St Ives, Sydney
El Grande: The Grand Inquisitor and The Colonies
It was our first time with this expansion - and wow, it was great! It adds a whole new layer of depth and involvement, a new dimension for an already very good game.
So what are the changes? In overview (hope we didn't get any rules wrong):
1. There are four black Cabelleros that are counted as part of the caballeros of the last player to pick up the Grand Inquisitor card - the only card in the new 6 pile. The Grand Inquisitor player also gets to add an extra caballero to his court or to the regions each turn.
2. New regions of France, America and the Med. America scores 4/0/0 but also has a Viceroy spot which scores an additional 5 points (first person to get a caballero there reserves it until they move out or get moved out by a card action). Med scores 4/2/1. France scores 3/1/0 but this region can only hold 3 caballeros, and these are placed in the three envoy spots which additionally score 2/1/0.
3. A new ship location. There's a captain's spot worth 3 points, usually occupied by the first caballero to get to the ship. Other than that, it doesn't score. As long as the King is in a coastal region, you can send caballeros to the ship. At the start of your turn, if you have caballeros on the ship, you can move them for free to any Spanish coastal region or to any of the new colonies on top of your normal go. In fact you can only get to America or the Med from the ship (or by card action) as the King can't get next to these regions.
4. Gold And Wares - when a card from the 7 stack is actioned, gold and wares tokens (as dictated by the card additional to its action) get released to America and the Med respectively. A player can then place a caballero on them and gradually move them via ship back to Spain, whereupon a gold will score you 6 points and wares will score 4 - and the caballero gets re-used / added to a Spanish coastal region where most you need it.
5. A Limit table has been added. It has 10 spots. When placed in a region (by action), the Grand Inquisitor chooses which 10 caballeros in that region will get placed on these spots. These 10 caballeros are all that's counted for scoring in that region - making for some dastardly deeds in densely populated regions.
The addition of the ship provides a very powerful competitor to the Castile. Although it doesn't score, the ability to move these caballeros freely at the start of subsequent turns to either pick up gold/wares or to fortify your position in a coastal region (often in conjunction with placing normal caballeros from the court) increases the depth of choice on how best to play.
The Grand Inquisitor's 4 black men are more powerful at the start of the game when there are fewer caballeros out. His control over the Limit table is more important towards the end of the game when regions start having more than 10 caballeros.
The extra action deck (the 7 deck) provides some great new possibilities. It was certainly more of a challenge determining the best cards for each player. With only 4 players, it usually meant there was something juicy for most players, some still better than others of course. Even with 5 players, it shouldn't suffer the problem of the last player to go getting something too drack.
Andrew played his 13 first round to secure the Grand Inquisitor and march all his men onto the Ship. Second to play, I chose the move the King card and moved a heap of caballeros to the ship thinking I'd move the King inland so no one else could move onto the ship, but a minor brain explosion made me forget what I was doing and after round 1 everyone had 3 men on the ship ready for expansion overseas.
In round 2 I secured the "score all first's" card with my 12 - a coup towards the start of any game with so many regions vacant which can be easily won by 1 caballero. My ship men spread to the four winds. Faced with a choice of taking Andrew's or Michael's grande province, I went with Michael's as it was worth one point more. As the scoring started, it was pointed out that Andrew would score the two Grand Inquisitor provinces which I'd failed to grasp. Now usually moves made through a lack of understanding of the rules are allowed to be replayed, but no slack was granted tonight. The result was still ok ... I surged out to a lead, but Andrew was a lot closer than he should have been and poor old Mikey didn't score at all. Right, the gloves were clearly off. Banter mode off. Song mode off. Time to concentrate!
As the game progressed, Andrew and I (with a few more El Grande playings under our belts) pulled away, with Michael trying to catch Craig for third. This meant my strategy of flooding Andrew's provinces with caballeros for the rest of the game was fairly unmolested by Michael and Craig as the battled each other in Valencia and new Castile. Craig pursued a 7-deck, ship, get gold/wares strategy, while Micheal flooded the high-scoring inland regions. Despite the allure of the ship, I remained dedicated to the Castile, scoring first each time, and making sure I had a region targetted for those caballeros each time to double score them.
Andrew led me by 1 point after the second scoring, with Craig and Michael battling for third a bit behind. The last 3 rounds saw some see-sawing of the caballeros in the Limits table in Aragon (my home province) which needed correcting, and a great "score all 4 region's play" by Andrew that moved him from 10 points down to about 15 up. But my weight of Caballeros on the board in key regions (ie Andrew's) counted in the end, allowing me to snatch victory.
Scores: I ended up around 8 spaces into the 8th edge (second lap ... there's a heap more scoring in this game), Andrew 7 behind, Craig about 20 behind Andrew, and Michael another 20 or so behind.
The normal El Grande after 10 playings rates an 8 with me for 'very good game I like to play, will never turn down a game'. I thought the Grand Inquisitor and Colonies expansion took the game to a new level (and for me gave it a new lease of life) and am upping the rating to a 9 for 'excellent game, often want to play it'.
There are new options to consider, ways to score and strategies to unfold. Indeed the original El Grande is oft-criticised for being too tactical and not strategic enough. This expansion provides more scope for strategy, providing reward for long term planning and objectives (ie how and when to use the Grand Inquisitor, the ship, the castile, how and when to deploy caballeros, which player needs attacking). One of the reasons I think this holds is that the extra action decks allow more scope for getting caballeros out. Because there are more cards/actions, you're not as restricted to getting the most out of every tactical play - you can afford to sacrifice some tactical short term play for the furthering of your strategic objectives.
Although it took 2 and a half hours to play, we were all engrossed throughout. Everyone commented that it was better than the original, and I doubt we'll play without the expansion again. The theming is also much stronger with the caballeros exploring the new world and bringing back treasures. Its a game that kept me awake last night afterwards re-living it and that's always a sign of quality. I'm looking forward to trying the other expansions that came with the pack.