Designed by Alan Moon
Published by Amigo
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
about 75 minutes
I think we can forgive Alan Moon a degree of justified smugness. Back in the Dark Ages he stood there selling Elfenroads and said, quite clearly, if you don't buy it now, it will be gone for good. We know how the story went from there. Rave reviews and reaction, cries of "Messiah!" and Elfenroads accorded Top Ten status by most sentient beings. But there were only 1200 games for the entire gaming universe, and with a cult following (hundreds of rabid Americans looking for a game they had only read about), the consequent scarcity and secondhand prices made your toes curl. All this was aggravated by self-satisfied prigs like me holding onto their spare copies! In the last couple of years, as the fever pitch grew, vile accusations of conspiracy arose: Moon had a secret stash and was leaking copies onto the market to fund his candy habit; more than 1200 were printed and there was a warehouse 'somewhere' with the hidden thousands or, most barmy of all, that the game never existed and that it was all a cruel government hoax. No wonder The X Files is popular - surprising that poor old Moonie wasn't implicated in the Irangate, Whitewater and Princess Di affairs as well or to find that Elfenroads was actually unearthed at Roswell.
But enough of the mythology. The fact is that the Elfenroads system is too good to remain a limited edition and rumours of a re-launch have been circulating for years. And finally, with Amigo taking up the gauntlet inexplicably ignored for so long, here it is. Sort of. True to his word that no White Wind game would ever re-appear in the same guise, Elfenland is different. A new map, cut down systems, a considerably different feel and emphasis. At a pinch you could use the old rules on the new map, but having played this one a fair bit, I am of the opinion that the changes are for the better and that if you want to play the system (and thousands sorely do) then you are not going to find Elfenland a poor substitute. Indeed, the reaction from my opponents thus far has been one of preference, largely because it is quicker by a factor of two, it is very fluid in feel, and puts the onus firmly on movement, making it feel even more like a race game.
For those that are not familiar with the original, I refer you back to my earlier review which can be found in Sumo 10, on The Game Cabinet and, if really stuck, in return for an SAE from my address below. Suffice to say I rate it as one of my five favourite games. So what has changed from the original? The main time saving is as a result of the auction being replaced by a Moon trademark system - the Airlines/Reibach & Co "take a face up card or take a blind one". We have seen this many times before, we know it works, but sadly there is no twist this time. Either way you get four transport chits per turn, and no more, and the time saving is substantial. No auction phase means no money, another great time saver in most games, and thus no values on the towns. This latter is the second major hurdle to playing the board with the old rules, the first one being that the combination has not yet been tested...
The other big change is that you seldom get stuck - a vital amendment for the family market I would guess. Now, instead of being left up in the mountains because of some scumsucker's blocking log or tactical tile play, you can instead join a caravan. This means you pay a meld of cards to move along routes for which you have no appropriate cards. Additionally, you are dealt a generous eight cards per turn. The result is a more fluid game that can see some stormingly good moves. The record so far is eleven cities in a single turn - you only need twenty for the win! It also means no player is out of it until the very end - there is a neat balancing mechanism that means if you don't move far in any given turn, you should have a lot of cards and chits for next turn to really cover ground in a hurry. Our closest game saw a draw (split by how many cards you have in your hand) when one player caught up a deficit of four in the very last move. Good stuff and quite exciting!
Finally, the lakes (there was to be a Lake Siggins but Amigo overruled in favour of fantasy names - bar stewards) are now navigable. Those clever little capitalist elves have got a ferry consortium going and, combined with the ever popular river movement, you can really get moving on the game's watercourses. Visiting half a dozen waterfront cities in a turn is quite possible. This combined with the transport tokens being in short supply (as before, you don't need them to use water movement) means the raft cards are like gold dust. This is because, apart from the central desert, you are often near water, the rivers are key to movement in certain parts of the board and it is always a good wheeze to use your raft to skip around a land blocker. The result is a map that works well, needs some thought (there are a couple of dead end spurs that need careful planning) and which is considerably different in feel to the original.
The major change though is in the victory conditions. You can win in two ways: by visiting all twenty cities before the end of the third turn. By the designer's admission, this is possible but not very likely! Alternatively, you win by visiting as many cities as you can and ending up close to, or at, your target city. At the start of the game you are assigned a secret destination. Your score at the end is cities visited less the distance from your objective. This is very much a dual edged sword. Each player, though all starting at the Elfenhold, has a different route to plan. For some, it may be easier than others - it initially seems a broadly out and back circular plan with a diversion into the desert is easier than a figure of eight or S-shape, say, but I have seen some weird and wonderful routes win and it is always close. Conversely, because of the caravan rule it could certainly be easier to negotiate a route in tandem with a rival (placing tokens for himself, which you can use) rather than working alone. All this is supposition at present and continued play will reveal the truth.
The overall impact is to change the feel of Elfenroads substantially and in some respects, rather than a get as far as you can policy, you must adopt a route planning strategy not dissimilar to something like Auf Achse - tempered of course by the cards and chits you get and others' actions. All this is, sadly, balanced by what I feel is an increased luck element. This is very much a gut feeling, and I'd need to play a lot more to see if it is a decisive factor, but it appears Elfenland is slightly less skilful than its predecessor and, perhaps, this is a symptom of being designed as an out and out family game. In Elfenroads, because there are more turns and less pressure, it can often happen that a restricted move or even standing still is an option. If you don't move, or at least move a few cities in Elfenlands, I would suggest you are going to be behind the game. How can this happen? You can be dealt your cards, and then find you pick up no suitable transport chits. Sure, you can use caravan moves but anyone with more luck and a better fit to his hand will find he has moved more efficiently and may yet have spare cards for the next turn (this is where the official variant can help - you replenish to eight cards rather than being dealt eight each turn). The other effect of a duff turn is that your mix will probably be a pretty poor selection for turn two - you may be in the mountains, or near the desert, and the chits that get you across the green stuff are not so useful. All this is mitigated by the choice to have equal numbers of transport chits - so a Dragon is now as common as a Trollwagon.
Elfenland is as Reibach & Co was to Freight Train; a leaner, downsized, faster beast. I was in no doubt that Reibach was an improvement, and despite the perceived rise in luck, I strongly suspect Elfenland is as well. In truth, played with wizened old gaming types, Elfenroads could drag to 150 minutes. That was rather too long, when the excitement of the game is executing the big move rather than buying the means to so do. With the same opponents Elfenland doesn't exactly whizz along, but it is considerably faster. We find it takes around 75 minutes which is just about ideal. The game would be far quicker but such are the tactics and planning required you can easily spend longer than you intend to working out whether a unicorn tile is better than a troll wagon, and if Tom does that, I need to do this to set up Route B. Additionally, because the game is more fluid (you seldom move less than five or six legs per turn), just as cutthroat and there are so few turns, the pressure to get it 'just right' is much greater. A turn where you lose three cities advantage to your rivals is a costly one, so you try and make sure everything gets used. In truth, with a large hand and a lot of options, you can sometimes get confused or bogged down which leads me to question slightly whether it is ideal family game fare, but the view seems to be that it is.
The components are superb, and for a game that weighs in high on the heft scale it is not expensive. It looks like a thirty pound game (even that would have been cheaper than Elfenland) but is closer to twenty in the shops. Presentation is excellent, the usual wooden bits and quality cards add to the whole quality feel. Artwork is by Doris, thankfully, since I can't imagine anyone else doing it justice or having a chance of following her seminal board for the earlier edition. As it is, it looks great but the map is slightly disappointing - possibly because of the colours used, perhaps because of the slightly altered scale - and the transport card layout could be better - you can't see what the card is unless you fan the hand, or are left handed. One in the eye for the majority there. If I am going to quibble (and few do it better) then I would have hoped for a decent turn marker and English rules in the box. As it is, we already have the designer's approved translation in The Rules Bank.
Elfenland will be a different horse for different riders. Those familiar with Elfenroads can now buy a Lite version and, I think, will enjoy it just as much. The game is noticeably different but has much the same sense of contested racing, comparable depth and challenging decision structure. And it is smoother and quicker - what more can you ask? Those who have not played Elfenroads will relish the chance to play one of the best games of recent years. And a whole market full of new recruits (which Mr Moon's bank manager hopes will number in the tens or hundreds of thousands!) will be able to buy the game through the retail chains for the first time. But most of all it represents Alan Moon's first real shot at Game of the Year honours and, in a year when I think there could be more interest than ever in that dubious accolade, with three or even four decent candidates, it will be interesting to see how it fares. Isn't it interesting that everyone knocks Spiel des Jahres until one of their favourite games is in the running? My view then is that you can't go wrong with this one. It has tried and tested systems, a great theme, plenty of play value and a loyal following that speaks volumes for its quality. As Elfenroads is long gone and demand seems to be at an all time high, this quicker, lighter revision is timed to perfection. Recommended.
Ken chiming in here, again. Note that Mike was playing with the rules according to Mr Moon and NOT those included in the box. The two big variations are that a player draws eight new cards each turn (in the Amigo rules you draw enough cards to bring your hand back up to eight) and double cost to navigate the larger lake.
Some critics have said that the luck of the draw plays too large a part in the revised game. Peter Sarrett suggested a fix: draft four of your eight movement cards at the same time that you are drafting your movement counters. Display four cards and each round a player may choose to draft either a card or a counter.
We tried this out and found that it made for a great game with more of the original feel of control BUT it also more than doubled the play time (all those agonizing drafting decisions!).
Great game, in any case. Gotta get one, kids!
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell