El Grande is a game I picked up many years ago after studying many geek lists and game reviews. In fact, it was one of the first modern strategy games I purchased for myself, and at the time I had no idea who I would get to play this possibly overwhelming game. Luckily, I found willing participants, the game was not so overwhelming, and I have enjoyed many plays of it, including a session just this week.
This game won the Spiel Des Jahres in 1996, just one year after Settlers of Catan, and for good reason: simples rules with interesting game play in 2 hours or less. As the dorky dudes on the front of the box imply, you play the role of a stuffy 15th century aristrocrat in a silly outfit, also known as a Grande. As a Grande, you seek to extend your influence across the whole of Spain, which at the time is a land divided by multiple ethnic groups and kingdoms. Through the cunning use of your power (in the form of numbered cards), you will decide when and how you want to employ your court of dapper aristocrats, called Caballeros. The largest point values come from controlling the most influential provinces, but seizing control of these areas generally means you are not able to send your Caballeros far and wide to influence a larger collection of provinces. The constant struggle between fighting for control of individual regions while trying to maintain a presence in many regions really guides nearly every decision you make as a Grande.
Despite the greatness of El Grande, the game has two features that can turn many off. First, the game is extremely dynamic. Wooden bits constantly shift around the board and control of any given region is eternally in fluxx. Every round has a new and randomly drawn set of actions, and players bid on who chooses actions first, so noodling out who wants what action and how badly they want it is how every round starts. For those who like to figure out a reliable winning strategy and pull it off nearly every time, El Grande is maddening. I, for one, really enjoy the dynamism of the game.
The second potentially frustrating feature of El Grande arises when one player gains a healthy points lead. This generally results in all other players trying their best to hobble that leader. I have heard an enormous amount of whining about this ‘get the leader’ aspect. Luckily, the whiners are just grumpy because they are getting picked on. In fact, I’ll bet that conspiring against a grande whose influence has grown too large happened regularly back in the day of ruffled shirt caballeros. So the metagame leader bashing that nearly always occurs helps enhance the theme of the game. A lot of games have rules that attempt to illustrate theme, El Grande goes beyond that by creating an unexpected form of interplayer interaction that helps players feel like they are actually wearing funny outfits.