Reviews You Can Use: Element

Rare is the abstract board game that arrives in today’s marketplace like a breath of fresh air, earth, fire and water. ELEMENT from Rather Dashing Games is a clever concoction with traces of Go, Chess, chaos and law in its DNA. Chaos appears by way of the drawing of different-colored element stones from an opaque bag. Each stone inside the bag is a different classical element (the aforementioned air, earth, fire and water.) Those wondering about the exclusion of the fifth classic element of ancient Greece (aether,) or the two missing Wu Xing elements (metal and wood,) or the void element of ancient Egypt need not worry. There’s still plenty of ancient atmosphere in this mystical board game to go around.

Players converge on a gorgeous 11×11 board that feels like a fading fresco from a far-flung and forgotten time. The board itself may as well be a piece of art. If framed and mounted upon a wall in one’s study, it would be a sight to behold. Unlike other popular abstract games such as China’s Xiangqi or Belgium’s Yinsh (in which the game pieces are places onto the intersections,) these element stones and sage pieces are placed inside the squares on the board, as seen in the following pictures (taken at the Legendary Realms hobby shop in Plainview NY.)

In the spirit of “ancient east meets ancient west,” gameplay vaguely resembles that of Go (a game more than 2500 years old and still enjoyed today,) with the objective of trapping your opponent. And yet, unlike in chess (Asian or western,) there is no capturing of pieces here. An unimpeded sage may move as a King piece does in western chess (one space only, in any direction.) Players may also choose to have their sage piece remain at their current space, rather than moving the sage piece (if already satisfied with one’s position;) an enchanting option seldom seen in board games (abstract or otherwise.)

Gameplay unfolds with the placing of element stones onto the board. Each element stone has its own special property. Air blows and replaces earth. Earth grows and replaces water. Fire glows and replaces air. Water flows and replaces fire. Of the four differing element stone types, two are stackable (air and earth, as shown in the picture above.) Stacked air element stones create whirlwinds, allowing adjacent sages to move one extra space farther for each stone in the stack (maximum of four stones in a stack.) Stacked earth element stones create impassable mountain ranges, through which no sage may diagonally move through. Savvy players will use air element stones to replace nearby earth stones first chance they get, and maneuver their sage away from any burgeoning ranges which have not yet been laid low by the mighty winds.

As element stones are placed, all sages become increasingly trapped. When a player’s sage is completely surrounded by element stones (and unable to move) the game ends. Players each take their turns in a counterclockwise manner. Unusual, that. Players must trap the sage belonging to the player to their right. Should you trap another sage instead, it is the player sitting to that sage’s left who’ll be triumphant.

With a total of 120 element stones in the game (30 of each type,) players will want to keep a close eye on which types are running low in the bag (for example, if 22 earth stones are already in play on the board, only 8 remain hidden in the bag, ergo the likelihood of drawing more earth element stones from the bag diminishes.) It’s not akin to “counting cards” in a friendly game of Hearts, where such strategies are crucial to a player’s success from the moment when the very first card is played. The bag of element stones exists in a state of perpetual replenishment, as it is constantly being refilled by element stones which are replaced (albeit the rate of replenishing will vary from one game to the next; another delightful taste of the chaos that makes this game so exciting and unpredictable.) ELEMENT has more replay value than you can shake a zafu at.

Element stones (appearing in the picture above) are durable, plastic, lightweight and well-made. It’s fun to think of what impact it would have on the game if fire stones and water stones were stackable; swinging wide a door to another world of variant possibilities. Perhaps it is best if fire and water stones remain unstackable; a yin to the yang of both air and earth. ELEMENT’s developers (Mike Richie and Grant Wilson) have certainly already considered this, electing to just have it be air and earth as the only stackable element stones in this game.

Here you can see all four sages in the foreground, with game board below, game box and bag of element stones in the background. Much thought went into the sculpting of these sturdy resin sages, from their color to their shape. To see this level of design in an abstract board game is refreshing.

ELEMENT gives us much to think about. Great chess players can think five moves ahead, but there isn’t all that much thinking ahead during a match of ELEMENT. Attempting to think five moves ahead in ELEMENT is likely to get your sage into trouble. The everchanging nature of which element stones emerge from the bag (at which time and in what quantity) will often change the playing field in a plethora of unexpected ways.

A closer look at the element stones:

AIR
Air element stones can be jumped over, if an available empty space exists on the opposite side. Jumping over air stones does not count towards movement. Air stones may not be jumped more than once per turn. Partially surrounding your own sage with air stones is wise, as the air stone is not a trapping stone. Air stones replace Earth stones.

EARTH
Earth element stones can create all sorts of difficulties for an opponent who lacks the air stones needed to survive such a gambit. In a four-player match, it’s exhilarating when a player stacks earth stones near the center of the board (ranges sprout up from center to perimeter, in directions no player can routinely predict.) Earth stones replace Water stones.

FIRE
Page 4 of the rulebook says it best. “Fire spreads the more it is fed.” Exercise caution when placing these particular stones onto the board. As the match progresses, it’s the free fire stones (sometimes one, sometimes two) that you’ll need to remain especially vigilant of. Fire stones replace Air stones.

WATER
Water element stones create all sorts of havoc on a board, extinguishing fire stones as they snake around, coiling as they go, forming rivers or even “lakes.” Water stones may not flow in directions where there isn’t enough available space for the river to flow into. Players will want to keep that in mind during a match. Never does the game board seem more finite than when a player is unable to place a water stone in an effort to manipulate a river. Water stones replace Fire stones.

ELEMENT is highly recommended for fans of abstract games (including Chess, Go, Shatranj, Xiangqi and more of that ilk.) Rather Dashing Games releases HAFID’S GRAND BAZAAR later this year too. The sky’s the limit for designers Mike Richie and Grant Wilson. We’ll be watching.

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