Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
King of the Elves
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you realize you’re dreaming but you can’t wake up, and it just seems to go on and on and on and there’s nothing you can do to stop it? I’ve recently had a similar experience playing King of the Elves.
The rising trend in gaming appears to be “If you have a success, milk it for all it’s worth.” Kosmos and Klaus Teuber pioneered this school of thought with their Settlers of Catan series. Uwe Rosenberg has squeezed two expansions and a thematic sequel out of Bohnanza. And now Alan Moon has given us Elfenroads, Elfenland, Elfengold, and finally King of the Elves, in which the traveling salesman problem at the heart of the Elfen– series is distilled down to a card game. Moon’s done this before, turning Freight Train into Reibach & Co. with great success. This time around something got lost in the shuffle.
King of the Elves is played in a series of rounds. Each round has two key parts— building the world and traveling through it. And each has a significant problem. The table starts out empty in the building phase. Each player in turn performs one action from a menu of half a dozen, but your options boil down to playing cards, drawing cards, or passing.
Players earn gold by visiting villages. There’s no game board, so players construct the terrain by playing village cards in front of themselves or opponents. Each village is situated on a specific type of terrain— mountain, desert, river, etc— which dictates the types of transportation required to get there (all the familiar conveyances are back, from giant pigs to magic clouds).
As villages get played (no more than two in front of any player), a world is formed. Hazards can be added to any village, increasing the number of cards required to get there. Thieves force anyone traveling through their village to pay a gold to their employer, and gold cards double the reward the owner gets for visiting the attached village.
A seemingly essential rule, allowing players to draw three cards from the deck and then discard any four, can grind the game to a screeching halt as players decide what to ditch. The best solution is to continue playing while the exchanger makes his choice. Hardly ideal, since this allows that player to base his choice on what subsequent players do, but it’s the lesser evil.
Once everyone passes each player gets a chance to travel clockwise around the table, starting with the first village in front of himself. To get there, a player must play a transport card that works for that village’s terrain type. At each stop he earns that village’s value in gold. Nobody can interfere with you during this phase, but you can play an escort card as you enter a realm (the villages in front of a player) to ignore all thieves and hazards until you leave that realm. Players are free to travel as far as their hand allows, but may choose to stop at any time and save their remaining cards for the next round. Anyone who makes a complete circuit around the table, however, receives a tasty bonus of ten gold. We quickly realized that if you couldn’t make the grand loop, it made sense to just stay home. Since there’s no limit to your hand size you can start the next round with twice as many cards and have a better shot at earning the bonus.
A second strategy also rewards hoarding. Reversal cards let you change the direction of your travel. Save up a few of these, slap two gold cards onto adjacent villages, and just bounce back and forth between them to collect lots of gold. If the two villages are in the same realm, a single escort card negates any hazards as long as you never leave that realm.
The crux of the game is managing your hand and the terrain to enable travel as far as possible. Players therefore tend to hold back and try to outwait each other, committing to as little as possible for as long as possible. All this careful planning can be undone in a flash, however, because villages can be destroyed. A player can pay gold to discard any village in his realm, along with all thieves, hazards, and gold cards attached to that village. It’s not unusual for someone to play an innocuous-looking plains village in front of himself, only to destroy it near the end of the planning phase. The next player clockwise gets the first crack at filling that gap. Since that player might not even intend to travel that far around the table, he won’t care if a more difficult village gets played there and might play one himself to try to stymie other players’ plans. The upshot is that planning ahead is exceedingly difficult.
Perhaps, then, this is a game best played quickly, with less focus on advance planning. The mechanics of the game don’t make that easy. Despite the fact that it reduces your hand-size, the draw 3 / discard 4 option is very tempting— especially when you’re looking for the right card to extend your journey. This one option is almost single-handedly responsible for doubling the game’s length. Yet without it, players would be completely at the mercy of the deck. Something of a catch-22 from a design perspective.
The luck of the draw is nevertheless an enormous influence in the game, in large part because some cards are clearly superior to others. The elfcycle is a superset of the giant pig, offering all the transport options of the pig plus an additional one as well. A journey is virtually guaranteed to involve hazards, making the flexibility and security of escorts invaluable. The game is won by the player with the most gold, so getting gold cards provides a key advantage. In fact, players who don’t draw any escorts or gold will find themselves with an uphill struggle toward victory.
The bottom line on King of the Elves is that it just takes far, far too long. The 45 minutes listed on the box is pure fantasy— expect it to take double to triple that. If you’re going to spend that much time, you might as well do it playing Elfenland. King of the Elves offers nothing its big brother doesn’t do better.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)