Wednesday, 28 July 2010

El Grande Intrigue and the King

El Grande is a classic area majority game. It is considered the pioneer of area majority games. It was published in 1995, and this was an era when most eurogames tended to be middle-weight, e.g. The Settlers of Catan, Through the Desert, Taj Mahal, Ra. I think only after 2000 we had more and more eurogames of higher complexity, e.g. Age of Steam, Puerto Rico, Amun-Re, Agricola, Through the Ages. I have tried El Grande once about 6 years ago when I just got into the hobby. Unfortunately I tried a 2-player game, which made the game a very poor experience. This is a game best with five. One can even argue that the player count of two should not have been on the box. Since I was going to have a 4P game session, I decided to give El Grande another try.

The Game

The game is played on a map of Spain, divided into 9 regions. There is one special region - the Castillo (castle, I think) - where you can drop cubes (called caballeros in the game). Throughout the game you manipulate cubes on the map, trying to have as much presence as possible, in order to score as many points as possible. The game has 9 rounds, and scoring is done every three rounds. There is a King token on the map. The region that he is in is locked, no one can move cubes into or out of that region. Also, normally players can only place cubes in regions adjacent to the region where the King is.

The King token in El Grande is one of the most well-known game pieces in the hobby.

We played with the Intrigue and the King expansion, which to me is more a variant than an expansion. It's a different way of playing the game. The cards used and the way they work are different. Everyone has a deck of 18 cards, and at the start of the game you remove 5 from the game. Each round you will select a card to play. The cards have 3 parts - a number which determines turn order for a round, icons indicating how many cubes you can move from your unavailable pile to your available pile, and a special action. Within a round, players take turns to play a card, and they are not allowed to play a same numbered card as a previous player. Once all cards are played, turn order is determined. The first player will not execute the special action on his card, and instead execute the King action (move the King anywhere). He will get to move many cubes from his available pile to the board. The players in the middle get to do their special action, and they will move fewer cubes onto the board. The last player also doesn't do his special action. He does the Intrigue action instead, which is to disperse all cubes in one region to any number of other regions. He will get to move only one cube onto the board.

Due to the existance of an unavailable pile (called your "provinces") and an available pile (called your "court"), you need to manage a steady supply of cubes in your available pile. Else it is useless to play big numbered cards because you won't have cubes to move onto the board.

I (green) started in a corner. The bigger cube marks your home province and does not mean additional strength. If you are the sole majority player you gain 2pts extra.

The Castillo is an interesting twist. When placing cubes onto the board, you can decide to put some into the Castillo. Cubes in there are hidden and are scored like a normal region during the scoring round. After that, players simultaneously and secret decide where to move all the cubes to. So they are like paratroopers, dropping in to a region to boost your numbers.

The special actions in the game are all related to different ways to manipulate cubes (yours and your opponents) and scoring. E.g. one allows you to move all opponents' cubes from available pile to unavailable pile, one allows you to score one region immediately. Everyone has the same set of cards to start with. The 5 cards removed create some uncertainty, but you know what cards your opponents may have, so you can plan to defend against them. By seeing what have been played, you will also know what cards you are now safe from.

The Play

I played a four-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. Chong Sean has played the game before, but not Wan and Shan. Chong Sean and I competed quite fiercely at the Castillo throughout the game. I made a conscious effort to remember how many cubes everyone had, and mostly remembered right. After the first scoring round, I was leading by an obvious margin. I didn't have many more cubes on the board than others, but in the round right before the scoring round, I took the Intrigue action, dispersing my cubes to many empty regions or regions where I could score for 2nd or 3rd place. It was a good idea, mininal investment for maximum effect. However, being an obvious leader had its drawbacks, because naturally everyone else would gang up on me.

What made it worse was I lead by a big margin again after the second scoring round. Then after the second scoring round, we realised we played a rule wrong. When using the Intrigue action, you cannot leave behind a cube in the region where you decide to disperse your cubes. That changed things. I deducted 8pts from my score, to correct the situation. So I wasn't leading by that much afterall. Unfortunately the psychological effect of the big gap could not be undone. I didn't do so well in the last third of the game, and eventually Chong Sean overtook me to win the game.

The Castillo in the background.

The Thoughts

I roughly know how the Intrigue and the King expansion differs from the base game, and I think I like the base game more. In the base game, 5 cards are turned over randomly every round, so there is some randomness in what special actions will be available every round. The game is more tactical because you can only analyse the cards when you see them. In the expansion, you can plan better and you have more control, but it seems like a bit too much work for me, and I prefer the game to be lighter. Maybe if I play more and get more familiar with the game, I would prefer the expansion.

I have been playing many area majority games lately, In the Shadow of the Emperor, San Marco and now El Grande too. And I have repeated myself too many times that I'm generally not a fan of area majority games. El Grande is just an OK game for me (please don't stone me for blasphemy). I prefer it to be played at a brisk space and in a light-hearted manner, thus my preference of the higher randomness in the base game.

I'm happy to have tried El Grande again, and indeed it is much better with 4 players. I think 5 will be even better. There is an interesting balance of managing your cube supply, your cards, and your presence on the board. You try to make the most out of the special actions, and you need to use the King's location to protect your regions as well as to attack other regions. The Castillo throws in a double-guessing element, adding some spice to the game. The Intrigue and the King expansion adds more to the card management aspect of the game, because special actions are in your hand now as opposed to being revealed every round.


Luis said...

Where did you find this particular game? The design of the board reminds me of another game I played last year but I can not remember the title. This look like it would be a lot of fun.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

It's a friend's copy. But I'm pretty sure the game is still in print. At least the base game. Not too sure about the expansion.

Chong Sean said...

El Grande: Decennial Edition actually includes all the expansion.

Anonymous said...

You might like to try Municium by Reiner Knizia which feels like a love child of El Grande and Luna. Strangely, it is remarkably simple and quick to play and yet has some depth to it. I have not had it long but I have a stronger "must play again" feeling for this than I do for many newer games.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I have read about Municipium before and I think I have read the rules too. It's an old game though - not too sure how easy it is to find a copy. I don't recall any Malaysian retailers carrying it, although on BGG there seems to be quite a few copies available.