If I had to rank the games I own, this would be the best. I'm not going to do a full review. But I'm going to explain why I think this is a great game. I own a 20 year old version, that has proven itself y2k proof. Not only are the parts in good condition, the game mechanics are not obsolete. Quite an achievement since boardgames evolved much the last 20 years. It still plays great.
The board is a map of Spain with nine provinces on it. Every player gets nobles (called caballeros): wooden cubes in bright colors. Each provinces is worth a varying amount of points. So you might say: putting cubes on a board, unless it is Star Trek, that does not make a great game. Even keeping the score by counting abstract victory points on a track with cubes, reinforces the cube theme. Spot on when it comes to the cubes but don't judge this game by its cubes.
For a strategy game, it is easy to learn. I usually put new players through one demonstration round and they usually pick up the basics in that round. But the game is harder to master because it offers many options that require smart choices. Luck is minimal, there are no dice. The game has nine rounds. Every third round the whole map gets counted. There is a aid on the board, that helps you keep track of the rounds and it helps with counting the provinces. Not only is the game easy to learn but it runs smoothly thanks to aids like this.
You score points when provinces are counted. Every province has three point values. The most for the player with the most cubes on it, less for second place and some for third place. Fourth and fifth place get nothing. The richest province offers seven points for the first place , four points for second and two points for third place. Suppose both an opponent and I, have four cubes on it. A third players weasels one cube in. In my turn, I really want it, I put another five on it. Am I a great player or not? Well, not that great. When it gets counted, I get the full seven points. But I had to put a big effort into it: nine cubes. My opponent gets four points for four cubes, which is more, per cube then I got. But the third player may get the sweetest bargain, his puny, single cubes scores two points. Whereas I had probably to neglect my position in other provinces and the second player also had to make some sacrifices, that single cube is cheap. The third player has retained enough recourses for the rest of the map. I, on the other hand, over committed. Just burying provinces in cubes won't win you this game but it will cost you it.
The first smart mechanic is the one which determine the order, in which the players have their turns, each round. Every player has thirteen numbered cards (numbered one to thirteen). At the start of a round, each player spends a card, you can't put a number on the table which already is played this round. Then the players take their turn, in the order highest card to lowest card. So, you may think, if I'm first I can easily bury the map under my cubes. No, because you only have a limited pool of cubes ready to deploy. The highest cards won't get you additional cubes to replenish that pool. The lower the card, the more cubes it replenishes. Also once you spend a card, you usually won't be able to use it again. So going early, all the time, will deplete your pool of ready cubes and high number cards. The whole game you will balance the number of deployable cubes in your pool. This with still getting a turn quick enough to get an action you really like.
This takes me to the action cards. Each card lets you put a number of cubes on the board: the first card one, the second two and so on till five for the fifth card. The fifth card is always the same: it lets you move the king (I'll explain the king later). The first four action cards differ each round. At the the start of the round, the new cards are revealed (the only luck factor in the game). Then each player uses up a card in its turn. So the fifth player has to do with the leftover card, which still might really benefit him.
When it comes to placing cubes on the board, the king is key. It has two functions. First all players place their cubes in the provinces next to the king. Also the kings locks the province he is in. Nothing may be changed in the province where the king is. That is the great, unbreakable rule in the game. This makes the king a great way to defend a province where you are strong. Another tactic is to place the king far away from regions where you might be contested. This way players will have a tough time getting cubes to those regions. The action card that lets you place five cubes, also lets you move the king. A great card to reinforce your future position on the board.
The “place two to four cubes on the board-cards”, change every turn and have miscellaneous effects. The most common effect, is that you can count provinces. It may be that all provinces worth four points are counted, the provinces which contains the most or least cubes are counted. Sometimes players make secret choices which provinces gets counted. These extra counting provide another choice: will you put the most cubes on the board and therefore increase your presence? Or will you neglect your presence a bit to count count provinces where you are strong or deny this to a competitor? In the long term, board presence really helps. But the benefits of juicy, extra counting really add up and may push you way forward on the scoring track, to victory. So choose carefully. Another effect that it makes second and first place in provinces more powerful. Nobody will voluntarily count provinces where somebody else has first place, unless that person is hardly a threat. But a second or third place may score you points whenever the player with first place counts them and takes your benefit as collateral damage.
The action card that allows you to place only one cube on the board, has only one effect: you can move a certain amount of cubes freely on the board (as always: you can't change anything in the king's province). This card is better than it seems. Remember you normally can only place cubes adjacent to the king so you can't reach far away provinces? With this card, you can move them to those far away provinces. If an enemy has a solid majority somewhere, why not move more valuable cubes in there to make it a dumping ground? Or erode that majority so all other players have a chance to compete and therefore throw more recourses into it.
Another main feature is the tower: the game's gimmick but a functional one. On your turn, instead of putting cubes next to the king's province, you can throw them into the tower. Although you have to show how much you throw in, it becomes hidden after that. The tower serves two purposes. First it is a normal region and gets counted after the third, sixth and ninth round (and when certain cards say it can be counted). After a scheduled counting, the cubes are parachuted onto the map. Each player selects, in secret, a provinces (not the king's province, nothing may be changed there, remember?). There is a nice aid for every player to select these provinces in the game, hidden and fair. After everybody has chosen, the cubes from the tower are placed in the provinces and then the provinces are counted. The tower is powerful, the cubes there count for gaining points, for the tower, and effect the board after that. But even here there is a balance: all the tower cubes end up in one region and that may become a dumping ground. The game contains no bluff element. It does help if you can guess where a player is going to put his tower cubes. Being unpredictable is the shield against that. Another player might reinforce a province against your cubes, already in the tower, only to see that those cubes take first place in another province.
The last feature I'll highlight are the Grandes or starting provinces: each player gets one randomly assigned. It gets marked with a big, guess what..., cube). The big cube is worth an additional two points if its player has first place and that player starts with two normal cubes here to help (The big one serves only as a marker). Getting a rich province is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you start strong there and can really score if it's counted. A curse because you need to work hard to keep it that way and lose the starting province bonus if you fail. It's balanced once again this way.
This game came out a few years after Catan. And where Catan became a broad classic and is played by a lot of non-geeks, this game failed to achieve that amount of popularity. I found this strange because this game was the Catan killer for me. The rules, of both, are gateway complexity. In El Grande, these simple rules result in complex choices. Not like: I have lots of wood and ore I can't trade, so I must build a road because there is no alternative. In El Grande, the best choice is often hidden by other great choices (I think this line really describes why it is a great game). Also in El Grande, there are no players who can't a decent foothold on the board and are stuck doing little, until the winner is done. A good turn and you can easily overtake someone in El Grande. No frustrating dice in El Grande that can starve you of recourses, even if you made sound choices. This game is way better, why didn't it kill Catan?
I think the main reason is theme. The map is pretty. But medieval Spain is not that interesting for a mainstream audience. Unless knights clash and there is no combat in this game. The tower does not function as a castle but more as a transport fleet. The action cards show the map, areas highlighted, cubes with arrows or the kings pawn with arrows. Even when the card says “The king is angry”, we won't get a picture of an angry king that bans the nobles from his court. When you play a card to move enemy cubes, it features no picture of a greedy noble with a sack of bribe in his hands. The game is all about abstract cubes and makes minimal effort to breath its theme. In Catan, we have pieces that resembles towns, roads and cities. The recourses have pictures on them what they represent. When playing Catan, you see your little settlement develop according to the earned victory points. In El Grande you only see a cube advance on a scoreboard, but it does not smell like gained political power. The whole background is a bit patched on and that does not entice new players. El Grande may have rich gameplay, it is too abstract to invite a mainstream audience to experience it. But if you look for a strategic game that is easy to learn, challenging to master, offers many smart choices, but not so chess-like-complex that you need to think 10 moves in advance, then this game should be to your liking. If only you can see beyond the cubes. This game, with simple rules, offers many possibilities for a strategist to enjoy. The trick is to discovery the best one among the great choices. Every turn, I hope my opponents won't outplay me. Every third round, I watch the exciting race on the score track during the counting of the map. After the ninth round, the best strategist will have won. This great game makes sure that strategist has had to work for it.
wonderful review man! thank you!
I think the reasons you prefer El Grande to Settlers of Catan are, actually, the reasons why Catan did better.
1. "In El Grande, these simple rules result in complex choices. ... In El Grande, the best choice is often hidden by other great choices (I think this line really describes why it is a great game).
And, why Catan was more popular. El Grande required noticeably more mental work to play and play well.
2. No frustrating dice in El Grande that can starve you of recourses, even if you made sound choices.
Which means, losing hurts more. No convenient dice to scape-goat for why you lost, you have to accept that you lost because you played worse/the other player played better. Most of the people who play the game will lose, and this means they'll be less likely to like it and want to play it again.
1. "In El Grande, these simple rules result in complex choices. ... In El Grande, the best choice is often hidden by other great choices (I think this line really describes why it is a great game).Indeed. It happened multiple times when the actioncards were revealed. I instantly looked at one card and thought: "This card is just what I needed, hope the player before me does not snatch it away". And that player, just before me, does snatch it away if course. Ten seconds I feel despair but then I look at the remaining cards. Then suddenly that great idea pops up and the card, I previously regarded as second choice, reveals to be a great choice. When I have completed that turn, I can make the case that my second-choice card, was better than my first choice. El Grande at its best.
And you make a good case. Bingo is a game that requires no strategy and hardly any thinking. More popular than Catan. People tend not to like thinking too much in a game.
About the dice, here you may also have a point. I don't think about blaming the dice for loosing, is that of a big issue. But suppose you play someone who is a lot smarter. In El Grande, unless that person has an off-day, you're toast. In Catan, you may have a chance. In Bingo: balance. The fact that the best strategist will always win in El Grande, might be the thing people dislike.