enable you to move your elfin boot to as many towns as possible in a logical manner, which will ultimately bring you closer to your ‘goal’ town.  Of course, you want to avoid the pitfall of being forced to double-back to reach towns which you may have by-passed, as this will force you to utilize valuable cards and counters in this wasteful effort.  Further, once you have this planned path committed to memory, you must then seek to secure the proper transportation counters, which will enable you to put this well visualized plan into motion.  You can only hope that the counters will be available when it is your turn to select one, lest your carefully laid plans be dashed.

It is these mental gymnastics, which have caused many a player to suffer brain meltdown.  To those who enjoy such puzzle-solving challenges, however, the effort required is pure bliss.

After all players have selected their counters, it is time to begin placing these counters onto the various pathways on the board.  This is done in turn order, beginning with the start player.  Each player places one transportation counter onto a path, making sure that the type of counter placed can, indeed, be available in that type of terrain.  As mentioned earlier, only one transportation counter may be placed on each path, so it is quite common to have your plans spoiled by an opponent who plops down a pig on a path where you were planning to use a troll.  The anguish this causes is excruciating as it usually forces a player to completely re-think his planned movements.  Often, this has the terrible result of forcing a player to remain stationary for a turn, or only visit one or two towns when his original plans would have enabled him to visit five or six.  It’s agony, I tell you.

Players may elect to pass instead of placing a counter, but if all players pass in succession, the counter placement round ends and movement begins.  Passing can sometimes be to a player’s advantage, especially if he is hoping an opponent will place a needed counter, thereby enabling him to conserve his counter or place it elsewhere.  However, passing is also fraught with danger, as an opponent may well place an undesired counter on a pathway you planned on taking.  I’ve already described the horrors of this occurrence.

There is one other consideration during the counter placement phase – the “trouble” counter.  Each player possesses exactly one of these pesky counters.  They are placed just like a transportation counter, but may only be placed along a path that already contains a transportation counter.  The trouble counter doesn’t completely block the affected path, but it does require players moving along this path to expend one additional transportation card of the appropriate type in order to traverse it.  This can be quite nasty and has ruined the best plans of many players.  However, once the counter is placed, it is removed from the game following the completion of the current turn.

In order to move along the pathways from city to city, a player must play a card (or cards) that corresponds to the type of transportation counter available on that path.  The number of cards required also depends upon these same factors.  For instance, if traveling across a mountain path riding atop a unicorn, a player must play one unicorn card.  If, however, the mode of transportation available on that mountain path is a troll wagon, then a player must play two troll wagon cards.  With only eight cards in your hand, you can readily see just how critical it is to properly plan your route, select the right combination of transportation counters, and lay them along the right paths.  Otherwise, your speedy elfin boot will suffer a tread blowout and come to a screeching halt.

All is not lost, however, if you find yourself on a path serviced by a friendly dragon, yet you find yourself without a dragon card.  At anytime, a player can play any three cards and move along a path.  This is known as ‘caravanning’.  Still, it is an expensive way to travel and should only be used as a last resort.

The only exception to the counter / card combination of movement are the rivers and two lakes depicted on the board.  Players must play one raft card to float down-river to the next city, or two raft cards to float up-river to the next city.   Travel on the lakes is similar, as players must play one raft card to ferry across the smaller Lake Nebulae and two raft cards to travel across the more expansive Lake Magnum.  No transportation counters are placed along these waters.

As you play the proper cards, you move your boot along the path to the next town.  If this is your first time visiting that town, you may take possession of your ‘town’ marker.  Each marker so collected is one victory point.  Visit all twenty towns and end the game on your ‘goal’ town and you will have reached the ultimate in Elfenland – 20 points!

A player moves as far as he can or desires on a turn, expending cards with each pathway he traverses.  There is no requirement to use your entire hand of cards.  Indeed, one favorite tactic of many players is to conserve cards for use in a following round.  However, players only receive enough cards each round to fill their hand to eight cards, so by conserving cards, you will receive less cards when your hand is replenished.  Please note that this is a bit different than the rules that were included in the German Amigo version, which allowed players to receive eight new cards each round, regardless of the number of cards they conserved from previous rounds.  Only re-filling each player’s hand to eight cards provides a much tougher challenge for the players and makes achieving the perfect score of ’20’ a formidable task.

After all players have completed their movement, expended cards are discarded and all transportation tokens are cleared from the board and returned to the face-down mix of counters.  The game turn card is increased and the start player card rotates to the right.  Players then receive new cards to return their hand to eight cards and the next round begins with the drafting of new transportation counters, using the same procedure as described earlier.  This entire process repeats until four rounds have been completed.  At that point, the victory points for each player are determined.

Players tally the number of town tokens they have earned, which correspond to the number of towns they have visited during the course of the game.  These are the player’s victory points.  However, each player then reveals his ‘goal’ town and deducts one point from this victory point total for each town he has fallen short of in reaching this goal.  For instance, if a player finishes the game with eighteen (18) victory points, yet is three towns away from his goal town, he must deduct three points from his final victory point tally, resulting in a final tally of 15 victory points.   The player who has achieved the highest net total victory points is victorious.

The game does provide for ties.  If more than one player ties in victory points, the victor is the player who possesses the most Transportation cards in his hand, meaning he achieved his victory point total a bit more efficiently than his opponents.

Can you tell that I thoroughly enjoy this game?  I do, but it is a bit of an acquired taste.  Many folks I’ve introduced to this game have been less than impressed following their first play.  However, for those I’ve convinced to give it another try, their opinion has steadily improved.  Many first-time nay-sayers have become big fans.  The game is SO different than the usual fare that one is initially taken aback.  Further, it really does take a playing or two to get accustomed to the mental contortions that are necessary to play the game intelligently and competently.  However, the time spent in developing these skills is time very well spent. 

If players become satiated with Elfenland and demand more, they can acquire the Elfengold expansion set.  The Elfengold expansion, which is beyond the scope of this review, re-introduces nearly all of the elements that were present in the original Elfenroads game.  Now, in addition to the numerous factors players must balance and consider in the basic game, economic factors and auctions have been added to the fray.  Elfengold does make the basic game a bit more complicated and lengthy, but for the aficionado, it is a true joy to experience.

I can’t wait till my next journey into the fantasy land of Elfenland!  Come join me!

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Responses

  1. Elfenland is a little heavy for a filler and a little light for a main course, which puts it in a difficult position for gamers not used to Giant Pigs, Flying Unicorns, and Troll Wagons. It is plucky fun, but the luck that makes it so family-friendly also plays too much of a role for my tastes. That said, I definitely prefer Elfenland to its big (little?) brother Ticket to Ride. (6/10)

  2. I have to disagree with Trip on this one. I love the randomness of drawing the counters and hoping you can use others plans to increase the number of towns you can visit on a turn.

    Trip, I own ElfenGold. If you want to try the full game sometime, we can do it.


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