This game won the Game of the Year award at Essen in 1997. This seems like a long, long time ago, and was well before I really knew what a eurogame was. El Grande is a eurogame. It sports many of the characteristics of one, including an emphasis on scoring points, a points track around the edge of the board, no dice, and while it represents 16th century Spanish power politics, it is still a Spain at peace – i.e. there is no killing.
Thus, El Grande is about acquiring power and influence. You do this by controlling caballeros, or knights. In many ways it resembles election strategy. You decide how many knights you want to commit to each province in Spain, and each time the game is scored (on turns three, six and nine), the player with the most knights in each province gets the most points. There are points for second place too, and sometimes third place. You may be beginning to see how this resembles the dynamics of British electoral constituencies.
There are cards in El Grande too. These regulate the flow of knights. Each player has two off-board areas to store their knights, the court and the provinces. I guess this represents which of your knights are with the lord (El Grande) and which are off on their farms. Those in the court are available to deploy on the board. However, piles of action cards (I believe one for each player) regulate how many knights you can move from your court to the board. Each player gets to pick an action card every turn, and apart from telling you how many knights you can place on the board, they inject other random elements of chaos too many to explain here.
A good example of an action card is one that allows you to move the knights already on the board, for instance shifting them out of a province.
The turn order mechanic is one of my particular favourites with this game. You have 13 initiative cards which determine when you move, but you can only play each one once, with 13 being the highest. They determine who gets first dibs on the action cards. They also determine how many knights you can move from the province area of your off-board zone to the court – that is, how many knights you can move from your ‘reserves’ to make available for deployment. Lower initiative cards will let you move more reserves, higher ones, like your 12 or 13 card, let you move NONE. You need to decide whether you want a better action card, that suits your strategy, or whether you need more knights.
I drew for first place in the game I played, and adopted the strategy of using a mid-level card when there were no action cards I really wanted and I had enough knights to play with. I can see there can be situations where you simply don’t have enough knights in your court, and have already spent your 2, 3, and 4 initiative cards (you can only use each number ONCE), meaning your ability to move more knights out of your reserves is limited.
The action card system reminds me very much of a game I own called Conquest of the Empire, which also displays potential strategies face up for players to choose/bid for.
El Grande also has the Castle. This is a cardboard tower into which you can pop knights as an on table reserve. It is located in Majorca, but I’m not sure that is significant. The Castle is scored like a province, in its own right, but the bonus it offers is that knights in the Castle get to come out in the scoring turns, to be deployed into a single province of your choice, BEFORE the turn is scored. They act like an emergency airborne reserve players can drop onto the board at the last moment. I liked this a lot, just like I love the ronin rule in Shogun (if you’ve played that). Castle knights are like ronin in Shogun – you send them where you need them most. They’re your troubleshooters. I didn’t think the other players really made full use of the Castle in our game, but it could be that El Grande is sophisticated enough that the Castle is not to everyone’s taste. We shall see.
Finally, El Grande has the king piece. You can always opt for the king action, if nobody else has taken it. The king brings in two important effects in El Grande: knights can only be placed in provinces next to the one the king is resident in, and no action cards can be played on the province he occupies. He also provides a +2 points bonus to the province when scoring. Nice. The king can be quite useful tactically: I used him to safeguard my very lucrative position in the Basque region once other players saw I was leading and tried to gnaw away at my points lead by various guerrilla tactics. They could not touch the Basque region, however, if I kept the king there. He became a royal insurance policy. But I’m sure there are other ways to make use of him. Due to the geography of Spain, moving the king away from New Castile, the central province (and nominally the richest, although I impoverished it early in the game with a card), can effectively shut off big parts of the board from caballero deployment: park him up in Catalonia, and Granada is going to go very quiet.
I really enjoyed El Grande. It took four people about three hours to play it, with three of us being newbies to the game. One player led for most of the game, before the concerted efforts of the other players forced him into third place eventually. I think I’d like to play it again before deciding whether to buy it. There are other strategic games of a similar nature that I already hold in my collection, but they are either much longer to play, or more focused on military conquest than influence building.
El Grande has pace, however. You need to keep a constant eye on what is happening if you are going to win. Everything every player does is important. Switch off for five minutes, and chances are someone has got something past you.
I’m going to put this one on my watch list, maybe play it again, and make a purchase decision then.