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A Derk appears from the mists...
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Like many of my game-buying brethren, I originally bought this game because it was a follow-up to Kramer and Kiesling’s El Grande and it was extraordinarily cheap (usually less than $20). However once I had a chance to play the game, I’ve been very pleased with my purchase. On the surface, the two games seem to share a theme: players use caballeros (Spanish knights) to control areas which scores them points for having pluralities and second pluralities. But without the action cards and the associated auction, little of the El Grande feeling remains in El Caballero.

The game is very compact. It could have been packaged in a small, card game-sized box, but the larger box is a standard size for Hans im Glück games and the tiles come in their runners originally. Included in the package are a whole bunch of square land tiles, which depict land covering zero to four sides of the tile (and all combinations). After the initial tile to start from, all subsequent tiles are placed adjoining existing land tiles, with land-sides always abutting land sides and water-sides always abutting water sides. In addition to the land tiles, each player is given several caballero cards, which are square tiles with one through four on each edge for one side and five through eight on each edge for the other side. The idea is that you ‘spend’ caballeros from your supply onto the board by placing the appropriate side of a caballero card next to a land edge of a land tile. Those caballeros are then contesting for control of the landmass (possibly several land tiles or perhaps only a single tile) by contributing the number of caballeros indicated on the side adjoining the land. So if I have a caballero card attached to a landmass and the side facing the island is a ‘six,’ then you would need one or more caballero cards totaling ‘seven’ attached to the same land mass in order to wrest control from me.

If that sounds confusing, it shouldn’t, because that aspect of the game is quite elegant. Control of a region is amazingly clear using this caballero card method. Plus, if ever a caballero card is facing two land edges, then the caballero card is ‘popped’ off the table and all caballeros are lost. This makes the turn-by-turn progression of games very different, as the land is always very different and the ways players go about gaining control of a given landmass varies greatly depending on the current situation (number of available caballeros, availability of viable places to attach additional caballero cards, and currently available land tiles).

A turn has players first lay out priority cards, which are very similar to the ones used in El Grande. Starting with the player who went last, players sequentially select one of the remaining thirteen priority cards. After all have selected, the turn is resolved highest to lowest. The number of caballeros you can add to your court, the staging area for the power you’re eligible to use on the board, is on the priority card you play, with the number inversely related to the priority number. The primary difference with the priority card strategies in El Caballero and El Grande is recognizing the need to go first versus last. Often it is better to react to others moves, unlike El Grande where going first can be a life and death matter. Plus the strategy of playing a low card to go last, which allows you first opportunity to go first the following turn, isn’t as devastating in El Caballero. However, there is one priority card, the nine card, which allows a player to place two land tiles in one turn. This card can be extremely powerful, if played correctly.

Once you take your turn, you can accomplish any of the different moves in any order you wish. The single required action you must take each turn is to place a land tile on the table, which is selected from any of the remain five tiles that are randomly picked at the beginning of each turn. There are several other actions you can do during your turn. Place or increase one or two caballero cards. Place a castillo on a caballero card, which means if the caballero card is removed, the number of caballeros you’ve spent on that location are returned to your supply. Buy and place one or two ships, which are placed on the sea-sides of caballero cards and they allow a player to score points for each water tile that’s continuously attached to the adjoining sea-side. Finally, you can voluntarily remove any number of your caballero cards for a loss, unless the cards had castillos on them. For the basic game, these are the actions you are allowed to do on your turn. Again you can do them in any order, which is very important. Sometimes the best move is to place the land first (possibly dislodging an opponent’s caballeros), and follow with a caballero card. Or sometimes the opposite is true.

There is also a small collection of actions that make the game ‘expanded.’ First, each player is given a small wooden block, a Grande. When a Grande is placed on a caballero card, then the caballero card cannot be altered or removed unless the Grande is moved first. What this means is that multiple land facings are allowed for this caballero card, and that allows for tons of strategic options as you seek to get as many of 5-6-7-8 sides of you Grande card attached to land. The second major addition are governors. Whenever a section of land or water becomes completely closed off (every section of land or water addressed up to this point has had to have some blank ‘attaching’ side of the mass so that a caballero card can be associated with it), then you can place a governor on it. From that time on, you score that region as if you had an exclusive first-place standing on the landmass, and there’s no way to lose that control. The various ways that these self-contained areas form is very intriguing, and is another one the highly variable aspects of this game.

The basic game is played for seven turns, with scoring occurring on the fourth and seventh turns. Whereas the expanded game is played for ten turns, with scoring on the fourth, seventh and tenth turns. Personally, I’ve never played the basic version. The additional rules are very minor for a game of this depth, and the expanded rules add quite a lot in terms of available strategies for a given turn. Plus, this game already takes a good ninety-minutes to two-hours, so the additional three turns aren’t really all that much in the grand scheme of things.

This game is not light-weight. In fact, I’d probably call this one a brain-burner simply because of all the different possibilities that one turn can yield. And the game is pretty darn abstract, meaning this is not the game you roll out when some of your non-gaming drop by to try some of those neato foreign games you’re always babbling about. In fact, I think I’ll go so far as to warn anyone away from this game unless they appreciate a game like Euphrat & Tigris or even Stephenson’s Rocket. Judging what is a decent move when looking at a table full of caballero cards and land tiles isn’t an easy thing. I certainly don’t mean to say you need to be a member of Mensa to play the game, however I’ve seen many an eye cloud over in incomprehension when explaining the merits of one move versus another move. On the whole, I’d rate this game very highly for any group of accomplished gamers. Plus it is very viable game for three or four players, with each having different pitfalls to look out for.
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