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Review: Element

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Before Maurice White made earth, wind and fire famous in the 1970s, they actually formed an obscure quartet of elements – along with water, which Maurice apparently didn’t like.  There was also aether, but let’s not confuse things.  Since ancient times wisemen, magicians and seers were the only ones knowledgeable in the ways of these mysterious essential life ingredients.  They held this art closely, wielding their mastery in shadows and secret.  Some used it for good.  Alas, some for evil.  Still many used it just to mess with each other.

How To Play

In Element players are wise sages with the power to control not only earth, wind and fire, but also water.  Each will summon these forces in an epic battle – or fraternal hazing ritual – attempting to entrap their foes within a prison of nature.

Although maybe you’re all amatuer sages, because you draw these elements from a bag, hoping you conjure the ones you need!

Be that as it may, gameplay is straight-forward, while offering lots to think about.  Each player’s ridiculously cool looking sage begins in a predetermined spot on the 11×11 grid board.  On a turn you draw some element stones then place them on the board and move your sage.  The number of elements and spaces you move depend on what you want to do.  You can take up to four tokens and you always make one move.  However, the fewer elements you summon the more you can move – one space per stone declined, even moving up to five times if you elect not to draw any elements.

Did you bring the elements? No, I thought you brought the elements!

After collecting elements you may place them and move your sage in any combination and order.  Sages can move one space orthogonally or diagonally, but are blocked by other pawns and earth, fire and water tokens.  If adjacent to a wind stone, they may jump it for free.  If there are multiple wind elements stacked together, this is a whirlwind and in that case you soar a number of grids equal to the size of the tempest…up to four.  Jumping assumes that the spot in which you would land is empty, otherwise your sage is blocked in that direction, too.

Whirlwinds are just a quarter of the special elemental properties you can manipulate in this fluid and dynamic design.

Elements may be placed in any unoccupied grid.  However, each unique force also follows a rule of displacement.  And these make sense.  Fire consumes wind, and so may replace any wind stone on the board – even a whirlwind.  Water extinguishes fire.  Likewise, earth displaces water.  Finally wind erodes earth.

It’s in the bag, baby!

Aside from those displacement rules, each element possesses other unique properties.  Fire spreads when you place one stone next to another of its kind.  In that scenario, you take a free fire element – or more, if appropriate – from the bag and place it at the opposite end of the line of flames that you added your stone.  Earth stands strong if you stack one token on top of another.  It then becomes a mountain and all other earth stones connected to it in a contiguous chain is a range.  Earth elements in a range may not be replaced by wind.  Additionally, they block diagonal movement if a sage where to move between two rocks that are part of a range.  Finally, water flows when added to an orthogonal line of similar stones, called a river.  When placing a water token at the head of a river, all of the tokens will flow from that point a number of spaces equal to its size, changing direction however you like.

Play continues counter-clockwise and your goal is to trap the opponent on your right, by conjuring and manipulating the four elements and their special properties.  That means surrounding him and/or pinning him against the edge so that he is unable to move at the beginning of his turn.  The moment you concoct this elemental jail, you win.  Sadly this is about all you can do with earth, wind and fire until Maurice White put them to their most beneficial, not to mention coolest, use thousands of years later in disco funk.

It’s it me, or is it getting warm in here?

Let’s Groove?

Due to random drawings and a couple of other aspects, Element is of course not a pure abstract.  Nonetheless, despite the lack of open information, it will no doubt be universally identified as such.  Admittedly its vibe trends in that direction.  And its cliched and generic setting will reinforce that perception.  Despite that, this design tests those abstract notions and surprisingly engages its theme – that of summoning and controlling the elements in a match of wits, maneuver, evasion and hunt.

It’s hard to contradict its abstract impression when the game is played out upon a square board divided by square grids.  Its strategic burn will immediately draw comparisons to Chess.  There is jumping, like in Checkers.  Entering stones during play with spatial considerations is reminiscent of Go.  Yet it’s actually more similar to classical hunt games like Fox & Geese and any various titles popular in Southeast Asia, which task one or both sides with the work of trapping or evading the other.  But contradict that abstract impression I will try.

Element possess a trio of qualities counter-intuitive to our notions about abstract designs: presentation, randomness and clever theming.  I won’t argue the title is a non-abstract.  Still, these characteristics stand-out as unusual to the genre.

Looking abstract so far…

The production is unsuspectingly stunning.  The sages are detailed, cast resin figurines that are heavy and have an antique likeness.  It looks as if they were recovered in an archaeology dig and ready for a museum.  The element tokens are of the same resin.  Their colors stand out on the board and create an alluringly layered visual as the taller pawns move around them.  One quirk is that the plastic has a rather distinct odor that I’ve only noticed in one other game – Bombay.  The board is standard, but adorned with generic Celtic style artwork that compliments the whole.

To be sure many abstracts look appealing.  Chess has six distinct figurines that look grandly martial when arrayed in rank, although older classics like Go and Draughts are usually certifiably comely.  Other modern designs in the genre can have impressive pieces like Onitama.  However, when we think of abstract strategy games, the image that comes to mind is more akin to YINSH or Blokus with generic pieces often merely of shapes and symbols.  Element is just as striking as the most elegant of abstract strategy games can be, but then ups the notch in quality.

While it’s certainly difficult to judge a design’s abstractness by appearance, one defining aspect of the type is open information.  Not all titles considered abstract possess this.  In Ingenious players draw a new hand of tiles every round and Qwirkle similarly sends you to the draw bag regularly.  But pure abstracts begin with everything on the table.  Or at least in your hand.

Jump like the wind!

Element leaves a central aspect of play up to chance.  You must react to what it throws at you…or actually more like what you draw out of it.  You still exert control in placing what you do pull.  Still, this means there is little long term strategy.  You can attempt to herd your foe into an area or general direction.  But if he is able to draw the right elements, he can engineer an escape that erodes any foundation you’ve laid to that point.  If playing with three or four, the other sages will also be altering the field’s state.  Every turn then requires a tactical adjustment because the board will never look the same as it did your previous go.

Purists may decry this attribute as it nixes a good deal of strategy.  They like control and order.  I’m fine with the unknown.  Something like Chess may be great for honing military strategy.  But war never, ever goes according to plan.  If Chess had a variant for a knight’s horse throwing a shoe, or an unexpected rainstorm bogging down a pawn’s march, or even the queen running off with the opposing king, then I’d be all in!  Drawing those elements randomly creates an exciting unpredictability that livens up what could otherwise be a stodgy, thinky brainfest.

She won’t be coming around the mountain!

The third characteristic that defies simply shoehorning Element into the abstract category is its cleverly variable movement tied to each element’s unique property.  Again, it’s nothing completely new.  Hive offers special rules for each of its bugs and The Duke assigns different abilities to its units, which harkens back to Chess even.  Nonetheless a common aspect to pure abstract designs are uniformity in components and function – and as very little involved with either.

The properties associated with the play of element tokens are ingeniously intuitive.  From the displacement rules to their individual benefits, there are multiple ways to manipulate the board.  Not only mechanically, but slyly thematically, as well.  The title pits sages in a competition of mastering nature’s forces to hunt each other down.  The rules regarding how those elements impact play and the maneuvering game of evade and capture deftly convey that premise.

And it makes for an exciting mental joust.  Just when you think you’ve about cornered your opponent, he’s able to summon the wind and blow an opening through the earth from which to escape.  Or maybe the elements are slowly constricting your safe space, but then you conjure water to part an entire river out of your way, like Moses (he was basically a sage, right?).  Utilizing well-placed wind stones to take advantage of free breakouts are wonderfully handy.  In essence, the board state remains in near constant flux.  The fluid and dynamic play allows for inventive ways to surround your foe, as well as escape tight jams.

TRAPPED!

Individually, these three qualities are nothing new even to this genre.  But collectively they adroitly question Element’s abstractness, creating a unique experience unlike most other designs assigned to the category.

It also accommodates up to four, which is not generally common in abstract games.  Each player complement plays quite differently, because the board fills up at the same rate no matter how many are involved, but you contribute less individually with more players.  So it doesn’t scale in a relative way with different numbers, but it’s a rewarding and challenging experience at any count.

While a session will typically play within a half hour, give or take ten minutes, be forewarned that certain player personality types could bring things to a grueling crawl with over-analysis.  The design gives any brain a good workout and favors smart moves, but at the same time shouldn’t be approached in the same light as Chess or Go.  Because, again, randomness.  If you and your friend(s) are of similar deliberateness, then fine.  Otherwise, this is a more casual and lively abstract – a poster child of our E for Everyone rating in that gameplay is easy, engaging and intelligent.

I typically don’t gravitate toward abstract designs, but Element is a pleasant surprise and an awfully snappy game.  It’s simple to learn but has a lot of depth and looks great on the table.  It has a measure of randomness which may not impress purists, but livens up play and widens its appeal.  Sure, you might curse your luck now and then.  But with so many ways to deploy elemental stones and manipulate the board, the design offers plenty of choices filled with calculation, cunning moves and strategic brainburn.  Still it manages an intuitive game play that largely makes sense.  With a style, weight and charm that will reach a variety of audiences, deciding whether or not to pick up this markedly clever title is rather elementary, my dear.

 

Rather Dashing Games provided a review copy of Element for this review.

Elementary, My Dear

  • Rating 9.5
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Summary

Pros

Playing elemental stones is intuitive
Great presentation
Randomness keeps play lively
Variable movement and clever board manipulation

Cons

Prone to analysis paralysis

9.5 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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