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[Review] Elvish Checkers

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I'm not sure why I don't like checkers. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that despite my pride in my "strategic superiority" over my wife, she still manages to beat me at it consistently. More likely, it's because the game feels a bit blasé to me when compared to other, more interesting abstract strategy games, such as King's Court and Yinsh, and the game is too simplistic to have any real long term value. (Of course, I'm sure I'll hear several long emails from Checkers fans once they read this review).

But let's mix it with fantasy, and now we have Elvish Checkers (Three Sages Games, 2004 - David Wainio)! Apparently this game is played to represent the rivalry between two Elvish communities. It actually is a very simple, easy-to-play game that has the same, or less, complexity of checkers. So why do I not despise this game the same way I dislike Checkers? It may be because it's new, because it's different, and because it just is so simple and easy. You won't find me playing hundreds of games of Elvish Checkers, as I don't think there's that much depth; yet it has a charm in its simplicity, and its worth the occasional game. I almost want to classify it as a "filler" abstract.

Two players set up their forces on a board that is made up of one Home Village on each side, with five rows of "forest glade" spaces in between (alternating rows of four and five spaces). Each player puts a "Stone Man" on their Village and an elf piece on each of the nine forest glades nearest them. All of the forest glades are connected other by diagonal paths to one through four other forest glades, with four of them attached to each Home Village. One player takes the first turn, with play alternating for the remainder of the game.

On a turn, a player moves one of their pieces, with the following restrictions:
- Pieces can only move diagonally forward, from one space to another.
- Only two elf pieces may occupy a space at one time. No other elf piece may move to that space.
- No elf may move into a space that contains a Stone Man.
- Any piece may move into the Home Village, regardless of what pieces and how many are there. A piece that is moved into the Home Village of the opponent is "safe" and removed from the board.
- A Stone Man can move into any space - regardless of who is there. Every Elf unit in a space he moves into is sent back to the owning player's village.
- Once a Stone Man enters the opponent's village, it is sent back to the owning player's Home Village.

The game continues until one of two things happens. Either a player cannot move any of their pieces on their turns, in which case they lose; or one player removes all of their elves from the board, in which case they win!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The green cloth game board comes with a string that ties it up into a bag, holding the pieces for the game inside. This bag comes inside a plastic bag; so I'm not sure what the point is, other than it looks cool and is more thematic to have the game board be the actual bag. The spaces are printed on the board in white, and the green/white contrast also helps the theme. The Elf pieces are glass stones, and the Stone Men are, well, large stones. If anything, the game has an "authentic" feel to it - or as authentic as a fantasy game might feel.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on four pages, with one page devoted solely to the background story. As I said earlier, part of the charm of Elvish Checkers is just how simple the game actually is. Simply push one of your pieces forward, unless that piece is blocked. It's easier than Checkers, because you don't have to worry about a "superjump". Simply move forward, and then wait for the opponent to move. Easy.

3.) Strategy: With the game being this simple, it would initially appear that there is not a lot of strategy to the game. And perhaps this is slightly true. There really doesn't seem to be thousands of options. However, there are a couple things I've noticed - such as the importance of the Stone Man. A player who moves the Stone Man out too early can have the opponent's Elves run around it. It's nice to "kill" two opposing Elves with one move; but a clever player will keep their Elves in the same spot as an opposing piece to lessen the damage, since a Stone Man kills everything it comes across, rather than just the enemy pieces.

4.) Fun Factor: I think the fun of the game comes from the fact that there's no real need to analyze the board. Just move one of your pieces forward, and go on. Sometimes the game will come down to just one Elf each and the Stone Men, which makes for an interesting end game. But the game is very "smooth", as play flows nicely along at an even pace. In this case, "ease" = "fun".

5.) Time: Each game takes only about ten minutes, making it an excellent one to pull out when there isn't much time. If Elvish Checkers took, say, an hour to play, I would have given it a negative review; it would be too long for the value gotten from the game. But because the game is so fast and can fit into a busy schedule easily (not to mention the easily portable factor), it will see more play.

Elvish Checkers isn't the next coming of abstract strategy games, a successor to the Gipf series. But it's not meant to be - it's just an easy, light, fun abstract game. It's small, fast, and simple to play. While the gameplay may be too simplistic for some, for me it was a breath of fresh air to just not think too much during the game. Real strategy is evident, but it's secondary to the simplicity. Maybe the Elves knew what they were doing when they played games?

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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