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[Review] Santa's Elves

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

Weber Games, I noted as I received several of their games, have a penchant for putting their games into extraordinary packaging. Coronets came in a deli tray, Leftovers in a Chinese take-out carton, Purse & Pockets Plus in a little carrying case, and Santa’s Elves (Weber Games, 2004 - Candace Weber) in a gift box. Upon opening the game, I was greeted by components that were obviously done on a low scale - but yet components that matched the game quite a bit. The game just screamed Christmas, and this is a theme that is sorely lacking in many games. In Santa’s Elves, players compete to do the most work for Santa in “crunch week,” proving that they should be promoted to Head Elf for the next year.

The game is one of simultaneous selection and fits the theme extremely well. I actually enjoyed it tremendously, while finding that it had an optimal playing of six players but still played fairly well with only three. It had a cute theme, attractive pieces, and was fast and fun. I like games with mechanics such as this one. The method of how simultaneous selection immediately determines victory points, and how the players interact with each other really makes the whole experience rather enjoyable. The strategy isn’t too deep, but there’s enough there to make the game a lot of fun.

A bunkhouse tile is placed in the middle of a circle of seven other buildings: Workshop, Office, Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, Stable, Bunkhouse, Garage, Studio, and Supply Shack. The buildings are placed at random, except the Kitchen and Office must be next to each other. Each player puts a token representing them on the bunkhouse and takes a set of eight cards - one for each building. Piles of stars (victory points) are placed near the board in different denominations. A calendar is placed near the board to mark off the seven days (rounds) of the game.

Each round is composed of three parts: Morning, Afternoon, and Evening. In the morning, each player simultaneously chooses a card of which building they want to go to. Cards are then revealed, and the tokens moved accordingly. Each player receives stars according to where they go.
- Bunkhouse: Elves who go here receive six stars, which must be shared between all the elves who show up to clean. Once this is done, the bunkhouse is flipped over to show that it’s been cleaned.
- Stable: Feeding the reindeer nets an elf four stars. Only one elf can do this; so if more than one elf goes, high roller gets to feed the deer with the rest receiving one star for “mucking” the stable - but only if they can name a reindeer previously unnamed by any other player.
- Garage: Going off with Santa to the malls nets a player eight stars, but they are gone for the remainder of the day, missing any afternoon activities. Only two elves may go with Santa, so if more show up - another roll-off occurs, with the losers receiving one star only, and remaining behind.
- Toy Workshop: A player creates a toy of random value, rolling a die and taking that many stars.
- Music Studio: Elves who go here get two stars per each elf total who shows up. (1 elf = two stars, 2 elves = four stars each, 3 elves = six stars each, etc.) Players must sing the chorus of a Christmas carol to get the stars.
- Office: Players help Santa open his mail, and get stars depending on the fat man’s mood. The player drops a card from as high above the table as they can. If the card touches any object on the table, the player receives five stars; but if it doesn’t or falls off the table, they get only one star.
- Kitchen: Players who “help” Mrs. Claus get one star and some cookies. They can either immediately deliver the cookies to the office (3 stars received) or eat them.
- Shack: Players get six stars when going here, but may have to share some in the future.

All elves, except those at the Shack and Garage, simultaneously select a card - that must be adjacent to the building they are in. These cards are revealed, and each elf moves to the new location. The player(s) in the Shack then pick what location they want to go to, giving one star (delivery!) to each elf already at that location. The afternoon is similar to the morning with some exceptions.
- If the bunkhouse is already cleaned, it cannot be cleaned in the afternoon.
- If the reindeer are already fed, they cannot be fed again; although another stall may be cleaned.
- A player may elect to stay at the Workshop rather than moving (the only building this is possible in) and receive either the same number they rolled in the morning or re-roll the die.

In the evening, any players who have eaten cookies may immediately move to a neighboring building and collect stars. Santa then checks to see if the reindeer have been fed. If so, great! Otherwise, the closest elf to the stable (ties broken by a die roll) must go and feed the reindeer (getting four stars), and ALL other elves lose one star. The bunkhouse and stable are flipped back over, and all tokens are moved back to the Bunkhouse. A new day begins, and this continues to occur until all seven days have finished at which point the game ends; and the elf with the most stars wins!

There is also a kids’ version that greatly simplifies the rules, making them more palatable to children (like putting a real cookie in the kitchen), etc. Elves may also make agreements about who will move where but must honor these agreements.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: Like I said initially, I thought that the gift box packaging of the game (while not overly sturdy) was cute and thematic. The tokens are small wrapped presents, presenting a very nice visual effect. The stars are wooden stars of three different shapes, denoting three denominations (1’s, 5’s, and 25’s). The cards are business card shaped and of pretty much the same quality. I’m considering laminating mine since they see a lot of use in the game. The buildings are computer-generated pictures on a piece of balsa wood and are obviously homemade, yet well done and very colorful. All the components are a labor of love and look very “holiday-ish” when put on the table.

2.) Rules: The rules are on four printed pages, although the last page is some Christmas Carol lyrics. When first learning the game, it takes a turn or so to totally understand how the buildings interact. There is a small bit of text on each building to help, and a reference sheet included to help players remember which building does what. Soon players will have it down easily, and then the question becomes not, “What does each building do?” but “Which building should I pick?” The game is easy to teach, although I have to usually run through at least part of a turn before everyone catches exactly what’s going on.

3.) Rule Changes and Theme: I love the theme; it’s an understated one in the hobby gaming world. However, there are times when playing the game that we just don’t want to sing Christmas Carols. So we won’t, and we don’t always feel like naming a reindeer, or a favorite toy, etc. While all these things add to the theme, they aren’t necessary for the game, so they can be dropped with no problem. I also like to allow players to be deceitful about which card they are going to play, rather than enforcing the “honest elf” rule. Great theming for the game, though - from the components to the saturation throughout the game.

4.) Kid’s rules: Teenagers had no problem understanding the adult version of the game, so I would only play the kid’s games with elementary children, and even then I’m still not sure I would allow a cookie to be placed on a building. That would break the cardinal rule of not mixing food and games. Still, having the simplified rules is nice for families who have younger children and want to add them to their gaming sessions.

5.) Strategy: After a few playings, I’m still not sure what the best moves are. There are several options, and many of them are promising. Eating cookies gives you that extra action later on in the day, which might be helpful but also might come too late. Traveling with Santa is a solid eight stars, but might not you get more if you stayed home? Should I go sing, hoping a few others go, and we net a lot of points; or should I roll the die in the Workshop, hoping for a “6”? The difference in all these buildings really add a lot to the game, and all the games I’ve seen have come fairly close in scoring with no building being the clear cut strategy choice.

6.) Fun Factor: The theme adds a LOT to the game, but the building selection process is a lot of fun regardless. I enjoyed the silly parts of the game, such as singing the songs, dropping a card from a high distance, and making Santa/elf jokes. I had just as much fun playing the game with a serious gaming group as I did with a group of teenagers, and everyone had a blast! Yes, the components aren’t the greatest, but the effort is there; and we really enjoyed the game.

Unless you’re Scrooge or the Grinch, you’ll probably enjoy this game. It’s tremendously thematic and has some good, simple mechanics to back it up. The buildings take a little bit to understand; but once that small barrier is passed, it’s a lot of fun. I’m not sure I would play it with only two, but three was fun, and six was a blast! The game isn’t widely known or available, as it is just coming out now; but if you get a chance to pick it up, perhaps at the website, http://www.webergames.ourfamily.com, I highly recommend it - jingling all the way.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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