First Play Friday

2011 New Year's resolution: Play games from my collection I haven't yet tried.
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I don't always play El Grande, but when I do it's always with new people...

The Dave
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As much as I’m guilty of being a part of the “Cult of the New”, I must say I feel a certain draw to the classics. Reading reports detailing deep strategy in a game like Tigris & Euphrates or El Grande makes me wish that I wasn’t so obsessed with playing new games. I think it would be really sweet to get reallllly good at a game, but I’m not sure I have the patience or discipline to study a game and play it enough to get there.

Regardless of my GADHD (gaming ADHD), I purchased El Grande awhile ago, and like many of my games, it sat on the shelf mocking me for my purchase without play. However, if ever there was a good time to try it, it was with Mikki. As the five of you who read my blog know, Mikki is The Wife’s sister. She’s really a great sport at humoring my GADHD, and she welcomes learning new games with me. As detailed in previous posts, she is responsible for my first plays of Macao, Phoenicia, Tigris & Euphrates, Stronghold, Seeland, and (not reviewed in my blog) Agricola.

If anyone can match Mikki’s willingness to play new games, it would be my dear friend Margaret. Margaret interned at our church last summer, and The Wife and I pseudo adopted her. She was ALWAYS up for a game, new or not, and she is perhaps one of the most positive people I know. Case in point – last summer I told her how crazy the game TITAN sounded (yes all caps, because it’s that badass). I showed her the game, the billions of bits, oodles of battle boards, and the board that was actually two boards. I lamented that I’d never play it because from all accounts it takes 5 or 6 hours to play the first few times, to which she replied “I’ll play it!” So a few weeks later, there we all were learning and playing TITAN (from 3pm to 6am…I really should first-play review THAT session sometime).

So yeah, that’s the kind of awesome gaming friend Margaret is.

Why do I bring her up? Well in one of the most fortuitous confluences of gaming coincidences both Mikki and Margaret found themselves visiting Bay Ridge at the same time. Mikki lives in Pittsburgh and Margaret lives in Georgia, so this was truly special! I suggested El Grande, and of course they both said “Sure”. Rachel joined in too, so we were off with a four-player game of El Grande.

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I will now review El Grande according to the following criteria. Keep in mind this is a review of the game after only one play.

Accessibility (1): How easy was the game to teach and learn? Is it complex and/or fiddly? Are the rules easy to understand and follow? How long did it take to go over the rules?

Fun (1): Is it fun? Included in this might be a theme-to-mechanics metric, or a player interaction metric.

Length of first play (1): Some games say 60-90 minutes, but the first play might take you 3 hours. Not included is length of rules explanation.

Desire to play again (1): Typically I would rather play a new game than play a game I’ve already played (with some exceptions). I know – I am crazy. This will be a good measure of how much I like the game.

Review:

Accessibility:

Not so much. I think that the mechanics of El Grande – the “what do I DO?” part – are relatively simple. Play a card that determines both play order and number of cubes you get. Then in the order determined by the cards, choose a power card which is basically an action. Either do or do not the action (there is no try). After a few rounds you score each province by majority. Sounds simple?

Well it is, and yet it is not. El Grande cannot both be played well and played casually. You must be ever vigilant in watching your opponents. Further compounding matters is that not only must you evaluate the relative importance of each action card vis-à-vis your aims, but you must also do so for each of your opponents and their aims. Add to that the narrow way in which you place cubes on the board (based on your action, and only then in provinces next to the king), and you get some very complicated decisions you have to start making. Oh – and don’t ever lose count of the cubes in the Castillo (as if this game wasn’t already taxing your brain).

The rules were easy enough, but because we are all experienced gamers, we could immediately see that there was way too much depth for us to comprehend, and I think that was a bit intimidating.

The low accessibility score reflects the intertwining mechanics to some extent (for example, the two step process for getting cubes to the board – first from supply to your court via influence cards, and then from your court to the board via power cards). Mostly though, the low score comes from the fact that while the cards are pretty self-explanatory, we did have to go to the rules quite a bit to make sure we knew exactly what the cards let us do.

This isn’t a game I’d bust out with new gamers, nor is it a game that you should expect to just roll right up to with your gaming buddies and be off and running (if you’ve never played it before). There’s a beast here, and it isn’t tamed easily.

Score: .4

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Fun:

Argh…I think my rating scale is turning on me. Well not really, but I plan to write a post in the near future that really qualifies, and hopefully clarifies, exactly what it is I’m reviewing, how my scale works, and what my scores “mean”.

El Grande, played for the first time, isn’t that fun. It was a positive experience. I enjoyed playing it. Margaret, Rachel, and Mikki enjoyed playing it as well. But I don’t think we had “fun” – the enjoyment was from learning and exploring a new game, not from the play itself (compared to say Cosmic Encounter which is just a veritable crap-ton of fun, first play or otherwise). There is just so much to keep track of, so many things to check out, numbers to crunch, and choices to make, and none of it really comes naturally (or at least not for us), that the game felt like work.

Now at this point, you might be thinking, well if it felt like work screw that! I play games to have fun, not to work. If I wanted to work, I’d go to, well you know – work! But El Grande just exudes this confidence. It’s the board game equivalent of the Dos Equis guy. I mean you sit down and look at the board, see the giant penis king, the mighty Castillo, and all the colorful cubes and cards, and you think – no, you know that this is going to be a good game. You KNOW it. So the work is ok, because you know it’s going to take work to learn this giant work of gaming goodness. And that’s ok. Not every game is meant to reveal its fleshy delicious fruit on first play.

Score: .4

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Length of first play:

Midway through the rules and looking at the various power cards, we all sort of looked at each other and decided we might not be able to go the full 9 rounds. We decided to play the short game (which in retrospect was a TERRIBLE idea – 6 rounds is not enough gaming to really execute a strategy). Even the short game went a bit longer than we all thought it would, but it was because we were doing work.

Score: .5

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Desire to play again:

Yes.

Score: 1

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OVERALL: 2.3/4

El Grande is the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey of my game collection. It sits high up on my shelf not doing or saying anything, yet every time I see it, it drives me crazy. I want to play it again. It’s meaty and tough, and I know I’ll suck at it for a long time. It’s confrontational. It’s strategic. It’s tactical. It pushes so many gaming buttons – you have to plan, you have to react, you have to memorize, you have to count. I do not know from experience, but I imagine it quickly rewards you for repeated plays.

It is not the game you’re looking for if you want to sit around a table, drink some brews, shoot the breeze, and casually pay attention to the game. It demands your attention. It demands your focus.

I like El Grande. I should have never played it with Mikki and Margaret because they will never be in the same place at the same time again. I’m going to have to teach this to people that have never played it, and while I know that will be work, it will be worth it.
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