[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house eurogamer, @Farmerlenny, and his deadly enemy the thematic space-loving @Futurewolfie. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
The box is ugly, there’s no disputing that. Even after reading about the game, reading about the mechanics, and seeing the reassuring “Spiel des Jahres” pawn on the cover, I was almost convinced by the box art to turn my back. If I had done so, I would have missed out on one of my very favorite games. Well, now you know how I feel about it. But keep reading for a more in-depth review.
How It Works
The goal of the game, like most Euros, is to end the game with the most points. Like many Euros, there is a scoring track around the outside of the board to show who is in the lead. And stereotypically Euro, the game comes with lots and lots and lots of cubes.
In this case, each player has a stockpile of small cubes, which represent caballeros (knights). There are three areas for cubes: the provinces (reserve stockpile), the court (ready stockpile), and regions (individual territories on the game board). The board is a map of fifteenth-century Spain, and points are awarded based on who has the greatest number of caballeros in each region on the map. (This is an area control game, if that term means anything to you.) You score bonus points if you have the most caballeros in your home region (represented by the big cube of your color, your Grande) or in the region where the king happens to be. The game is played over nine rounds, and regions are only scored after the third, sixth, and ninth rounds. After the ninth-round scoring, whoever has the most points is the winner.
Each round begins with revealing five new special action cards. These cards, first, show how many caballeros the player who chooses that action may move from his court into the regions (1-5, depending on the stack the card is from). They also allow players to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, for example, moving other players’ caballeros, moving the king, changing the number of points scored for a region, or scoring a region out of turn. The card that allows a player to move the king is available in each round (and also allows the choosing player to place five caballeros on the board). Special action cards are only available to one player each round (that is, after another player has chosen a special action, that action is unavailable to the other players).
Then, starting with the person who went last in the previous round, players bid for turn order. At the start of the game, each player is given thirteen “power cards,” numbered 1-13, 1 being the least powerful/13 being most powerful, and each power card may only be played once during the game. On each power card, there is also a number of caballeros pictured, from zero to six. Your bid not only determines turn order but also how many caballeros you may move from the provinces to your court. The 13 shows no caballeros; the 1 shows six. The less powerful the power card, the more caballeros you can mobilize. The game is a delicate dance between going first when you need to and letting other players do so when most advantageous to yourself. You won’t be able to go first every turn because you’ll run out of caballeros in your court to move onto the board.
After bidding, players take their individual turns in the new player order. First they move the number of caballeros pictured on their power card from their provinces to their court. Then they choose their “special action,” which they may take before or after moving their caballeros onto the board, or they may choose not to take it. Caballeros may only be placed in regions adjacent to the king’s region, and nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing—can ever change in the king’s region. The rules reiterate this fact again and again. This rule is fixed, hard and fast, firm as anything, no exceptions. This is why moving the king is such an important point of strategy.
There is also a special region on the board—the castillo—a tall, dark, and secret place where players can drop their cubes and forget about them. At the start of the scoring round, each player secretly chooses a region, then the castillo region is scored. Players then place their caballeros that were hidden in the castillo in the region they chose (but, as always, never in the king’s region—it’s taboo!). The castillo can swing things quite a bit, as the region you choose does not have to be adjacent to the king, and no one knows where the other players will send their caballeros.
Points are scored by who has the most, second most, and third most caballeros in a region. Whoever has the most points at the end of round nine wins.
There is no secret about my opinion: I love this game. Love, love, love it. My only regret is that I don’t get to play it more often (mostly because it can take up to two hours to play).
The rules I mentioned above may seem like a lot to take in, but really, this game is pretty easy to teach. The thing new players get tripped up on the most is that new caballeros may be added to the board only in the regions adjacent to the king, and nothing whatsoever may ever change in the region where the king is. This forces player moves to be more subtle—they can’t just add cubes wherever they want them.
Which leads to the next point: I love the secrecy involved in this game. Each player has a dial depicting all the regions on the board that allows them to make choices, and those choices have a huge impact on the game. (The dials are used most commonly in the scoring phase for the castillo, but they are used with some special actions as well.) There is a large element of bluffing in the game—which regions do I want other players to think I care about, and which do I actually care about? When do I make a play for a region through my caballeros in the castillo? And when do I abandon a region to my opponents? Some regions are higher scoring than others and are thus more hotly contested; is it worth committing your forces to these regions or is it better to try for the lonely low-scoring regions?
I also love that there is a lot of player interaction without much direct conflict (though there is plenty of “take that” in the game, but this is generally directed toward the player in the lead). Many of the special action cards directly affect other players: you can veto their special action, force them to remove caballeros from the board, or move their caballeros, or you can select a special action card that other players might want just to prevent them from getting it. Choosing the king’s card is often a defensive move rather than an offensive one. And you have to constantly monitor who has the most caballeros in each region and guess at what regions matter to your opponents. If you’re not careful, they might make a back-door play through the castillo to claim your home region!
The game works better with more players—at least four makes conditions ideal—but I find even the two-player game fun, if a little different. The components are fairly basic (at least the caballeros, which are the ubiquitous Euro cubes), but the game is so enjoyable that this is a minor concern. The gameboard map looks nice, and the castillo is top notch. I acquired the decennial edition, which also contains all the expansions, so quite a bit is packed into the box. (I haven’t played the expansions yet—I love the base game so much.)
What all this boils down to for me is a game that is quite easy to teach yet while retaining strategic and tactical choices and a strong Euro flavor, even for newbies, and that is enormously fun. There are few games I enjoy playing as much as this one. If you don’t have a copy, I recommend you track one down. This one shouldn’t be missed.
Strong Euro flavor, indeed. From a turn tracker to a score tracker to bidding for turn order, this is a quintessential Eurogame through and through.
@FarmerLenny covered it pretty well above, so I’ll just add a few thoughts from someone who isn’t as fanatically obsessed with the game. Not that I don’t enjoy this game; I do enjoy it.
It’s fun, strategic, challenging, and tense. It is a game that lets you keep playing the whole way through. You never get completely trapped, unable to play, since everyone gets a turn—even if you are last. You never “lose a turn” because your hand sucks.
It has a lot of interaction as well—many of the special action cards directly affect the other players (such as forcing them to remove their cubes, or getting to move their cubes to regions of your choice), and every action you take indirectly affects them well. Whether you move the king, locking away certain regions and making others available, or target an unsuspecting region with a flood of your forces, you always force the other players to reconsider.
However, this is a game in which I always feel like I don’t know what I’m doing; or, that I’m always doing the wrong thing. Somehow I always seem to get my Castillo in the wrong region, my Caballeros get overcommited and then lose out at the most inopportune moment, and I never have quite enough in the Castillo. I often feel ganged-up on as well, which is very possible to do. It can be very hard to defend your territories from multiple attackers, and it is possible to get stuck in second or third place in every territory you control, leaving your scoring pawn far behind.
Maybe I’m just not very good at this game (highly possible), but the main point here is – despite the straightforward ruleset, El Grande is a tough game to master. There’s very little luck involved, other than luckily stumbling on a winning strategy. Everything you do is about making sacrifices in one place to gain something in another, so you have to learn when to make sacrifices and when to stand your ground. The game also does little to mitigate foolish choices early on; if you fall behind, you are not likely to regain enough ground by the end. This is not a friendly, family, pick-up-and-play game. It is tense, strategic, challenging, and filled with spite. Not that those are bad things; it just might not fit every gaming crowd.
If you’re looking for something very thematic, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for something pretty, you won’t find it here (although the castillo and king pieces are ridiculously excellent). If you’re looking for a good family game, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a solid game that is challenging, highly strategic, with elements of bidding, bluffing, secrecy, tension, and with very little luck involved, El Grande could be the game for you.