ElemenZ by Bad Cat Games is essentially a manufactured prototype that has yet to be released. As a reviewer, I often get approached to look over pre-published games and have thus far always declined, for a number of reasons including time restraints, interest in the project as well as dealing with certain game designers who can get pretty touchy if they are not liking what you have to say. Which obviously, is the point of carrying out a critique?
All that being said, I love to play Indie Games and massively enjoy talking to other game designers about their games, where their inspiration comes from and what future plans they may have, etc. Enter Bad Cat Games, a Scottish based indie company who not only speak very passionately about the hobby but also seem to have big plans for it. For those reasons I decided to accept their invitation to preview their first board game, ElemenZ.
So, let’s get started with the game in question. ElemenZ is a dice battle game set in a fantastical world of element controlling alien races that are all fighting over who will be named the Master Zee. The alien races are essentially Fire, Earth, Wind and Water, although each Shaman does have its own name and characteristics. At this point I should reiterate, my favourite theme is fantasy and most favoured game mechanic is dice rolling; good start, then.
Bad Cat Games push ElemenZ as a game for players aged 8+ and promote the fact it has a 2 player or 3-4 player variant of the game. We will discuss more on both these points further on in the preview.
Set up is really quick & easy with each player receiving their own Shaman in the form of a double sided player board, and which side of the board being used will depend on which version of the game is being played. Players will get their own totem board, dice and pulse tokens. A game will generally take 30 minutes or so. For this preview we will be assuming that we are playing the 3-4 player variant of ElemenZ.
Let’s talk about the production value of the game: The artwork for the box is certainly not ‘in your face’ but leans towards the subtle side whilst managing to fit perfectly with the fantasy theme. It gives the impression of alien worlds at odds with one another. One, a picture of colourful serenity which is uncontrollably colliding with its dark and foreboding counterpart. Overlay that with an eye-catching title graphic, and I think Bad Cat have done a pretty solid job. The box is a pretty standard 30x22cm size which I imagine will be reduced come its final production, as there is a fair bit of waste as is.
The dice are cool, very cool in fact, and are easily my favourite component in the game. Each Shaman is represented by a different coloured dice which will depict all four elements as well as a Z or Zee, and in-game it acts as a freebie or joker, as described in the rules. The symbols used on the dice have been well thought out and chosen with care, making each roll easy to identify. Added to this, all the dice are stored in a very nice dice bag depicting one of the elements, which I thought was a very nice touch and is something I have criticised far more established publishers for not doing.
The player boards are also of good quality, being printed on thick, glossy cardboard that doesn’t seem to bend, be easily scratched and in general just seems child friendly. Again, the background art is subtle with a strongly pronounced piece of character art at the forefront. Element symbols on the boards make it easy to distinguish which dice goes where, although some of the graphics are out of sync slightly, but it’s worth remembering that this is not the final print of the game.
With that last sentence in mind, I think it’s a good time to mention the rule sheets. This preview copy of ElemenZ came with standard print A4 sheets which I find to be perfectly acceptable for a game in this stage of production. I have discussed this with the designer Justin, who assures me that the final cut of the rule book will be an A5 coloured, glossy booklet.
I do, however, have an issue with the way the rules are presented and formulated. The rule sheets start with an intro that gives players an idea of the world that they are entering; I love that in a set of rules, as I’ve mentioned several times before in previous reviews.
After that everything seems to be a bit all over the place with rules for the 2 player variant intertwined with the 3-4 player game, a ‘players turn’ walkthrough on the final page and the effect of pulse tokens also at the back end of the book, which for me would have been far better served nearer the front when they and the totem boards are first mentioned. Added to this is the use of brackets and ‘note boxes’ interspersed on a regular basis, which made reading through them a lot harder than it should have been.
Despite this, there are still several positive aspects to the rule book, such as plenty of colourful diagrams and a FAQ section at the back which always proves helpful. There is also quite an interesting and cool way of determining who goes first which can be interpreted in several different ways, but I will not spoil that little gem. Possibly adding a reference page would further add to the value of these also.
So, those are the components, let’s talk about the game itself. I described ElemenZ as a dice battle game, which in essence it is, although the game is actually more of a battle of attrition than a ‘roll to kill off the opponent’, such as the Dice Master series. The last Shaman to have dice remaining in their pool will win the game.
On a player’s turn they will roll all of their available dice from their pool, which they may re-roll some or all up to 3 times. That player will the assign their dice to their player board, hoping to create what is the bedrock of the game called combos. Combos are, obviously, combinations of dice that are represented by the symbols on the dice themselves and allow the player to perform specific actions, such as striking an opponent to kill off their dice or add them to their own shield to block future attacks. Added to this are five more combos that have better effects like hitting both adjacent Shaman or increasing hits on a specific opponent. Each Shaman also has their own special ability that can manipulate gameplay. For example, Zylryne aka Air gets a free re-roll of 1 dice, whereas Xyryx or Earth gets a free shield.
Once a player has declared their intent, their opponents now get the chance to break the combos with ones that they have held themselves, negating a possible attack. Once all actions have been resolved, relevant dice are removed from that player’s dice pool, and the play moves on to the next person. It’s worth highlighting that players do not have to use, and in some cases cannot use, all of their combos on a turn. If a player should choose, some combos will remain on the player board to be used as a defensive action rather than an outright attack. As previously stated, the last player with dice remaining in their pool is the winner and declared the Master Zee.
The one aspect of the game which I have failed to mention thus far is a player’s totem board and its corresponding pulse tokens. At the start of the game, each player will randomly choose four pulse tokens, placing them face down on their totem board. When activated, again by combos, these tokens will give its Shaman certain actions to be used, such as forcing an opponent to re-roll a number of dice or restore 1 dice to your dice pool, always a good one to have.
As mentioned when I spoke about the dice, there is a chance that a player can roll a Z or wild surge symbol which can have both a positive and negative effect. If 1 or 2 are rolled, they can mimic other rolled dice, giving that player more options when choosing which combos to use. If 3 of these symbols are rolled, then it immediately ends the player’s turn, which can leave them massively vulnerable once their opponents begin their turn.
Another dice related rule allows a player to recover one of their defeated dice should they successfully roll all of their own element symbol (Wind, Fire, Earth & Water) which always helps.
I will briefly talk about the 2 player variant of ElemenZ before beginning to sum up. In a two player game, each player receives two corresponding boards that are flipped over and placed together to form one larger player board as well as forming a Monolith in the centre. In this version of the game, each player begins with a reduced number of dice with the aim of collecting more, again by assigning combos with the eventual winner being the player to successfully ‘lock in’ all dice to successfully charge the Monolith. Some of the rules have been tweaked slightly, but the basic mechanics remain the same.
Final thoughts before I summarise ElemenZ. I will start with the components themselves, which in general are of really good quality. Some of the graphics do need adjusting or correcting, but things like this are normal at this stage. I like the general layout of the player boards that give simple, easy to understand instructions and really do act as a ‘player aid’, meaning they, along with the dice, are child friendly. That’s what I think Bad Cat Games are aiming towards with ElemenZ, although don’t misquote me, this game will still be enjoyed by gamers of a more mature stature.
That being said, the rule book will need to be adjusted to allow a younger gamer to fully understand them, as well as some older reviewers, I have to admit. A friend of mine, Paul, who you may remember helped me out with a previous review, did manage to play ElemenZ with his 9-year-old son. In the end, Paul’s son loved it and wanted to replay the game several times over, as in essence it is a really simple, child friendly game. The problem was it took an age for the young man to understand what he was meant to do due to the rules, as they are not presented in a simple or child friendly manner.
This leads me on to the totem boards and pulse tokens. I can kind of understand why Bad Cat have added these to the base game, as they would suggest a broader, more ‘bang for your buck’ game. I actually favoured the game without using the totem boards, as the effects of the pulse tokens are either the same as you can get in game or are extremely similar. For me it removes some of the simplicity that could make ElemenZ a very popular game and replaces it with repetitiveness.
One final note before going into the summary: Be sure to check out the Bad Cat Games website, as it offers further insight into their fantasy world as well as into each character.
Without a doubt, ElemenZ is a good, quick and fun game that really is aimed at all ages. Rolling dice is always a favourite of mine, as it adds that little bit of randomness which can increase a game’s lifespan by several sessions. I love the fact that it’s not just a simple, ‘roll a 6 and you’re dead’ game, and allowing players to hold onto combos creates a tactical element that will change from game to game. Giving characters special abilities is always something that I like, and again, gives players different viewpoints depending on which character they choose.
I know I have been critical on the rule book, but that is certainly not an attack on the rules themselves which seem to be well balanced.
I always like it when a designer creates something of their own, like a fantasy world full of their own imaginative characters. In this Bad Cat have definitely impressed, although I think genuine thought is needed as to what type of game they want ElemenZ to be. For me it is a short, stress-free family dice game that keeps components and actions to a minimum. I don’t believe adding extras such as the totems achieves this, although the fact that it can be played completely independently does give players the option to decide this for themselves, so it really depends on one’s own preference, I guess. More options is always a good thing.
Overall, I enjoyed ElemenZ and would welcome the chance to review it once published, hopefully in the not too distant future. Thumbs up, Bad Cat!
Designer – Jason Maclean Jones
Artist – Ascary Lazos
Release Date – Crowd funding campaign expected 2017