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DER ELEFANT im PORZELLANLADEN

Reviewed by Joe Huber

(Amigo, 3-5 players, ages 8 and up, 30 minutes; about $9)

 

One of the most interesting challenges for a game designer is to design compelling “filler” – a game lasting less than 30 minutes for a typical group. Given a short duration, it can be very difficult to convey theme or other truly interesting decisions – what good is long term planning in a game that doesn’t last that long, after all? As a result, I’m always impressed when a new filler manages to strike just the right chord, typically encouraging lots of play in short order – and then holds up through that extended play. For Sale (originally featured in the Fall 1997 GA REPORT) is an excellent example of a filler that offers simple but interesting decisions and holds up well time and time again.

Michael Schacht is an accomplished and prolific designer whose games often tend to the filler length. He even has a very popular filler to his credit, in Coloretto. I was therefore more than willing to try one of his latest releases: Der Elefant im Porzellanladen (The Elephant in the China Shop), in spite of some unflattering initial reviews. Surprisingly, Der Elefant im Porzellanladen manages the rare trick for a filler of carrying out a compelling story.

Each player owns a china shop and wishes to have their china shop recognized as the best. To do so, their shop will be rated on four different categories. The owner can choose the order of the categories but must be rated in each. Unfortunately, for our erstwhile entrepreneurs, their shops have yet to receive acclaim and, as such, must survive without the benefit of customers. However, there is hope: their shops are located in the historical elephant district and the players have taken the precaution of purchasing pachyderm insurance. So when a stampede occurs, there is the promise of insurance money. The insurers don’t wish to risk venturing into the district, however, and so don’t notice when the owners attempt a bit of insurance fraud – when the elephants have come through, certainly, but by some miracle haven’t actually broken any china. Not wishing to push their luck too far, the owners won’t pull a scam when already flush with cash. While this storyline may sound like one from a James Ernest game – or from one his imitators – the game is otherwise typical for a eurogame, with simple, clean mechanisms, well produced and with a predictable playing time.

Players start with a money card and a pass card. Five china and five elephant cards are laid out; they are not replaced until the initial five of the types are all taken. During a turn, each player must either buy china (giving up a money card) or allow an elephant into their shop (possibly losing china, but receiving a money card in return). Once – and only once – during the game, a player may pass, hoping to improve his timing. After exactly ten pieces of china are purchased – regardless of how many stampedes have occurred – the first scoring takes place. Each player has the option of scoring for their lowest value piece of china in each of the three colors, their highest in each color, all the pieces in one color, or all of their china regardless of color. After another ten pieces of china are purchased, the choice is presented again – save that the category already chosen is no longer available. After the thirtieth and fortieth pieces of china, respectively, the third and fourth scoring rounds occur. Finally, all players add their four scores together and the player with the highest total wins.

Elephant stampedes comes in four types. Each one selected causes the same insurance payment to be made regardless of how much – or how little – damage is done. The first type hits one or more pieces of china in specific colors. If a player has no china in a color, that portion of the card has no effect. The second type of stampede destroys all the china but only in a single color. The third type destroys all the china of either even or odd values. Finally, the fourth type destroys one or two pieces of china of a color of the player’s choosing.

For my first play of Der Elefant im Porzellanladen, I didn’t quite know what to expect, the rules don’t lay out the the real story of the game particularly well. But as we were playing it, we discovered what a cutthroat nasty game it is. Players take no action directly against other players, but the choices they make will significantly impact the players going after them. The strict limits on the game – a player with no money must allow an elephant through his store and a player with two money cards must purchase china – make it reasonably easy to predict, and thereby control, future events. When someone is going to have to take an elephant, it would be tragic if that elephant happened to be the one that did the most damage. Of course, players seem to be very good at tragedy. It’s entirely possible to pinpoint the action that caused one difficulty – which may be a problem for some groups.

Personally, the nasty nature is actually quite positive and oftentimes the player who wins is the one who best keeps himself from being hit by a nasty stampede. The game is largely a tactical one; the random order of appearance of china and elephants dictates this. That said, players can take many medium-range actions – the ability to choose the order of scoring requires players consider more than just the short term consequences to their actions. Of course, the vastly different costs of the elephant stampedes help to create difficult choices. Taking an elephant early may lower the impact, so the elephant(s) allowing a player to chose the colors are particularly popular.

A typical winning score for Der Elefant im Porzellanladen depends upon the number of players, but tends to be in the neighborhood of 60 points. The two scorings of one in each color have a maximum score of 24, but scores of 8-12 points are more typical. To win, players will usually need to score 15-20 points for the single color scoring, and more than 20 when scoring all cards. This can often be best accomplished by working on the single color scoring and all card scoring back-to-back.

Overall, Der Elefant im Porzellanladen is one of the more enjoyable fillers I’ve had the opportunity to play. There are only a few concerns I still have. First is how will it will hold up to 50 or 100 plays – what makes For Sale a classic is how enjoyable it remains after so much play. The other is the score pads. Printed single sided, they go quickly – I’m about to run through the pack in my copy. Finally, the game is not easy to come by in the US – there’s no English edition at present, and only a few of the online retailers are carrying the game. Still, it’s well worth seeking out, particularly for those looking for something as short as For Sale but more cutthroat. – – – – – Joe Huber


 

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