Pevans treads on Elrond's toes...

Review of board game King of the Elves by Pevans trying to become "King of the Elves". Anyone who has played Elfenland will recognise this new Alan Moon game as a card game version of his Spiel des Jahres winner. It is also published by Amigo. The 'story' of the game is the same: the players are Elfen princes who must prove their worthiness for the throne by visiting as many Elfen villages as possible. In this case success is measured in terms of the gold they receive from each village - less expenses, natch. The other familiar element is the exotic transport available: giant pigs, elfcycles, troll-wagons, dragons and more. Each of these conveys a player across different terrain with varying efficiency - requiring the play of one or two cards. The type of terrain is denoted by the village card: forest, mountains, desert and so forth. Each village also has a value, which is higher the more difficult it is to reach the village (thus the sea villages are worth 7, while the plains villages score but 2). This value is the amount of gold a player collects by visiting the village.

Your aim, each turn, is to maximise the value of the villages you can visit by having the right transport cards, the right layout of villages and the right cards to avoid the hazards other people have put in your way. In your turn, of course, you have also placed hazards in front of others. However, making your journey round the villages on the table is the final act of what can be an involved game turn. This is not to belittle the journey - it is, after all, how you score points - but it is the culmination of what has gone before. The points you score (or gold you collect) will depend on how well you have been able to arrange things. The heart of the game is thus in the (possibly lengthy) card play that takes place before anyone makes a journey.

The bits

So let's look at these cards. The bulk of the cards are the various forms of transport already mentioned. Then there are the villages. On top of these are the hazards, played in front of a specific village: obstacles make it more difficult to get there (you need to play one more card than you otherwise would) - except for the player who placed the obstacle. Thieves steal gold from players who visit the village - again, except for the player who laid the card. Gold cards, on the other hand, reward the person who played them with double gold for visiting that village. Tactical tip: if you're planning to play a Gold card, play an obstacle first - if you don't, someone else will once you've played your gold!

Finally there are the cards that can only be played during the journey. Escorts are very valuable as they protect you from thieves and obstacles in a realm (the one or two villages in front of one player). And the reverse direction cards allow you to re-visit the village you just left and carry on round the circuit anti-clockwise (you always start with your first village and go round clockwise). One other point is that a complete circuit of the villages earns you a bonus 10 gold. This is quite easy with just 3 players, difficult with 4 and nearly impossible when 5 or more are playing. Once all players have completed their journey, the played cards are cleared from the table, the deck shuffled, additional cards dealt out and the next turn starts with the next player round.

An expotition!

As already mentioned, the heart of the game is in the preparation for the journeys. Playing cards and tuning your hand. Players take it in turns to perform one of seven actions - and if everybody knows what they want to do the turns can whistle past. I'll just list the actions here and then go into the implications and tactics of each. You can:

  • play a village

  • remove a village

  • call "no village"

  • play a hazard/bonus

  • buy a card

  • swap cards

  • pass.

Playing a village sounds obvious, but it can go into your own realm or someone else's. Putting a high value village in front of you is asking for a hazard to be played on it. Putting it in someone else's is entertaining if they don't have the right transport to visit it, but expensive if they do! Players can remove a village that's in front of themselves (only), but it costs gold to do this.

A player with no villages on front of her and none in hand may declare "no villages" and reveal her hand to prove this. She is then permitted to search through the deck, take any village card and add it to her hand, discarding a card. Chances are she'll have some awkward villages in front of her before it's her turn again.

Playing a hazard/bonus can be done on any village, but a village can only have one of each type on it. Players mark the cards they play with a token. You only have four of these, so you can't spread an unlimited number of hazards around the table, regardless of how many you have in your hand.

Buying a card is straightforward: pay one gold and take the top card off the deck. The second card you buy in a turn costs 2 and the third 3 - and that's the most you can buy. A very useful action and one that different people will value differently. My view is that it's always worth buying one, usually worth buying two and seldom worth buying three.

Swapping cards sounds like a good move if you can't make good use of what's in your hand. Unfortunately there's a sting in the tail: you take three cards from the deck, add them to your hand and then discard four. Very neat, but this is the action that slows the game down most. While you re-evaluate your hand, the next player is unlikely to do anything until you've decided what you're going to discard.

Finally we have the 'pass' option. A significant, but easily overlooked, rule is that you can't pass until you have at least one village in front of you. However passing does not stop you from coming back into the turn, so it's a very useful tactic to delay your changes until other players have resolved what they're up to. Beware: if everybody passes, the preparation finishes and it's time to make your journeys - so you need to get the timing right.

Travel hopefully

My apologies if I seem to have gone overboard on describing the rules of the game, but you need this information to appreciate its subtlety. And it is a subtle game. The reactions I have had from others playing the game have been mixed, but after several games I have now got a definite feel for the game. The emphasis of gameplay (and time) is not on the journey. What you will spend your time doing is building up the layout of the cards to make the most of the cards in your hand - limited as well by what the other players get up to. It is a game you cannot afford to take your eye off. I have seen new players decide they've done what they can and leave the table (saying "I'll pass"). They come back a few turns later and suddenly discover that the game has changed and they needed to play some cards after all! It is a game of constant jockeying as you re-evaluate what your hand is good for in the light of what other players have just done and try to maximise it while doing down the others. It is a game of psychology and misdirection and it is a game where biding your time can pay dividends (or louse you up completely).

Like all card games, the cards in your hand have a huge influence over what your strategy and tactics are. Like all good card games, the game's mechanisms make all the cards useful so that you always have something you can do. Tailoring your tactics to your cards is the way to go. The only problem with the game comes with the number of players. With three, the game skips along merrily and everybody gets to travel right round the table on most turns - which feels wrong. With five (and worse with six), the downtime between your turns becomes significant, the game drags and will last a lot longer than the legend on the box suggests. Particularly as you have to keep an eye on what everybody is doing, knowing that it will still be some time before you are able to do anything about it. The game seems perfect with four players - especially if they know the game and therefore understand what they are trying to achieve. The timespan is acceptable, there is significant, but not uncontrolled, change between your turns and making it right the way round is a challenge.

This is a rich, complex and subtle game that plays really well - it may even be a better game than Elfenland. I recommend it highly. With four players.

And finally…

A quick word on production before I go. The cards are good quality and the rest of the pieces (gold, markers and the dragon that indicates the first player) are good, thick cardboard gaily decorated with more Doris Matthäus artwork. It comes packed (crammed might be a better word) into a smallish box that gives it a good heft for its size. The box may be small, but there's nothing small about the game inside.

Finally, I must mention that I am told that there is at least one difference between the rules in the German version and the Rio Grande edition. The German rules say players are dealt eight more cards at the beginning of each turn: the English has everybody's hand made up to 8 (which is strange, since you start with 10). The German rule has led to the strategy of hoarding cards in order to make one mammoth journey after several turns. This in turn has led to suggestions that hand size should be limited, which may explain the English version of the rules. My personal experience is that hoarders don't score significantly more points from one journey in two or three turns than others do by making two or three journeys. My own suggestion is that players should be required to make a journey every turn, however brief - the rules don't say that a player must make a journey, but they also don't say that she has a choice. This will make a small dent in a hoard and get people considering that, if they have to make a journey, they might as well make it worth their while.

King of the Elves was designed by Alan R Moon and published in Germany (as König der Elfen) by Amigo (and subsequently in the USA by Rio Grande Games). It is for 2-6 players and takes 45-60 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 9/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 140, February 2000.

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