Review – El Grande

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Designer Wolfgang Kramer, Richard Ulrich

Artist Stefan Sonnberger, Franz-Georg Stämmele

Publisher Hans im Glück

Category Area Majority

Length 60-120 minutes

Release Date 1995 (new version in 2023)

Player Count 2-5

After several years out of print, the 1996 Spiel des Jahres winner El Grande has returned in an all-new edition. How does it hold up today, almost 30 years after its debut? Let’s find out!

Review

Widely considered the original area majority game, El Grande is a milestone in gaming history. In it, players vie for control of territories in medieval Spain. The game is played over 9 rounds, with scoring phases interspersed every 3 rounds. The goal is to earn the most points.

To begin, players make decks of action cards according to the numbers on the card backs. Everyone then receives a movement dial and the power cards in their color. Next, the king pawn is placed on a randomly-chosen region, and everyone places their starting pieces on different, randomly-chosen regions.

At the start of each round, the top card of every action deck is revealed. These cards determine the actions that will be available to players during the current round.

Once everyone has examined the action cards, a bidding phase takes place. In clockwise order, everyone reveals a power card from their hand. Each player’s card must have a different value, meaning there can be no ties. Power cards show 2 bits of information: the bidding value and the number of “caballeros” (influence markers) the player will receive for the round.

In order from high to low bid, then, players take turns. On a player’s turn, they begin by receiving their allotted caballeros. Then, they take and resolve an action card. Actions allow players to do things like move the king, move caballeros, force a region to be scored, etc.

They also allow new caballeros to be added on the board. When placed, caballeros can only be added to regions adjacent to the king’s, or in the Castillo.

Example action cards.

The Castillo is a 3D tower on the board where caballeros can be placed in anticipation of a scoring round. Players may never look to see how many pieces are in the Castillo, so they must try to keep mental track. Scoring takes place every 3 rounds, and it works like this:

  1. First, players each choose a region on their dial where they want to send all their Caballeros from the Castillo. This choice is made in secret.
  2. Then, the Castillo is emptied, and players earn points according to how many caballeros they had in it.
  3. Next, each player moves their caballeros from the Castillo to the region they chose on their dial.
  4. Lastly, players score each region, awarding points to the players with the most, second most, and sometimes third most caballeros.
Here, the red player assigned their caballeros from the Castillo to be placed in Granada. By placing them there, red gains control of the region.

The game continues like this, with players bidding for turn order, taking actions, and placing caballeros, until the end of the 3rd scoring phase (a total of 9 rounds). At that time, the player with the most points wins!


I first played El Grande years ago, and it was just as fantastic then as it is now. This game is to area majority what Dominion is to deck-building—the original, and still the gold standard of the genre. Its turn-to-turn tension, its potential for cunning strategy, its game-altering surprises from the Castillo; collectively, they amount to an unforgettable experience.

Like most area majority games, El Grande is very cutthroat, as players constantly try to one-up each other and hose each other’s best-laid plans. Simply put, this is not a friendly game, so if the euros you’re used to are modern, conflict-averse, multiplayer solitaire-type games, this one will feel very different. Personally, I always prefer old-school euro design, so I love the meanness of this game.

The production of this new version is great, far better than the bland-looking original. There is actually… you know, *color* in this version! (The fact that it’s in a Ticket to Ride-size box is also a plus.) The Castillo has a super-cool portcullis feature, where players pull the door upward and all the caballeros spill out. Even though the tower isn’t wooden like the original, it still feels like an upgrade because of this feature. The dials work well, and tuck boxes are included for each player color. Overall, it’s a great production.

El Grande is a spectacular game, and I’m delighted to see it get a new, visually upgraded edition. I’ll note that this game is best with 4 or 5 people, so I primarily recommend it for those player counts. Area control games aren’t usually my thing, but this one is a notable exception. Even at close to 30 years old, it stands head and shoulders above most games in this genre. If you haven’t tried it, there has never been a better time to do so.

A review copy was provided by Asmodee.

The Bottom Line

El Grande is a certified classic. The original area majority game, and still the gold standard of the genre. Highly recommended.

 

9

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.