Sunday, February 05, 2006

Review: Elasund - The First City

Elasund - The First City is the next installment of Klaus Teuber's Catan Adventures series of games. It is for 2-4 players and plays between 60 and 90 minutes.

Klaus Teuber is most famous for his seminal game: The Settlers of Catan. That game has evolved into one of the most successful game franchises of recent times, spinning off countless expansions and even being credited for igniting something of a board game renaissance. So it's no small wonder that pretty much anything Klaus Teuber has published over the last decade would attract a lot of interest. Unfortunately, the last few games that Heir Teuber has designed have not been quite able to live up to the Catan reputation. That's not to say that his recent stuff hasn't been very good; it's just that Catan casts a mighty big shadow and it's a monumental task to come up with something bright enough to really shine through it.

This time, I think he's finally done it. Elasund is without a doubt the best thing that Klaus Teuber has designed in years. Yes, it's that good.

In Elasund, players find themselves taking on the role of city planner. Each player is competing to build the largest and most influential buildings in Catan's first city. Before a building can be built, players must secure permission to build in the form of building permits, and they must secure funds to finance its construction. Once a building has been built, it may act as a source of income which can be used to finance further construction.

The game is played on a 10x8 square grid that represents the city plots. (With 2 and 3 players the grid is reduced to 10x4 or 10x6 respectively.) Buildings cover one, two, four or six squares. The western edge of the board is a coastline where ships arrive to deliver goods. The other three edges of the city contain areas designated for the construction of the city walls. In the middle of the city is a space that has been cleared for the first foundation of the city's church. Also in the middle of the city, each player has erected two worker's huts which are the seeds from which the new city will spring.

The rules are pretty simple. Each turn starts with the roll of two dice. The number dictates where the ship will dock. The ship is moved to the appropriate row and any building that lies on that row may generate income for its owner in the form of gold or influence cards.

Next, the active player may build up to two times. She may build either a building, part of the church, or a section of the city wall. City walls grant one-time immediate rewards (usually an influence card, sometimes a victory point). Buildings either provide more opportunities for income, victory points, or in some cases both. Each of the nine squares in the church provides a victory point.

After the building phase, a player can plunk down a permit chip either in the ship's row or, if she's willing to spend influence cards, anywhere on the board. This is important because most buildings can't be constructed unless the player first has a permit on the board where the building is to go. Larger buildings require more than one permit.

Finally, for the cost of a few more influence cards, a player can either raise more cash, place an extra permit, or change the permits that they already have on the board.

The heart of the game is constructing the buildings. Each building (other than the two starting buildings) has a construction cost. The larger the building, the more permits and/or gold are required to build it. In order to build a building, you have to control at least one permit in the intended plot. If there are more than one player's permits in the plot, the sum of the numbers on your permits (which are numbered 0 to 4) must exceed the sum of your opponent's permits. As long as those conditions are met, you can build, even using other players' permits to help if you're willing to pay them for the privilege. In a really brilliant design move, larger buildings can be built on top of smaller buildings (or even buildings of the same size if you're willing to pay additional influence cards) which means that you can tear down an opponent's building. This is a deliciously confrontational element which helps keep the game close and the tension high.

Don't discount the church. There are nine church tiles which eventually will fill up a 3x3 plot. Each tile costs an expensive seven gold coins but building the church offers some nice advantages. First of all, each church tile is worth a victory point, and since no building is ever allowed to be built on top of a church tile, the victory point is permanent (unlike most other victory points in the game). Furthermore, when a new church tile comes out, if there is already a building in that tile's designated location, the other building is torn down to make way for the church tile. Sometimes this is the only practical way to remove another player's building.

As the game progresses, players must make careful decisions about where to place permits, where to build buildings, when to try and tear down an opponent's building (or sometimes even one of their own), whether to use a permit to block someone else from building somewhere, etc.

All of this tension, confrontation, strategy, tactics and luck are blended together in an elegant mix that goes down in a little over an hour. On top of that, add lovely components, a decent theme, and just enough Settlers flavor to tie it all to the parent series. It all comes together in what is Klaus Teuber's best game in years. It even works well as a two player game. Is it better than Settlers? I don't know if I'd go that far. But it's a worthy addition to the family and you owe it to yourself to give it a look.


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