What appeals to me most about games is the narrative. The fun lies in the imagined aspect of the game, not so much in competition or number crunching.
For this reason, I couldn’t get into El Grande. It may well be a great game, but the gameplay doesn’t translate into a believable story.
Louis XIV is also an area influence game, but one that offers a more convincing narrative. You can imagine player actions relating to events in the real world. It allows for an element of role playing, even though player characters are not represented on the board. Instead, the “board” consists of twelve tiles that each represent a key person in the royal court. The Sun King himself also floats around, but his impact is limited.
In this game, you can imagine yourself as a crafty manipulator just outside the inner circle of the king’s court. You have a certain agenda, things you need to achieve - possibly policies you want implemented or decisions you want to go your way. This is represented in the game by the Mission Cards. They are the prime way to earn victory points, which are used to determine the winner at the end of the game’s four turns.
You get Mission Cards at the beginning of the game and replace them with others as you achieve your missions. They could’ve been less abstract, but still one can accept that they represent your goals, whatever those may be. In order to achieve a Mission, you need a predetermined combination of favours from the twelve powerful nobles. The different nobles each have the ability to bestow a certain kind of favour, represented in the game by Mission Chips. (It’s an unappealing term. Extra development work around the missions and chips could’ve strengthened the theme.)
As a player, you get dealt five Influence cards that each allows you to exert influence on a particular person as well as, potentially, the people closest to them. This influence, one supposes, takes the form of gifts, flattery, bribery, extortion, etc. In the game, it is represented by wooden tokens (Influence Markers) of your colour. All players spread their influence to gain the favours they need to achieve their Missions.
At the end of the Influence phase, the nobles bestow their favours on the player that has the greatest influence on them.
There’s more chrome and housekeeping, of course, but this is the gist of the game.
Now isn’t all this conniving more fun than moving pieces of card or wood around and setting up mathematical relationships?