Die Erbraffer

Ravensburger, £25
Designed by Nik Sewell
2-6 Players, about 45-60 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Now this one was a big disappointment. Designed by Nik Sewell, a man with an enviable track record, and with what must be one of the cleverest theme ideas for some time, Die Erbraffer rolled in on a wave of anticipation, impressed for a game and a half and then died in a welter of criticism. The main problem with the game is that it is horribly unbalanced and prone to luck. As we shall see, that is probably its only failing, but as a failing it is big and ugly enough to knock it over as a playable game.

Despite that, it is probably the closest Ravensburger have come to a gamer's game since Minos (as an idea it is streets ahead) and I have little doubt that, warts and all, it will still be there or thereabouts in the Spiel des Jahres voting. It has all the right credentials, comes from a big company, it looks great, presumably the mass market will lap it up and only the fact that Nik Sewell is a Brit may sway the judges. By the way, this doesn't mean I am endorsing it for honours.

I have no idea what an Erbraffer is, but it seems to be something to do with inheritance which would make sense as the idea behind the game is the family tree and legacies of heirlooms and cash. You control, on your own, one or two descendants (depending on the number of players) and three 'benefactors' whom you may be sharing with other players. You don't know this for sure until the end of the game because the game is driven from dealt cards, so everyone's identities are secret throughout. In a game perhaps more suited to the greed of the 80's, the idea is to ensure that your present day descendant and your benefactors receive as much as possible of the lucre cascading down the board over the generations.

The board depicts six generations of the family, each member having a cute little picture but no title, so you spend the game naming the Uncle Cecils and Bertrams, Aunty Hermiones, Fionas and Jemimas. Each generation is shown as a distinct level with marriages, children and those benefactors clearly marked the latter are a special type of character which we believe to equate to the Cat's Home or distant relatives. Certainly, the characters are eccentrics in the main. Either way, they represent a siphon for the cash floating around the board and the joint aim is to make sure your benefactors acquire plenty of it. All these ancestors culminate in the 1990's where your character, one of six, sits. When the time scale, marked in ten year segments, reaches 2000 the game ends and you add up all the cash your characters have acquired (and managed to keep), add it to your share of the benefactors' estates and the highest total is the winner.

In play, Erbraffer is simple yet intriguing. All your actions are achieved by playing cards which affect the current generation's fortunes. They cover a range of outcomes, from adding or subtracting £3,000 to £10,000 from one characters fortune to losing the lot due to an explosion. There are also cards, although rare, that double or halve an individual's wealth. These can be rather powerful. If the card played has a sand timer symbol, the time marker is advanced ten years and the player laying the card may choose to place a will counter on one of the characters in that generation, thereby freezing their assets. This is useful if you have accumulated a stack of money and fear that other players will get at it. The third timer symbol ends that generation which triggers the most interesting phase.

At the end of a generation, all the characters are assumed to have died so the phase amounts to the reading of the various wills. The first player, who laid the third timer card, chooses a family to resolve and allocates their cash and any heirlooms. Each player then gets a chance to decide a family in turn. Heirlooms can be given to any child but any cash has to be split evenly among the children. Benefactors can only be given cash, but they can be given it all, leaving the children to squabble. It should be noted that benefactors never pass on their money to the next generation (so this effectively goes out of the game) but of course it will benefit those players who have stakes in the benefactor's estate.

As the game progresses, money is moved down through the tree, always hoping that you will boost up the right totals and reduce those of your rivals. The role of the benefactors is not to be underestimated either as they can amass quite a pile of cash, particularly on a x2 card, and if you are fortunate enough to be the sole beneficiary come game end, then you may have more money there than on your descendant.

So all of this hangs together well until we get to the luck element. There are two ways this can affect you, but prevention of both depends at least partly on having the right cards at the right time or just being naturally fortunate. The card is question is usually the New Will Discovered card that lets you challenge a will and push the money and heirlooms to where you want them as described above. If you play one, you immediately get to re-allocate a settlement but other players are free to play further cards to change it completely again, and you will also find that the original executor can be holding back a card to return the status quo.

The first problem, which arose in all three games I have played, is the clumping of heirlooms. As these valuable items will often win you the game rather than cash (and remember benefactors cannot inherit them), they tend to be the items that you want to be heading down your branch of the tree cash will come one way or the other, but heirlooms are known quantities. As everyone else wants to achieve the same end, the heirlooms seem to spring from their evenly distributed start positions and magically clump together by about the third generation. They then move en masse, perhaps with the odd one or two flying off to another wing of the family, down to their resting place. From then on it is a little 'all or nothing' if you can direct the heirlooms to your descendent you are laughing, if not you have probably lost unless you have managed to hoard an awful lot of cash.

The second problem, which is equally severe, is the structure of the board. Essentially, if you are sitting with a character and a couple of benefactors on the right side of the board and most of the cash and heirlooms gravitate towards the left, you have a pretty unexciting game. Sure, to an extent you can influence the cash and snatch the odd heirloom, but if there are forces and cards working to pull them away from you then you quickly get to the point where the tree dictates you will not be getting Uncle Brian's Stradivarius. Again, this is an heirloom problem but it also relates to cash if you have a string of poor ancestors or cannot bring the cash across the tree at the crucial points, you are gone for good. At this point, if I am typical, you rapidly lose interest in the game.

Die Erbraffer could be said to represent a superb game idea badly let down by sloppy finishing or, possibly, testing. Then again, for the target market, the view might have been that enough was enough. Either way, for gamers, the end result is far too prone to luck, in needing to have the right cards at the right time, and consequent lack of control and play balance. While Ravensburger might argue that this is a family game, and that the play value is suitable for that market, I would suggest in this case that if a game works well (but simply) enough to satisfy the gamer market, it would be just as strong in the family arena. I also can't believe it would taken much more work to devise a system that doesn't prejudice your chances of winning, conceivably as early as the second round. It is doubly annoying that in all other respects Die Erbraffer is good or even outstanding and but for the one complaint I could be sitting here praising a little gem. For that reason alone I don't believe it is beyond redemption and I have hopes that someone will do the work required on the system. But, as ever, it is the old story of the game in the box being unworkable as sold. For that reason I cannot recommend Die Erbraffer, as much as I would have liked to.

On to the review of The Mob or back to the review of Lord Carter's Sack O' Bricks.

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