El Grande is a rather old strategy game from 1995 that still ranks high on Boardgamegeek. It is a rather abstract area control game for 2-5 players and lasts about 90 minutes. It was very influential in the development of the new strategy game Green Deal . Thus, this review will also shed light on how its mechanisms drove the design of Green Deal.
The board shows Spain in the 15th century with its different regions. Players try to win as many victory points in the three scorings after round 3, 6 and 9 by controling the regions. The 3 (or sometimes only 2) players with most cubes in a region gain points. However, in some regions one can win more victory points than in others.
Each round starts with an auction for the turn order. Players have hand cards from 1 to 13 for the auction. So players make a bid using their hand cards clockwise. The player with the highest number goes first etc.. However, these hand cards also determine how many cubes players can put into their yard. The high number cards don’t allow to put any cubes into one’s yard whereas the low number cards allow to put the most cubes into the yard. So one faces a trade-off between going first and getting some cubes into the yard.
The player who goes first can then pick an action card to play among the 5 ones that are available in the current round. They let the players place between 1 and 5 cubes from their yard on the board and perform a special action that breaks the normal rules. It may include to relocate cubes or even remove cubes of opponents.
The castillo is a high tower and a special kind of region into which players can put cubes. The castillo is scored as well but before players decide secretly and simultaneously in which region they want to place their cubes from the castillo. As this is done at the same time and before the other regions are scored one can still fight for regions.
The player who scores points most efficiently by having the majority of cubes in the regions will win the game.
Interaction: 9 out of 10
El Grande is an abstract euro game so the interaction happens mostly through the game rather than communication.
Almost all points to be gained are to be split among the players. This guarantees a very competitive fight for points. If one players scores well another player must score poorly. Also, the players influence the score of other players by attacking one rather than the other player’s position.
There are only 5 action cards available each round. So taking a card also means to prevent other players to use the same card. In contrast to games with many options such as Caverna it is relatively worthwile to play somewhat aggressively since players hardly find substitutes for the option they were denied. Also the action cards are quite interactive themselves and some allow to hurt other players.
The castillo mechanic triggers mind games such as: „If Alex places his cubes in Valencia, then I should put mine into Grenada. But if he expects me to do that then he would probably place his cubes in Sevilla!“ So the Castillo adds a element of psychology into it as guessing your opponent’s move can help you to net a lot more points.
Fun: 9 out of 10
El Grande is very interactive and deep! As I like deep games and interaction is important for me I prefer this kind of game over a more thematic but less interactive game.
I liked the auction for turn order quite a lot. However, I was thinking that it would be interesting if it were more cutthroat. So I came up with the simultaneous auction where playes bid cash they also need for other investments. This mechanic was actually the very beginning of the development of my own strategy game Green Deal. It was also influenced by the Castillo mechanic as I really liked the psychological aspect of the simultaneous action.
The fact that there only few action cards with different features available every round reduces the time players spend reading cards and allows them to think more deeply about each of these options and even take into account what other players would do with these action cards (for instance contest some of one’s own regions). This feature also influenced Green Deal’s game design as there are only 8 cards available but some cards have several consequences. The following graphic shows these two design types in a simplified manner:
Maps, like the one in Pandemic, are an awesome way to add depth to the decisions without having to include more actions that come with more rules. It is very intuitive to strategize on a map. In addition, people just love maps!
As a consequence of the interaction, king making can easily happen in El Grande. I personally don’t mind this too much as I consider psychological manipulation of other players’s decisions as a perfectly viable way to play (most games by the way) and if someone makes another player the king then I simply failed to convince them to do otherwise. An exception is playing with couples as they have unfair means to manipulate their partners as there is a meta game 😉
With more players the game is a bit more chaotic whereas with fewer players it is more predictable. I personally like it also with fewer players whereas most players prefer to play with 4 or 5 players.
So overall I really like El Grande as it is relatively easy to learn and still provides for a deep and interactive experience. A small disadvantage is that the game’s abstract look&feel is not for everyone so I don’t get to play it as often as I’d like to.
Replayability: 5 out of 10
The game is very strategic. However, there are only 11 cards per pile to be used for the 9 rounds. Thus, with 2-3 plays already one will have experienced all action cards. In Green Deal there are 30 special actions cards of which 20 get into play each session. In addition, some action cards have a permanent use, some a one time use and some let you score points given certain conditions in the end. So in Green Deal it matters a lot when an action card shows up in the game. In contrast, most action cards‘ value in El Grande does not depend so much on when the cards come into play. Concluding, I think the replayabality is not so high in El Grande.
El Grande has been a deep and interactive treasure to the board game community for 20 years and inspired me to become a game designer. Thank you!