- Designer: Reiner Knizia
- Publisher: Ravensburger
- Players: 2 – 4
- Ages: 10+
- Time: 30-60 minutes
- Times Played: 5 (with 2, 3, 4 players)
Wettlauf nach El Dorado (Race to El Dorado, or simply El Dorado) is a new game from Reiner Knizia, the famed German designer of classics such as Tigris and Euphrates, Ra, Ingenious, Keltis, and Lost Cities. El Dorado is currently nominated for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres, where it faces Kingdomino and Magic Maze for the coveted German Game of the Year prize. At heart, El Dorado is a streamlined deck-building game in which players use cards to race across a modular map. The game is excellent–charming, simple but deep, and expandable. I’ve enjoyed it with gamers and family alike and expect it to have a good shot at winning the Spiel.
El Dorado is … Dominion with a map. In brief, players start out with a small deck of cards that allow them to move forward on a map, and to purchase better cards. The goal is to be the first to reach the fabled City of Gold.
The board consists of large hex-shaped tiles, made up of smaller hex-shaped spaces of several varieties. Most of the spaces have a movement cost associated with them, indicated on the space. Green spaces have one, two, or three machetes on them, blue spaces have one, two, or three paddles on them, and gold spaces have one to four coins on them. To move onto these spaces, players must play a card with at least that many matching symbols. The cards can’t be added–that is, to move onto a space with three machetes you must play a single card with at least three machetes. If the card played exceeds the cost required to access the space, the “left over” symbols on the card may be used to move onto additional spaces. The large tiles are separated by smaller “obstacle” tiles with a movement cost, paid like other spaces, with the payor collecting the obstacle to be used as an end-game tiebreaker if needed. Players cannot move onto spaces with other players, creating the potential to block each other in tight areas of the map.
Some of the spaces require you discard a card rather than matching symbols (boulders), some are impassable (mountains), and some require you trash cards (basecamps). (I’ll resist a “trashing the camp” pun from Disney’s Tarzan movie.) The tiles are cleverly set up to create interesting situations in the suggested maps. For example, the penultimate tile on the introductory map has a range of mountains that spans much of the tile, with a “trash three” camp in the middle and a difficult water territory on the other side. Do you try to work through the water, or give up three cards in the middle of the tile? Does it depend on what other people are trying to do?
The players have eight initial cards in their deck. Three green, with one machete each, allowing movement over green spaces, one single-paddle blue, allowing movement over blue spaces, and four one-coin gold cards, allowing movement over gold spaces and purchase of other cards. (Cards with no gold coins can be used to purchase other cards as half a coin.) There are six initial upgrade cards available to purchase, and the rest are set in stacks nearby. Once any stack of the initial upgrade cards are all purchased, a player may buy a card from any of the available stacks. That stack of cards then fills the empty spot and becomes available to purchase by all the players. These cards are a mix of better movement, “draw X, discard X,” and “draw X, trash X,” among others. Some of the better cards are one-time use and must be trashed after play.
Players start with a hand of four cards, and draw up to four at the end of each turn. On their turn, players move and/or buy one additional card. The first to reach El Dorado wins, unless someone else also reaches it during the same round. The tie breaker is the number of obstacles the player collected, and if still tied, the player collecting the highest numbered obstacle wins. In the five games I’ve played, three have been decided by tie-breakers, so getting to obstacles first seems to matter.
There is a two-player version, in which players control two pawns from a single hand of cards and must get both pawns to El Dorado. The game also comes with a variant in which various bonus tiles are placed on caves. Players collect the bonus tiles by moving next to the caves and can spend them on future turns for extra movement, extra card draws, and so on.
I’ve enjoyed my plays of El Dorado quite a bit, just enough to tip it into “I Love It” on the Opinionated Gamers scale. I’ve played at all the player counts, on a couple of the suggested maps, and with and without the cave tiles. Each experience has been a good time. The game has some strategic depth, but isn’t overly complicated, comparable to the base game of Dominion without all the expansions mixed in. For example, my 11-year old daughter picked it up easily, but I’m sure an experienced player would crush both of us. With the variety available from different maps, I expect the game will have serious legs, especially if future expansions vary the available cards.
The game rewards tactical play (how do I use this hand?), and strategic play (how do I prepare for the bottlenecks on the next tile?). Gameplay is interactive. Blocking other players is very possible at times, and there are only three of each possible card to buy. At the same time, there are no direct attacks, such as ways to make other players discard cards or force them backwards on the map.
The components and graphic design are both excellent. The map does a great job of visually cuing players to the required movement costs. The artwork is pleasant, and the tiles are good quality. My one complaint here would be that for a deck-building game, the cards are very small–I would have preferred something easier to hold and shuffle.
The game is good at each player count, and I expect would be decent if expanded to include up to five players, which would be an achievement for a deckbuilder. Because there are no lengthy card combinations to work out, turns are very quick once players get a feel for the game. Finally, the two-player game is surprisingly enjoyable. I expected controlling two pawns would be clunky, but controlling both with a single hand of cards was very engaging, and the game played very quickly.
I have just a couple nitpicks about gameplay. I wish there were a bit more variety in the cards. Most of the cards are simple upgrades of earlier cards (move two instead of one, three coins instead of two, etc). I appreciate that they’ve kept the game simple and fast, but I imagine more clever upgrades would be possible. I expect expansions will accomplish this. Additionally, there can be a bit of frustration factor, particularly as you’re learning the game. Some of the tiles take a bit of planning to get through, and you can get seriously stuck if you don’t have the right cards. Of course, once you learn the map there’s a feeling of satisfaction as you prepare appropriately.
Overall, I expect El Dorado to be a strong contender for the Spiel des Jahres. It delivers what the best recipients of the award do– provide an enjoyable family-weight game with enough strategic depth to satisfy more experienced gamers, but not enough complexity to turn off more casual gamers. This isn’t the next Tigris & Euphrates, but it doesn’t aim to be. Highly recommended.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers
Chris Wray: With El Dorado, Reiner Knizia once again shows that he’s among the best designers in the business. I agree with Jeff: El Dorado is a strong contender for the red pöppel. The game is easy to learn, strategic, original, and well-produced, all characteristics that the SdJ jury appreciates. While I think Clank! did the race-using-deckbuilding mechanic better, I think families will prefer El Dorado due to its accessibility.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Jeff Lingwall, Eric Martin
- I like it. Chris Wray
- Not for me…