El Grande is an area control game set in medieval Spain designed by the successful team of Kramer & Ulrich. I’m not going to go into a lengthy discussion of the rules which are explained elsewhere. Instead, I am going to discuss my opinions regarding the game and hopefully help people determine whether or not this game is for them.
Brief Rule Summary: Basically, the game consists of 9 turns with a scoring round after every third turn. In each round, there are 5 action cards available for the players to choose from. The players bid one of their 13 power cards to determine the order in which the action cards will be chosen. Each power card also gives the player 0-6 Caballeros from supply and each action card lets the player put 1-5 Caballeros onto the board and perform a special action. During each scoring round, the top 3 players in each region score points and whoever has the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
Players: 2-5 but in my opinion this game really shines with 5 players. I will play with 4 people but would rather play something else with 2 or 3.
Game Length: Approximately 90 minutes with 3 player games taking less time than 5 player games. However this depends a great deal on the game group as there are a lot of decisions to make in the game. So if your group takes a long time to analyze every possible option then a 5 player game could easily go for 2 to 2.5 hours.
Gamer type: This is a game for Heavy Game Fans. It is not a nice game and there is a lot of planning, strategy, and screwing your opponents.
Components: Wonderful. All the playing pieces are wooden as is the Castillo which looks very cool. I have played my copy many times and the cards show no wear. However they are not the standard size and thus will not fit in card protectors, but there is not much handling of cards in the game so I don’t think this will be a problem. The board is gorgeous, the regions are easy to differentiate and a good size so they can hold all the pieces with no problems. There is a scoring track around the board and another track to keep track of the turn and walk through each scoring round which is very helpful.
Theme: The game does have a theme, but it really doesn’t matter. Basically this is an area control game about trying to have the most of your little cubes in as many areas as possible.
Learning curve: Moderate. There are not many rules to the game so it can be taught fairly easily. However, it will take several plays to learn all the cards and develop strategies which maximize the card abilities.
Replayability: Moderate. There are a variety of action cards and enough so not every card will come up each game. Since these cards are the meat of the game, every game will be different. However, this is a longer game so will only be played when you have several hours and feel like a deeper game.
Random thoughts on the game:
This is not a nice game. After the first turn or two, every region will have Caballeros in them so the only way for you to score more points is to take them away from your opponents. Many of the action cards let you move your opponents’ pieces which can ruin their plans.
There is a lot of planning in the game. You start with only 13 power cards numbered 1-13 and once you use a card, you can’t use it again. Thus you have to consider when you want to use your high cards to go first because you won’t be able to use them again.
There are many agonizing decisions in the game. Each action card has abilities which are almost always very useful and they also let you add 1-5 Caballeros to the board. You only have 9 turns in the game so get to use 9 action cards and there is always more you want to do than you can do.
The power cards also provide you with Caballeros from your supply. The higher the number, the fewer Caballeros they provide. This forces players to use their lower numbers to replenish their supply. I really like this mechanism because it forces players to use their low numbers when they may not want to because they are out of Caballeros.
The Castillo lets players put Caballeros into it and the number remains secret until the scoring round when they are added to the board, but only into 1 region. Choosing the region to add your Caballeros to is another tough decision and another opportunity to harm an opponent.
Low luck. There is no dice rolling or card drawing in this game.
Lots of player interaction. As I’ve said before, this is not a nice game. With the groups I play with there is always lots of diplomacy trying to convince people to hurt someone else. It is not a good idea to be the early leader, but you don’t want to fall too far behind either.
In conclusion: If you like medium length, meaty German games with lots of options and planning then this game is one of the best there is.