Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Quest for El Dorado

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Reiner Knizia doing a deck-building game! This game caught my attention well before it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (it didn't win eventually). This is a race game in which you use your deck of cards to advance your pawn on the race track. The race track is customisable. You can use the recommended setups or make your own. Everyone has the same starting deck of cards, and a hand size of four. During the game you improve your deck, adding and also possibly removing cards, hoping to speed you up towards your destination. Whoever reaches El Dorado first wins.

The map consists of hex spaces. Each hex indicates the resources required for your pawn to enter. Yellow hexes require coins, green hexes require machetes, blue hexes require paddles. They represent villages, jungles and rivers. When you play a card, you expend the resources on it to move your pawn onto a new hex, or along a few hexes requiring that resource type. Mountains are impassable. Grey hexes require discarding cards.

This is one of the setups recommended by the rulebook. The starting line is at the bottom right. El Dorado is at the other end.

You start a turn with a hand size of four. You may play cards to move your pawn. Then you may play cards to buy one new card (which is put into your personal discard pile). Eventually you draw back up to four cards. You may discard unwanted cards before refilling your hand. If a card you play has more than one resource, you may use it to move your pawn multiple hexes, as long as the number of resources is sufficient to pay for every hex. However if a particular hex requires multiple resources, you are not allowed to pool together a few cards to move your pawn onto that hex. You need a single card with at least that many resources. If you don't have that, you need to take another route.

When buying a card, coin cards count according to their card values. Other cards can be used, but they only count as half a coin each. In the worst case, if you don't have any coin cards, your four cards can still add up to 2 coins.

The strip at the top left is the card market. Normally you may only buy cards here. The game starts with a predetermined set of 6 types of cards. There are only three cards per type. Once all three are bought, a space is opened up. At that point, you are allowed to buy any card outside of the market. If you do so, you will be buying the first of three cards. You move the other two into the market, thus filling in the blank. The market is now full again, and the restriction of buying only from the market applies again.

The price of a card is written at the bottom. Green, blue and yellow cards have machetes, paddles and coins respectively. White cards are jokers. Purple cards give special abilities. Some cards can only be used once, after which they are permanently removed from the game.

This is a deck-building game, and most of the standard rules apply. When you buy a new card, it goes to your discard pile. You reshuffle your cards only when your draw deck is exhausted. That means a new card will only come into play after the next reshuffle. You can thin your deck. The remove action removes a card from play, i.e. the card is set aside and not put in your discard pile. The next time you reshuffle, it won't come back. Removing weak cards makes your deck more efficient.

The start cards are all value 1 cards.

I'm rich, rich, rich! This hand looks good, but may not be all that great. Yes, I can afford expensive cards, but I may only buy one per turn anyway, so this is overkill. Most of the time, on your turn you try to make use of every card, be it to move or to buy a card, because you always draw back up to four anyway.

Some mountain hexes have caves. This is a variant, which we used in our game. When you approach a cave hex, you gain a random single-use special ability token. Their powers vary, and they can be quite handy. They give good flexibility because you can keep them till the ideal moment to use them. They are fun because everybody likes lucky draws.

So, on your turn you may move, and you may buy one new card. While you race towards El Dorado, you are tuning your deck to be able to race more effectively. Your deck is your tool. Your goal is to be first to cross the finish line. Positioning on the board is important, because blocking applies. You may not enter an occupied hex, and you may not pass through such a hex either. Trailing behind others is usually bad because they'll all be in your way. Blocking is something you need to defend yourself from, and you need to use it against your opponents too.

The Play

Ivan taught Allen and I to play. I have a bad habit when playing deck-building games. When I play Star Realms, I often enjoying building that perfect deck, that I lose sight of my true objective. I like to buy red cards which let me trim away the weak starting cards. I like to focus on buying cards of just one or two colours, so that there will be more synergies. In themselves, these actions are fine and they are valid tactics. My problem is I lose sight of the goal of killing my opponent. I don't get enough combat strength quickly enough to defeat my opponent. What use is my perfect deck when I'm close to being exterminated? When playing The Quest for El Dorado, I made the same mistake. Up front I decided I was going to focus on coin cards, which would help me buy more cards. There was a good variety of cards in the game, and many looked awfully powerful. I enjoyed collecting them and making use of them. I did have some "Ladies and gentlemen... " moments, when I made fantastic moves. However, I was too lax in pushing my pawn on the board. Ivan was the leading player throughout most of the race, and I was trailing most of the time. I kept thinking once I made my perfect deck, I would pull a come-from-behind victory. I did have the strongest buying power. I bought many coin cards. I was rich rich rich! Unfortunately rich rich rich did not automatically mean win win win. What was more important was being efficient in achieving the goal. Spending too much time on deck-building was actually bad, especially since I did it at the expense of not paying enough attention to the board.

Another lesson I learned was the need to plan ahead very specifically. There was one particular stretch of river on the board which I had underestimated and did not plan for. It was four consecutive spaces of water which was part of the shortest path to El Dorado. Each space needed just one paddle, but paddle cards were rarer, and that made a stretch of four a challenge. I didn't want to buy many paddle cards, and decided I'd just take a longer path, expecting my strong deck to help me to advance quickly enough. Both Ivan and Allen strategised to make use of this stretch. They were able to cross the whole stretch within one turn, by playing a value-4 joker card. This is the kind of efficiency we are talking about!

I also learned the importance of blocking. The leading player commanded a big advantage, because he would normally be trying to take the easiest path, and that meant he would be blocking the next players from also taking that easiest path.

There are things you can strategise, but at the same time the game is very tactical. What you can do depends on what you draw. There's a tension of whether you'll be drawing the right cards at the right time. There's the fun puzzle of how to make the most of your hand of cards, given your current position on the board. A turn is usually fast, because you can only do what your cards allow you to do. You can temporarily forget about everything else.

El Dorado is at the upper left. Now the three pawns are about to enter the board section in the middle. If you trace the shortest path to El Dorado, you can see a hex in the middle requiring 4 coins. This can be a pivotal point. There aren't many cards with 4 coins or cards that allow you to enter such a space. If you have such a card, and also happen to have it in hand when you approach this hex, you will be able to take the shortest path. Otherwise you will be forced to take a detour, costing you precious turns.

As we played, the card pool dwindled to a point which surprised me. Many card types were exhausted. I wonder whether it was because we (especially me) had been buying aggressively. If it were a full four-player game, there would be even fewer cards left.

The Thoughts

I was not disappointed. The Quest for El Dorado is a quality design. You need to strike a balance between equipping yourself for the race, and running the race itself. There is a lot you can think about and strategise about, yet on your turn the things you can do are often simple and few. You can only do what your hand of cards and your position on the board allow you to do. You can plan ahead, and try to position yourself better for future turns, but what you get to execute now is usually straightforward. The most difficult decision is probably when you get the option to buy any card on the table. Hopefully before you get to that point you have been paying attention and thinking about how you are crafting your deck. You should already have a general idea what your game plan is.

This is a game of flexible depth. You can play it simple mindedly; you can choose to put in a lot of thought. Naturally if you do the latter, your chances of winning are better. Either way you play, the game is enjoyable. It might be a problem though if some players play at one extreme and some at the other. One side would be accused of being brainless, and the other side slow.

I like how the game gives me much freedom to customise my deck. Throughout the game I am always occupied, with many strategic considerations I can delve into. I think about the board situation, the cards in the market, how I am going to adjust my deck, and the strategies my opponents are using. Many of these factors are constantly changing, and I always need to adapt, and do the best with what I draw. Puzzling out what best to do with your hand is satisfying.

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