SdJ Re-Reviews #20: Elfenland

  • Designer:  Alan R. Moon
  • Publisher:  AMIGO Spiel + Freizeit GmbH
  • Players:  2 – 6
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  60 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 10

ElfenlandElfenland: From Elfenroads to Alan Moon’s first SdJ win…

In the early 1990s, frustrated that he could not sell more games to established publishers, Alan R. Moon founded his own publishing company, White Wind.  His plan was to sell limited editions of his games, hoping that large publishers would pick them up for wide distribution after a year or two.  The company’s third release came out in 1992 and was called “Elfenroads.”  A few years later, in 1998, a slimmed-down version of that game called Elfenland would win the Spiel des Jahres, marking a turning point in Moon’s career. 

The earliest parts of Elfenroads came to Moon in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  The game originally had a railroad theme, but when Moon got the idea to use different types of transportation in the game, he switched to a fantasy theme.  The game was released in a limited edition of 1200 copies at Essen 1992.  It received immediate acclaim: Mike Siggins’s account of Essen 1992 said, “Along with Modern Art, [Elfenroads and Santa Fe] were clearly the stars of the show and having played both already I can say that the enthusiasm is justified. Both games should be reviewed elsewhere this issue and I recommend them both very highly. If neither of these games is nominated for Game of the Year next time, there ain’t no justice.”

Elfenroads Cover

Doris Matthäus, who had done the artwork for 1991’s “Elfengold” for White Wind, did Elfenroads’ artwork.  Doris would go on to be one of the preeminent boardgame illustrators, and her work for White Wind was one of her first gigs.  She and her husband, Frank, are themselves prominent game designers, receiving SdJ nods in 1996 and 2000.  

Moon kept White Wind going until 1996, when he ceased operations out of frustration that he hadn’t sold a single game to a major publisher.  He took a position as Director of Game Development at F.X. Schmid USA in 1997, which through acquisitions ended up being part of Ravensburger USA.  

At about that time, AMIGO Spiel approached him about reissuing Elfenroads in slimmed-down form.  Moon spent quite a few months reworking the game, and as he wrote on his BGG profile, “Without the aid of a computer, I made color photocopies of the Elfenroads board and then spent weeks cutting and pasting pieces of the copies to make a new board for the simpler game.”

Elfenland was released in 1998 to critical acclaim, and it won the Spiel des Jahres.  The jury said the theme, packaging, and design combined to offer a magical gaming experience.  They also noted the depth of the game, observing that it was at its heart a logistics and efficiency problem.  Elfenland ranked third in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year.  

Right before the press conference for Elfenland’s SdJ win, a reporter grabbed Moon to take a picture.  Moon was due inside for the press conference, but the reporter had a deadline.  Unsure what to do, he went outside the hotel with the reporter, who snapped a couple of pictures of Moon holding an elf doll.  That picture appeared in numerous German newspapers the next day.  

Alan Moon, in an interview for The Next Great American Game, said the SdJ win brought him back to zero.  The SdJ win let him return a profit to the White Wind investors.  He soon left his job at Ravensburger and set out to create more games as an independent designer.  

Moon had previously received an SdJ nomination in 1996 for Reibach & Co. (with Mick Ado).  After his first SdJ win, he became a favorite of the jury.  He received a SdJ nomination for Union Pacific in 1999, recommendations for Capitol and San Marco (with Aaron Weissblum) in 2001, a nomination for Das Amulet (with Weissblum) in 2001, a recommendation for Oasis (with Weissblum) in 2004, and a recommendation for Diamant (with Bruno Faidutti) in 2005.  He received another win in 2004 for Ticket to Ride, which is almost certainly his most famous game.  Moon has won the International Gamers Award twice: in 2001 for San Marco, and in 2005 for Ticket to Ride Europe.  

Elfenland is still in print today in Germany.  The U.S. edition has been out of print for a few years, but as revealed below, Rio Grande is doing a reprinting this fall.  Elfenland received an expansion — Elfengold — in 1999 that made the game more similar to Elfenroads, adding back in the auction mechanism from the original game.  The Elfengold expansion is long out of print and is today highly sought after by collectors.  Copies of Elfenroads are also highly sought after by collectors, often going for hundreds of dollars.

[A big thanks to Alan Moon for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Elfenland.  Without his participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]

A Legend in the Hobby

Though Moon is best known for his game designs, he is one of the fathers of Eurogaming in America.  His fingerprints are all over the early days of the hobby, and if I were to create a list of the five most influential figures in bringing Eurogames to America, Moon would doubtlessly be towards the top of that list.  Perhaps Joe Huber put it best: “In various roles [Moon] has been perhaps the single greatest influence in introducing ‘German Games’ to an American audience.”

Moon started his career in 1979 at Avalon Hill, working as a developer on many of their games and serving as an editor of their magazine, The General.  His first published game was released in 1981, a variant of Hearts called Black Spy.  He moved to Parker Brothers in 1983, but he left in 1984 to try being an independent game designer.  He became one of the first individuals on this side of the Atlantic to focus on German-style game design.  

He founded the North Shore Game Club in the mid-1980s, one of the first gaming clubs in the United States to play German games.  He was a regular contributor (via letters) to Sumo Magazine, and in later years he would occasionally comment on rec.games.board.  He was one of the early Americans to attend Essen, and White Wind was one of the first American companies to have a presence at that convention.  He started the Gathering of Friends in 1990, and over the years, that event has blossomed into one of the major meetings of industry insiders.  He still posts occasionally on BGG, and he’s still designing games.  

I’ll talk more about Moon’s career in the Ticket to Ride entry, but in the meantime, there are several great sources around the internet.  Joe Huber once wrote a great article covering many of Moon’s games as part of his German Game Authors Revisited series.  Moon has done a few popular interviews, including one for The Next Great American Game and another as part of the documentary Going Cardboard.  My favorite interview of his was for the On Board Games podcast, Episode #135 (“On Board with Alan Moon”).  He also has a comprehensive biography over at BGG.  

Elfenroads 2015: Elfenland, updated artwork, the Elfengold expansion, plus a new map called Elfensea…

As Eric Martin first reported last October, Rio Grande is reprinting Elfenland in the United States.  The game is being released under the title “Elfenroads” and will include both the SdJ-winning Elfenland map and a new map called Elfensea, as well as components from the Elfengold expansion.  The artwork is being redone, and you can see the game’s new cover at the Rio Grande website.  Rio Grande told me that Elfenroads will be out in October.

A copy of the new Elfensea map is below.  There appear to be a number of hidden references and jokes, including what appear to be shoutouts to SdJ winners Sid Sackson and Richard Borg.  A few other prominent gamers get nods as well.  (There’s also a not-so-hidden joke for longtime fans of Ticket to Ride.  I won’t spoil the fun!)

Elfensea

The Gameplay: The traveling salesman problem…

All rules (and pictures) are from the most recent AMIGO multilingual edition.  

Each player picks a color and receives one Elf Boot (representing their character) and 20 Town Pieces of that color.  The Elf Boot is placed in the capital, and the Town Pieces are put on the other twenty towns.  The game will last four rounds — which have six stages each — and at the end of those four rounds, the player that has collected the most Town Pieces will be the winner.  
Elfenland Board

(For those of you interested in comparing the Elfenland map to the Elfenroads map, I’ve put a picture of the latter at the end of this post.)  

Stage 1: Deal the Travel Cards.  Each player player is dealt travel cards until they hold eight.  (If they saved travel cards from the previous round, they will draw until they have eight.)

Stage 2: Draw a hidden Transportation Counter.  Each player draws one of the face down Transportation Counters from the pile near the game board.  

Stage 3: Draw additional Transportation Counters.  There are always five face-up Transportation Counters.  In the previous stage each player draws a face-down Transportation Counter, but in this stage, starting with the starting player, each player draws additional Transportation Counters, choosing one of the five uncovered ones or one of the face down ones.  These are placed face up in front of him.  This proceeds clockwise until each player has drawn three additional Transportation Counters.  (Transportation Counters are flipped over so that there are always five Transportation Counters to choose from.)  

Stage 4: Plan the travel routes.  Starting with the start player, the players place Transportation Counters face up on a road.  Only one may be placed per road, and the Transportation Counter must be able to go on that type of terrain (see the player aid in the picture below).  For example, the Unicorn cannot travel through the Plains.  Each player starts the game with an obstacle, and in lieu of placing a Transportation Counter, he may place an obstacle.  This phase ends when all players have passed consecutively.  

Stage 5: Move the elf boots.  A player moves his Elf Boot along roads or rivers from town to town, collecting his Town Pieces.  This proceeds clockwise, and a player may travel along as many roads or rivers as he wishes, provided the following conditions are met:

  1. Any roads traveled must have a Transportation Counter.  (Rivers do not receive Transportation Counters.)
  2. Using the player aid (see above), a player must play one or more Travel Cards that matches the Transportation Counter.  Some regions require double the cards; for example, a Unicorn traveling through the Desert requires two Travel Cards.  If the road is blocked by an obstacle, an extra card is required.  
  3. A player may always spend three cards (four with an obstacle) to cross a Transportation Counter for which he doesn’t have the cards.  This is called a “Caravan.” 
  4. Gowing with the flow of the river costs one boat Travel Card.  Going against the flow — or crossing a lake — requires two.
  5. A player may go back and forth, but this requires Travel Cards for each movement.  

Elfenland Components

Stage 6: Finish the Round.  The starting player card is rotated clockwise.  Each player returns all but one of his Transportation Counters.  All Transportation Counters are removed from the board and shuffled back into the pile.  Obstacles are also removed.

The game ends at the end of four rounds, and the player who collected the most Town Pieces wins.  In the event of a tie, the player holding the most Travel Cards in his hands wins.  

Variation: Home Cities:  At the start of the game, one of the twelve Town Cards are shuffled and one is dealt face down to each player; this is that player’s home city.  The goal is now to collect the most Town Pieces and end as close to the home city as possible.  At the end of the game the score for each player will be the Town Pieces less the number of spaces they are away from their home city.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

Elfenland was one of the first pre-2000 SdJ winners I tried, and I liked the game so much that I started actively seeking out older SdJ titles.  I like the standard game, but throw in the home city variant and I classify the game as “I love it!”

As is often the case, the SdJ jury’s comments were right on the mark.  The different elements of the game — the theme, the mechanics, and the components — combine to form an excellent gaming experience.  Elfenland is a streamlined, elegant package, and I’ve never had a bad play.    

The game is easy to learn yet difficult to master.  Elfenland is approachable — it can be taught in just a few minutes — but there’s also significant depth and strategy.  At its core the game presents a challenging “traveling salesman” problem, and careful planning is rewarded.  New gamers can — and do — win, but the more experienced player typically has an advantage.

A couple of people I’ve played with have criticized Elfenland for not being interactive, but I’ve always found the opposite to be true.  Anticipating your opponent’s move can be rewarding: not only can you block them with one of your spare Transportation Counters, but you can also take advantage of the Transportation Counters you expect your opponent to put down.  I think this is one of the biggest differences between an Elfenland beginner and an experienced player: the experienced player will closely monitor his opponents.  

I’m always up for a play of Elfenland, but my family and game group are less enthusiastic, and it doesn’t hit the table too often.  I’ve noticed a dichotomy among the people I play games with.  The gamers prefer that I pull out my copy of Elfenroads, a sentiment I share since I also have a slight preference for that game.  For the non-gamers, Elfenroads is a bit long and requires a bit too much thought.  As a result, to get my Elfenland fix, I end up playing the game frequently on Board Game Arena.  (I’m always looking for new opponents!)

Would Elfenland win the SdJ today?  I think it’d have a shot.  The game is family-friendly, original, approachable, and well presented.  I think Elfenland compares favorably to many nominees of recent years.  There have been a few “traveling salesmen” games over the past couple of decades, but few, if any, are as good as Elfenland.  The game still feels fresh, even as it approaches the end of its second decade.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Greg S:  A true masterpiece.  When released, the game felt so fresh and unique.  The rules are easy — arrange routes and visit as many sites as possible — but the game play is always fun, exciting and challenging.  It was my daughter’s favorite game and we played it over-and-over again.  

The difference between the original and Amigo rules did (and still does!) cause some confusion, and numerous variants have arisen to make the game more or less challenging.  Fortunately, this helps it adapt well to different gaming environments and groups.

Patrick Brennan:This is fine as a light sort-out-the-best-route game, knowing that your result is going to be dependent on a) being able to share routes with others and b) matching tiles from the draft with your cards. The game is too processional with too little interaction between players on their actions to be a truly successful family game, and there’s too much luck to be a successful gamer’s game. None-the-less, it’s enjoyable enough for the occasional play if you’re not too wedded to the result.

Re the Elfengold expansion, luck is still a factor (lesson 1, don’t rely on getting through the desert considering the dragon shortage), but if things don’t go your way, you can ride out a turn and hoard your cards. To take cards or gold can be a difficult decision, and the auctions can be outrageous at times. One problem however is analysis downtime during tile laying. Each tile layed can change all your plans, especially if you have a sizable hand of cards, which means re-analysis. Despite the auction and the effect other players have on your plans, there’s not that much interaction with other players, so it’s not a sparky game. Rather it’s a gather and combine scarce resources as best you can manage type of game – with decent pus potential. Over the years however we’ve consigned the expansion to the shelf, as playing without gold gets you much the same experience in less time.

Re the original meaty long Elfenroads version, the map kinda led everyone to go the same way, following the water flow, so the new Elfenland map improved on it. And with the gold expansion, there’s no real need to ever go back to it.

Dan Blum:I played Elfenland (with the home city rule) a lot back in the day. I liked it a lot but it’s one of the games that just dropped out of the rotation over time for no very good reason. I’d still play it and I will definitely take a look at the new edition when it comes out.

I am not sure if I ever played with the expansion. I did play Elfenroads once or twice and, while I would try it again, I didn’t find it a major improvement on the simpler game. (We won’t mention King of the Elves.)

Joe Huber (16 plays of Elfenland [many with Elfengold] + 12 plays of Elfenroads): I came to Elfenland from Elfenroads, and perhaps as a result I took right to it.  But with more play, I discovered that for me, the original Elfenroads map made for a better game – even when Elfengold was added to make for an apples to apples comparison.  The biggest issue, for me, is the concentration of the mountains in the Elfenroads map, in contrast with the distribution of them throughout the Elfenland map.  The game is enjoyable either way – but having a limited area to take best advantage of Magic Clouds adds tension to the game.  I also prefer the game with the auctions, but Elfengold did a fine job of adding that back in to the game.  In the end, I like Elfenland – but I love Elfenroads.

Larry:  Elfenland is a game I should really like.  It’s clever, it’s original, and it has a mathematical basis (I’m a mathematician in real life and actually worked with the Traveling Salesman Problem in my college studies).  And I do kind of like it and played it quite a bit when it first came out.  But for some reason, most of my games seemed a little lacking.  Maybe it was the accidental screwage.  Or the fact that in some games, you kept running into roadblocks, while in others, things seemed super easy, and it was hard to figure out why.  In addition, the pacing was erratic, with some games dragging more than they should.  All I know is that I began playing it less and less and it’s probably been close to 10 years since it last got to the table.  I’m a big fan of Moon’s games and still have some fond memories of his first SdJ winner, but given this relative lack of interest, I don’t see how I can rate Elfenland as anything but Neutral.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Jeff Allers, Erik Arneson, Greg Schloesser
  • I like it.   Patrick B., Dan Blum, Joe H.
  • Neutral.  Larry
  • Not for me…

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If you are interested in comparing the Elfenland map to the Elfenroads map, here is a picture of the later. 

Elfenroads Map

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3 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #20: Elfenland

  1. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy these old-SDJ reviews. I’ve been picking-and-choosing the new OG reviews, but (I think) I’ve read every one of these SDJ reviews. Great information. Great history. and great motivation to try to find and play them.

  2. Barbasol says:

    I want to say thanks for the history as well. Great Read! After discovering Settlers back in the day, Elfenland was one of our next acquisitions. My wife particularly likes it and it got a lot of play. Time to pull it out again for a spin!

  3. Chris W. says:

    Thanks, and I’m glad you’re both enjoying the series. It has been fun to write!

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