It was a nice cool fall evening in the early aughts and I was walking into a coffee shop to meet some friends for a game. I had recently peeked my head into the board game rabbit hole with Settlers of Catan and a couple others and I was excited to see what other joys could be found in a cardboard box. My friend plopped down El Grande on the table. These Euro-style games were new to me so fitting all the rules and concepts into brain boxes was still a challenge. When I emerged a couple hours later I knew 3 things. 1) My brain hurt so
Designers: Wolfgang Kramer | Richard Ulrich
Playtime: 60-120 min
In El Grande, you take command of a region of Spain as it’s Grande (leader) and their Caballeros (aristocracy) and try to spread your influence across 15th century Spain. To control a region you must have more Caballeros there than the other players. You will do this by bidding for actions. The actions are mostly different ways of placing or moving Caballeros on the board or moving the King token. Every 3 rounds there is a scoring round in which players will count up their Caballeros in each region to see who scores its influence points. After a final scoring round, the player with the most influence wins.
This sounds simple, right? But, like most Euros, the tension comes in the interconnectedness of the mechanisms.
BIDDING AND ACTIONS
The first thing players will do in a round is bid for turn order using power cards numbered from 1 through 13. There are three kickers here: 1) You bid in turn order so you get to strategically choose which of your cards you will play based on what others play, 2) The card you play also determines how many Caballeros you get to put in your court and 3) You do not get your power cards back.
After all players have bid, they will, in the turn order determined by the bid, select an action to take that round. There are 5 actions available each round. One of them (move the king) is always available but the other 4 vary. There are 4 small decks of cards and a card from each will be turned up each round. These 4 along with the move-the-king action makes the available five. The kicker here is that each of the actions allows a certain number (from 1 to 5) of Caballeros to be placed from your court onto the board. This means that you must balance the value of the action with the value of Caballeros you want to put on the board.
The bidding and actions selection mechanisms really compound on each other to create some interesting decisions.
AREA MAJORITY AND SCORING
Once you have bid for turn order and decided what action you will take, it is time to place your Caballeros on the board and use your action. This is all about subtlety. Can you sneak enough of your Caballeros into a region to steal the influence points? Can you get the right action at the right time to move in to take an opponent’s stronghold right before a scoring round?
Speaking of scoring, most of the regions in the game have points available for the top 3 players in that region. (This is what makes the game an area majority instead of area control to me.) The player with the most Caballeros in a region gets the most points on down. This means that you can play a strategy to get lots of points from finishing second in many regions.
I can’t talk about scoring without mentioning the Castillo. This region on the board actually has a castle tower sitting on it that players can drop Caballeros into. Then, during the scoring round, players can secretly decide (via dial) which region to send them to potentially upsetting someone’s majority or allowing you to solidify your lead in a region. The Castillo really adds some spice to the game.
El Grande is old by hobby game standards. It doesn’t have the sculpted miniatures – it has a bunch of wooden cubes. It doesn’t have flashy artwork, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautiful thing to look at. The map on the board looks like you have unrolled a weathered map on the table. Everything fits aesthetically together. I feel like this is a lesson more recent games can take to heart. Sometimes simpler is better as long as it all works together.
Try this game if you like:
- Mission Red Planet
- Power Grid
- 8 Minute Empire
Some games that define a mechanism fade with time as the idea is taken and iterated on by future games. El Grande does not suffer from this and I believe it comes from the fact that it is not just an area majority game. Its other mechanisms blend so well into each other that you end up with a very robust game that was still simple enough to successfully introduce the area majority mechanism.
El Grande holds a pretty special place in my collection. It is one of the games like Settlers or Scotland Yard that started me out on my board gaming journey. I don’t mind getting either of those games out but El Grande is one I am always excited to get back out. This is why it still sits firmly in my top 10 games.
I highly recommend El Grande and fortunately, they just reprinted it so you can get a copy.