Elfenland* is a classic family board game that won the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year Award) back in 1998. It has recently been reprinted and made available direct from a UK distributor; hence the new review of an old title.
The game is primarily a hand management (cards) and route building (on the board) game, with each player trying to visit all the towns on a large map using the cards and tokens they’re dealt each turn.
The box says ages 10+ but should be fine for your average eight-year-old; while it will take 2-6 players about an hour (I think it plays best with at least three and can run a bit longer with five or six).
In the box you’ll find a large board, 50 cardboard counters and almost 100 cards – all smothered with generic, whimsical fantasy art (plus more than 100 standard wooden pieces). Luckily it’s an abstract game so the slightly naff elves and dwarves don’t get in the way of gameplay! But actually it’s nice to find a German release that doesn’t shy away from fantasy in favour of a European town theme. At around £20 it is a real bargain.
It’s important to get across before you start that it’s possible for someone to win in just three turns by collecting all of their pieces from the board – unlikely, but possible. It’s also important to stress that, if possible, players shouldn’t make routes that leave them with a bunch of disparate towns left to visit late in the game, where possible (although that’s often easier said than done).
The new rulebook looks scary big at first; but only until you realise they’ve managed to cram five languages into it. The English rules only run to eight pages, much of which is setup and pictures. Once setup, each round simply consists of being dealt travel cards; choosing transportation tokens; placing said tokens, then moving along the routes.
Each travel card (you’ll start each round with eight) depicts one of the seven travel forms; each of which can be used to traverse some of the different types of terrain – either efficiently (using one card), inefficiently (using two identical cards) or not at all. But you can also cross any terrain (except water) by using any combination of three cards.
The basics of the game are about working out the best ways to move that best marry up with your travel cards. But the key to success is having the flexibility to take advantage of how others place their tokens too.
This plays out in the main segment of each turn: placing transportation tokens. Each player takes it in turn to place one of their tokens on a travel route of their choice. Once placed, that route is then locked into that transport type for all players in that turn – so if you really need a part of your route to be a specific card type, you better get in fast – or hope someone else does you the favour of playing the right token for you!
Finally, each player moves to as many locations as they can (or want to) by spending their cards to move along ‘tokened’ routes (only water can be traversed without tokens). It doesn’t matter who placed the token, as long as you have legitimate cards to pay the cost – so in a game with lots of players you could move as many as eight spaces (one per card in hand) having played no tokens at all.
The game ends when either a player has visited all 20 locations (at the end of round three) or you’ve played four rounds. If there’s a tie, the player with the most cards in hand wins.
The four sides
- The writer: While Elfenland is a simple game in theory, it actually presents an interesting mashup of strategy and tactics; with the best laid plans oft scuppered by a single token. In your mind you want to plan the perfect route for the few tokens you have – while knowing that to really get across the board and scoring big you’ll need to rely on others to do some of the work for you. You can’t even card count, as all the travel cards are reshuffled at the end of every round.
- The thinker: This really isn’t a game for those who love grand strategy, as the amount of randomness is unbearable. Take your random cards, grab your random token, probably pick some more random tokens – then wait for other players to ruin any plans you may have managed to cobble together, probably by accident. It’s enough to leave the more ardent planners amongst us reaching for the Valium! But if you’re the kind of player that likes to think on their feet, this is a top choice.
- The trasher: While there’s no direct catch up mechanism, there’s a nice way to bash the leader: obstacle tokens. Each player only gets one at the start so you can’t go mad – but they add just enough tension to make it a highly worthy addition. You play it on a route with a token, which then means moving along that route will cost anyone doing it one extra card of that type – which can totally change the turn for anyone needing to use it. This wouldn’t normally be my game, but this simple little mechanism adds just enough to make me happy to play Elfenland once in a while.
- The dabbler: While I enjoy the game, from the simple rules to the old school fantasy artwork, it can be a tough game to love on first play – especially for younger players. It’s quite easy to get things wrong in the first turn and end up feeling totally out of contention with only a quarter of the game gone. You just need to explain to these people that it’s a learning game and that they’ll benefit from using the remaining turns to improve and who knows – if you screwed up that bad in turn one, there’s nothing stopping the same happening to the others!
It would’ve been very easy to give the travel cards a coloured border to match that of their matching travel token, rather than including the terrain values – which are pointless anyway, as they’re already available on a handy player aid.
Another issues is player count. Elfenland plays identically from two to six in terms of components, but in practice plays out very differently. With two or three you can really be scuppered by being in different areas of the board, making the best part of the game – using each other’s travel tokens – redundant on multiple (or even all) turns as you mope around on your own little journeys.
But with more players you get the opposite problem – where it is very easy for all players to be on 19 or 20 by the end of the game. This can often be alleviated by using the official variant included, which means each player has a secret designated city they’re meant to finish the game in; but this doesn’t help with lower numbers. I’d say that if you intend to play mostly with two or three players, you’d be advised to look elsewhere.
I’ve mentioned luck already, but it’s worth reiterating here: those who hate luck should also look elsewhere, as there is a lot of random chance going on here. Most of it is given to you to then work with strategically, making it more puzzle than anything, but even then you have other players screwing with your plans while they work on their own puzzles – which can feel a little odd for a route-building game.
There can also be king-making issues due to the obstacle tokens (and even accidentally through route tokens – its back to that luck factor again). And finally, don’t buy this one for the theme. Despite being very pretty, it is totally pasted on.
NOTE: The game is also now available in a more expensive form, Elfenroads, which includes two expansions. These add extra ideas you can bolt on including bidding for tokens, new obstacles, and towns having variable values; as well as an alternative map. I hope to review this at a later date to see if it addresses any of these issues.
Elfenland is an intelligently designed family game that nicely walks that line between simply yet competitive gameplay. It’s a game you can teach to anyone, but importantly there’s also room for a player to improve – while the luck element means games can be closer than you’d think.
There’s a definite educational value here, as younger players can see the spatial elements of route building alongside problem solving as they have to think on their feet. But as with most entry level games, you may find some more seasoned gamers getting sniffy about it (and that’s fair enough).
In this form I’d recommend it – but won’t be keeping it. There are too many similar games in my collection that I like a little more for the amount I play family games of this type (such as Ticket to Ride, Africana and New York 1901). But if I get my hands on the new Elfenroads mentioned above, all bets are off…
* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.