Full disclosure: A preview copy of ElemenZ was provided by Bad Cat Games. Please note that rules, components, and other features of the game may change between now and release, as this is a preview copy of an unreleased game.
Another week, another Kickstarter preview. This time it’s ElemenZ, from Bad Cat Games. In ElemenZ, you’re doing one of two things: either fighting between three or four different shamans to emerge victorious, or energize a mysterious obelisk that is both strange and mysterious. Can you bend the elements to your will?
So the two-player game is completely different from the three- and four-player game. I’m going to break these up into separate sections (both Setup and Gameplay).
Setup is actually pretty simple, regardless of player count. For this one, you’re going to give each player two player boards, in opposing colors:
That’s Fire / Earth and Water / Air. Combine them so that the monolith is in the center. Give each player 3 of each of their two dice colors:
Leave the other dice in the central pool.
At this point, you’re about ready. If you’re playing with Avatar Tiles, take only the ones with asterisks and deal them out equally to each player. If there are any left over / any non-asterisked tiles, set them aside, and they will not be used in this game. Note that these are Avatar Tiles:
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to go!
Three- and Four-Player Setup
For this one, give each player a Player Board on the three- or four-player side:
Give them a matching Totem Board, as well:
Also give each player 2 Pulse Tokens, which can be put on any of the four open circles on their Player Board, face-down:
And then you’re about ready. If you’re playing with Avatar Tiles, give each player 2, and then put the rest into X equal-sized stacks, where X is the number of players. If the stacks aren’t equal, just … do the best that you can. Again, these are Avatar Tiles:
Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to go! Give the players the dice in their color:
Every player should start with two of their dice with their symbol in their SHIELD section, except for the Earth player who only needs one (they get a second SHIELD die automatically). The third and fourth players get a third SHIELD die.
Same deal, here.
For this mode, you’re trying to power up the monolith that’s just kinda around, and you do this by forming dice combos. Other dice combos will do things like force your opponent to return dice to the central pool, steal dice from your opponent, or gain dice for yourself. There are far too many icons for me to go over them in-depth, here, unfortunately. Here’s how a turn works:
- Roll dice. You have to roll all the dice in your possession once. Any Z’s you roll are instantly set aside and may not be used this turn. Sucks, but, happens.
- Lock in combos and/or re-roll. You may, like other dice games, make up to three total rolls. You will continue to lose Z’s that you roll, but you can set dice aside for combos if you’d prefer to do that. You cannot use a combo and then re-roll those dice to be part of a different combo — those dice are spent for the turn. Note that if you use combos to gain dice before you’ve made your third roll, you may roll them as part of a re-roll.
- Activate the Monolith. I separated this out because I think it’s worth calling out, specifically. If you make one of the combos in the center of your Player Board, you may start the process of activating the Monolith. You can make any combo at any time, but the spot that’s colored red, green, blue, or white must have a die of that color on it to be activated. That die is “locked” in, and must be sacrificed to the monument for the rest of the game. Tough, but necessary.
- Use Avatar Tiles. You may, at any point, reveal one of your Avatar Tiles and use its ability instantly. When you do, put it in the center of the play area, face-up.
- Buy Avatar Tiles. You may also spend one of your dice with the symbol matching its color (red fire, green earth, etc.) to buy one of the face-up Avatar Tiles in the center. Turn it face-down and add it to your supply.
- Burn Avatar Tiles. You may also, if you’re feeling particularly negative, spend any two matching symbols to burn an opponent’s Avatar tile, returning it to the center, face-up. At least then they don’t get to use it.
That’s basically all there is to it! First player to lock in all 8 dice activates the Monolith and wins the game! You also win if the other player cannot make any combos on their turn (they’re down to one die).
Three- and Four-Player Gameplay
For this mode, you’re trying to defeat other players who are battling you for control, and you do this by forming dice combos. These dice combos will do things like force your opponent(s) to return dice to the central pool, force them to re-roll dice at inopportune moments, or even weaken their shields. You may be able to heal your lost dice if you’re lucky, but take too many risks and your power might surge out of control or with the wrong polarity and cost you dearly. Again, there are far too many icons for me to go over them in-depth, here, but here’s how a turn works:
- Roll dice. You have to roll all the dice in your possession once, including the ones on your SHIELD.
- Wild Surge: If you roll three Z’s (or have fewer than 3 dice and roll all Z’s), you instantly lose the rest of your turn. If you’ve already activated combos, they stay activated, but you can activate no new combos.
- Element Surge: If you roll only dice of the opposing element, you suffer an Element Surge, causing you to lose the rest of your turn as though you rolled a Wild Surge. It’s rough.
- Heal: If you roll only dice of your element, you may regain one lost die from the dice pool. If you are the Water player, you may immediately roll this die and if it comes up Water, you may regain a second die of your color.
- Lock in combos and/or re-roll. You may, like other dice games, make up to three total rolls. If you roll a Z and do not Wild Surge, you may use that Z to double an existing die. For instance, Fire + Z = two Fire, not Fire + Wind. It’s sort of wild, but it copies an existing die you’ve rolled when you lock it into a combo. Speaking of rolling, you cannot use a combo and then re-roll those dice to be part of a different combo — those dice are spent for the turn. Note that if you use combos to gain dice before you’ve made your third roll, you may roll them as part of a re-roll. There are a variety of combos, but a few major types — STRIKE combos, LOSE combos, Immediate Combos, and Waiting Combos
- STRIKE Combos are somewhat blocked by the opponent’s SHIELD; they don’t cost that much, but if your opponent’s SHIELD is up they might not hit through. For instance, if you use a STRIKE ability to deal 3 STRIKE damage to a player with 2 SHIELD, they must put 1 die in the center (their choice), as they take the difference as damage. On the other hand, if you try to attack them with 1 or 2 STRIKE, you will do no damage, so there’s no point.
- LOSE Combos are much more costly but are more powerful, as well. They cannot be blocked. You just immediately lose the specified number of dice to the center. This might be when you want to force an opponent to re-roll.
- Immediate Combos happen instantly when you set the dice for the combo, and they spend the dice immediately. STRIKE and LOSE Combos are all Immediate Combos, as well as SHIELD (even though it protects you for the entire round).
- Waiting Combos have a diamond next to them, and they can be activated at any time. For instance, DEEP FOG is a Waiting Combo that allows you to force an opponent (or yourself) to re-roll a die of your choice. You can use this combo on someone else’s turn, but it expires on your next turn.
- Use your player ability. Each player has an ability that can be used once on their turn:
- Air: You may re-roll one die, even if you’ve used up all your standard re-rolls. This is useful if you gain a die back from the Heal bonus.
- Water: You may heal an extra die if, when healing, you roll a Water symbol on the die you healed. If not, you still get that die, you just don’t get two dice.
- Earth: You automatically have a second SHIELD die in place if you have one. If you have 0, you still have 0, though, so be careful.
- Fire: Your STRIKE combos require one fewer Fire die (as denoted by the red squares on your board.
- Use Totem Board. You may leverage certain aspects of your Totem Board during the game, as well. If you’re about to lose a die, you may remove two of your Pulse tokens to prevent it. That said, you can only do that once per attack (you cannot lose four Pulse Tokens to prevent two dice being lost, for instance). Also, during a Wild Surge, you put all your Pulse Tokens back into the bag and draw an equal number of new ones. Just to add in a bit more entropy.
- Use Pulse Tokens. You may also flip over and reveal Pulse Tokens to use their effects. Some give you an extra use of an element, others let you heal a die, and some can prevent Wild Surges. They’re all pretty useful, but beware! Whenever you use one, you remove it from the game. If your Totem Board is ever empty, it is removed from the game as well. So don’t use all your Pulse Tokens without buying more.
- Burn or Buy Pulse Tokens. You may spend the dice indicated on your Player Board to either buy a Pulse Token (if the space is empty) or remove a Pulse Token (if the space is occupied). I assume you can replace one you remove, but I’m honestly not sure. I’ve never really needed to.
- Use Avatar Tiles. As with two-player mode, you may, at any point, reveal one of your Avatar Tiles and use its ability instantly. When you do, put it in the center of the play area, face-up.
- Buy Avatar Tiles. Similarly, you may also spend one of your dice with the symbol matching its color (blue water, etc.) to buy one of the face-up Avatar Tiles in the center. Turn it face-down and add it to your supply.
- Burn Avatar Tiles. You can also still spend any two matching symbols to burn an opponent’s Avatar tile, returning it to the center, face-up.
That’s basically all there is to it! Last player standing wins!
Player Count Differences
Well, there are two different games happening, depending on your player count, which is a bit confusing, but within a three- and four-player game there is no real difference other than the “adjacent players lose one die” move being a bit less useful.
- (3+) It doesn’t pay to get into an early lead. This just paints a big target on your back, which isn’t always the best look. I find that it’s just best to start setting other players up.
- (3+) Always make sure your SHIELD is charged. This is especially important for Earth, as they get the second SHIELD die for free, provided they’ve placed the first one.
- (3+) If you’re looking for a player to wreck, damage Earth’s SHIELD. This means they have 0 SHIELD and are vulnerable to all attacks, STRIKE or LOSE or otherwise. When you slap a big target on someone’s back, other players are likely to take the bait.
- (3+) It seems like a good idea to mess with the player on your right. This means that the player after you might be able to 1-2 punch them. I usually drain the player on my right’s SHIELD so that the next player can do a bunch of damage to them and then, once the player(s) to my left eliminate the player to my right, I can go after them.
- (3+) The “LOSE 2 dice” Combo is pretty strong, but often worth it. You usually go for that when you’re trying to bring the strongest player down to your level, since it’s tough to block.
- (2) Just try to get a lot of dice. Sure, you’ll lose a bunch to the Z’s, but you’ll have a lot of dice and that gives you options. Plus, with enough dice, you can just steal more from your opponent. You jerk.
- (2) I’d lock in dice-gaining combos early so that you can re-roll dice you gain from the center. That might give you additional options or let you lock in more than one monolith level.
- (2) Lock in the difficult combos first, in my opinion. It’ll be a lot easier to lock in the 2-symbol combos, sure, but if you only have two dice then suddenly you can’t make any combos on your next turn and you’re screwed.
- Wait until your opponent is about to wreck you before forcing them to re-roll. Also, make sure you force them to re-roll dice that aren’t using their symbol, as they only have a 1/6 chance of getting that symbol again. Take that, probability.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Whatever these Player Boards are coated with is amazing. I know it’s not super relevant to the game, but if my hands get condensation on them from holding a drink they will literally stick to the Player Board. It’s quite amusing.
- The press-your-luck element is generally interesting. It’s fairly similar to the dynamite in BANG! The Dice Game, but with an actual benefical effect to encourage rerolling, which I find kind of neat. You still run the risk of a particularly foul roll mucking up your entire game, though, which is amusing.
- The dice are pretty nice. It’s always nice to see neat components. I’d prefer engraved dice to sort of screen-printed dice, but it’s more expensive so I’m not going to exactly fault anyone for it. They have a good weight, as well. Nice heft.
- The combos are pretty neat. There are definitely cool places for trying to shoot for certain combos and deciding whether it’s worth it to team up with someone else to attack someone or if you should just focus on bulking up to avoid taking damage on your turn, even though your opponent might be able to do a combo that hits clean through your defenses.
- The two-player game is pretty neat as well. It’s a similar system, but more of a race than a fight, with some minor combative elements. I prefer it, honestly.
- Take-that isn’t super my scene. Just not my preferred style of gameplay. Thankfully, the game is pretty fast so the combative, attack-y nature of the game kinda makes more sense and works out a bit better.
- A lot of iconography for a fast game. It makes it easier to play later (sort of), but it adds a lot of startup cost, making it hard for new players to learn. Most of my first few games were just looking through the rulebook to try and figure out what X or Y symbol did. I’m still confused on some. The Avatar tiles in particular add an entire new class of iconography to the game, which … can be tough.
- The two-player game being a completely different game from the three+-player game is kind of confusing. It honestly feels like the difference between, say, 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders: Duel, in that it might have been less confusing to leave them separate.
- The Pulse Tokens seem to oscillate between very helpful and useless. I’ve very rarely had a Pulse Token just be mediocre, but I’ve had a lot of useless Pulse Tokens, at times. I don’t honestly use them much when I’m playing.
- A lot of the game is ganging up on stronger opponents. There’s no real measure of trying to equally take out players in a player elimination game. The only advantage is a Coup-like standoff where all that keeps you alive is the fact that they need to weaken the stronger player before they kill you, otherwise the stronger player will kill them once they kill you. I don’t always find that style of gameplay super interesting because it can lead to frustration, but
- The rulebook could use some work. Especially since they’re currently on Kickstarter already, I’d recommend having someone take a pass through it. There are some structure things that could be a bit more cohesively laid out to allow players to quickly get started. I particularly like Roll Player’s rulebook in that it lists out a Quick Reference on the back to let players know how the game should be set up and played quickly.
- It can be a bit frustrating to get an Element / Wild Surge on your turn when you only have one die left. I assume that’s partially to give players a 1 / 3 chance of just getting ruined on their turn rather than surviving, but the fact that there are two ways to lose your turn (especially when you’re against the ropes) is a bit more infuriating than it is interesting, for me.
Overall: 7 / 10
Overall, I think ElemenZ is a pretty solid game. I like the need to manage which dice you want to acquire and roll, and which dice you need to sacrifice to accomplish your goal, all the while focusing on your opponent and perhaps needing to take stuff from them. Add in a bit of random luck around bad rolls (and some mitigation opportunities) and variable player powers, and you’ve got yourself a game. The two-player mode is probably my favorite, if I’m being honest, as it’s more of a race / shared-resource-management game with lighter take-that elements. The three- and four-player modes are solid if you’re into the randomized combat genre, but I understand that it’s not for everyone. What fans of the genre will find is a game focused on going for certain combos and compromising at times to at least move forward or defend yourself from being moved backwards by others. I would definitely recommend this to fans of the genre, and even moreso once it’s been polished up a bit. That said, if you dislike combat or randomness or take-that in games, those are all sort of core tenets, here, so buyer beware.