Saturday, February 25, 2017

El Grande: The King and the Intrigant -- Board Game Journeys

Board Game Journeys is a new feature on The Left Chapter that will review and look at the mechanics of the best board games/card games out there. As always, if you have a game you would like to do a feature on, send it to

As a long term fan and devotee of board games of many different types I have long wanted to launch this feature. Board games and strategic card (and in some cases dice) games are a remarkable hobby and interest that combines entertainment, mind power and skill with direct socializing with friends and family!

I like board games of all types but I am especially fond of those with historical themes and tend to enjoy those that are more skill and strategy driven as opposed to those that emphasize luck. In this ongoing feature we will be looking at games that are easy to learn (though often hard to master) through to those of very high complexity as in the cases of some of the old Avalon Hill strategy games, for example.

Today we start with a game that is historically themed, can be two or multiplayer (up to 5), and is relatively easy to learn but is a real test of skill making it very re-playable. These types of board games are terrific when you come across them as they have a very wide appeal and are perfect for an evening with friends who may not be "gamers" as well as those who are.

El Grande: The King and the Intrigant is a card driven and multiple scoring round game that has very elegant mechanics. The game seeks to recreate the intrigue and plotting of the Spanish court in the late middle ages. Each player is a "Grande" and your goal is to muster more influence across the kingdom than any other player through the placement and movement of your minions -- known as "Caballeros" -- in Spain's various regions.

The game board prior to the beginning of play

The more Caballeros you have in any given region the greater your influence there. Each region has a given intrinsic value point wise (with second and third place scoring in multiplayer games) that can be altered by the play of certain cards and that is possibly increased by the presence of a Grande and/or the King. There is also a Castillo region off the coast of Spain where the numbers of Caballeros that have been placed are hidden and who are placed back onto the board during scoring rounds in a way that can shift regional balances of power at the last moment!

At the beginning of the game the starting home region of the King and each player is determined randomly. The King's region and the player's home regions can be changed over the course of the game and a key strategic aspect is that any region the King is in is frozen as long as the King is in it in terms of the placement or movement of Caballeros or Grandes. In addition, the region that the king is in effects where player's can place Caballeros during their turn elsewhere on the board.

A sample game board right at the start. The King is the large game piece, the
Grandes are the medium-sized cubes and the Caballeros are the small cubes

The game is divided into 9 rounds. After every third round the game is scored (various cards can result in partial scoring as well) and after the 9th round there is a final scoring. The scores are cumulative and are kept track of on a scoring track that runs around the board's edge. They are determined to your level of control within each region and their relative values.

A sample board at the end of the first scoring after 3 rounds of play

The truly clever mechanic at play however is the way the game determines who gets to do what during each round and how many Caballeros they get to place. At the beginning of each turn, 5 Action Cards (moves) are revealed that are available for players to play and that allow certain things such as the scoring of specific regions, moving the King, moving your own or other player's Caballeros, etc. In any game with less than 5 players some of these cards will not be used.

Players then bid on who gets to pick which move and in what order by using "Power Cards" numbered between 1 and 13 with the higher the value being the more powerful card. The Power Cards used to bid also determine the number of Caballeros that are made available for placement by being transferred from the "provinces" to a "Court" card where they await being placed on the board at some future point (this is NOT the number that you actually get to place that turn) while the move that they ultimately chose decides the actual number of Caballeros that they get to, in fact, place on the board that turn. This means the player always has to manage not just what move they would ideally like to have, but how many Caballeros bidding on that move will free up for placement and how many Caballeros the move itself will allow to be placed in addition to the actions allowed by the card!

It is intricate though easy to understand after having played a round or two. It is always hard to master. There is nothing worse than getting an Action Card that allows 4 or 5 Caballeros to be placed but not having that number available for placement.

A sample board at the beginning of round 7 after the second scoring

Power Cards, however, can normally only ever be played once, which means that every turn the players have to evaluate the moves available to them, how critical it is to them to get these moves or to prevent other players from getting these moves, and when it is worth playing their "one time only" high value trump cards like their 12 or 13 card to get a key move.

Meanwhile, the higher the value of the Power card you use the LOWER the number of Caballeros you free up for placement! The 7 card pictured here frees up 3 Caballeros, while the 1 card would free up 6 and the 13 card frees up none. This means you also have to factor that into when it is worth playing the higher cards.

These are some examples of the Action Cards players can bid on and at the bottom of each card are the number of Caballeros that they then get to place in various regions or the Castillo before or after the action allowed (players, by the way, do not actually have to take the action, they can simply use the card to place Caballeros and prevent others from taking the action). Most cards and actions are available only once or twice a game. The King's Card allowing the King to be moved is available to bid on every turn.

Other factors come into play, such as the "Secret Wheel", the "Mobile Score Boards" and the scoring order, but those can all be learned by picking up a copy of this excellent game.

In addition to the strength of the mechanics, the game is rendered in a beautiful way with a gorgeous board, wooden pieces and well thought out theme. It is fun and exciting, turns do not take too long and last second or unexpected developments can upend strategies that had seemed like sure things.

A perfect game to start this series with as it will hold appeal for both the hardcore and the casual gamer and is highly addictive. Many a night I have played it has ended with players debating whether we should all start another game even though it is obviously too late to do so!

A sample board at game's end

Several expansions are now available for El Grande, but I personally did not take to these expansions and actually prefer the play of the base game as is.

Unlike some games we will be looking at, various versions of El Grande are still in production and are available new (generally for around $50 and up).

Game: El Grande (1995) Rio Grande Games
Designers: Wolfgang Kramer & Richard Ulrich
Details: 2-5 Players, Aged 12 and Up
Average Game Time: 90 Minutes

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