|From:Amigo Cost:$35 Players: 2-6 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: Family strategy Skill level: 6 Complexity: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 5.2 (18), Spring 1998|
No game in my memory has been as eagerly anticipated in our little group as Elfenland, the streamlined revision of White Wind's limited edition Elfenroads. Out of print and commanding prices just a little south of a Black Lotus, Elfenroads is a game many people have heard about but relatively few have played. But that's not for lack of trying. Popular wisdom proclaimed Elfenroads a masterpiece in the upper percentile of all board games. The mere announcement of a new edition of the game therefore had many people reaching for their wallets. I'm one of the lucky few who own a copy of the original, and even I joined the lemmings. As it turns out, for good reason. In retooling the game for a wider audience, designer Alan Moon managed to strip out superfluous elements which prolonged the game without overly compromising the essence of gameplay. Some players will miss the layered strategies and more aggressive style of the original, but Elfenland's greater accessibility to the masses (in both quality and quantity) is a fair trade-off.
Elfenland is a traveling salesman problem. All players start in the same city on a gorgeous map (courtesy of the always superb Doris Matthias). The twenty villages of the realm are connected through various types of terrain via roads, lakes and rivers. Each player must navigate these byways in the most efficient manner possible, visiting as many villages as possible before finishing at their secret destination village.
A game lasts four turns, and each turn has four phases. In the first, players fill their hands up to eight cards (an alternate rule suggested by the designer is to draw eight cards each turn instead— more on this later). The cards depict various means of transportation available throughout the land: dragons, unicorns, elfcycles, giant pigs, rafts, etc. Cards are like tickets, traded in for passage between villages.
Next players draw four counters (one randomly, the other three via a face-up draft as in many other Moon games like Reibach & Co. or Airlines). The counters show the same vehicles as the cards, except that there aren't any raft counters.
The third phase is the crucial one. Players take turns placing counters on the board until everyone passes in sequence. Counters may only be placed on a road, and only one counter per road is allowed. A counter defines the only allowable transport along its road for that turn. If a unicorn counter is placed on a road, players may only travel that road via unicorn.
Players make their journey in the fourth phase. To travel on a road, a player must play cards which match that road's counter. Some transports are better on some terrain than others. You need only one elfcycle card through the plains or forest, for example, but you'll need two to travel through mountains— and they can't be used at all in the desert. Rafts can be used on any river or lake— one to travel downstream, two to go upstream.
The idea, of course, is to draft counters which match your cards, then place them where they'll do you the most good. Or, if you're a spreader and not a buncher, you might try to place them where they'll most frustrate your opponents. To further bring out the saboteur within, each player gets one "trouble" counter at the start of the game. When placed on a route which already has a transportation counter, it makes travel along that route cost one additional card (so you'd need three elfcycles to get through those mountains instead of two).
In Elfenroads, a single nastily-placed counter could completely ruin your day. That's changed in Elfenland with the addition of caravans, which allow you to play any three cards to travel on a road regardless of which transportation counter is there. This family-friendly rule means you'll no longer get stuck in place, but it also takes some of the edge off. The danger of getting stymied if your intended route got sabotaged with a bad counter made players place their counters carefully. Players would often use misdirection to make one route appear to be important to them, only to turn around and use another route instead. And if someone did get hosed, they could delight in screwing up their opponents' plans also. Caravans take all that away. Oh, a maliciously-placed counter can still set you back, but only two stops at the most— hardly a disaster. On the other hand, scores in Elfenland are generally very close, so even one stop can make a difference. Ultimately caravans are optional, and it's up to your group to decide whether or not to allow them.
Elfenland can last three or four turns. If someone manages to visit all twenty cities by the end of turn three, they win immediately. And well they should— that's quite a feat to pull off. More commonly the game ends after the fourth turn. Players get a point for each village they've visited, then lose one for each city between them and their secret target destination. The highest result wins.
With Elfenland as with Reibach, Moon has revisited an earlier design and streamlined it. The route planning which was at the heart of Elfenroads is now the entire focus of the game. Elfenland is a resource-management game. You have a fixed set of cards and a fixed set of counters. To succeed you not only have to plan your route well, but remain flexible enough to leverage the counters placed by opponents.
Elfenland's reception has been marred by the lack of a definitive rule set. The German rules and the English "translation" offered by Moon via the Internet differ on two points. The first— whether travel on the smaller lake requires one or two rafts— is a minor point. The other difference is more significant. The German rules specify that players fill their hands back to eight cards at the start of each turn, while Alan's original rules had players draw eight additional cards each turn.
Debate on which of these two methods is best has been lively. I'm convinced that drawing eight cards each turn makes the game too easy, producing an inordinate number of ties with perfect or near-perfect scores. A perfect score should be an impressive achievement, not a common occurrance.
The fill-to-eight method, on the other hand, put too much import on the luck of the draw. It encourages players to use as many cards as possible, often resulting in a brand new hand the following turn. If those cards aren't good for your current location, you're at a big disadvantage.
My proposed compromise is to partially reinstate the card draft from Elfenroads. Players fill their hand up to four cards each turn. Then three cards are flipped face-up, and players draft their remaining four cards in the same way they draft counters. This gives players a measure of control without making the game too easy or stretching it out too far.
The secret destination cities are an interesting, if somewhat flawed, addition. They add a long-term tactical level to the game, giving each player a different ideal route from the outset. When a player's plans are spoiled, recovery involves interesting trade-offs between hitting additional cities and finishing farther from their target. But all destinations aren't equal. The two cities immediately east of the start city, for example, can be reached for a perfect score using 21 cards, but western cities require 22 cards. This may seem like a nitpick, but just one city can make a difference. You may wish to do some computation and remove the closer cities so everyone plays on equal footing.
Those who never played Elfenroads may have trouble understanding what the fuss is about. Elfenland is good. It's fun. But it's not great. In its refinement, the game lost the nail-biting edge which earned it raves. Yet with Elfenland available, I doubt I'll ever play my copy of Elfenroads again.