El Grande

On the 30th anniversary of my birth, as Great Britain struggled with Mad Cow Disease and I made some major life changes, Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich celebrated their Spiel des Jahres win for El Grande, the best area control game ever to share the name of a Starbucks beverage cup size.

How to El Grande

El Grande is a classic wooden cube moving strategy game. If you can move your wooden cubes better than the other people moving their cubes then you will win. Of course, there are rules about how many cubes you can use, where you can move them and when you can move them. The mechanisms that Kramer and Ulrich designed to limit these choices is what made El Grande Spiel des Jahres worthy.

Turn order cards for the boardgame El Grande
The cards are small or my thumb is huge.

First, let’s talk about how many cubes you can use and when you can move them. You start the game with 13 cards that determine your turn order and allow you to manage your available cubes. You begin with a limited number of cubes, including a really big cube. I think this is actually considered your El Grande. You know, because it’s big. The higher the card, the earlier in the round you will be able to act, but the lower value cards allow you to increase your number of available cubes.

Playing early allows you a better choice of the available actions on that round. The special actions will change from round to round, but each action will allow you to place a number of cubes in a region on the board. In addition to placing cubes, these actions might allow you to move the cubes of other players or manipulate the scoring of a region. The one action that is always available each round is moving the location of the king.

It’s good to be the king

The location of the king is important because that determines where you can place your wooden cubes. Cubes can only be placed in regions adjacent to the king’s region. You can’t place cubes in the region with the king, because this would irritate him, obviously. What’s really irritating is when someone moves the king somewhere far away from where you wanted to move your cubes.

If you think that’s phallic, wait until you see the king.

The one place you can always move your cubes to is the castle, or Castillo. Your little cubes are supposed to be your Caballeros. When we play El Grande with my friend Joe, we always make him say Castillo and Caballeros because he actually speaks Spanish and he makes it sound so cool.

When you move your Caballeros to the Castillo, you drop them in from the top and they clatter to the bottom. This just stuns them, it doesn’t kill them, because they are made of wood. You have to say how many you are dropping in there, so that the other players can keep track. This is important because the Castillo is scored as a region just like all of the others, but you get to send out all of the collected cubes to a different region during the scoring round.

Scoring and gnashing of teeth

Region selection disc for the board game El Grande

El Grande takes place over nine rounds with a scoring sequence after every third. During scoring, you determine who has the majority of cubes in a region and score points accordingly. Some regions are more valuable than others and you get bonuses for having the king or your big cube in a region you score.

One of the most exciting parts of this sequence is getting to secretly choose what region to send your cubes that had been in the castle. I like to imagine that they shoot back out of the top of the castle and then crash into an unsuspecting region. This doesn’t kill them, because they are made of wood. This makes regional scoring a real unknown, which is probably why some players don’t like El Grande. You can make great plans, but some other player may make a decision that totally hoses you.

What I think of El Grande

Methinks I see the king…

I like El Grande well enough to give it a 7 on my ranking scale. I don’t own a copy, but I would be open to playing it if someone suggests it. The art on the board is really nice. I like the classic old-time map style boards. The art design was done by Doris Matthäus, who has designed many familiar games like Carcassonne and Elfenland. I think there’s a lot of very interesting decisions to make, and the game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. One concern is that the game isn’t particularly forgiving. If you make a huge mistake, it’s unlikely that you will come back from it.

If you have never played El Grande, you definitely should give it a try. You can purchase a copy now that has all of the expansions already included. Try and play it with people who are at your skill and experience level. My first experiences was with master level players and honestly, I hated it so much I didn’t play it again for ten years. Suboptimal play can put less experienced players in a kingmaker position, and that’s never any fun.

Be kind to strangers. Tell your friends that you are thankful for them. Happy gaming!

The logo of the Spiel des Jahres

This is part of my Spiel des Jahres winner series. If you would like to comment on the 1996 winner, El Grande, then please do so on this post.

If you would like to discuss or comment on the Spiel des Jahres award in general, please do so on the Spiel des Jahres series post.

7 thoughts on “El Grande”

  1. El Grande is a cool game. Manipulating turn order is more important than it might first appear, and so there’s often more than just a ‘bash the leader’ effect during the game. I have an early copy where there was some confusion on how to score ties in a region. Apparently, different languages had different rules, but I think that’s all sorted out now.

  2. Several thoughts about El Grande…

    1. I can’t find a good reference for it now, but I think this was one of the earlier examples of something we all take for granted, the victory point track. In fact, in Germany I heard this was once called a “Kramerliste” after the designer.

    2. It seems to me (or I read long ago and forgot where) that this early euro showed how to tackle the multiplayer “wargame” systems of Risk, Axis & Allies, and so many other “dudes on a map” games and transform them into a passive-aggressive euro. No longer do you attack other players for control of regions, you simply outcompete them by having more dudes/cubes. If this wasn’t the birth of area-majority, it was the most important early example. Besides avoiding the direct confrontation that turns off some players (and leads to play balance problems), it’s arguably more “realistic” for how real-world competition for economic or political gain works. You don’t kill your opponents, you out-maneuver them for influence. Again, something we take for granted now but this game showcased in an elegant whole.

    3. For all of that, I distinctly remember hating the game when I first played in 1997 or so. Back then I was still so fixated on theme (like that doesn’t still describe me!) that I’d built up too many thematic expectations from the evocative subject, title, board, and other qualities of the game. Was this the Reconquista? No, then perhaps the political struggles that led to the coalescence of power around the central monarch after centuries of regional control…? See, I was waaaaay overthinking it. I stayed away from El Grande for a decade after that. It didn’t help that I saw the need to set yourself up for scoring rounds the round BEFORE that. So gamey!
    When I tried again in the mid-2000s I came with fresh eyes, and I was properly blown away. 🙂

  3. “but I think this was one of the earlier examples of something we all take for granted, the victory point track.” … Medici came out right at the same time, I believe. That has a track. There must have been something in the air.

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