Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Through the Desert #7 - El Grande

Back with a pretty late entry - I think I'll have to keep this to a fortnightly blogging otherwise I'll soon run out of games!

This is the oldest one I've covered so far, but is still considered by many to be the granddaddy of area control games. It's 1995's El Grande, for 2-5 players.

I've played this one online a few times, and despite this you'll have to excuse me for a moment while I go find out what the theme is supposed to be.

In El Grande, each player is the Grande in one region. He is allied with 30 Caballeros. Each Grande attempts, to the benefit of Spain and for his own benefit, to extend his influence across the whole of Spain. To accomplish this, he must control the majority of Caballeros in as many regions as possible.

Feeling immersed yet? ;) Never mind, perhaps the clean, yet deep design will grab you.

Everyone starts with their Grande - the big cube - in their home region along with 2 caballeros... OK, small cubes... and takes 13 power cards in their colour, numbered 1-13. They also grab 7 more cubes of their colour - they're in the Court, available to be placed on the board. The rest of their cubes are in the Provinces - still in the game but not yet available to use. The King is placed in a random region.

Turns are pretty simple - in sequence, each player will choose one of their 13 power cards and play them face up. The higher the card, the more chance you have of going first, but as the cards decrease towards 1 they let you grab more and more cubes from the Provinces and put them in your Court, ready to put on the board. Once you've played a certain power card, it's discarded for the rest of the game, so your options shrink as the game goes on (and you could even play around what your opponents have left)

Once the power cards have been played, the highest number gets first pick of the action cards. These will let you vie for control and points in various ways - immediately scoring specific regions, moving cubes around (whether yours or other players'), removing other players' cubes from the board, moving the King, etc. They also let you move cubes from your Court to the board. However, the more generally powerful the action card, the less cubes it lets you place on the board, so you have to figure out what's more important.

Some example cards, but there will always be one 1-icon card, one 2-icon card etc. - we're missing a 5-icon card.

At the end of rounds 3, 6 and 9, points are awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place as marked on the board, and then the game's over! That's the gist, aside from a few extra spicy details:

You score an extra 2 points if you have the majority in your home region.

The King determines where you can place cubes onto the board. Those you can place normally via an action card have to be placed in a region adjacent to the King. Special actions that might let you place anywhere still cannot let you place in the King's region. So you can protect a region by moving the King there at a key moment.

The Castillo - how can you resist chucking some cubes in there?
The Castillo is a bit like Phobos in Mission Red Planet. It's a tower you can always drop your cubes into - the King can't go there - and they stay hidden until the scoring rounds. The Castillo gets scored first, and the cubes there can then be moved onto the board. Everyone secretly selects a single region (not the King's region!) and reveals; each player's Castillo cubes then move to their selected region, just in time for those regions to be scored. So it can be a powerful place to be.

This game is a true classic that still holds up well today. There's a lot of interaction and back-and-forth between players. It's a very elegant design that gives you a lot to think about. There's a bit of a double-edged sword inherent in these sorts of games - it lends itself to moving at a good pace, yet it could also grind to a halt if one or more players revel in trying to math everything out. Make sure everyone's on the same page!

One thing that hasn't aged so well is the graphic design. On the whole we're gradually moving away from this history textbook aesthetic and I think it's a big part of why games are becoming more and more accessible. It's also tough to get a reasonably priced copy - it's in print, but as a Big Box edition with various expansions and the English version will set you back about £65 for some reason. If you don't mind grabbing a German version and printing out English action cards it'd be more like £40-45.

I've sung its praises, but... I now have Mission Red Planet and Blood Rage, Chaos in the Old World is less clean but more compelling IMO, and I'm just not confident I could convince people - let alone myself! - to play El Grande over these more modern offerings on a regular basis. The first gamer friend that comes to mind for this game already has a copy. So while I really do enjoy El Grande, I can't see myself picking it up anytime soon.

Rating: 4 out of 6 cubes, solid but not enough to attain majority in the Area Control Games region. (meta!)


  1. im feeling quite thirsty right now

    1. Hahaha! Maybe it's because there is a desert on the box? It surely can't be because the game is drier than Ryvita :D