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Subject: A great game that doesn't show it's age rss

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Andres F. Pabon L.
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Title: El Grande
Designer(s): Wolfgang Kramer / Richard Ulrich
Year: 1995
Original Publisher: Hans im Glück
Awards: SdJ (1996), DSP (1996)

COMPONENTS

Game board: The game comes with a beautiful 4-fold game board in thick cardboard, which is folded in a way that when you unfold it it doesn't has any rough surfaces, like most old game boards. The game board depicts a map of 15th century Spain (divided in 9 provinces - each with a different scoring track, splitted in three boxes), a space to put the Castillo, and a scoring track surrounding the board. The artwork is great, evoking the time where the game is set (15th century Spain), colored mainly with beautiful yellow and sephia tones, and with minimalistic castles and mountains all over it.

Grandes / Caballeros: The typical German game color cubes - One big cube for each of the 5 player colors (red, yellow, blue, green and brown) representing your "Grande", and 31 smaller cubes, representing your Caballeros (one of which is used in the scoring track).

Castillo: A huge wooden black tower which you need to assemble before your first game. The quality of this element is superb, and it actully evokes a medieval castle tower.

King: A huge black pawn (bigger even than Settler of Catan's robber) represents the king.

Location dials: 5 cardboard dials with each of the 9 locations in the game board are included; once for each player. The dials are the only component I found a little badly done, as 2 of my dials already slip from choice to choice without the player wanting to do so. It's nothing that some extra glue can't ammend, though!

Special scoring tracks: 2 special scoring tracks, done entirely in very thick cardboard, are provided to replace the scoring track printed in any of the provinces in the game board.

Cards: Strategy cards numbered from 1 to 13 are provided to each player (in his/her own color), 11 location cards (the 9 locations and 2 spare ones) and 45 tactical thick squared cards complete this game's components. All cards are high-quality, and they don't seem to wear out even after repeated use and abuse.

GAMEPLAY

Th object of the game is to accumulate the most influence points during the 9 game rounds. This is done by placing caballeros in the different provinces (or the Castillo), and shifting the majority presences in each of them.

Players have two different "zones" to plac their Caballeros: provinces, and a court. Players may only place Caballeros in their courts in the game board, needing to call Caballeros from their provinces to their courts at all times.

During each round, 5 different tactical cards are drawn, one from each of 5 different piles (the level 5 card, "The King" is unique and always present; each other card is drawn from it's corresponding pile during each of the 9 game rounds, always leaving 2 cards per pile unplayed at the end of the game).

The players must first determine the round playing order, by use of their strategy cards. Each player (starting with the one who went last during the previous round) plays a strategy card, and the rest of them must play a card with a number not currently in play, and which they haven't played in a previous round (cards are discarded after each round, and they don't come back). These cards determine the round playing order, with the player with the highest card going first, down to the player with the lowest card.

During each turn, a player must follow these steps:

1. The strategy card played specifies a number of Caballeros the player must move from his/her provinces to his/her court (the higher the number, the less Caballeros a player can recall). The turn starts by moving these Caballeros.

2. The player must pick a tactical card still available (the cards get discarded as they're used by players who go before the current player in this round).

3/4. The player may execute (or prevent execution for) his current tactic. All tactics do different thing in the line of rearranging Caballeros (both yours and your opponent's), scoring regions or changing some rules (you can change a region's worth, recall a used card or even move your "grande").

3/4. Each tactic card also determines the number of caballeros you may put in the game board, always placing them in regions surrounding the region where the king currently is (but the king region is untouchable) or in the Castillo.

After every third round, a scoring is made. Players first decide secretly (by using their dials) a region where all their caballeros in the Castillo are going to after scoring the Castillo. Then, the Castillo is scored (as any other region, it has 3 values: one for the player with the most caballeros, another for the one with the second number, and one for the one with the third number). Then, all caballeros in the castillo are sent to the region secretly chosen, and all regions are scored after this change.

After the third scoring, the player with the most influence points wins the game.

IMPRESSIONS

This is the first area-control game I played, and yet it felt as if I had played dozens of games before this one. It's incredibly intuitive, so much as to grasp the main mechanics even before you play your first turn! I only needed to read the instructions, and I already *knew* how to play it.

The game masterfully gives you few choices every time you need to make a decision, but choices are agonizing enough that you simply can't be relieved after taking one. For instance, the strategy cards are such a fundamental element in the game that you really need to chose between that 4 and that 5, even if they're close enough to give you similar options. Why? Because the one you use right now will be lost, so you will only be left with the other one for a later round.

The tactical cards mechanic is also wonderfully conceived, as it brings the much needed chaotic element to a game (non-chaotic games are, IMO, puzzles, not games), without throwing it out of balance. These cards are fundamental to win the game, though, so the issue here is to pick the one that suits you best both now and as a consequence for future rounds. There aren't any "perennial better choices": all cards are good tactical choices if used well. And I really mean *all* of them.

Tactical cards allow you to change the balance of power in all regions (by shifting unwanted caballeros, both your own and your opponents' in between regions), to score the regions that clearly benefir only you, to change your bonus points by placing new scoring tracks or changing your Grande's position, or even veto other players' tactical choices.

Another clearly excellent mechanic is the one that states the King's region is untouchable. It both fits the theme (we're all doing this without the King's consent, after all) and marks a single region per round as a "secure" region, where people can't bother you. However, securing a region comes at the cost of being able to do any other tactical choice, which can probably be more beneficial than securing the region. Again, it's all about agonizing decisions!

Finally, there is the Castillo. The game itself would earn a 10/10 score from me even without it. But it has it! The Castillo is the perfect bluffing mechanism to complement such an excellent game. While most choices are analytical, the decision to move your Castillo's caballeros somwhere is a gut instinct, with little to no analysis. And this can really turn the tide on your favor (or against you).

I've owned this game for almost 4 years now. I play it whenever I can, and I still love it. It's a perfect game, bar no other. The only bad thing I could say about it is that it's unplayable with 3 players (and although it's not bad with 4, you really need 5 to enjoy as much as possible).
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Joe Grundy
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I'm surprised by the "unplayable with 3" comment as well. Heck we even play this with 2 sometimes.
 
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Andres F. Pabon L.
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Ok, maybe it's just my experience. With 3 players this game isn't just as interesting, probably because for me part of the game's fun is that it is so tight! You just can't win them all... you must get the majorities where you can keep them, or at least where you have a good chance to do so. With 3, at least the only time I played, each player chose a group of regions and was unbeatable at those regions. Power didn't shift much during the entire game; it was just an issue of protecting your own interests. With 5, it's sure that you won't be able to do so, so you must try to get yourself somewhere else, where you estimate it won't be much contested (but might be wrong).

It's just a matter of personal preference: I like this game tight!
 
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