I am writing this review on December 31, 2015, and as I look back at all of the awesome board games released this past year (and there were so many), it just so happens that one of my most anticipated releases of the year was actually a re-release – or technically, a re-re-release – of a game originally published in 1995.
2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of El Grande, the granddaddy of modern area majority games, and Hans im Glück / Z-Man Games have commemorated the occasion by releasing a Big Box version, complete with every expansion ever released (plus a new mini-expansion) and some upgraded components. Even though I already own the Decennial version released in 2005, I knew I had to have this new version for my collection.
For those unfamiliar with the game, this review will give an overview of how the game plays and a quick summary of the expansions. For those who already own a previous version, I’ll give my opinions as to whether this new set is a must-have.
El Grande is an area control/area majority game, designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich. It was originally released in 1995, re-released as a 10th anniversary set in 2006 and re-released again in 2015 in a Big Box configuration for its 20th anniversary. It supports 2 to 5 players ages 13 and up, and plays in about 90 minutes (for the base game).
In El Grande, players will compete for control of regions in 15th century Spain. This is done by the players using two different sets of cards to first gather their “caballeros”, and then place them strategically throughout the regions on the board. They can also take special actions on chosen cards to shift caballero majorities in the regions to their advantage in various – and usually nasty – ways. Over the course of 9 game rounds, majorities throughout the regions are scored three times, and the player earning the most points in this way is the winner.
As with any Big Box version of a game, there are a lot of components in El Grande. The large 2-sided game board portrays a map of Spain, which is divided into 9 regions. There is a tall, hollow, cardboard “castillo” (castle) which is placed on the board to create a 10th “region”, and a tall, wooden piece representing the King.
A set of 45 action cards is used by the players to determine how many of their caballeros may be moved onto the board and also allows them to perform special actions. Each player has a collection of meeple-shaped caballeros in their supply, as well as one larger meeple, known as their Grande. They also have their own deck of 13 power cards and a location disc, which is used to secretly select a region on the board at various times throughout the game.
How to Play:
The 45 action cards are divided into five stacks by the number of caballeros (1 to 5) shown on the back. Each player starts with a deck of 13 power cards in their color, a location disc, their Grande, and 9 caballeros. This supply of caballeros is known as their “court.” The remaining caballeros of all players are placed in a general supply called the “provinces.” Each player draws a card from the region deck, and places their Grande and 2 caballeros from their court into this region. A region containing a player’s Grande is known as his “home region.” At the start of each round, the top action card from each of the five stacks is turned face up.
Beginning with the start player, each player in clockwise order plays a power card from their hand face up in front of themselves. Each power card in a player’s deck is numbered from 1 to 13, and shows a certain number of caballeros on it, ranging from 6 to 0. An important rule in this phase is that players may never play a power card of the same value as one already played in the current round.
Once all players have played a power card, the action card phase begins. In order of the played power cards (from highest to lowest), each player first moves a number of caballeros into his court from the provinces, based on the number of caballeros showing on his played power card. He then selects one of the available, face up action cards on display. The number of caballeros showing on these cards represents the (maximum) number that the player may move from his court to the board. Each of these cards also shows a special action, which may be taken before or after caballero movement, or not at all.
The action cards provide a multitude of actions that can be taken, including shifting caballeros around the board, bringing new caballeros onto the board, removing them from the board, allowing a “special” scoring to take place in certain regions, changing the scoring values in a region, and moving the King to a new region. A player can take these actions with the goal of attaining caballero majority in different regions, in preparation for one of the three general scoring phases in the game.
Once all players have chosen and played an action card, the round ends. New action cards are revealed, and the playing of power cards is started by the player who played the lowest value power card in the previous round. Power cards, once played, are out of the game, so in each successive round, players only have use of their unplayed power cards.
After rounds 3, 6, and 9, a general scoring occurs. Each region, including the castillo, contains a scoreboard showing point values for first-, second-, and third-place majority in that region. A player’s Grande does not count toward majority in a region; however, if a player has the first-place majority in a region that also contains his Grande, he is awarded 2 bonus points. Likewise, the first-place majority player in the King’s region also receives 2 bonus points.
Play continues through 9 rounds in the same way, scoring after rounds 3, 6, and 9. After the final scoring, the player with the most points is the winner. If players wish to play a shorter game, they can play a 6-round game, with a scoring after every other round.
Once players are familiar with the base game mechanics, the Big Box provides a number of expansions to shake things up and present new challenges.
The “King and Intrigue” expansion replaces the power and action cards with a set of 18 combination power/action cards for each player. Before the game begins, players select 13 of those 18 cards to use in the game. In this way, each player’s deck of cards will have slightly different power values and actions. When a power card is played, the action on it is the one that the player will take…unless they play the highest or lowest power card in the round.
The player with the highest power card can take a “move the King” action, if desired, instead of the action on his player card. The lowest power card played will allow that player to play an “intrigue” action, which involves moving caballeros around the board.
If the cards in this expansion don’t provide enough choices for players, they can add in 11 additional cards with the “Player’s Edition” expansion (previously only available in German), and if those choices are still not enough, they can add 10 more cards to their deck with the “Special Cards” expansion.
In any of these cases, the actions on these expansion cards make the game a lot more interesting and potentially chaotic, from a bridge that connects two regions, to placing a limit on how many total caballeros can be placed in a region, to even allowing players to throw their Grandes into the castillo (normally a no-no).
For a different kind of challenge, players can try the “Grand Inquisitor and Colonies” or “Grandissimo” expansions. These expansions add additional regions to the map such as Portugal, France, Africa and America, and allow players to have their caballeros travel on ships and gain gold and wares for additional points.
Lastly, a small “Anniversary” mini-expansion gives each player a Flag Bearer token that gives an advantage to the caballero associated with it, if that caballero is involved in a tie for region majority.
One of these days I need to compile a list of my Top 10 games of all time. When I do, El Grande will be on that list. There is a reason that this 20-year-old game still ranks in the top 30 of all board games at BoardGameGeek.
It is without a doubt the most elegant, straightforward, “easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master” and fun board games I have ever played. There’s just something so primally satisfying in that “I have more guys in this area than everyone else!” feeling, and the clever ways that you find yourself manipulating your caballeros (and those of your opponents!) to reach that goal can stay with you long after the game is over.
I’m usually not a big fan of games that almost require you to be nasty to other players in order to win, but in El Grande, there’s not really much of an alternative if you want to survive the majority battles, and I’ve found myself enjoying being nasty to my fellow players! Moving the King into or out of a region (to prevent anyone else from threatening your majority) at just the right time is a key strategy in this game. Another thing that I like about El Grande is that you are often frustrated by not getting to select the action card you want when you want it. No one said that controlling Spain was going to be easy.
I think that El Grande shines best with 3 or 4 players. With 2 players, the regions of the board are just too wide open and there’s not enough player confrontation. With 5 players, things are just a bit too crowded, with everyone always getting in everyone else’s way. A 3 or 4 player game strikes just the right balance of number of pieces on the board, and the ability to mess with the other players.
I’ve played each of El Grande’s expansions at least once, and I will say that I really enjoy the 3 sets of power/action cards in the “King and Intrigue” series. They are a nice step up for players who are familiar with the basic gameplay and wish to have a little more control in their action choices. Also, deck construction in a euro game – who would have thought?
I didn’t mind the “Grand Inquisitor and Colonies” and “Grandissimo” expansions. The additional regions to control and slight changes to the basic game rules do mix things up even more, but I wouldn’t consider them necessary if a player only owns the base game. If I had been playing this game for many years, however, I think I could see the appeal of these expansions as a way to breathe new life into the basic game. The “Anniversary” expansion is a mini-expansion, and as such it doesn’t change up the rules much at all, so I’ll just say that’s it was a nice touch to add something a little extra to this Big Box set.
In regards to this specific Big Box release, and the component revisions, there are the eurogame purists out there who have scoffed at changing the caballeros from their beloved cube shape into the now-familiar meeple, but I think it helps to establish that the wooden pieces actually do represent people, and I appreciate playing with the meeples rather than the abstract cubes.
On the other hand, my older version of the game came with a castillo that was made out of some pretty sturdy pressed wood, and although it was a more abstract shape, I think I prefer to play with that version instead of the Big Box version, which, while printed with a more recognizable “castle tower” design, is now made out of thinner cardboard, and doesn’t have nearly as much heft as the older version. I realize, however that I am fortunate to have the older version to use, and for those new to the El Grande experience, the new version castillo functions perfectly.
With a Big Box containing so many components for several expansions, it could become difficult to keep everything sorted. This situation is alleviated however, with a clever icon system on everything, so re-sorting components after a game is a breeze. The box insert is another real plus to this version, as it has clear indications where each component for each expansion should be stored (similar to the insert treatment by Hans im Glück / Z-Man Games for their recent St. Petersburg re-release).
There is one thing about the Big Box version I have a quibble about. When the earlier-released German version was translated into English in order to be released in North America by Z-Man Games, two of the base game action cards wound up with typos on them that, if followed exactly as printed on the card, change that action quite a bit from its correct, intended wording. Z-Man does note this error on the cover of the rulebook, and the corrected card text is listed within, so they obviously knew about this error, but it would have been nice if they could have corrected the cards themselves.
I’m now entering my 5th year as a serious board gamer, and I, like most of us, have to contend with an ever-growing game collection. Some of the games in that collection make it to the table more often than others, of course, and of those that do, there is that small subset of games that I simply cannot wait to teach to new players, so they can hopefully experience the same thrills I do in playing that game. El Grande, for me, falls squarely in that category.
There are many other area majority games out there, but none of them feel quite as elegant and clean as El Grande. Everything about this game just seems to click for me. The way each phase of the game gives players that “frustrated in a good way” feeling, and the satisfaction of seeing more of your color of caballeros in a region than the other players, hasn’t faded over many plays of the game.
Those who already own a previous version of El Grande won’t really be missing anything if they don’t upgrade to the Big Box version, so I’d say you wouldn’t need to. For the completists like me, however, it was a no-brainer to add this to my collection. New players interested in picking this up have no other option besides the Big Box, as the previous versions are all long out of print.
If you’re not a confrontational type of board gamer, you might want to take a pass on this game, but for anyone looking for a rousing area control battle that’s a little nastier than your average eurogame, I urge you to give El Grande a try as soon as possible. And I’ll be there, ready to teach it.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of the El Grande Big Box, you can get it for about $70.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – One of my top 10 games of all time, El Grande is one of those exceptional games that I’ll always want to play.
• Can be nasty – if that’s what you like.
• Easy to learn, the game phases become intuitive by the second round.
• Board game design elegance personified – gameplay doesn’t get much cleaner than this.
• Can be nasty – if that’s not what you like.
• Typos on two cards need to be watched out for, and explained correctly if they come into play.
• Not the best at 2 or 5 players.