The King in Spain

Review of board game El Grande by Pevans

At heart, El Grande is a game of territorial domination. The territory in question is that of 15th Century Spain, and the game board is a map of the Iberian peninsular in contemporary style. Decorated with castles, ships and sea monsters, the solidly-mounted board looks terrific. The main feature of the map is the division of Spain into nine named regions, each with a plaque showing its points value. Up to three players can score points for a region, depending on who has the most Caballeros (playing pieces) in that region. Around the edge of the board is the track on which players mark their total score (a minor irritation: the squares are not numbered, so it's virtually impossible to remember where a marker was after someone's nudged the board).

The game is played over nine turns with players scoring for control of regions after the third, sixth and ninth turns. At the end of the game the player with the most points wins. Simple at heart, but the mechanics of the game are more intricate than this.

The game starts with each player drawing his/her home region and placing his Grande (Grandee) and initial Caballeros. An extra region is drawn and this is where the large pawn representing the King starts. The King's position is crucial to the tactics of each turn since players can only place Caballeros in regions adjacent to the King and nothing affects the region in which the King stands. Players then put a few Caballeros in their Court and the rest form their Province. Importantly, pieces can only be placed on the board from players' Courts. They have to be moved from Province to Court first.

At the start of each turn players play one of their Power Cards (numbered 1 ­ 13) to determine the sequence of play for that turn. The highest number goes first and play then passes in numerical order to the lowest. Each card also allows a certain number of Caballeros to be transferred from Province to Court: the higher the number on the card, the fewer Caballeros it moves. In general I find that it's more important to play early on a scoring turn (3, 6 and 9) and more important to transfer Caballeros on the following turns - but this is influenced by which Action cards are available.

There are five sets of Action cards and one of each set is available each turn. Each card allows the player who takes it to place 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 Caballeros on the board, depending on which set it comes from. It also enables him/her to do something else. Those in the '1' set allow him/her to move Caballeros around the board, or add some more. Cards in the '2' set generally force the other players to remove pieces. This set also contains a couple of 'Veto' cards, which prevent someone else from using his/her card. The '3' cards allow some regions to be scored this turn. The '4' set is a mixture of special abilities, including taking back a Power card or moving your Grande.

The '5' set consists of a single card, which is available every turn: it allows the player to move the King. This can be very important: stick him in a corner to restrict which regions others can play into; put him in a region you dominate so that no­one can interfere.

With a full complement of players, all five Action cards will be taken and probably used - the only question is what order this happens in. Thus if a "Score all the 4-point regions" card is available and you have strong positions in all those regions, you might choose to rely on someone else having to take it. Of course, they then have to weigh up whether they carry out that action, given that you will benefit most... Once everybody's had their go, the turn start marker is passed on and a new turn starts.

I have not mentioned the game's most notable features: the Castle and the 'Decision discs'. The Castle is a wooden construction which acts much like any other region: Caballeros can be placed in the Castle, and it can be scored for. The difference is that players can't see how many units they each have in the Castle - they have to remember. When scoring, the Castle is scored first and players then place their pieces from the Castle into another region. This can be a very useful way of unexpectedly reinforcing or seizing control of a region.

Each player has a Decision disc, which shows all nine regions on a dial with a pointer. It is used when players need to determine secretly which region they are going to select - for example when placing pieces from the Castle. The Decision disc is nicely done, but does not add a great deal to the game.

El Grande is a game with lots of decisions to be made and lots of tactics. It also allows a strategy to be used, but you must be prepared to tailor this to the circumstances of each turn. It uses some clever game mechanics which fit together well to produce a game that deserves the Spiel des Jahres prize.

What it doesn't have is any real interaction between players. There is usually much discussion about the 'best' way the current player should use the card s/he has chosen, but there is none of the give and take found in trading games. This is why I don't think it will repeat the Siedler phenomenon, despite being a superb tactical game.

The production of the game is also magnificent, from the board to the cards and the smart wooden playing pieces. This gives rise to the only problem with the game: its price. As already reported (see G3 100) Hans im Glück deliberately chose to keep the standard of the components high, despite the effect this had on the price of the game in the shops. With any luck, the Spiel des Jahres prize will mean a large re-print run and a cheaper price. At the moment, though, expect it to cost £50 in UK shops.

El Grande was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich and published in Germany by Hans im Glück (and subsequently in the USA by Rio Grande Games). It is for 3-5 players and takes 90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 103, August 1996.

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