SdJ Re-Reviews #18: El Grande

  • Designer:  Wolfgang Kramer, Richard Ulrich
  • Publisher:  Multiple (Originally Hans im Glück)
  • Players:  2 – 5
  • Ages:  12 and Up
  • Time:  90 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 50 (On the Rio Grande Edition)

El Grande Cover

El Grande: Kramer teams up with Richard Ulrich to make a classic…

One of Wolfgang Kramer’s friends, Richard Ulrich, approached him in 1992 with a prototype he called “Das Trojanische Pferd,” or “The Trojan Horse.”   Kramer liked the game, which featured the Trojan Horse deploying troops as it traveled to various neighborhoods.  Kramer and Ulrich agreed to jointly develop the game.

They showed it to publishers in 1993, but it was rejected as being too complex.  Development continued until 1994, when Kramer traveled to the Nuremburg Toy Fair with the prototype in his suitcase.  Much to his dismay, he saw on his arrival that Alex Randolph and Jumbo had already published a game with the same theme.  The designers went back to the drawing board, acknowledging that, despite having different mechanics, two games couldn’t be published so closely together with a similar subject.

Kramer and Ulrich re-named the game “Zitadelle” (“Citadel” in English).  In this version the Castillo of El Grande was a Citadel, and the King was a Commander.  Kramer and Ulrich once again started showing the game to publishers, but two rejected it due to complexity.  Nonetheless, success was just around the corner: Bernd Brunnhofer of Hans im Glück saw potential and decided to publish the game.  But there was a catch: he wanted the game themed after France in the Middle Ages.

The designers were thrilled to have a publisher interested, but they disliked Brunnhofer’s idea.  Kramer came up with the idea of basing the game in Spain in the Middle Ages, and he immersed himself in Spanish history, modifying the game to accommodate its new theme.  The game was designed for five players to simulate the five dominant tribes of Spain in the Middle Ages.  When they showed the new version to Hans im Glück, the publisher picked it up immediately.  The designer-publisher team started refining the game, with one notable change being the separation of power and action cards.

Kramer, Ulrich, and Brunnhofer liked the mechanics, but they could not agree on a name.  Kramer and Ulrich were pushing for “El Grande,” thinking it was more relatable and would have international appeal.  The word Grande (or similar words) can be found in many Western languages, and Kramer liked that “El Grande” could mean “the greatest” or “the winner.”  Hans im Glück was pushing for the title “Alhambra.”

Kramer surveyed his friends, and they liked “El Grande” better.  In the end, he wouldn’t budge, even traveling to Munich to persuade Hans im Glück to use his title.  The issue was resolved only weeks before publication, with the publisher relenting.  Kramer has said he was as convinced of the “El Grande” title as he’s ever been convinced of a title, and he described his trip to Munich as being worth it.  (I personally like the title “El Grande” better, but it is worth noting that another game called Alhambra did manage to win the Spiel des Jahres, so that isn’t a terrible title either!)

The game’s release coincided with Essen in 1995.  Despite the game’s high cost – 80 to 90 DM – it was an instant success.

The jury cited the innovative and engaging gameplay in giving El Grande the 1996 Spiel des Jahres.  In its 10 year retrospective, the jury noted that they felt comfortable giving the award to a game as complex as El Grande because they admired Hans im Glück’s courage to take risks and innovate, particularly in an era when publishers were slimming games to their core to boost sales.  The jury that year was specifically looking for a complex game, a fact that the former SdJ chairman announced at a press conference in 1996.  In addition to winning the Spiel des Jahres, El Grande also won the 1996 Deutscher Spiele Preis.

El Grande wasn’t the first area control game, but it has arguably been the most influential, inspiring a flood of similar games.  Larry Levy has the best description of El Grande’s impact that I’ve read: “It’s hard to overstate the significance of El Grande’s publication. It basically established a new kind of board game, one in which players strove to have the majority of pieces in different geographical areas of the board.”  But that isn’t the only innovative mechanic in El Grande: it was one of the first games (1) to have conquest within a country, instead of across international borders; (2) to use a deck of cards to determine play order; (3) to have multiple functions on cards, as El Grande’s cards are used for both the number of caballeros and a special action; (4) to use a mobile marker like the King to indicate where play can happen; (4) to have a mechanic like the Castillo that serves as both a scoring region and a gameplay element; (5) to have players fall back in rank as a result of a tie; and (6) to have secret discs to indicate player selection.

El Grande is arguably the most complex of the SdJ winners.  Kramer himself told me that he thinks the game is the most demanding title to ever receive the award, and he admits that El Grande wouldn’t have a shot with today’s jury.  But the selection of a complex game in 1996 had a significant impact on the hobby: as Larry Levy once explained, “It proved that ‘gamer’s games’ could be big sellers and initiated a trend toward such challenging games which continues to this day.”

El Grande is notable in one final respect: it was the first Spiel des Jahres winner to be illustrated by Doris Matthäus.  Doris would go on to do the artwork for two other SdJ winners: Elfenland and Carcassonne.  She and her husband, Frank Nestel, also co-designed two SdJ nominees: Mü & More in 1996 and Frank’s Zoo in 2000.

As of 2010 El Grande had sold more than half a million units, an incredible number given the game’s complexity.  The game has been continuously in print in Germany for nearly 20 years.  The game is costly to produce, and international editions have been in and out of print, but many parts of the world are seeing printings this year in honor of the game’s 20th anniversary.  Z-Man Games will be handling the re-release in the U.S., and they told me to expect it sometime in the fourth quarter.

El Grande currently sits at #25 in the BGG rankings.  It is the highest ranked of the SdJ winners.  It has spent much of BGG’s history towards the top of the list: it didn’t fall out of the Top 5 until 2009 and out of the Top 10 until 2010.

El Grande has spawned several expansions, most of which (if not all) are contained in the Decennial Edition and this year’s Big Box edition.

Kramer and Ulrich would go on to collaborate on other games, most notably The Princes of Florence, El Caballero (styled as a sequel to El Grande), and Merchants of the Middle Ages.

The Gameplay: Area Control in Spain

The pictures below are from the Rio Grande Decennial Edition, which has a slightly modified game board to accommodate some of the expansions.

El Grande is based on Spain in the 15th Century.  All players represent one of five ethnic groups: Spaniards, Basques, Galiciens, Catalans, and Mauren.

El Grande Game Board

The region cards are shuffled and the top one is turned face up: the King is placed in that region.  Each player receives a region card and places their “Grande” (i.e. big cube) in that region, which will be their home region.  Each player also receives all of the “Caballeros” (i.e. small cubes) of their color.  Seven Caballeros are put in front of them (the area called “the court”), two are put in their home region with the Grande, one is put on the score track, and the rest are held in reserve (the area called “the provinces”).  Each player also takes a secret disk and a set of 13 power cards.  Five stacks of actions boards are set to the side of the board, and the mobile scoreboards are placed off to the side.

The game can be played over either nine or six rounds.  If the short version is played, players skip the first, fourth, and seventh rounds.

In each round the following steps are taken:

  1. Move the round marker forward.
  2. Turn over the top action card in each stack.  (The fifth stack only has one card: that card is always face up.)
  3. Play power cards.
  4. Each player takes his turn in the order of the action cards (highest goes first).

After the action cards are turned over players will play power cards.  At the start of the game each player has a deck numbered from 1 to 13.  These cards are played in turn order.  In the first round the players choose a player to begin and the cards are then played clockwise.  In subsequent rounds the cards will be played in reverse turn order of the previous round.  (In other words, the lowest card from the previous round will go first.)  The same numbered action card may not be played in a round, meaning all action cards played in a given round must be different.  A power card can typically only be played once per game, but there is an action card that permits a player to put played cards back in his hand.

El Grande Player Components

In addition to determining turn order, the power cards also permit a player to move a certain number of Caballeros from his provinces (i.e. reserve) to his court (i.e. the area in front of him).  The higher the card the fewer the Caballeros that are moved: the “1” card moves six Caballeros, but the “13” doesn’t move any.  The impact is that going first (and possibly obtaining the most favorable action card) means you don’t get to move any Caballeros to your card.

After the power cards are played each player takes their turn, starting with the player that played the highest power card and proceeding to the player with the lowest power card.  A player moves the permitted number of Caballeros from his provinces to his court and then selects one of the five face-up action cards.  Each action card has both a number of Caballeros that can be moved from a player’s court and a special action.  A player can use the card for both.  The action can be taken first, or the vice versa, but a player may not move some Caballeros, take an action, and then move the rest.  Each action card can only be used once per round.

El Grande Action Cards

There are numerous action cards in the game.  Some allow you to move Caballeros on the board.  Others allow you to place a mobile scoreboard, which changes the scoring value for each region.  Others yet force other players to send Caballeros back to their provinces.  One card lets you change your home region.  The card in the fifth stack (which is the only card in the Fifth stack) lets you move the King and place five Caballeros.

Caballeros can only be placed in regions adjacent to the King, and they cannot be placed in the region containing the King.  Additionally, Caballeros can always be placed into the Castillo.

El Grande Side Shot

Scoring occurs at the end of the 3rd, 6th, and 9th rounds.  Each region – including the Castillo – has a set number of points for first, second, and third place.  (Only the first number is used in two player games, and on the the first two numbers are used in three player games.)  The Castillo is scored first.  After that, players use their disks to secretly selection one region in which to move all of the Cabelleros in the Castillo.  The remaining regions are scored.  A player receives two bonus points if they have the most Caballeros in their home region.  A player also receives two bonus points for having the most Caballeros in the region containing the King.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I fell in love with El Grande on my first play, and I consider it my favorite game.  I love area control games, and El Grande is the finest area control game I’ve ever played.  I love almost everything about it, and in 50+ plays I’ve never had a bad experience.  To me El Grande is everything a game should be: a streamlined, intuitive, captivating experience with great presentation value and high replayability.

In my opinion El Grande scales remarkably well, meaning the game is just as good with two players as it is with five.  The BGG community disagrees with me, saying that the game is best with five and not recommended with two.  Nonetheless, I’ve always found the two player game to be a fascinating duel, an exercise in outwitting and bluffing your opponent.  If pressed to pick a number, I’d say I think El Grande is actually at its best with two.  Beyond the two player version I don’t know that I have a preference about the three, four, or five player versions, which is why I say it scales well.

El Grande can be played either in short or long form.  I’m torn about which is better.  I like shorter games, and the 60 to 90 minutes that the short game takes aligns perfectly with my tastes.  But there’s a tradeoff: managing your Caballeros seems to be less important in the short version, as odds are good that you won’t get all of them onto the gameboard.  In the long version you likely will, and you’ll find yourself fighting for action cards that allow you to move already-placed Caballeros around.  For me that’s a big part of the fun.

As is the case with many Eurogames, El Grande’s theme is pasted on, a fact borne out by the history I’ve written above.  But the theme has always worked for me: I feel like I am vying for control of various regions in Spain, even if certain parts of the thematic experience — the Castillo, for example — are hard to wrap my head around.  Would this game have been better with the original Trojan Horse idea?  I think so, but I also think the game works quite well based on Spain in the 15th Century.

I love the artwork of El Grande.  I’m a big fan of Doris Matthäus – she’s illustrated some of my favorite game boards – and I think this is one of her better ones.  The component quality, in general, is nothing to write home about: after all, the game pieces are just colored cubes.  But the Castillo is a stroke of brilliance: it looms over the game board, an imposing element of gameplay that demands to  be considered.  I think it is one of the most iconic images in games over the past twenty years.

I’ve heard many criticisms of El Grande: some are fair, some are not.  The most frequent criticism of the game is that it is impossible to use a long-term strategy.  There’s some truth to that notion: this game does depend on turn-to-turn tactics more than long term planning.  But I offer two responses.  First, that’s a positive as easily as it is a negative, and I’ve met players that actually like this aspect of the game.  Second, I think this notion is blow out of proportion: there are long term strategies which are essential to being good at El Grande, and I generally find myself thinking a few moves ahead, planning for the possibility that certain action cards will make an appearance.

The other criticism I hear frequently is that the game can be chaotic.  I would have agreed with that assessment in my first five to ten plays: the game board can be difficult to read, particularly in the four and five player game.  That task is much easier in the two player game, which might be why I grew to like that version.  But the more I’ve played the better I’ve gotten at reading the state of affairs.  I now rarely look at the board and think, “I have no idea what’s going on.”

I agree that El Grande is the most complex of the SdJ winners.  The game isn’t difficult to learn – the rules can be taught in under five minutes – but I wouldn’t call it approachable because it can be difficult to play El Grande well.  A good grasp of the game requires knowing what action cards can come up and being able to read the gameboard.  The former can be picked up in a few minutes; the latter takes experience.  In that vein I find the most fair criticism of El Grande: this game can seem easy to teach, but in the end,the new players will usually get trounced.  (Unless they all team up on the experienced player, which frequently happens!)  But that’s the case with many heavier Euros: the same can be said of great games like Agricola and Puerto Rico.

In the end I love El Grande because I find it to be a seamless and immersive experience.  It aligns exceptionally well with my gaming tastes.  Is it for everybody?  No, of course not.  I don’t get to play it as often as I’d like because all of my family and many of my gaming friends dislike it.  If you don’t like area control games, this isn’t for you, and if you prefer lighter games, this probably isn’t in your wheelhouse either.  But I do think El Grande is worth trying: I think it is the best the area control genre has to offer.  I’m certainly always up for a play.

Would El Grande win the SdJ today?  Certainly not.  I think it’d be a strong contender for the Kennerspiel, but the current jury would not pick a game as heavy as El Grande for the SdJ.  The game was a great pick back in 1996: the jury wanted to reward innovation in heavy games, and that’s exactly what they did.  But the jury has moved on, and there’s now a separate award for games like El Grande.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: This is one of the games I’ve spent the most time playing. Always as a 5 player though. There’s a satisfying engagement in the valuation of the powers given the current game state, and determining the required bid to secure the card of choice whilst keeping enough bidding power in hand to take advantage of potentially even better situations later in the game. But it’s dropped a rating notch or two over the years as area majority games have gradually fallen out of favour with me, largely due to dissatisfaction with the frequent kingmaking choices required. If you like the genre, this is one of the best though … as long as you’re not playing with analyser paralysers.

Greg Schloesser:  Here is what I wrote about El Grande over 18 years ago:

“Let’s see – a reasonably easy game, beautiful components, lots of strategic decisions to make, special actions to alter the rules, very competitive throughout, playable in two hours or less and loads of FUN.  Gee, in my book, that would make any game a winner.  And El Grande is that — a winner.”

Nothing has changed. El Grande remains a brilliant game, one that I will never hesitate to play.  It was … and still is … the pinnacle of majority-control games.  It is always a tense, exciting and competitive affair that plays quickly.  It is this game that led the Kramer assault, elevating him to the status of “favorite designer”.  The game still rests atop my personal Top 10 list of favorite games.

Matt C.:  One of my first Eurogames (possibly my 2nd one after Settlers, probably due to its’ SdJ win and reputation on rec.games.board) and it remains one of my top favorites (my favorite area-majority game by far.)  Regretfully, I don’t get to play it very often and it has been a couple years since my last game.  It is somewhat complex, and I tend to play with newer (ie. younger) gamers but that isn’t the main reason it sits too long on the shelf.  It is the type of game with nice depth, but can be rather harsh on new players.  The area majority mechanic requires a bit of planning.  One tends to go first the turn before a scoring round in order to line up going last in the actual scoring round.  The second issue lies with its length.  It runs along at a decent (if a bit longer) clip with experienced players but easily stalls out, going well over 2 hours with new players.  These two limitations require playing the game more than once to gain the full experience, which is something I am not often able to arrange.  Kingmaking can be an issue, but I prefer to see that as part of the game, trying not to annoy too many players at once during play.  I have two of the expansions, but regretfully not the popular one that has some sort of more action card options…  Not a huge deal, as I greatly enjoy the base game…  (The Castillo rocks!)

Joe Huber (9 plays): I played El Grande a reasonable amount when it came out – but as it approached ten plays, I discovered that the parts that bothered me (mostly, the fact that it’s an area majority game at heart – not my favorite genre by a long shot) gave me little remaining interest in playing the game, even though I’d very much enjoyed some of my plays.  I’d play it again – but it’s been thirteen years, and I still don’t feel compelled to play it again, so I doubt it’s going to happen.

Dan Blum: I played El Grande a fair number of times when it came out, but after a few years it seemed to fall out of favor. I wasn’t that interested in pushing to get it played myself as it isn’t quite the sort of thing that generally appeals to me: it has a lot of board churning, which I usually dislike. However, I have played the game a few times in recent years and, while it is still a type of game I don’t love, it’s a very good example of that type, and so I’m actually happy to play it occasionally (assuming everyone is playing at a reasonable pace, as noted by others).

I’d be actively interested in playing with König & Intrigant, as (unlike most expansions) it radically changes the game and I’ve only managed to play with it once.

Fraser: It is interesting to read that the jury were specifically looking for a complex game that year, it explains why later winners seem so much lighter than El Grande.  I am glad to see it going to get a 20th Anniversary reprint (hopefully with better quality control).  I don’t play it very often, but certainly enjoy it when I do.  I have never bothered with the expansions because I am more than happy with the base game.

Larry (5 plays):  How to explain my rating for this game?  Some hidden vendetta against Kramer or Ulrich?  A complex with the Grande piece?  Not really–not every game works for every gamer.  All I can say is that I’ve played this game five times and each one was a disaster for one reason or another.  After a while, you just decide to stop beating your head against the wall and avoid the thing.  In light of the high praise given by my compatriots, I can’t very well claim that El Grande hasn’t aged well.  I’ll just say that it isn’t for me and leave it at that.

Dale (~20-30 plays): I have played this since it first hit the US market, and way back when, it was played constantly because we just didn’t have so many games.  At one point, this was in my all-time Top 5.  However, as gaming has evolved as have my tastes, the potential of this one to stretch past 90-120 minutes worsened (in my opinion) by the possibility of kingmaking deciding the victor has caused this to slip down the ranks.  I still would be glad to play it if someone suggested it, but it’s not really the sort of game that I would call for myself.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Greg S., Karen M., Matt C., Fraser
  • I like it.  Patrick B., Erik Arneson, Joe H., Dan Blum
  • Neutral.  Dale Y
  • Not for me… Larry
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3 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #18: El Grande

  1. pdowen3 says:

    Last fall I wrote a post on most highly rated out-of-print games, and El Grande topped the list. Small wonder. Thanks for a terrific review.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Even though El Grande’s gameplay doesn’t do it for me, Doris’ artwork is sublime. In fact, the El Grande gameboard is the most beautiful, in my opinion, in all of German gaming. Just gorgeous.

    • Chris W. says:

      I second that opinion. El Grande’s board seems timeless to me. I’d certainly put it in my top five favorite boards, although I’d probably drop Entdecker in my number one spot.

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