Winner of the 1996 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), Germany's
highest board game award, El Grande has amazingly good game
mechanics. So good, it's easy to become jealous. Fortunately, the
atmosphere of the game is a little weak compared to most American
games, so we can gloat about our ability to infuse mood into a game.
But El Grande is good - an extremely fun and
challenging game for two to five people. A game takes about two
hours, and it's tense most of the way.
The game components are stunning: a beautiful map of Medieval Spain,
162 wooden pieces, a pre-constructed wooden (!) tower, five ``voting
wheels'', also preconstructed, and 110 attractive cards. The price has
been high in the U.S.A. - usually $60 to $75 - but it should drop soon
since the game won the Spiel des Jahres award, and more copies will be
in circulation. If we're lucky, perhaps an American company will pick
it up, translate it, and distribute over here for a reasonable
The game components do present something of a challenge for
English-speaking players, as 45 of the cards are in German. However,
they're well illustrated, and we've found that simply having a copy of
the translation by the card piles works fine. This slows the game down
maybe 15 minutes over all - well worth the time spent playing this fine
The game is set in early 15th-century Spain, before the strong rulers
Ferdinand and Isabella were born. In those days, Spanish kings were
weak, and powerful nobles (Grandees - hence the name of the game) could
influence the king to do their bidding. The players are Grandees, each
trying to score political influence points to sway the king.
Each Grandee has Caballeros (Knights) to help him. The board is
divided into nine Regions, plus the tower, where pieces can be played.
Each player has a stack of ``Power Cards'' - one each numbered from one
to thirteen. There are also five piles of ``Action Cards'' - cards
that allow you make a certain action - or prevent it from happening.
Each turn, the top Action Card of each of the five piles is turned
over, and read aloud. (We usually read the translation aloud, but
sometimes the original German is so much more forceful!) Once everyone
understands what they're bidding on, players play a Power Card, one at
a time. Once a Power Card is played, it's out of the game, so you have
to allocate them carefully. The player who played the highest Power
Card takes his turn first, and so on in Power Card order.
A player's turn consists of choosing one of the five exposed Action
Cards, and making an action. You can move Caballeros from the
Provinces to your Court, and from your Court to the board. In
addition, you may decide to perform the action on the Action Card - you
can do that before or after you place Caballeros on the board. The
actions permitted by the cards vary widely, which creates interest the
whole game through. Some cards let you make a special scoring, others
let you move anyone's Caballeros around on the board, others you keep
as Vetoes, still others let you change the way Regions are scored, and
The player with the next highest Power Card takes his action, choosing
an Action Card from the remaining four exposed ones, and so on. After
every third round, the Regions are scored, with the player having the
most Caballeros (influence) in a Region getting the most points, while
second and sometimes third place earns somewhat less points, varying by
Region. After nine rounds (three scorings, plus any special scorings
allowed by Action Cards), the game is over, and the player with the
highest cumulative point total wins. There is a point track around the
edge of the board to keep track of the winner.
The tower provides an interesting dimension. Instead of moving
Caballeros to the board, you may put them into the tower, where they
are out of sight. This is also scored every third round, but unless
you keep very close count, you may not have a good sense of who's ahead
in the tower! The Caballeros from the tower are then put on the board,
with each player simultaneously deciding in secret (with the voting
wheels) which Region his own Caballeros will go to. Thus, the
Caballeros from the tower can also change the situation on the board.
The game plays much more smoothly than this brief synopsis suggests,
and is highly recommended. It must be admitted that it doesn't really
convey the mood of Medieval Spain, but it does convey a mood of
political influence and intrigue very well!
What to Play When You Don't Have Five Players?
Note added January 11, 2001
El Grande is best with exactly five people. A
four-player game can also be fun, but the game shines with a full
complement of players. So what do you play when you're in the mood for
El Grande but have fewer than five players?
Both games have similar mechanics to El Grande, but work
well with fewer players. And both are excellent games, in the same
league as El Grande
- For four players, I recommend Wongar.
- For three players, I recommend San Marco.
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