Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review - EleMental

Designed by Chris McCann
Published by Minds United Ltd
For 2 players, aged 10 to adult

EleMental board game


"Since the beginning of Time the elements have raged across space, possessed with unfathomable cosmic energy, creating and destroying, battling eternally in an infinite theatre of existence."

So begins the rules for EleMental, a game so utterly pretentious you're at risk of disappearing up your own bottom just by reading the rules out loud. And let's make no bones about it, EleMental is incredibly pretentious. It may have a name that sounds like a 1980s comedy-crime television series about a girl called Ellie cracking tough cases with her psychic powers, and it may look like several bits of foamcore glued together, but Minds United (the creators and publishers) really thought they were on to something special here.

It's obvious from the game's "high concept" theme that the publisher was reaching for greatness. It's even more obvious when you read the blurb on the back of the box that talks about "revolutionary design," "timeless classics," and "prize tournaments" that the publisher is deluded.

(I'm getting flashbacks of Regency here. I don't deserve that.)

However, I know just how pretentious this game really is, because I've got a copy of the press information they distributed when the game launched back in 2006. It's a press release that suggests the game as wholesome family entertainment suitable for providing balance in a world where (and I quote) "society (and inevitably children) are gripped by the electronic adrenaline drenched offerings of gun toting rap stars."

But that's the theory. How does it work in practice?

Well, on opening the box, the first thing you'll notice is that the board is three-dimensional. It's a five-tiered pyramid, with colour-coded steps that (apparently) represent elemental planes. The first tier is gold, and represents earth; the second tier is blue and represents water; the third tier is red and represents fire; the fourth tier is light blue and represents air; the fifth tier has weird symbols for Void and Creation. I don't really understand them.

The five-tiered pyramid board from EleMental.


The second thing you will notice is that the board being three-dimensional has no functional purpose. It's a gimmick. It's a thing they mentioned proudly in the press information, but which doesn't make a fig of difference when you're playing.

At this point, I should probably mention that the copy of the game I have is actually a pre-production prototype. I found it at a charity market stall, along with printouts for the approved artwork for the final box design, a cover letter to a distributor, and the aforementioned press release. That being the case, I don't know if the board I have is of comparable style or quality to the one you might get if you were to buy your own copy (which I sincerely suggest you don't).

But anyway, besides the board (or in my case, the five bits of foamcore glued together), the only other components are a custom dice showing the four elemental symbols, plus the symbols for Time and Creation, and then two sets of eight plastic elemental playing pieces. The pieces are good quality and suitably chunky, but unfortunately they aren't easily distinguishable. For a start, all the symbols look alike. Earth is a curvy line, water is a wavy line, fire is a slightly more pointy wavy line, and air is a slightly more curvy wavy line. Furthermore, one player has pieces that are white with raised coloured sections for the symbols, and the other player gets an inverse design, where the raised coloured sections are the negative space around the symbols. At a quick glance, easily identifying what a piece is, and who it belongs to, is more difficult that trying to nail a jelly to the ceiling when the jelly's achieved sentience and keeps begging for mercy while trying to show you photographs of its kids.

The playing pieces from Elemental, which all look a little bit too similar for ease of use.


At the start of the game, the players line up their eight playing pieces in the bottom (earth) tier of the board, and then roll the custom dice to see which playing piece becomes the Host of Time. The Host has a special Time piece underneath it, and when it moves, it take Time with it. One of the main ways to win the game involves carrying the Time piece to the Creation space at the centre of the board, which "opens Creation, allowing other elements to enter."

The custom dice from the EleMental board game.


Once you're all set up, it's time for the eternal battle to begin (but note, it isn't eternal, it just feels like it takes forever). On your turn, you move one of your element pieces. Earth moves one space, Water moves two, fire moves three, and air moves four. Each piece is allowed to move at double speed if it's on the matching element tier on the board. However, if you move from one plane of the board to a higher or lower plane, you're movement immediately ends, making it impossible to rush immediately to the centre space.

As you move, you can attack and destroy your opponent's elements by landing on them, but there's a strict hierarchy. Earth can destroy anything, water can destroy fire, and fire can destroy air. Air can't destroy anything without first entering the Vortex in the middle of the board.

Ah yes... The Vortex.

If you move an air element into the air tier on the board, it can "move twice around its own plane in one move and so arrive on the Vortex square." Now, I've read that line from the rules so many times the individual words have lost all meaning. There is absolutely nothing on the board that indicates you have to move twice around the air plane to reach the Vortex. The board isn't designed so that the air plane leads into the Vortex. There are no markings or instructions. There seems to be no reason why you would need to move twice around the air plane. An air element in the air plane can move eight spaces, and the air plane comprises only four squares, so moving twice around it is completely redundant.

My head hurts.

Is this fluff masquerading as rules?

Is there something missing from my prototype board?

What am I doing with my life?

Anyway, once air is in the Vortex, on a subsequent turn it can teleport anywhere on the board, destroying any element it lands on.

And that's basically the game.

An excerpt from the rules for EleMental, showing the hierarchy for pieces attacking.


Winning is a convoluted points salad, where you get 25 points for wiping out your opponent's elements, 50 points for getting Time into creation and then stacking it with more elements than your opponent can destroy, 100 points for getting Time and one of each of your elements into Creation, or 200 points for getting Time and one of each elements into Creation in a specific order.

There's a weird optional gambling rule where you can try to get extra points. This seems entirely pointless, as it implies you would actually want to play the game more than once. In fact, the publisher has specifically included these rules for tournament play.

Ain't nobody playing tournaments of EleMental.

EleMental is, not wishing to sugarcoat it too much, a bloody mess. It actually shouldn't be. But it is, just the same. The basic premise is interesting enough, and there are some interesting ideas baked into the way pieces move and attack. Earth is incredibly slow, but almost indestructible. Air is fast, but rarely has any attacking potential. The fact elements move faster in their own plane opens up some strategic options, as you can suddenly race around the board and then leap onto another plane to attack a piece your opponent thought was safe.

Looking at the theory... Sure... The game seems quite crunchy.

The reality is somewhat different. There's just something very slow and uninteresting in how you move your pieces. Furthermore, the earth element seems overpowered. In my very first game, I rolled to determine my Host, and it was an earth element. That meant my Time piece was securely under a piece that only another earth element (or an air piece from the Vortex) could attack. The downside is that the earth piece is supposed to be slow, but as you are only allowed to move one space when you go up a plane on the board, earth is actually able to trudge towards the central Creation space at the same damned speed as every other piece in the game. If your opponent happens to get an earth piece into Creation, the only way for you to destroy it is to attack it with another earth piece or else use an air piece attacking from Vortex. The problem is, pieces that attack into the Creation space are also removed from play, so you're constantly wearing away your own forces in an attempt to dislodge your opponent.

Ultimately, I just don't think the game is any fun. It moves quite slowly, some of the rules don't make a whole heap of sense, all the pieces look similar, the end-game seems weighted towards a tournament style of play that I doubt many people would be interested in, and in the later stages of a game you quite often end up throwing pieces into Creation's meat grinder in a tiresome back-and-forth war of attrition. And the whole thing looks so boring on the table.

A game of EleMental underway.


I guess some people will enjoy it. They'll enjoy puzzling out their moves, and the potential swings that occur following a successful attack on a Host piece. Those same people will surely say I'm being too harsh on the game; but there was nothing about this one that really grabbed my attention and made me want to keep playing. For me, there are just too many better two-player abstract games. In any situation where I might reach for EleMental, I would certainly choose Shing Shang instead. It still has multiple paths to victory and pieces with variable speeds and attack powers, but it also has elegant and engrossing rules, and absolutely no nonsense about elements battling in space.

But is there anything I do like about EleMental?

I think my favourite bit of the game is the deep, thought-provoking questions it inspires. A look through the included FAQs turns up this little gem:

"I attacked Creation with Air in Vortex - but it was also my Host! What happens to Time?"

Hmm.

I think that's a compelling question. Something we should all think about. After all, aren't we all attacking creation on a daily basis? Don't we all race through life in a vortex? Do we ever really stop to think what happens to time?

I'll tell you one thing: You won't find the answers in the electronic adrenaline drenched offerings of gun toting rap stars.

The box from the pre-production prototype of EleMental.


You may be interested to know what Minds United have been up to since creating EleMental (I know I was). A quick search on Google revealed the company is now primarily in the business of IT consultancy, although it still lists "other publishing activities" as a string to its bow. An even quicker search on BoardGameGeek revealed that shortly after the launch of EleMental, Minds United released a game called EleMental Dice, which may well have been an excuse to use up all the custom dice lying around after the first game flopped. The following year, the company released a dice game called Espresso Dice.

It's Yahtzee.

Yahtzee, but with extra rules that allow you to use the dice to play a game "like Snap."

Snap.

With dice.

I'm going for a lie down.


EleMental is no longer in production, although you may be able to pick up a copy at a charity shop or from eBay. Alternatively, you could find much better games at your local games store or online retailer.

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