Designed by Alan Moon
2-6 players, about 120-150 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Thanks to Elfenroads, Alan Moon now has two Sumos sitting in his trophy cabinet. It is easily one of my favourite games this year and, although it again appeared late on at Essen, it stands with the best of '92. I thought Elfengold was rather good, but this is far, far better. Merfyn Lewis phoned to say how much he had enjoyed it and how Alan's games were developing an identifiable style. This is undoubtedly true and in the same way as you can spot a Hoffman or a Carver, a Moon creation now has its unique mark.
And now, in the vain hope that we've played it correctly this year, to the game itself. The idea is basically to manoeuvre your elf so that he visits as many locations on the map as possible before game end. The other players are trying to do the same and the interaction arises through an important bidding system and some potentially nasty blocking tactics. All aspiring elves start in the Elf City and can move out in various directions in an attempt to traverse the best path and pick up a lot of valuable gold en route. Gold is used to purchase transportation as elves cannot walk around for some reason (those soft boots probably) and to split ties at game end.
The routes leading out of Elf City head off towards the central desert, the Northern and Eastern mountains and the woods and farms to the South. Every route on the board passes through either forest, desert, mountain or is in the open. There are also rivers that enable swift raft movement. Each village location is rated for its gold value, roughly based on its size or accessibility, and any elf arriving claims that value in coinage from villagers keen to help him on his way. Popular guys. The heart of the game, the varying transportation devices, range from giant pigs and elfencycles through to magic clouds and dragons. Each method has benefits and disadvantages in whichever terrain is being traversed. For instance, the Unicorn is good in the mountains but slow in the desert ('I went through the desert on a unicorn with no name') and cannot be used in the open at all. Shyness, obviously.
Movement is performed by matching the cards in your hand with transportation counters which are bought at auction and then placed on the map. Once placed, the method of travelling that route is determined for one turn and any player, by laying the correct card, can use it. It is permitted to lay as many counters as you want, in the hope of visiting several villages in one multi- legged turn, though this is often difficult in practice. At the end of the turn, all the counters are removed, the players replenish cards (using an Airlines-style choice of known or random cards) and the cycle repeats.
Within the turn are the vital phases that determine your success and which combine to create the fascinating balance of the game. Having assessed the cards in your hand (perhaps a couple of pigs, Trollwagons and a Unicorn) you take one free travel counter at random that you keep face down. You then compete with the other players to buy the counters that come up for auction. These are strictly limited and, as they are drawn from the ubiquitous opaque container, there is no guarantee that your card requirements will be matched.
The idea is to buy both for yourself to enable your ideal routes, to buy spares to retain for later turns or as bluffs and, if you can do it with the money available, deprive others of essential or scarce counters. The prices paid can vary substantially as there may be a glut of Elfcycles forcing down the bidding, while Unicorns and Dragons (which have less counters to start with) always seem popular. I suppose this bidding represents ringing up Hertz Rent-a-Trollwagon and having one ready for collection as you arrive in town.
Next comes placement. Players take it in turns to place a counter on the map, usually prioritizing the important first stage in case someone nips in with an incompatible counter, all the while trying to remember or restructure your plan that has probably been rejigged three or four times by now. It is not unwise to lay some decoys and bluffs, though this is expensive, and it is definitely a good idea to lay on an alternative route. Typically, the map has been cleverly designed to make this difficult, especially if you are up in the mountains visiting the high value towns.
It is difficult enough to plan routes, get the right counters appearing and win the auctions, but the best laid plans can go horribly wrong with the blocking counters. These can be bought at auction just like a vehicle and are placed onto any route, thereby increasing by one the number of cards needed to move that way. If placed judiciously, often near the start of a long multi-stage journey, it can wreck a rival's plans as usually you only have just enough cards. This can swing the game one way or the other and, as such, they can command a high price at auction. Even more effective is drawing a blocker as your freebie counter and, by virtue of placing it face down, revealing it at the most inopportune moment. The best response to this disagreeable style of play is to hop swiftly onto your raft and whizz off down river, showing a single elven digit to your opponent.
This is very much a game that offers much more than it first appears. Planning routes and combining the correct cards and counters is far from easy and takes a fair bit of concentration. In fact, it proved difficult enough in our first game for us all to spend the initial turn strolling around Elf City because no-one had managed to get the right combinations. After that, we got underway and found the system rivetting. Quite why it is rivetting I haven't yet completely worked out; perhaps it is simply the tight play balance or the clever design or the constant need to conserve money and yet buy counters. Either way, it works, and it works well. We sat round and kept saying 'Mmmm, this is good', and then got back to planning the next complex circuit.
Deep down, Elfenroads is a game of route planning and resource management. That sounds a little dry, but the game is far removed from this and everything holds together well. It must be said that there aren't a lot of laughs beyond the core humour of elves riding around on oversized pigs, but there are certainly more than some gamers seem to experience while playing it! The theme is novel, the system fits superbly and it is balanced within a hairsbreadth of perfection. We have played three times now, the games have been consistently close (just one location winning it on two occasions) and the routine play and tactics (on which is the best route and areas to visit first) seem to offer plenty of depth. The sheer pleasure of putting in a four or even five stage journey in one turn has to be experienced, and for the beastly types there are plenty of opportunities to stuff other player's ambitions.
I know I always do it anyway, but I have to mention the production values of Elfenroads. It's all good, but the best bit is the map. Rendered expertly by Doris Matthaus in pastel shades (watercolour, I think) and full of clever little details, it is a beautiful example of game graphics and a real pleasure to play on. It's almost frameable. My only heartfelt gripe is that while we have Lake Schloth and Wallace Pond on the map, there is no Sig Hamlet or Mike's Mountain. We are thankfully spared Sumo Springs. Probably unknown to Alan, my big unfulfilled ambition is to have some feature of a game named after me, like the Natilly Woods or perhaps a Squad Leader 6+1 counter. The temptation to insert a Michel Sumeau (Team Z) into The Tour was manfully resisted. You'll pay dearly for that omission, Mr Moon.
I suppose the only other possible drawback with the game is be the fantasy theme. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, but a regular member of our group ('No Bleedin Hobbits') will not touch it with a bargepole. His loss on this occasion, but I wonder how many people are affected in this way and will it hinder sales? Are the Germans, for instance, generally keen on fantasy? When quizzed, Alan indicated that originally Elfenroads was a straightforward transport game but the fantasy theme helped the rationale for the modes of travelling and of course it fits with the ongoing Whitewind ElfenXXXX range. All I can say is if you have any problem with the subject matter whatsoever, please make every effort to overcome it and play the game. It's well worth it. Elfenroads is a cracker.
On to the review of Modern Art or back to the Introduction.
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