Hands up, who has ever tried to make words from the elements on the periodic table? It’s a game that most people who have ever spent time in a science lab have played at some point, and Elemensus has evolved the concept into a full-fledged board game that will have you tearing your hair out trying to think of a word that incorporates the chemical symbol for lead or magnesium.
At first glance Elemensus looks very much like its popular cousin Scrabble, and there are some definite similarities in gameplay. Each player draws a number of tiles then attempts to form them into words to be played on the board, placing them either vertically or horizontally and making them intersect with other words already played.
There are some key differences:
- Players draw and play with 11 tiles, not seven.
- As the tiles use the symbols for chemical elements, not all of them are single letters–many have two or occasionally three and they must be used wholly.
- Scores are calculated as in Scrabble, however the score for each tile is based on the chemical weight of the element so much larger scores are possible.
- There are no double or triple score spaces on the board.
- There are multiple starting points on the board that each form word nebulae. If you cannot connect to already played words, you can begin a new nebula assuming a start space is still open.
- If you are struggling to use an element such as Ununtrium whose symbol–Uut–has yet to be found in any English language words according to the designers, you can flip the tile to find a single Dark Matter letter. However, Dark Matter tiles have a negative points value and will count against you.
- The only exception to the negative scoring Dark Matter tiles are the few that have an asterisk instead. These Dark Matter tiles score zero and work the same as blank tiles in Scrabble.
- A double point bonus is available for playing the name of any chemical element, however Dark Matter tiles cannot be used toward this bonus.
Before playing for the first time I thought that some of the different rules present in Elemensus might make for an easier game than Scrabble–specifically the multiple start points. How often have you had a great word on your tile rack and nowhere to put it? However, the difficulty in using many of the elements more than outweighs any benefits from this bonus, making Elemensus deceptively tricky even for those of us familiar with word games. I often found myself facing a rack of double consonant tiles like ytterbium (Yb), antimony (Sb), and neptunium (Np) that were all capable of giving me enormous scores, but I couldn’t think of a single word containing that letter combination, or certainly nothing that I could play. There is nothing more galling than having to give up a 107 point bohrium tile, flipping it to use its -8 Dark Matter letter E instead.
My husband and I played Elemensus on a Saturday night and had to call time after around 90 minutes when we realized the tile bag wasn’t even half empty. A game between my mother (an avid Scrabble player) and myself lasted well over three hours; so much for the estimated 30 minute game length on the box. My mother and I played until 2 a.m. out of sheer pig-headedness. We’d played for this long so you’d better believe we were going to finish the game! Despite being a fan of word games, she doubts she will be asking me to bring it along again. During both games, players found it incredibly difficult to form words from their tiles and there were several turns given up in favor of a full tile exchange. I’ve not been able to put my finger on exactly why we struggled but I’ve narrowed it down to two possible reasons:
- Our vocabularies are simply more lacking than we realized.
- We’re just too stubborn to give up on the high-scoring awkward tiles that other players would flip over.
As we’re all frequent (and competent) word game players, I’m tempted to go with the latter, although I flipped more tiles during my second game. My mother even played a few turns which scored negative points just to rid herself of useless tiles.
I’d love to see if others are more successful than we were in finding words from the jumble of letters we were faced with. (I admit: We started to find it slightly irritating after a while.) Elemensus is not at the top of the list for our upcoming games nights; nevertheless, it has outstanding potential as an educational tool. A variant game called Periodic Table is included in the Elemensus rules sheet. This is a fast play game that uses the tiles to build up the Periodic Table from Osmium outwards. I imagine there are dozens more games that could be imagined using the tiles.
Elemensus is available from ThinkGeek for $39.99.
A copy of the game was provided free for this review.