El Grande (Review)

Published by Hans im Gluck
Designed by Kramer & Ulrich
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Article published at The Game Cabinet

£38
2-5 Players
about 60-90 minutes

With the odd notable exception, I have never been too impressed with Wolfgang Kramer's output. Considering he has designed hundreds of games, and is accordingly feted as a top name in Germany, it seems I have never really seen the appeal. Anyway, this hopefully goes some way towards explaining my surprise after playing El Grande at Essen, when I was told afterwards that it was a Kramer game. It certainly doesn't feel like one, and I am left to wonder just how big a contribution came from Herr Ulrich. All this however is largely irrelevant because El Grande is a fine game. Original, quick, entertaining and with plenty of tactical options. I think you are going to like everything about it except the price and the cards.

The game is played on a map of medieval Spain, which is divided into nine regions. Each of these regions has a different victory point value, in most cases with awards for first, second and third place. Each player aims to place his markers (caballeros) into these regions and be in the majority when, at varying times throughout the game, the areas are scored. Your points are recorded on a cumulative track around the board and the furthest round at the end of six rounds, or nine for a longer game, wins. In theme, I think we are looking at baronial factions or similar, headed by a grandee, struggling for power while not actually offending the king in the process.

Play takes the form of a series of short and punchy rounds, helping playlength no end, taken in strict player order. The round is opened with the play of number cards which determine who will move first in the round. This is significant, for reasons to be explained in just a moment. Each player, in order, then takes one of the available action cards from the five piles, having already assessed their relevance to his plan. These cards vary from marginally useful to extremely powerful, and some are likely to score you lots of points. This is exactly why turn order is important, as you want to grab the good ones and thus play a high value number card.

The action cards are the heart of the game. As there are 45 of these, all different, all I can really do is to explain broadly what they achieve. The card that is always available each turn (until used once) is the one that moves the king. Always a powerful option, it redeploys the king anywhere on the map. Another set of cards, and the most numerous, are also to do with movement. They allow a specified number of caballeros to be switched around, on or off the map, hopefully altering the balance of power in your favour. Another two cards give you a veto of one opponent's action, one gives you the chance to clear your opponents' castles of troops (painful, this), and another the chance to retrieve used number cards from the discard pile. A common type will allow you to score a region of your choice, and another will move extra reinforcements around from or to the provinces. And all of the cards, as you've already guessed, are in German. For my sins, I have been translating these on the fly and as long as you know the word for 'choice' then Rusty O Level will suffice, principally because each card has a graphic that helps a lot. Otherwise, you'll have to get some sticky labels prepared.

Each player has the same number of caballeros overall but they will not always be exactly where you want them. This is because, being a baronial sort, you have to balance your forces between your provinces, your castle, and the map - contesting control politically, or perhaps on campaign. This sounds boring and unimportant, but is in fact one of the neatest mechanisms in the game. Each number card played at the start of the round enables you to call caballeros in from the provinces to your castle (the better the card, the less troops you get, forcing a balanced strategy), and only from there can you deploy onto the map. The action cards each have a deployment rating that when taken enables you to place from one to five caballeros, and again the power of the card is, broadly speaking, inversely related to the numbers of troops you can move.

Importantly, the king card allows you to deploy five caballeros and it is also his highness who determines where your troops can be laid. The general rule, not often overridden, is that troops can only be placed in regions adjacent to the king's present location. The region in which the king actually sits is verboten, as he freezes both deployment and movement from that area - he is seen as bringing stability, albeit temporarily. This is useful in many ways, especially if the king is in residence in an area you control when it comes to awarding points. Not only does he stop your rivals moving in to top you, he also adds bonus points to your score if you win the majority. This attribute is also enjoyed by your big cube, designating your home base, but which has no other use that we have yet identified.

A typical turn then will see you weighing up whether to recruit heavily from the provinces or try for a high turn order (this will depend on the action cards and your overall troop position), then taking the most useful card for your purposes, and either using the card and then deploying, or vice versa. The latter sequencing can be important, especially when moving the king as you can lay troops and then 'lock' them in with the king, knowing he probably won't move again that turn. As play ticks towards the third, sixth and ninth turns you will be trying to maximise your holdings, by deploying caballeros, in readiness for the scoring rounds.

Scoring is all important. Each region is checked in turn and the majority player in each will score the highest points. Most regions also offer much reduced scores for second and third place, but not all. Ties are resolved quite painfully, with both parties dropping a place before scores are assigned - so if a region is worth 7,4,2, two players with six armies would score 4 each. In addition, two of the action cards change the values of a region, either up or down which can cause tears if it wrecks a long term plan.

As well as scoring all the regions every three turns, there are also a number of action cards that allow for an instant score of a region. Sometimes this will be your choice, at others it will be all those worth 5, or those with the most caballeros present. Obviously if you choose the card it should benefit you, but sometimes you get a free ride on someone else's play. And in our limited experience, it is these one off scoring opportunities that can make all the difference come game end, since they are usually unique to you, whereas the mass scoring rounds tend to balance out.

One interesting sideshow is the tower. This represents a crusade or similar and players are allowed to deploy caballeros inside at any time - equivalent to sending them overseas. These build up, gradually and secretly (yes, you can try to remember who has put what in), until scoring is resolved. The tower is not only a region in its own right with its own points available, but also allows any troops inside to be redeployed onto the map, and they can score again as they 'return home'. The net effect of this, as they can arrive absolutely anywhere, is that of medieval paratroops and should not be ignored as a very useful strategy.

And that's it really - a rapid cycle of short but influential turns that builds steadily through intermittent scoring and deployment to an exciting, and often very close, finale. By the last game we played, we had started to optimise every single play, as each point is vital, and we were rewarded with a draw for first (there seems to be no tie breaker in the German rules) and the other three players no more than five points behind. Incredible. In play, you have to make the best of the action cards available and always keep a workable balance of troops in reserve and on map. Beyond that, it is all down to placement and deciding which areas to contest, and how hard. As I said in the Essen report, the placing play is very reminiscent of Hexagames' Vendetta but wipes the floor with that game as far as options and tactics are concerned. Yes, I liked it.

Production is everything you would expect of a Hans im Gluck title, but in no way comes close to justifying the high price tag. Sure, there is a luxury board with some superb artwork, lots of wooden cubes and cards, a card tower and some made up dials (Walter Muller please note), but that's it. It comes in a deeper than usual box, but much of this is air and there seems to be plenty of that around for free. I'm puzzled about this, and my comment last year about Hans im Gluck having similarities with Apple Computer may just be coming true. It's all about luxury price points and customer loyalty when you get this far in. Oh, and Bernd Brunhoffer has taken to wearing 'designer black' clothes, which must mean he is doing very well for himself.

Not that it matters in the slightest, but I initially sat down to play El Grande thinking it was a sanitised wargame. Having played a number of times, I quickly realised I was wrong. El Grande is more a game of political struggle, albeit using caballeros to influence the other chaps. Thinking about it, it isn't even that far away from a glorified election system if you strip away the theme and the flavouring on the action cards - the regions represent seats, the caballeros the share of the vote and the wertung phases the elections (and the tower contains absentee voters!). Interestingly, there is no conflict as such, and none is needed, but much is implied and troops in the castle are called away mysteriously to quell peasant revolts. So if you must have moveable armies and combat then this is unlikely to appeal, but as a novel game system and one with a completely different look each time out, it has much to commend it to the fluffier gamers.

There is no doubt that El Grande, ignoring the 'old' Siedler for a moment, was the gamer's runaway hit of Essen 95 and for once I offer very little by way of disagreement. Thinking about it now, a couple of weeks on, that success is surprising because this is a deceptively simple game. Yet it was the hardcore gamers, not lightweight fans, coming up to me and saying how good it was. Thinking about that aspect, El Grande isn't light, but it is far from heavy. A light middleweight, I'd say. I also now suspect it is rather less strategically taxing than on first impressions, and may well be a bit 'obvious' when you have played it a lot, but I am well into my sixth game now and am not at all tired of its variety, freshness and challenge, which speaks volumes. The main benefits are the clean and original systems, and primarily the playing speed. It is also a lot of fun.

You are hard put to go beyond the hour for the shorter game, which will please many, but the acid test is that most gamers will want to play on to the ninth turn to extend their enjoyment (and see their strategy fully unfold). Personally, I would certainly recommend the longer option. A slight fly in the ointment is the price, which at DM80 in Germany is probably going to be pushing £50 here, so I leave you to play a rich friend's copy and make your own mind up. Whatever, this is an excellent piece of design that upholds Hans im Gluck's phenomenal record and I doubt very much that you will be disappointed.

Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins
 

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