Dwellings of Eldervale is not a small game. Living in London as I do, space is at a premium. When this monstrosity arrived I first thought I’d have to move house, but then I realised I could rent out the box on AirBnB for a little extra income. You can see a picture of it here with a standard reference egg.
I am generally not a fan of big, hyper thematic games. I recently reviewed a Reiner Knizia game, Babylonia with 2 pages of rules, a few wooden discs, and a board and loved it. I’m also not a fan of overproduction: Box upon box of fist-sized ‘miniatures’. Glossaries, appendices, and appendices to glossaries... I like simplicity and elegance in a game. So why did I buy a game with its own gravity and weather system? Well, I heard Dwellings of Eldervale was good. I watched reviews and did my due diligence. The mists descended on my mind and I bought it. It’s not a dry, overcomplicated Euro. It’s not a hyper thematic luck-fest Ameritrash title. It is a beautiful blend of the best of both.
Like A Kitchen Sink, But With A Polished Granite Basin And Copper Victorian Taps
It’s area control, worker placement, resource management, dice-rolling combat, tableau-building, thematic monster fighting, spell casting, and engine building. Crikey. It’s the kitchen sink of games. So it’s bound to be a mess right? Nope - it takes a Euro game and an Ameritrash game and forces them to sit in a room together until they’re friends. If there is ever a Star Trek Federation that rules the Earth, it’ll look like Dwellings of Eldervale. Cats and dogs living together and liking it.
Get On With It!
You choose one of the sixteen factions in the game, each with its own unique powers. Each faction comes with a game tray that nicely holds all the components. These include worker meeples, a warrior, a dragon, and a wizard. You have slots for all the different resources in the game, coloured dice for combat, and slots for tokens you will acquire via exploration. Then there are the adorable little roofs you can fit over your workers. The lid to the tray is a piece of artwork with helpful reminders about your special faction powers.
The Elemental Realms
The world of Eldervale is constructed from a starting set of large hex tiles set out at the beginning of the game. Over the course of the game, this world will grow as new tiles are added. When the last tile comes out, this is one way the end game is triggered.
The tiles represent either ‘elemental realms’ that match the colour of the factions being played, or ‘ruins’. Elemental realms are places where you go to retrieve treasure tokens, build dwellings and where unique monsters may spawn. Ruins are tiles you visit to perform special actions. The most important of these are summoning new workers, building a dwelling, and expanding the map. Thus accelerating the end of the game.
On your turn, you will either place a worker on the board or ‘regroup’ bringing everyone back home. You can only place workers on tiles adjacent to your existing workers, meaning you spread outwards across the territory. If you place in a realm containing another player, you get the reward of the spot but then battle is triggered. Everyone on the realm in question as well as those in adjacent realms can then decide whether to join in the battle. I’ll have more to say about combat later.
Regrouping - Breathing New Life Into Worker Placement
An overly familiar and rather boring aspect of many worker placement games is the inevitable ‘retrieve your workers’ step where nothing interesting happens and you just take back all your workers from the board. Dwellings of Eldervale has done something fascinating with this step. Eventually, you will decide to ‘regroup’. Perhaps because you’ve no workers left, or for deeper strategic reasons. You then take your workers from the board, one by one, and place them on worker placement spots on your own tableau of cards. To begin the game, everyone has a simple starting card that lets you place your regrouping workers to summon more workers, gain treasure, or construct dwellings. But the real fun begins as you purchase Adventure cards.
Tableau You Say? More Like An Entire Minigame You Build For Yourself
The ‘ruin’ tile that you visit to expand the map also lets you purchase Adventure cards. These come in a game tray of decks for each of the elemental power colours you are playing with. Purchased cards expand your growing tableau, but they're not static. These cards can be modified to increase their power. Remember the treasure tokens you get from visiting elemental realms with your workers? These tokens can be slotted onto your adventure cards as permanent power-ups.
So can the rare orbs you receive for glory in battle or being the first to reach the pinnacle of one of the colours of elemental power. Orbs can also be slotted onto some cards for even bigger bonuses. About half the Adventure cards have locations on them where you can place a regrouped worker to trigger actions and bonuses. Some cards can even attach to other cards for further tableau-rific combos. Constructing these ever more powerful private worker placement spots is at the heart of Dwellings of Eldervale. Every regroup action becomes a vital part of your overall strategy.
It's Called Dwellings Of Eldervale For A Reason
Dwellings are the key to scoring points both during the game, at the end of the game, and for building power during combat. But dwellings come at a price. You take the “Dwell'' action either on one of the ruins tiles or during your regroup action. Then you take one of your adorable little house ‘hats’ from your game tray and fit it on top of one of your workers still out in the world. You are now the sole and permanent owner of this realm. You can score big for this. First, you get points of elemental power in the colour of the realm you are settling in. Then you get points for any other dwellings, from any player, in adjacent tiles as well as any adjacent ruins. BUT, you have lost that worker for the rest of the game.
As in most worker placement games, you want more workers. However, in this game, you also need to sacrifice them to get any points. The timing of this sacrifice is crucial to doing well or poorly. And if anyone gets all six of their dwellings out, this triggers the end game. These dwellings are also critical for yet another feature of Dwellings of Eldervale: combat!
Muster Your Forces
The early game of Dwellings of Eldervale is peaceful. But once everyone has performed one regroup action, the gloves are off. Whenever two players are in the same realm, combat will result. First, anyone adjacent to the contested region can decide whether to move their troops into the fray. Players then decide if they will spend some of their sword resources to increase their battle strength. Finally everyone determines how many dice they have to throw. This is determined by the type of creatures involved (dragons, workers, warriors, wizards), any special faction powers, and again - your dwellings. Every one of your dwellings adjacent to the action gives you another die for combat. There’s plenty of room here for strategic planning of your empire’s geography.
Let The Chips Fall As They May
Each player then rolls their dice and sorts them from high to low. The winner is the one with the highest value, moving down the list in case of ties. One player may roll two dice and get a 6 and 1. While another rolls 4 dice and gets four 5's. The first player wins, moves up the glory track and receives one of its many rewards. However, after the initial roll players can use magic cards they acquired at one of the ruins to cast spells that might allow re-rolls or any number of special actions. Direct player conflict like this is one way Dwellings of Eldervale straddles the Euro-American divide. It's confrontational, thematic, lucky, simple, and great fun. For some, this combat system may be too straightforward due to the strong element of luck. But critically, it's only ever a bump in the road for your overall strategy.
Died In Combat? Walk It Off
Losing in combat isn’t that bad. When your worker ‘dies’ they are simply sent to the underworld and you receive a sword resource as ‘vengeance for the fallen’. Your fallen brethren pop right back out of the underworld during your next regroup action. The only downside is they can’t be used to activate your richly growing tableau. Despite its randomness, I’ve still found the combat enormous fun. Even the extreme underdog has a good chance of defeating the giant. Of course, there are the monsters.
Say Hello To The Chaos Beast. Future Pet Or Bloodthirsty Abomination?
Every elemental realm type has one tile where that realm’s unique monster type will appear. If anyone enters a tile adjacent to a monster, the monster will ‘rush in’ and initiate combat. Usually, these beasts will remain undefeated for several rounds, roaming around endangering everyone. On rare occasions, a player may receive a spell card or purchase an adventure card that allows them to ‘dominate’ a monster. If they defeat it in combat, the player can then immediately take control of the monster as a powerful worker/combatant in future rounds until it is killed. Although rare, it's exciting when it happens and bolsters Dwellings of Eldervale’s thematic excellence.
Synergistic Elemental Power Grabbing. Also Known As ‘Winning’
Winning Dwellings of Eldervale is all about synergy. Every time you purchase an adventure card or build a dwelling of a particular elemental colour, you go up on the corresponding power track. At the end of the game each of your dwellings and cards in a particular colour is worth points equal to your level on that colour’s power track. This synergy drives you to focus on one or two power colours.
The handy-dandy player reference says 20-40% of your score is acquired during the game with 60-80% as end game scoring. This keeps the game tense until the very end. The magic cards, which I’ve only touched upon here, include ‘prophecy’ cards which can award significant points for achieving various goals throughout the game. These magic cards were probably the only thing I felt was lacklustre in the game. I felt they potentially lead to rather large swings in score whilst being rather lucky in their acquisition. But the game is so much fun overall that this should be considered a nitpick.
Production, Manual, Artwork And Components
The production and art standards on this game are top-notch. But this is not simply for the sake of looking pretty. There are eight game trays, one for each faction. And there are two game trays for the adventure decks and associated tokens. Without these trays, the game would be almost unplayable. Set-up and tear-down would be so onerous that I doubt it would ever get to the table. And the organisational pain of dealing with all the tokens…. I daren’t imagine. But with the trays? Its magic. Unbelievably quick to set-up and everything has its obvious place. Everything is molded to the right shape or has an image of the object that belongs there in relief in the plastic.
The manual is beautiful and crystal clear. It's not laid out in the most conventional way, but is nonetheless excellent. I have the standard retail version of the game, where there are no miniatures, only standees. The ‘deluxe’ and ‘legendary’ versions have 9 large miniatures, with the latter having sound bases that roar as you move them. I know. But it's still pretty cool.
Solo? Try The Ghosts Of Eldervale
A fully fleshed out solo mode is included, together with a separate manual and AI player board. Apart from a few rules clarifications I needed from the BGG forums, this is clearly explained, fast to implement and causes minimum brain strain. I have heard many people love the solo mode. I certainly enjoyed it. But it paled for me in comparison to playing against humans. I’ve played the game solo, 2-player and 3-player. So far, 3-player has been my favourite, but 2-player was close behind. Understanding your opponents’ strategic reasoning is half the fun, and understandably this is missing from the solo game. For a solo mode in a game of this scope, it's up there with the best.
Dwellings of Eldervale is my best game of 2021. It's huge, but everything is there for a reason. The game is rich, thematic, mechanistically novel, and enormous fun. It's easy to play and teach and surprisingly quick. A 3 player game took under 2 hours. Luke Laurie will be a designer whose name I will henceforth pay close attention to. I sit here staring at my shelves of games, wondering if this is an episode of Hoarder SOS. Dwellings of Eldervale doesn’t replace any of them - it's unique. But if I could choose only one game to keep, this monster of a game would certainly be on the shortlist.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on 03/06/2021. Updated on 13/07/2021 to improve the information available.