m a r k a n d e y a

Board Game Review: El Grande

Posted by Brian on February 3, 2007

Area-control games make up a well-established genre of board games, and sitting dominantly atop this genre is the venerable El Grande, a game designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich and first published in 1995. I consider it the best example of such games and the benchmark for judging all others that share its style of play (San Marco, Web of Power, etc.). And according to BoardGameGeek statistics, I’m not alone in my high appraisal of it: El Grande is currently rated the 6th best game in the BGG database. This respect is well deserved, as El Grande is nearly the perfect game, with even the game board and bits praiseworthy.

The theme here is 15th century Spain, with 5 groups vying for control of the country by exerting their influence via their knights in different regions across the country.

The board itself is a lovely map of Spain divided up into 9 regions. I’m never one to lavish too much praise on a game board, but for a game that would still be great if played on a hand-drawn map the gorgeous board is just icing on the cake. Along the edge of the board is a score track for keeping track of the players’ scores. Along the left edge of the board is a handy turn track for keeping a record of game progress. The bottom right of the board has a 10th region (well, more of a pseudo-region, actually, as it doesn’t perform exactly like the other regions) known as the Castillo, which is an easily assembled wooden tower that stands about 5 inches tall and makes for an interesting game prop. Like any area control game, the goal is to score points by controlling the different regions in the game, and each region has its own score marker that indicates the points available for the player with the first, second, and (sometimes) third strongest force in that region. In this game, the forces are the players’ knights, called Caballeros (though they strongly resemble small colored cubes).

Off the board, each player has a pile of Caballeros (in this state, they are known as in “the provinces”); a Secret Disk for secretly choosing a region on the board; a Grande, which is a larger cube that indicates each player’s home region; and 13 Power Cards numbered from 1-13.

The final addition to the board is the 5 stacks of Action Cards that are placed face down along one side of the board. These provide the actions that drive the game along. I’ll talk some more about them later.

With everything set up, the game can begin. First, the King (a large wooden figureine) is randomly placed in one of the regions. This is known as the King’s region and plays an important role during the game, which I’ll talk a bit more about later. Once that is done, each player randomly gets his or her own home region and places their Grande there along with two Caballeros. It’s worth noting that both the King’s region and the various home regions can change during the course of the game. Now, the game can begin.

The top card of each stack of Action Cards is revealed for all to see. These cards determine the available options each player has for that turn. At this point, one of the game’s cleverest mechanics is displayed.

Going around the table, each player plays a Power Card to determine the order in which the Action Cards are picked, with the highest card going first and then following in descending order. Each Power Card has a number of Caballero icons that indicate the number of Caballeros that player can move from the Provinces to his Court (which is indicated by placing his Caballeros on his home region card). It’s a trade off though, as the number of Caballeros one can recruit is in inverse proportion to the ‘speed” of the card. In other words, a 12 or a 13 card will give you first or second choice of an Action Card, but neither allows you to move Caballeros to your Court. On the other hand, a 3 might mean you pick an Action Card last, but it allows you to move 3 Caballeros to your Court.

Regarding the Action Cards, I do want to give you an idea of what they can do, so here are a few detailed examples:

• Intrigue: Move any 3 foreign Caballeros on the board.
• Province: You send 1 Caballero from any region from each player back to the Provinces.
• Special Scoring: You may choose any region to score.
• Royal Advisor: Move the King into a neighboring region.
• The King’s Card: Move the King to any region (this card is unique in that it is the only card in its stack, meaning that it is always available).

For the most part, the Action Cards involve moving pieces around on the board, moving pieces onto or from the board, or triggering some sort of special event, such as a special scoring round.

There is another interesting trade off when choosing an Action Card. As I mentioned above, there are 5 stacks of Action Cards. The defining characteristic of each stack is that each card in that stack allows for a certain number of Caballeros to be moved from your Court to the board (ranging from 1 to 5). And again, this is set up in such a way that the more powerful Action Cards allow fewer Caballeros to be placed while the less powerful ones allow for more.

In other words, if there’s a strong Action Card that you just have to have, then you can play a high Power Card to grab it first, but you’ll be recruiting fewer (if any at all) Caballeros to your Court and you’ll be moving fewer Caballeros from your Court to the board. It’s a nifty two-step process that demands tough decisions at each step.

Once all the Power Cards are played, in descending order each player moves any Caballeros from his Provinces to his Court and then picks an Action Card. He can then move up to 5 Caballeros (again, this depends on the Action Card taken) from his Court to the board and has the option of triggering the card’s special power (which can occur before or after the Caballeros are moved from the Court to the board).

The rules for placing Caballeros on the board are simple: they must be placed in an area adjacent to the King’s region, or in the Castillo. They may not be placed in the King’s region as this area is considered sacrosanct – nothing can move into or out of this area. And any units placed in the Castillo are secret once placed

Once every player has a chance to play the turn is over. Any remaining face-up Action Cards are discarded and the top card of each stack is revealed, giving the players another set of cards to choose from. The used Power Cards from last turn are also discarded. The player who went last in the previous turn leads the new round and can play his Power Card first.

Scoring takes place after every third turn. Scoring is done by counting the number of Caballeros in each region (including the Castillo) for each player, with the first, second, and (sometimes) third place player in each region receiving a number of points as designated on each region. There are also bonuses for having a majority in the King’s region and also in your own home region where your Grande is sitting. There is, however, an important X-factor during the scoring rounds: the Castillo. At the beginning of the scoring round, each player with Caballeros in the Castillo chooses a target destination for the Caballeros there. After this is done, the Castillo is raised to reveal the Caballeros and it is scored just like any region. Then, the Caballeros there are “airdropped” to a region as selected by their owner. This occurs before scoring the rest of the board so the players may be blindsided by an unforeseen influx of Caballeros where they weren’t expected.

And that’s the game! Play three turns, score. Then three more turns, score. Then three more turns and a final round of scoring.

As much as I’d like to include a lengthy strategy guide to this review, I’ve only played El Grande 9 times so I’m hardly a master at it. Off the top of my head, however, a few pointers come to mind:

• Avoid the arms race. I’ve witnessed several cases where two players engage in an arms race in one territory, with each trying to out do the other in hopes of gaining majority control in that region. This is a bad idea because every Caballero you place in that region is one less you can place elsewhere. More often than not, you’re better off sending those Caballeros to other regions for points elsewhere.
• The home region and King’s region bonuses are valuable. Take advantage of them.
• Don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s better to focus on 3 or 4 regions.
• Use the Castillo. Others may differ, but I think dropping Caballeros in the Castillo is a wise investment. On top of the points available there, there is a lot to be said for a secret, last-minute surge into a region where your opponents didn’t expect to see you.

Despite being called a “classic” by many gamers, El Grande does have its detractors. The most common complaint I’ve heard is that there is too much chaos on the board, making long term planning close to impossible. I suppose this is true, though for this gamer it isn’t so much of an issue as more often than not I view chaos in a game as a feature rather than a bug. But for gamers who like to be in control at all times, I can see why they might be turned off. In a 5 player game, for example, with so many Action Cards being played, the board can change drastically from one turn to the next, leaving one’s surefire setup for victory a random mess on the board. But again, I find this element to be part of the challenge of doing well; “The best laid plans of mice and men,” and all that…

But for those who don’t mind a little bit of chaos and uncertainty in their games, I’d call El Grande a flawless game that deserves a spot in every gamer’s collection. It’s the rare gem that deserves to be kept near the game table at all times, rather than buried on the bottom shelf under a dusty stack of Parker Brothers game in the corner of someone’s dimly-lit game closet. It truely is that good of a game.

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