El Grande

Published 1995 in Germany by Hans im Gluck
Designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich
This Review copyright 1996, 1997 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated July 25, 1997
Except: Note added January 11, 2001

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 price.

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 game.

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 so on.

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?

  • For four players, I recommend Wongar.
  • For three players, I recommend San Marco.
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

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