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Subject: El Grande - The Mario Kart of boardgames. rss

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James Caddick
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El Grande is an area control game where players bid to choose particular action cards, the lowest bidder then getting the chance to bid first in the next round. There are three scoring rounds, and nine action rounds. I have found that it's a medium length game, usually taking a couple of hours to play depending on the number of players. It plays well with three, four or five players (I haven't tried it with just two players). I personally prefer it with four players, as with five it's a bit too chaotic and with three it's a little predictable. But then you probably know all this and more already. So what do I think of the game?

Well, I very much enjoy it! The random element is kept to a minimum, but high enough so that no two games feel exactly the same. The bidding system is fun (and not unlike German Whist if you've ever played that). There is a good balance between short-term tactics and longer-term strategy (at least in theory). I like the fact that there is a good deal of player interaction. You can choose to concentrate on your own game and maximise your points per turn, or turn your attention to your opponents and aim to maximise your points relative to opponents by choosing an action that gets you a few points but also takes some points away from your opponent. I think that the region spinner is a nice touch, adding an element of bluff and double-bluff to the game. I have enjoyed every game that I've played.

I have two main gripes that would stop me considering this as a top tier game. Firstly, the Mario Kart effect. It seems to me that it is a disadvantage to be in the lead early in the game. The scoring track makes it all too obvious who is winning and other players respond accordingly (it might be interesting to play this game with hidden scoring). Mario Kart has an inbuilt mechanism to help the trailing players catch up - they get better items (e.g. lightning, blue shells). Although El Grande has no such mechanism, it does seem to me that it's too easy for the chasing players to gang up on the leader. An early lead gained through good play will too often translate into defeat. A corrollary of this is the free-rider effect (yes, I'm an economist). Any player/s who takes it upon themself/themselves to bring down the leading player will often be overtaken by the last placed player/s. The chasing player expends all his energy catching the first placed player but allows the last placed player to march unmolested to a victory that they would never had got were it not for the second player's actions. You might say that this is just poor play but I think it's partly a result of the game design.

Secondly, while El Grande is good fun to play, I feel that it is not sufficiently rewarding of good strategic play (in fact because of the Mario Kart effect it may even punish good strategy). Of course I realise that this is partly due a lack of sophistication in my strategy, but I do believe that elements of the game itself exacerbate this problem. I think that the very best games give players early reward for improvements in strategy, whereas El Grande does not. I have played a number of games of El Grande where the player with the best strategy ended up not winning. Of course, even in the best games this will happen occassionaly, but I feel that in El Grande short-term tactics, and tacit co-operation between players tends to dominate over strategy.

However winning isn't everything! A particularly fun aspect of the game is that (in my experience) all or most players stand a chance of winning right up to the latter stages of the game. It can be quite dull when you a play a game where you've lost all hope of victory before the halfway mark. El Grande does tend to produce some nailbiting finishes as it comes down to the last scoring region to determine the winner. This, of course, is the positive side of the Mario Kart effect.

Despite my concerns I would recommend this game. It is a welcome addition to my boardgaming group's collection, not least because it is the only area control game we have. The game produces some tough decisions, close finishes and plenty of chances to get one-up on your opponent. Good stuff.
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Jon G
United States
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You're certainly right that the leader can be easily bashed if he scores a ton of points without establishing as good board position. The extreme scenario of this is to open with the "Score first-place in each region" card, and place one cab in a number of high-scoring regions. The leader scores 20 points more than the others, and will now be mercilessly intrigued until he falls to last place.

On the other hand, if you play the King's card in the same situation, you can secure first place in 2-3 regions, get a solid board position, and let someone else play the scoring card for you. Now you're in second place, and the leader is a much easier intrigue target than you. Ideally, you spend the first half of the game building a strong board position with moderate points, then accelerate in rounds 6-9. Of course, with practice your opponents should attack the player with a good position, rather than the point leader.

Actually, it's a lot like Mario Kart... you hang in the pack, let the second place guy hit the leader, and save your blue shell to take the lead on the home stretch.
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Gary Sonnenberg
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Waukesha
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TaxpayersMoney wrote:
I have played a number of games of El Grande where the player with the best strategy ended up not winning.


Hm, then was it really the best strategy?

I've gotta say that virtually all the points you make as down sides are why I like the game so much. (It's my only 10.)

I like the open scoring. It's fun to try to catch the leader or to try to maintain your lead.

I've got a long-term strategy - pretty much the same every game (and no, I'm not revealing my secrets here ninja ) - which tends to overcome short-term tactics and ganging up quite often. I play a lot and win a lot too.
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AxonDomini
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Smithtown
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I do think it's possible to start with a lead in El Grande and still win the game. It requires judicious use of your bidding cards (particularly the '1' and the '13') and diversification on the board. Careful attention to the Castillo also is very important. One thing to understand is that being ahead in points doesn't necessarily mean you're winning. Sometimes it's better to forgo the quick scoring (i.e. the region scoring cards) to lay the foundation for a larger gain in the scoring rounds. This may mean a temporary drop in your relative position.
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Jesse Nordstrom
United States
Kent
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He did not pluck nor did he strum the guitar. Nevertheless, it was a breathtaking performance.
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TaxpayersMoney wrote:
Any player/s who takes it upon themself/themselves to bring down the leading player will often be overtaken by the last placed player/s.


This happened to me last night!!!! I was in second place after round 6 (second scoring), and my brother was ahead by about 15 points. I took it upon myself to cut him down to size a little over the next few turns, and I almost succeeded.
However, my brother still ended up winning by 4 points even though I took control of his Grande's region and prevented him from scoring big in the final scoring.
I ended up tied for last place because of my efforts! (it was a 5 player game)

I still can't decide if I like this game or not... even after 3 plays.... I think I need to try it with the Intrigue and the King expansion before I make my final judgement.
 
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Daniel Fish
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Doesn't your comment about "Mario Kart" apply to any game that is highly interactive and without hidden scoring elements?

Any game where people can directly attack each other will have a "Bash the Leader" syndrome. It is actually part of the game - that players limit each other, keeping the game close. This is hardly an unusual phenomenon - I'd say most good games have it! Besides, as you describe, it is usually better NOT to bash the leader, but to let others do it for you. Finding this balance among opponents is strategically fascinating.

The real "Mario Kart phenomenon" is over-powered catch-up mechanisms. In Mario Kart, in a competitive field, it is often better to be in LAST place than to be in first toward the end of the game. This is because the programming of Mario Kart relentlessly rewards the player in last place with super powerful items such that one can consistently finish well from last place around the beginning of the last lap. While this always makes the finish interesting, it somewhats invalidates the rest of the race.

El Grande has no catch-up mechanisms. Player-driven "limit the leader" mechanisms are generally much more interesting, satisfying, and strategic than game-driven "reward the loser" mechanisms. The former allows one to attempt to manipulate their opponents, whereas the latter simply rewards poor play.
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H C
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thefishman wrote:
Doesn't your comment about "Mario Kart" apply to any game that is highly interactive and without hidden scoring elements?

Any game where people can directly attack each other will have a "Bash the Leader" syndrome. It is actually part of the game - that players limit each other, keeping the game close. This is hardly an unusual phenomenon - I'd say most good games have it! Besides, as you describe, it is usually better NOT to bash the leader, but to let others do it for you. Finding this balance among opponents is strategically fascinating.

The real "Mario Kart phenomenon" is over-powered catch-up mechanisms. In Mario Kart, in a competitive field, it is often better to be in LAST place than to be in first toward the end of the game. This is because the programming of Mario Kart relentlessly rewards the player in last place with super powerful items such that one can consistently finish well from last place around the beginning of the last lap. While this always makes the finish interesting, it somewhats invalidates the rest of the race.

El Grande has no catch-up mechanisms. Player-driven "limit the leader" mechanisms are generally much more interesting, satisfying, and strategic than game-driven "reward the loser" mechanisms. The former allows one to attempt to manipulate their opponents, whereas the latter simply rewards poor play.


I disagree. Games like Power Grid dont have any way to bash the leader and have a more positive "help the loser" mechanic which achieves the same while not being screwy

I agree that EG is a great game but have issues with its kingmaking. I take huge issue with someone who says such kingmaking is necessary or a hallmark of a great game as PG is my favorite game and shows imo how an interactive game can be done really well without leader bashing.

On topic, yes, you could hang back in 2nd-3rd place with a strong position, but my issue with that is how players need to hold back for that. I personally prefer to play with my strategy and tactics and maximize the points I get. I think its not as fun or in the spirit of the game to orchestrate yourself carefully in second place for fear of attack/retribution.

Again, I still think EG is a great game - I just agree with the issues that have been stated. I too prefer hidden scoring for a game like this, similar to Small World where the attacks are lessened on the leader. In addition, players in last may feel more in the game too.
 
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