(image courtesy roboman @ BGG)
It is good to show respect for your elders. Euro-style games really started to become popular in 1995 with the release of Settlers of Catan which really introduced and reintroduced many concepts that are standard in modern board games: resources, victory points and no player elimination. It’s a game that introduced many people to the hobby and is one of the most popular board games out there. What some forget is that another game also came out that year: El Grande, the father of area control games.
The game board in El Grande represents Spain broken into a handful of provinces and also features the castillo, a massive upright wooden tower. Players take turns placing wooden cubes called caballeros in an attempt to have the most cubes per region. El Grande lasts nine rounds and scoring is performed after every third round. Each territory earns point values for first, second and third place and whoever has the most points at the end wins.
I suppose the concept of area control may have very well appeared in games prior to El Grande but it generally seems to be considered the inspiration for every area control game that followed (of which there are many). There are three major things that make El Grande unique not only from area control games but from most games in general:
The Castillo – It is impossible to look at El Grande and not comment on the castillo, a massive black wooden tower on the game board. The castillo serves two purposes. First, it is a territory like any other on the map that players may place their caballeros on. You must drop your pieces in the tower, though, and may not peek inside so there is a bit of a memory element if you wish to compete for points. Second, your pieces are moved from the castillo to a single province in Spain prior to scoring, making the castillo a stall tactic to allow you to make a last-minute adjustment to your current standing on the map.
Province Dials – Each player has a cardboard disc with an arrow and all of the province names listed. Most any time multiple players need to pick a province they do so secretly on their spinner and then all players reveal simultaneously. This secret selection mechanism causes some antagonizing moments as you attempt to out-guess and out-maneuver your opponents.
(image courtesy Nodens77 @ BGG)
The King – Aside from the castillo the next most prominent piece on the board is the king marker. The king sits in a single province and prevents the players from affecting that province in almost any fashion for the course of that round. Also, when players move new caballeros on the board they may only be played in territories adjacent to the king. Smart use of the king allows players to lock in points and protect a key territory while making sure they are not giving others players too much benefit by denying access to territories they need.
What gives El Grande its legs are the action and power cards. Each player has a hand of power cards numbered one through thirteen that shows a value and a number of caballeros. In turn order players choose one of their power cards but may not choose a value already played by someone else this round. You then pick and resolve action cards in order from high to low power card. There are four stacks of action cards with enough of each to last over nine rounds (meaning some in each stack will not be used each game) along with a fifth power card that always lets you move the king. These action cards allow the players to put a certain number of caballeros on the board and optionally perform some special ability. The abilities are the heart of the game and let players perform a variety of actions like move the king, force your opponents to move caballeros, manually shuffle caballeros around yourself, score a province early and so on. As the action cards are revealed randomly you never know exactly what events to expect or the order they’ll occur. There is still plenty of room to strategize around the cards but their random nature adds a fair amount of replay value.
I really only have two complaints with the game. First, the text on the action cards is pretty bare-bones. There are more detailed instructions in the manual but the inclusion of even a couple of key words would’ve prevented you from having to reference the rule book. Second, the game’s terminology is not very intuitive. Players have cubes representing their caballeros in two piles, one that is immediately available for placement and the other is your unavailable pool. The available pool is called your “court” and your unavailable pool is called your “provinces.” It usually takes players awhile to wrap their heads around the terms but it is very important to know the difference as several action cards specify one or the other.
El Grande is a game every gamer should play, if only to see where many games got their inspiration from. In this case it is an oldie and a goody. You have a lot of very challenging decisions to make when picking your actions and then figuring out how to best exercise (or not exercise) the special ability. The rules are very easy to teach and while some of the terminology is odd players tend to pick it up fast. I might catch some flack for this but I think that Settlers feels a bit dated. The artistic style and the gameplay mechanics put it in the 90s. El Grande, on the other hand, has aged well and I think it’ll stand the test of time.