Published by White Wind
Designed by Alan Moon
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
about 60 minutes
Elfenwizards is the seventh in the White Wind 'limited' edition series (hard to believe eh?) and joins the ranks of such worthies as Elfenroads, Santa Fe, Freight Train and, umm, Mush. Before we start, in the absence of a Siggins review, I think it is best to state that the latter game didn't live up to potential. I played it three or four times in the end and eventually realised that it wasn't going to transform into another classic title from the Moonman. It seems most of you would agree. Why do I bring this up? Because with a few detractors whining about the excellent Freight Train, and accurate claims that Phantoms was not a Moon design, it seemed to some that the well had run dry. To my mind this puts some pressure on Elfenwizards (and Alan) to be a success, both critically and, more importantly, on the gaming table. Whether Alan realised this or not is perhaps moot, but either way Elfenwizards is a staunch restatement of his design techniques and a game that I can commend to you as highly playable and entertaining.
What it isn't is entirely original. Having had the game explained on the stand at Essen, and trying to play in those far from ideal conditions, I'll admit I condemned it as Quo Vadis II with dice. However, seven years at Essen have taught me never to appraise a game based on play in its noisy, smokey, dusty environment so as ever, I reserved judgement. We have played it twice since and it was almost like playing a different game. Far quicker, less random and luck oriented than I'd thought, and with a considerable number of elements to consider.
Right, so how does it work. The board depicts a large tree, drawn by Doris, looking very much like the Ewok home base. On each level of the tree, shaped like a pyramid, are the various ranks of the wizardhood, each carrying point values. The Arch Wizard is at the top, then there are two Wizards, four Necromancers and so on, fanning out right down to the base of the tree where the bottom feeders dwell. It is a sort of a vertical tennis tournament layout, if you are with me. But unlike Quo Vadis where the players enter from off board, all your wizards are already in play with only the top job vacant. Initial deployment depends on how many players there are, but there is always a balanced and equitable spread of seniority. In our games it has always been useful to have a man contesting the leadership from the start but this is, I suspect, largely a psychological advantage. However, and this is important, if a single player manages to elect two Arch Wizards, or 'wave twice' in Kremlin terms, the game ends there and then but, the winner is still the one with the most points overall.
Each of the four turns constitutes a term in office and also all the politicking and spell casting used to secure promotion for your men. Needless to say, there are many parallels with office scheming and the greasy pole of politics, all sadly rather abstracted. This then is the core of the game and, fittingly, is based on major and minor spells such as 'Increase Ego', 'Bigby's Den of Corruption' and 'Shag Research Assistant'. Major spells, spookily looking like six sided dice, are rolled and allocated to the various levels of the tree. These represent your influence being expended to advance that particular rank of magicians, and yes you may vote for the enemy if it suits. Rerolls are permitted, at a price, a la Mush, but good or bad luck can still play a part. With all players having rolled and indicated their area of interest, which could be concentrated or diffuse, it is time for the sneaky stuff of allocation.
The dice are placed, two at a time, next to the wizards you want to promote. As each wizard finds himself in a shortlist of two for the one available post, even if you have several wizards on the one level it is likely that your rivals will attempt to out-influence you by placing one or more spell points on their men. Of course the daft way of doing this, as I did for two games, is to fight tooth and nail to get your men promoted, spread your spell points piecemeal and fail on all of them. Better to concentrate on one or two and make them certain, or better still, do a deal with your rivals so that you can both benefit rather than fighting. And you know what this means: negotiation. The scratching of backs and weasel words are nothing like as bad as in other games, but they are still there. Oddly enough, in one of the three games I've played, this was largely ignored and it became more like an abstract game of points placement. Not too bad, and no hard feelings. So you'll need to strike a balance here.
Having doled out your major spells, you may then spend your minor spells which are worth just one point each, but can be played anywhere and will often tip the balance. The catch is, unlike you major magic which is freely retrieved by simply reading your books again, minor magic has to be bought back with major spell points which could always usefully be used elsewhere. To some extent then, this is back to front in terms of the generally accepted magic systems, but works well in the game.
When all the magic has been assigned, the individual contests are resolved and the promotions effected. This starts at the top, usually but not always producing an Arch Wizard, and of course a crestfallen loser. These sad individuals are ceremonially despatched to the nearby rope lift to aid them on their trip down to the back benches. Not only that, but wizards who try and fail to win a top level job earn a stigma point, aka a grey magic counter, which will live with them until cleared by yet more major spell points. One by one the contests are settled and the new jobs allocated. Once finished, the stigmatised wizards are allowed to sheepishly fill any vacancies, cap in hand, but more often than not they can find themselves slipping right back to the bottom of the food chain. Points are scored at the end of each turn for every wizard on the board based on the present positions, the Arch Wizard then retires, and it all starts over. There is a maximum of four turns, unless shortened by the Kremlin rule and this will .
In play, Elfenwizards boils down to resource allocation. Once you know roughly what your spell points are, you decide which wizards you are going to try to advance, whether to buy back valuable minor spells or clear those stigmas (which cost you negative points while they persist). Your tactics come down to deciding which of your seven wizards will get the boost required to make the next level and whether to try for deals with rivals. There is also the important consideration of watching what your opponents are up to. Too much freedom to operate will result in 'one player contests' (nepotism already!) and even a quick end run to the top slot is possible. Alertness is therefore vital to block such sneakiness. The other interesting strategy is that although there is a big point bonus for being at the top, you have to then retire with no more earnings, and as points are quite generous in the middle management positions, it can pay to lurk around there for a while quietly winning uncontested jobs. Also, the marginal point gain from level to level is much the same from bottom to top, so a number of cheap promotions from the lower divisions can bring in a disproportionate return. It is smooth in play, occasionally requiring some deep thinking, is good fun when you roll the dice, allocate and resolve the contests and it pretty much rattles along.
What it isn't is a game that engages my mind as far as atmosphere goes. I don't know why really, perhaps the mechanisms are a little basic, perhaps the theme doesn't convince you that being Arch Wizard is worth pursuing, perhaps it is just that you score points and have to write them down, rather than being given something magical (like a little wooden scroll), in keeping with the theme. I don't really know, to be honest. Oddly though, I think the same elusive weakness affected Quo Vadis, and Mush to a greater or lesser extent. What we have in both White Wind cases is a similar level of competition as that engendered by Airlines, Santa Fe and Elfenroads, but not the same feel, elegance or cleverness of systems. In the best ElfenXXXX design, there was first rate interaction, route planning, shrewd gambling and a real feel for the subject matter, transcending even the prejudice of elfenphobes. With Elfenwizards, the interaction seems a little obvious, it is lacking in tactical width, the plot somehow lacks grip and is essentially one we have seen before. The latter is, I think, ultimately not a problem but it will take quite a bit of play to work around that feeling of deja vu.
I think the underlying problem here was summed up in a recent conversation with a subscriber. He said he'd been very disappointed with Mush, Tricks, Rainbows and Elfenwizards and that he felt Alan had 'lost it'. Suspecting I already knew the answer, I asked him to what he was comparing these recent games - and of course, it was Elfenroads, Airlines, Santa Fe and Wer Hat Mehr. To my mind it easy to work out the conclusion; every year we go to Essen expecting Alan to produce another top three classic. For the last two years the games have indisputably fallen short of that unrealistic requirement. But that doesn't make them bad games; quite the opposite. The games aren't poor by any stretch, they just seem that way, relatively speaking, because of what has come before and what we hope for. I don't think Alan has lost it, he just has a lot to live up to. Indeed, any number of companies would be pleased to release Elfenwizards and it would stand up well anywhere else. Imagine this released by Hans im Gluck and see how it looks then. Or Blatz. Or Fx Schmid. Cripes, if it came out from Fanfor, we'd be dancing in the streets. Get the picture? And as I said, I rate Elfenwizards higher than Quo Vadis, which has just snagged a top twenty position among Sumo reader's favourites. Not bad eh?
Whatever, I don't think anyone would claim that Elfenwizards is a huge leap forward in creativity. So while I don't wish to damn with faint praise, it certainly isn't Elfenroads or particularly exciting (more cerebral, if anything - sharing qualities with Freight Train), but it is a good, solid game which will happily fill an hour early in the proceedings. I greatly enjoyed the dice allocation system, and the minor spells, and I particularly like the sudden death ending, Kremlin style, which really gives you something to go for if you are in the lead (though of course everyone else will know this....). There is also a reasonable challenge in deciding who to promote, and when, for maximum points, although this can seemingly be eased by being placed well in the turn order. One reader wrote in to say he thought 'getting it right' was quite easy and obvious, but I haven't found this to be the case.
What does puzzle me however, on largely irrational grounds, is why Alan has designed a game featuring negotiation. In the past he has always produced mechanisms clever and interactive enough not to need this petty haggling. In itself this is not a problem, nor indeed necessarily a failure of design, and you will know if you and your group can handle a little of the old flannel. It is just that its inclusion makes the game feel somehow un-Moon-like. Are you with me? Elsewhere, the Moon modular design stamp is clear for all to see, but it is this one play element that irritates ever so slightly, especially in a year when the whole genre of negotiation games has been under fire. Whatever, there is no reason I can imagine why Alan shouldn't do what he bloody well pleases with his designs, and we should be grateful that he has turned out another interesting game system. Long may he continue, let's see what he comes up with next year, and for goodness sake let's judge it on its own merits.
Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell