Jason Meyers
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The original review, and MUCH, MUCH more gaming content, can be found at iSlayTheDragon.




ELEMENT

Before Maurice Wright 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.


iDid 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 this 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.

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

Cons
Prone to analysis paralysis



Rather Dashing Games provided a review copy of Element for this review.
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Deep Fish
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A very enjoyable review and at the same time informative. I've read it a couple of times now. I thought the contextualization and comparison with other games and abstracts was really useful both describing this game as well as introducing me to some other curious titles.

I think your commentary at the point of the review concerning the combination of "elements" (ah!) the game is made up provides something quite unique and different:-

* Movement variation order
* Element combinations
* Change in board state each turn

I was not sure I understood this comment however:-

Quote:
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.


I would have thought the board fills up faster with more players and the game time would decrease with more players consequentially? I've only played with a mock up of 1v1 pieces as I await my order to arrive (weeks away - yelp). Obviously more reactive with more players effects going off until your turn again so that would fit considering less contribution per player.

That said I feel the game's biggest attraction is a sort of "4-player chess-lite in 10-15 minutes" as a crude way of describing it to non-habitual board game people (about to become boardgamers)!

Thanks for the review and pictures of different game states which illustrate how much of an absorbing dance of patterns the game seems to generate.
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Jason Meyers
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Thanks for the comments!

DeepFishTaluva wrote:
I was not sure I understood this comment however:-

Quote:
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.


I would have thought the board fills up faster with more players and the game time would decrease with more players consequentially? I've only played with a mock up of 1v1 pieces as I await my order to arrive (weeks away - yelp). Obviously more reactive with more players effects going off until your turn again so that would fit considering less contribution per player.

That said I feel the game's biggest attraction is a sort of "4-player chess-lite in 10-15 minutes" as a crude way of describing it to non-habitual board game people (about to become boardgamers)!


Yeah, it was kind of hard to parse out my thought. I'll try a different way. The same average number of stones get placed each turn. In a 2p game you are placing around half of those stones and get half of the turns. In a 4p game, the same amount of stones are coming out (obviously not exactly every time, but we're talking averages here) so the game is going to be all that much longer or shorter overall; but you're now only contributing to a quarter of the turns and around 1/4 of the stone placement. So it's just a different game. Still really good and in fact I prefer 4 players.

Really, the most influential determinant on game length in Element is going to be the personality of the gamers. If you have players that like to really analyze and think and strive for the utmost optimal move - then it will take longer...
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Deep Fish
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Ah I think I understand your meaning better now. Though perhaps more movement and less stones opted by players nearer endgame with more players (more dodging required!)?

I thought about that clear point in your review concerning "analysing time". I want to determine what is a reasonable amount of time to think and then get a sandtimer for those amount of seconds to keep it constant and a nice flow to the game: Not too severe but just enough finite time to nudge quicker placements. I think a timer with an screw-on top to then put different amount of sand in would work (prefer sand than a stop-watch, feels more appropriate with this game!).

 
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Mikey Moo
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I know I'm being picky but shouldn't your title read "without flint or tinder"? Or is that some inside joke I'm just missing.
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Jason Meyers
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OxBaker wrote:
I know I'm being picky but shouldn't your title read "without flint or tinder"? Or is that some inside joke I'm just missing.


What does starting fires have to do with a dating app? whistle

Haha, no you're actually correct...although tinder is just dry flammable material which could be timber...?...

On second thought, I'll just go with the excuse that the Queen's English isn't my first language...
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Deep Fish
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Ha that's weird, my brain auto-corrected to read "tinder" without me seeing timber. Weird I never made the connection before concerning what the hell the name of the dating app meant (out of my original context). Now I get it!

On your above comment, I think the way to consider it:-

11x11 board = 121 spaces.

120 "element stones" = 4 Elements = 30 "element stones" per element/colour.

With 1v1 (2) sages per turn(1-4 turns): max stones on the board = 4x2 = 8, 16, 24, 32

With 1v1v1 (3) sages per turn (1-4) turns): max stones on board = 4x3 = 12, 24, 36, 48

With 1v1v1v1 (4) sages per turn (1-4) turns): max stones on board= 4x4 = 16, 32, 48, 64

So with 1v1 (2) it 'could' take 4 turns for the board to fill 1/4 (just over) of the space.

With 1v1v1v1 (4) it 'could' take 4 turns for the board to fill 1/2 just over) of the space.

Obviously that rate would change depending on various actions and conditions but in terms of brute limits it's very interesting.

That all said, the potential to manipulate something which had an original alternative intention into something very useful for yourself would seem to increase (aka chaos factor) - which sounds very exciting!

I'm sure the 11x11 board must have been designed specifically with the number of turns and number of player and number of combinations and amount of time to take a turn (and a game) all within mind - !

Wizard's hat's off to the designer.
 
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Jason Meyers
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Yes, in a 4p game the board is very different when it gets back around to you from when you last had a go at it! Difficult to plan with. That's what I like about the game, though. I'm not so much concerned with pure open information and complete control - in fact, would rather not have that!
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kos blaat
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No just look at the moves per minute. So who placed a piece doesn't matter.
 
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Reuben
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Wow, I only just realised that Element is a bit like Tsuro: keep moving and you survive. Except you've got cool ways of manipulating your escape route and trapping your opponent. So glad I ordered this and can't wait until it arrives.
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cracker critter
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This is a cool game. After about a half-dozen plays, it's becomes more interesting--the sign of a game with some depth. The production value is up there too; although I'd prefer larger diameter element tokens. The sages themselves are all unique, which is a nice touch.

The designer achieved a clever combination of combat by connection; mixing the chess king-like mission of 'capturing' your opponent's sage with the varying connective abilities of the elements as your 'weapons'.

Each element's properties complement or conflict, depending on whose sage they're menacing. There's unique situations every turn, as your draw of elements varies, your needs change, and the multiple replacement possibilities in a single square adds another layer of complexity.

Then, as the game progresses, the board fills with elements, making the sages' mobility a huge issue for the end-game. A fun game, easy to get into, and mind-bending to ponder.

Has anyone tried manuvering their sage close to their opponent's sage, in effect, 'shadowing' his moves? I wonder what that strategy would lead to...
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Jason Meyers
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farmermouse wrote:
Has anyone tried manuvering their sage close to their opponent's sage, in effect, 'shadowing' his moves? I wonder what that strategy would lead to...


Tried it once because I was curious. It was a 3-player game and I tried to move near and around the sage I was endeavoring to capture, in effect using my own sage as another blocking element on the board. My opponent to my left trying to catch me was able to use that sage (my target) as a block against me and captured me. Ironic, I thought! But I think it's a valid tactic, if not a little riskier. While your sage can block, the one you're shadowing or pestering can also block or be used to block you.
 
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cracker critter
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Interesting. Although I'll probably never do a 3-player game, I do see how, like a king in chess, the sage can become a semi-offensive weapon. What makes it unique, unlike an element, is that it can manuver, as well as simply be in place. Ok, water moves too, but with restrictions; whereas the sage can really scoot around, with the aid of wind/cyclones.

Maybe you or another Element fan (sage?) could clarify something about using wind. It seems that a sage gets a free move--over and above what benefit he gets from the wind/cyclone. Moving into the wind square doesn't use up his ability to move a square per turn (assuming a maximum draw of 4 elements). Are we interpreting the rules correctly on this point? My opponent thought it was logical, but I'm not so sure...
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Jason Meyers
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Correct. Jumping a wind stone or a whirlwind is a free move and can be done multiple times and in a chain; it can also be done before, after or in between regular moves. So, say you only draw 3 stones one turn, so your sage can move 2 spaces. You could move one space, jump a wind stone, then move your second allotted space, then even jump a whirlwind if you end up adjacent to it. The only restriction is that you may not jump the same wind stone or whirlwind twice in the same turn...which would sound kind of silly and nonproductive, anyway, to me...
 
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cracker critter
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Thanks, Jason

Ok, so, you can set up a pattern of wind stones such that you can jump each successively in a single 'move' of your sage, as if doing a Checkers move. Yeah, it goes without saying that to jump the same wind stone twice would be absurb, because you'd either be backtracking or going in a circle.

Anyway, I think water is the most powerful element, and earth the weakest. Sure, a mountain chain can be a crucial fixture, but wind can get you over that hump too.

A wall of fire and a 'flash flood' of water snaking around seem like the greatest danger to a sage. I don't mind having the luck factor with the draw of your elements, otherwise play would become too predictable.

We usually draw the maximum number of stones; it seems to give the most flexibility. I would think that you'd only want more moves for your sage if you absolutely had to move multiple squares and couldn't rely on luck to draw enough wind to avoid entrapment.
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Seba J
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thumbed this review for the title alone.

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Karen Robinson

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DeepFishTaluva wrote:

I was not sure I understood this comment however:-

Quote:
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.


One big difference is that in the two-player game you're trying to capture the same player that is trying to capture you, but in the multiplayer game you're trying to flee one opponent while trying to capture a different one.
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