As a fan of boardgames from birth, I stumbled upon Settlers of Catan while surfing the rec.games.board newsgroup in the mid 90s. After Settlers, I was looking for the next similar upgrade in my boardgame collection and I read about this game, El Grande, that had won some sort of big award in Europe. The next Christmas (maybe birthday) arrived with El Grande wrapped up in a pretty bow. I instantly enjoyed the many new mechanics: off board pieces that were useable or not useable depending on their location, area majority scoring, choosing player order with cards, and the very cool looking Castillo tower. Since that time, and many boardgame collection cullings later, El Grade still holds a firm place on my shelf.
My initial impressions were that the game was moderately complex and took a long time to play. However, coming back to the game a decade later I found it moved along at a nice clip and all the special rules and mechanics were no longer seen as a major stumbling block. I just finished a game last week with several preteen boys. All of us had fun and although I won, it wasn’t a crushing victory.
I was sad to realize a few years back that I missed out on my chance to pick up most of the expansions to the game, especially King and Intrigue, which sounds the most interesting to me. The remaining copies for sale seemed too pricey for my taste. I last winter found out “El Grande Big Box” was coming out later this year and would have all the expansions to date. This put it firmly on my radar and I have been watching out for the game ever since. I have had the privilege of examining an early copy and have gathered my thoughts on the new edition.
I will assume most readers are already familiar with the title, and if you aren’t you are missing out on an enjoyable game that also has historical importance. Hop over to the OpinionatedGamers article by Chris W. on El Grande as part of our rundown of past Spiel des Jahres winners. It will provide you with an overview of the game, a bit of its history, and several opinions of the game by our very Opinionated Gamers. It received high praise from many.
Those who were not as fond of the game primarily cited the game’s length and the basic area majority principle. As with most games of its type, El Grande can also suffer from king-making, where one player who is no longer in contention for the lead can still affect which player is the overall winner.
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
Note that despite the game not being his type, Larry Levy wrote years ago:
It’s hard to overstate the significance of El Grande’s publication. It basically established a new kind of boardgame…, coming on the heels of the fabulously successful Settlers of Catan, El Grande was the second part of the one-two punch that established once and for all that Germany was the source of the finest games in the world.
Aside from the base game, there have been three major publications of expansion rules collected into one set. El Grande came out in 1995, a group of expansions was sold as El Grande Expansions in 2000 (published in English by Rio Grande), a later Decennial Edition was released in 2006, and the current release follows in the trend for “big box” games that include all available expansions. El Grande Big Box is appearing this fall.
So we’re all on the same page regarding expansions, here is a summary of which release contains which expansion. (German names provided in parenthesis.)
The El Grande Expansions:
King and Intrigue (El Grande: König & Intrigant)
*King and Intrigue – Player’s Edition (El Grande: König & Intrigant – Player’s Edition)
Grand Inquisitor and the Colonies (Grossinquisitor und Kolonien)
*All the collections that include the Player’s Edition were released with fewer cards (around 8 cards less) than the original Player’s Edition released as an individual expansion.
El Grande Decennial Edition – All the expansions from the previous collection, plus
Grandissimo (Grandissimo) and Intrigue and the King – Special Cards (Unverkäufliche Sonderkarten)
El Grande Big Box – All the expansions from the Decennial Edition plus the small Anniversary Expansion
With that in mind, let’s look through the Big Box edition and see what it contains.
A side view of the most important part of the game, the Castillo. It met with my approval. Note this side of the board displays the extra regions for the Grand Inquisitor and Colonies expansion. The other side of the board is used for the standard game.
Yes, you saw correctly that the wooden cubes of the original are now meeples. Here’s a shot of the basic ones with their big brother, the Grande. (For simplicity, I’ll usually refer to the caballeros as meeples from here on out.)
The basic game in one rulebook, the King and Intrigue expansions in another, and all the other expansions combined into a third rulebook. I found one error in the rulebook (it claims there are 6 gold tokens, but there are only 5, confirmed by the itemization of bits on the quick-setup insert.) The rulebook also notes errata on two cards. In both instances a card says “all players” when it means “all opponents.”
A shot of the plastic tray. While I’m not a fan of huge boxes on my gaming shelf, I do applaud the box designer for putting together a pretty useful storage setup. There is a spot for everything, and they are even labeled. You can just see the tabs on the recessed part of the right hand side of the insert. These tabs allow the game board to snap into place and is (so far) a great way to keep all the bits from sliding out of their slots.
Note the various symbols. The crown and swords represent the three King and Intrigue expansions (with 1, 2, and 3 swords denoting each specific subset), a jester hat for the Grandissimo expansion, a ship for the Grand Inquisitor and Colonies, and a flag for the Anniversary expansion. This carries through onto all the bits and pieces for each expansion. Every expansion piece (well, except for the caballeros) is tagged with its appropriate symbol to make it easy to sort pieces after a game.
If the slots and expansion logos are still overwhelming, there’s a handy chart to show where to put all the bits. What I like most about the chart is its overview of the components of each expansion. It allowed me to quickly sort expansions into appropriate groups. It could also serve as a handy crib sheet to help players decide which expansion they want to try out the next time they play.
Time for some photos of the expansions, with a bit of commentary on each.
King and Intrigue:
These expansions focus on a set of cards that replace both the turn order cards and the action cards in the original game. Instead, a player chooses 13 cards from a set of cards to use during the game. The action cards chosen by players then become an intrigue card, the king card, and up to 3 (depending on players) caballero cards. The action cards dictate whether a player gets to use their special abilities and/or place their meeples.
The first expansion (crown with 1 sword) gives a set of 18 cards from which to choose. One new mechanism is a double-scoring token that makes a region score twice in the next general scoring.
The second expansion (Player’s Edition – crown with 2 swords) provides another 11 cards from which players can select when building their decks. One moves the castillo itself to a region, absorbing any meeples currently there. Revolt rotates a province’s scoreboard (so that fewest meeples score the most points.) A bridge makes a meeple count for two regions. An alliance card joins two regions for a combined scoring. Quarantine makes a region king-like invulnerable, and risk of collapse makes additions to the callisto on public display.
The third expansion (Special Cards – crown with 3 swords) adds 10 new cards players can use to build their deck. Some of note: King’s Guard makes a region invulnerable for 1 round, another card puts someone’s grande into the castillo (hmm… think I’d enjoy that one.) Limit tables are introduced that limit how many meeples can be counted during scoring (only the first 6 or 10 placed are counted for majorities.) Other cards seem to focus on various modifications to scoring.
Thoughts: These are the expansions in which I am most interested. They add just a bit of complexity in exchange for more control of one’s actions. However, I would never try these expansions with players new to the game. I do not mind the player order and action cards found in the base game, but like the ability to customize one’s general game plan through selecting a specific deck. The main drawback for this expansion is the added time. It takes time for players to sort through their options and select their 13 cards. There is also a bit of analysis overhead at the start of each turn since players now have up to 13 choices of specific actions in their hand from which choose rather than the 5 piles in the standard game.
Grand Inquisitor and the Colonies:
This expansion adds additional provinces to the game board, and uses the back side of the normal game board where the new provinces are put into play. Players can put their meeples onto a ship when the king is on the coast. Meeples on the ship can then be freely moved to one of the colonies or back to the mainland at the start of a player’s turn. In addition to scoring opportunities on the colonies, goods can be picked up in the colonies by a meeple and then brought back to the mainland to score points. While the points are nice, it does take at least two turns to go over and come back with the goods – not to mention the effort it takes to move meeples around on the board rather than just placing them. A limit table (like in the Special Cards expansion) starts on a random province and can be moved around by action cards. The Grand Inquisitor card can be taken with an action which grants a number advantages. Additional meeples are placed and/or moved, the black meeple tokens on the board are counted as your color, and the Grand Inquisitor also breaks ties in a few circumstances.
Thoughts: The additional regions and new ways to score points intrigues me. I can see the attraction of trying to move one’s meeples overseas and back again to score points that do not involve a majority rule. In some ways, this is a nice outlet for players who don’t want to focus on contentious battles for high scoring majorities. The nice aspect of this expansion is the lack of additional preparation. Additional rules explanations are needed, but the involved pregame building of decks found in King and Intrigue is not present. I would not combine this with the King and Intrigue expansions, due to a huge increase in complexity. The game instructions advise against it as well.
This expansion adds new action cards, ships (again), a prison, the “province” of Portugal, and the Queen and Jester cards. The ships are used as a way to move meeples around between coastal regions. Meeples can be sent to the prison and they stay there until the player who takes the king action chooses to pardon them. The Queen and Jester cards provide a player with ongoing bonus meeples as long as they hold onto the card.
Thoughts: Of the various expansions, I am least interested in Grandissimo. The prison sounds intriguing but the addition of more action cards (stacks 6 and 7) would likely slow the game down as players take even longer to decide which to pick. Some feel the new actions (particularly the Queen and Jester) are just a bit too powerful and unbalance the game. I have yet to try out this expansion, but I could see the possibility.
Completionists will be most concerned about this expansion as it has never appeared before. However, all but the most OCD gamers should be pleased as this expansion could be recreated with simple markers. This expansion is simply five markers, one of each player color, displaying a meeple and a flag. At the start of the game each player takes one of their meeples on the board and assigns it to the flag token. That token stays with that meeple until it leaves the board (at which time the marker is passed onto a different meeple still on the board.) The flag bearer token acts as a tie-breaker in any scoring region. Essentially counting as a double-value meeple in scoring but it remains a single meeple for any game effects.
Thoughts: An nice little idea for an expansion, I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been implemented before in at least a double-meeple type of guise. It looks to be something that doesn’t change the complexity or speed of the game, but adds a bit more flavor to the competitions. I could see adding it into the game whenever I want only a slightly different change of pace. It is simple enough that it could be added into a game with new players.
While I regretted failing to pick up the expansions when they were available (I wasn’t even aware of their existence until a few years ago,) the new Big Box edition has provided me a chance to get them for a reasonable price (and my old edition can be passed on to friends.) As much as I dislike giant boxes cluttering up my shelves, I have no qualms about giving up the space to this game. It has been far too long since I got El Grande to the table, and now that I have a new version I foresee more El Grand-ing in the near future.