This strategy article is directed at 4-6 players, where I think Elfenland shines. Additionally, we play with the tiebreaker rule of most remaining cards and not the variant. The majority of concepts will apply regardless. This article assume basic knowledge of the game and a few or more plays.
Strategic consideration 1 - Winning City Count
The first important strategic item is how many cities it takes to win. This varies a little by game group, some groups are more cutthroat than others. It also may vary by luck of the cards in a given game. Nonetheless, in our aggressively blocking group, nobody will be visiting all 20 cities. City counts of 18 and 19 are both common, though perhaps 18 with a tiebreaker wins more often than 19 in our group. The fact of NOT getting to 20 provides a critical strategic consideration. There will be at least 1 city that you will not visit, in fact, should not plan to visit once the initial opening positions are established. So, which city to skip? There is no best city to skip as it always game dependent. Strategically, the longer you are able to keep it flexible, the more options you leave yourself for success during the final turn since you preserve more possible routes and make it harder for opponents to fully block you.
Strategic consideration 2 - Roadblock Usage
Do not use your roadblock during the first two turns and very rarely during the 3rd turn. Hang onto it until the 4rth round! There are several reasons for this. First, you want to use it to impede the player who is winning (other than yourself of course). If you use it early, there is a significant chance you will only hurt someone destined to lose anyway. Save it so you can target the leader (or second place if you are the leader). Second, depending on your game group, "back at ya" ( or MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction) is maintained as a threat for anyone pondering placing a roadblock on you. If you use it early, you let go that threat. Third, the converse is true, blocking someone early may lead to a snit where that player immediately wastes his own block on you, rather than on one of your opponents. Always better to maintain your potential threat and not encourage others to retaliate against you. Fourth, the number of options for a given player diminishes dramatically in the final turn of the game. Players are down to a few cities to visit and there are many fewer options for detours onto other productive routes, decisions to skip a different city than originally intended, etc. That means that whichever player you are targeting, you are more likely to be able to place the roadblock into a truly costly position.
Strategic consideration 3 - Don’t go it alone
Players have 8 cards and an average of four route chips to use each turn. In a ‘perfect turn’, a player could travel 1 city per card and thus hit 8 cities in a turn. With the exception of one shipping opportunity per game (positionally and only if the ship cards come up at that exact potential moment), you will need other players to place travel tokens that you intend to use if you wish to approach 1 card per city. While nobody (well.. almost) will be moving through 8 cities per turn, it is still the case that to move more than 4-5, it is critical to get help from others. As a result, it is generally a losing strategy to be off on a part of the board by yourself. Thus, you will want to travel in the same general direction with at least one other person.
Strategic consideration 4 - The right travel counters and cards
- The cards are random, you will take what you get - the more your final turns require specific cards to succeed (dragons in the desert, one spot mountain travel, boats..) the more you have left to chance and the less likely you are to win.
- Counters - A few thoughts:
o Obviously, try to match the counters you have to the cards in your hand.
o If there are only weak options to select, reconsider taking a random face down one.. instead, look to see if any of your opponents are positioned on the board to likely need a particular counter (especially the player to your left). If so, and you can deny them that counter type, why not?
o If there are only weak options, and you have not put all your hopes in needing a random draw to hit, take dragons. They are almost always most useful and you may not get a shot when you do need it next turn.
o Don’t use all your travel counters in Turn 3.. which means you will have 5 travel counters for Turn 4 and thus increase your flexibility as the roadblocks begin to hit.
Strategic consideration 5 - Maintain your options
- Use your position in turn order to your advantage. If you are first in a turn, look ahead to any choke points where a travel token of the wrong type will set you back. Take that spot first where you know that you have least flexibility. Certainly, there is no need to build your path in move order from your piece.
- If your turn rolls around, and you can tolerate almost any set of likely plays from opponents, pass, and save your commitment of tokens/cards so as to better meld with your opponents desires. If you have a pig and an elf cycle and will be comfortable with either, if you play the pig and an opponent plays a second pig on your needed route, then you are now a pig short. If you wait, and your opponent plays the pig, you can play the elf cycle on your next play rather than doubling up on the pigs.
- Don’t hesitate to use the pass, but calculate whether if everyone then passes.. you will be totally stuck. Otherwise, passes are a great way to preserve flexibility.
Strategic consideration 6 - Slowing opponents with travel counters
While your travel counters are limited and you do not want to overdo it, there are many moments, particularly later in the game, where placing a chip on a route makes trouble for your opponents. These occur when the chip will require two cards rather than the optimal one. This is especially effective if you must travel that route and have a surplus of that type of travel card that you will not be able to use all of anyway.
Strategic consideration 7 - No preconceived opening
Do not start the game with a pre-conceived notion of the ‘best’ route and attempt to take it. While in an "all things equal" world, there are a couple better general routes across the four turns, every game is so different that you will need to wait to plan your broader strategy until after 1st turn tactics begin to reveal themselves. Some first turn considerations:
- Where did everyone else go? - per the earlier consideration, going it alone is generally harder
- Do you have two or more ships..or even better, three? With lots of first round ships, the southern route becomes very attractive. Use your first couple placements to ensure a cheap route to the southern river. From there, your flexibility rises dramatically as you can use the river..or drop travel tiles that you can use, and use the river to bypass opponents tiles that you can’t. Beware here though, if 2 or more people perform this, there may be a bottleneck in turn two bypassing the lake.. if opponents place their travel counters first, and you do not have the right cards, caravans become expensive.
- Don’t skip odd, random cities leaving them littered about the board. This is a sure recipe not to be able to clean them up later as you will generally attack a ‘portion’ of the board each turn. If you have left odd cities unvisited all around the board, you will never clean these up in the final turns.
Strategic consideration 8 - Bottlenecks
- Kihromoh - only city with one way in/out. Be careful on turn 3 0r 4 if you need to get in AND out of this city, it becomes target #1 for roadblocks and defensive travel counter playes
- Grangor to Yttar to Lisselen Chain - As multiple players pass through, having the wrong cards for the travel counters can be very expensive
- Al’Baran and the desert - the desert is the hardest place to travel and having multiple dragon cards and multiple dragon travel counters can be difficult to achieve at the exact moment you need them.
Strategic consideration 9 - The final turn
Know who is winning. Nobody cares for players with analysis paralysis, but in the final turn it is relatively quick to see who needs the least cities and whose remaining cities are easiest to obtain. Those that are winning are the people to now use your roadblock on. Use the roadblock as late as possible so as not to give your opponents time to execute alternate paths around them. Also, count your cards. Given multiple ways to arrive at the same number of cities, which leaves you with the most cards in hand. For those that enjoy the metagame, the final turn is a fine time to wheedle, convince, whine, cajole, bow, scrape, divert, etc and ensure that roadblocks and defensive travel counters wind up on others. Having said that, it is less obvious on earlier turns who is in position to win, and it may be more effective to metagame (okay, it is now officially a verb) earlier in the game in small ways rather than hope to succeed when positions are clearer on the final turn.
Some further thoughts...
"Going It Alone"
It shouldn't be too hard to get four cities in any turn, and "going it alone" at worst will still see you mixing it with other players on two turns. Additionally, roadblocks or annoyance transports will tend to be played where they hurt multiple players, and if you aren't with the group at that time it can be very beneficial. So it is viable to win taking off "on your own", though the thinking is a little different. (Play a few practise solo games. Discover you can almost always get 18 or more cities alone.)
Use Your Rafts For Water
While the rivers favour you in a chain only once per game, you may still collect quite a few cities via water thus needing no chits to reach them. If you have raft cards, try really hard to use them for water and save your chits for other routes rather than using them for "three of anything" caravan moves.
Read The Other Players
Watch when other players dig in the bag, ignore taking a lone face up chit and instead take one of a multiple, and other clues for the cards they have in their hands.
Watch other players' first chit play, and look at their other chits. More often than not they're establishing the link they're most worried about. This gives you really big clues where you can block most effectively.
More Roadblock Thoughts
Be conscious there are two cities at dead ends requiring "in / out" steps to get them. Kihromoh is one. But also as soon as you take your first step of the game you've isolated a second city with no flow-through next city after it. Without the "home town" variant, for each player, that's likely to be the city they are aiming to finish on. With the "home town" variant, it adds the consideration of a second two-step city each player is more likely to choose as a town to skip.
The two-steps-to-get-them city/s are good candidates for reliably costing someone one city with a roadblock. (And maybe several players at once.) But often roadblocks can be deployed to cost someone two or even three cities if their route is critical... for example taking them from needing one card on a step they have no alternatives to needing four cards to pass the roadblock.
The Early Roadblock Exception
Although it's rarely a good idea to use your roadblock earlier, in the first two turns players can get complacent... you can sometimes get an opportunity to set two or even three players back two or even three cities with a single roadblock! Although that makes you a target, if you're sharing your routes it'll still be hard for you to be hit without further hurting other players too.
(Almost) never roadblock a land route where there's a parallel water alternative. (Almost) never roadblock a route that's one side of a triangle of roads that all have chits on them.
In these situations, each player who might have wanted to use this route has two ways to get past your roadblock with only two cards instead of only one way.
Seven City Blitz
This may sound obvious but if you get the chance to play for seven (or eight!) cities in a turn, take it! Set up the route even if every step leaves you no wiggle room and you have no spare cards and no leftover chits. You only have one chance in four of winning a four player game, and a lot better than one chance in four of getting five (ok) to seven (woo hoo!) of your seven-city chain.
Just saying... don't always think in terms of worrying about alternative paths to your bottlenecks.
Bachten de Kupe
great article and great addenda!
Great analysis! Some things I hadn't considered . I'll be using this new knowledge on boardgamearena!
...While the rivers favour you in a chain only once per game...
What do you mean with this?