Tuesday, 25 December 2007

That's Life, Elfenland, Chinatown

I played That's Life (a.k.a. Verflixxt), Elfenland and Chinatown when I visited Carcasean boardgame cafe on Sat 22 Dec 2007. All were new to me, and I requested for them from Chong Sean, owner of the cafe, beforehand.

That's Life is a simple and quick game. There is a track made up of different types fo tiles, some showing positive numbers, some negative numbers, and some a box and clover - the Good Luck tiles. Everyone has three pawns, and during the course of the game, you throw a die and move one of your pawns along the track. The game ends when everyone's pawns have reached the finish line. Now this is not a race game. It is about what kind of tiles you pick up. When your pawn is the last to leave a tile, you pick up that tile. Positive and negative tiles score accordingly, Good Luck tiles allow you to convert a negative tile to a positive one. Another aspect of the game is the guards, or neutral pawns. They initially guard the Good Luck and the +7 and +8 tiles. You can move them if a player pawn (yours or otherwise) is on the same tile as they are. And basically that's the game.

On your turn, you throw a die, and decide which of your pawns to move, and sometimes you can move a guard too. This is a simple game, with some decision making and some player interaction (e.g. move a guard away from a big negative tile, leaving behind your opponent's pawn before he could move it). It's quite light and can be played in a relaxed way. Suitable for non gamers. There are two expansions to this game, and supposedly they make the game more interesting and probably more to the taste of veteran gamers.

That's Life

I played a six-player game of Elfenland, commonly considered the ideal number of players. The objective of the game is to visit as many of the 20 cities on the map as you can. Cities are connected with 5 different types of routes - forest trails, grassland roads, mountain trails, rivers/lakes and desert paths. Before you can use any of the routes, a transport token must be placed onto the route (except for rivers/lakes). The transport token indicate (for the current round) what mode of transportation must be used to travel a particular route. Modes of transportation include dwarven cart, dragon, cloud, elfen bycicle etc. Different modes of transportation can be used on different types of routes, some requiring more cards to be played than others. You get 8 cards every round, and to travel along a route, you need to play a card (or two) matching the transport tile on that route. So, the structure of a round is everyone place transport tokens, until everyone is happy or runs out of tokens, and then everyone starts traveling. It is best to do the traveling part simultaneously instead of one player after another. It saves a lot of time (I'm assuming the people you play with are honest).

Elfenland is designed by Alan Moon, designer of Ticket To Ride, and won the Spiel des Jahres award in 1998 (if I'm not mistaken). It's suitable to be played as a family game, although at first play the combinations of the many modes of transportation and the different types of routes can be slightly overwhelming for a non gamer. There is some planning in the game, because you need to plan an effective path to visit as many cities as you can. Placing of transport tokens is interesting. Usually you place them where you intend to travel, to ensure you have a matching card. However sometimes another player may intend to use the same route, but prefer a different mode of transportation. That can mess up your plans if he places a transport token for which you do not have a matching card. However, sometimes you are lucky and he places a transport token which is beneficial to you too. So, sometimes you need to change your plans on the fly, making use of transport tokens placed by other players, or replanning your path when your plans are ruined by others. This is why 6 players is best. There will be much more interaction, many more routes being activated (having a transport token placed on them).

Elfenland. The boots are the player pieces. The square tiles are the transport tokens.

Elfenland is more involved than That's Life, but is not a heavy game either. It feels slightly more complex than Ticket To Ride, probably because of the many combinations of modes of transportation and types of routes, but it really is not a very complex game. There are some ways to "kacau" (screw) your opponents, e.g. by putting a transport token that they cannot use, or by playing a "trouble" token (which forces them to play an additional card before they can use the route).

We did not play using the secret destination cards. I thought that was part of the standard game, but apparently it is a variant. Your score is the number of cities visited, minus the distance between your end-game location and your secret destination. So, ideally you want to end up at your final destination. I will want to play with this variant if I get a chance to play Elfenland again.

Chinatown is long out-of-print, but due to be reprinted next year. After playing it, I am tempted to buy it. The mechanics are relatively simple. The focus is very much on negotiation and trading. I expect that it will be rare that you get very lucky and do not need to trade much. I suspect this game is best with 5. We played with 3 players, the minumum. With 5, it will probably be hardest to set up profitable businesses, thus the need for trading and negotiation is high, and this is the core of the game.

Every turn, you get some plots (I call them lands) and you get some shop tiles. You can set up a shop by putting a shop tile on a plot owned by you. However, single shops like these do not make much money. Depending on the type of shop (fireworks, laundry, restaurant, watch shop, tailor, private detective, seafood, pharmacy etc), they become much more profitable when you have 3, 4, 5 or 6 of them adjacent to each other. Of course it is easier to get 3 together, and much harder to get 6 together, but having a set of 6 is much more profitable than having a set of 3. And in almost all cases, you achieve this through negotiation. It is very rare to be able to get 3 plots adjacent to each other, and also get 3 shops of the same type, all at the same time (or close enough). So, negotiation and trading is very central, a bit like, but, in my opinion, more so than Bohnanza.

Chinatown. Simon and Chong Sean's friend.

Close-up of the Chinatown board.

The green round chips are ownership markers. The square tiles are the shops, with the number indicating how many you need to form a complete set. The card that looks like US Dollars is, of course, money. On the right is the reference card. On the top left, my rules summary reference sheet which I had prepared beforehand.

I like this. I wonder whether I'm biased because I won. But we definitely had fun wheeling and dealing. I find that sometimes I'm a bit unscrupulous when playing these kind of games. I make deals with one player and the next, seemingly offering good deals biased towards them, but secretly I know that by making more deals than other players and gaining some benefits from each deal, I will put myself in a strong position over everyone else. I'm so sneaky.


Aztlan said...

I play Elfenland in basic versions, for four players max, and i agree with you, calculations and planning are interesting. Develop combos cards until 12 is a pretty memory.

Anyway, this kind of game is old-fashioned in my circle of acquaintances in my city (Lyon, one and half million inhabitants, France).

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

It has been a while since I last played Elfenland. I should try this with my children (8&9). They have not played this yet. This game is considered old too here in Kuala Lumpur. In its day there were few boardgamers, and possibly no eurogamer players in KL. So I suspect few people own this. I only know a boardgame cafe here has a copy in its library.