El Grande is a subtle strategic board game for two to five players. The game is set in the political and military intrigue of 15th century Spain. It features a really interesting mix of elements that makes the game feel quite different than virtually any other game available today. The game was originally manufactured in Germany by Hans im Gluck and has been translated and produced in the English-speaking world by Rio Grande Games.
This game won the prestigious German Game of the Year award (Spiel des Jahres) in 1996, awarded to the best board game released that year in the world. It was designed by the famed board game design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ullrich.
The historical background of the game revolves around the highly organic structure of Spain in the 15th century. At that time, the country was divided into twelve constantly fluctuating kingdoms and a country with elected leaders, all united loosely as a principality. In addition, one ethnic group (the Basques) controlled their own set of provinces, the internal politics of which were bizarre at best.
The nation was divided among five ethnic groups: the Basques, the Spaniards, the Galiciens, the Catalans, and the Mauren. These, of course, represent the players in the game.
The power in the land, as was common in the middle ages, revolved around the aristocracy. The Grandes, or high aristocracy, largely ran the country, but were subject to strong influence from the middle aristocracy (Caballeros). The Grandes and Caballeros in each region were desperate to expand their own power and influence, so as a result, over a period of time, the Castillos (castles) grew to represent a very powerful form of symbolism. Literally, those who controlled the Castillos ruled the land and held the power.
This game attempts to make an enjoyable and playable game out of this situation, and surprisingly a thought-provoking and entertaining game is the result of the effort.
Note: Usage of the term "he" in this review is not intended to be sexist in any fashion. It simply represents the history of the time, because the Grandes and the Caballeros were exclusively male.
Playing the game sounds a bit complicated when describing it, but it actually flows quite well. Each player is the Grande in one region, and has 30 Caballeros at his disposal to move about the countryside and gain influence. The Grande is represented by a large wooden cube of a particular color, and his Caballeros are cubes of the same color, only smaller.
The board itself consists of a map of 15th century Spain; you make your moves by placing your Grande and your Caballeros on the various spaces, with the goal of having the most pieces in a given territory (thus having the most influence there). The game consists of 9 turns, with a scoring round after the 3rd, 6th, and 9th turns. The players with the most influence, 2nd most influence, and 3rd most influence in each territory receive points.
So how do players get their Grandes and Caballeros on the board? Each player starts off with their Grande in their home territory (territory of the same color as their piece), along with two Caballeros. As the game progresses, more of the Caballeros can be played to the board and those that are there can be moved about.
The game mostly moves foward due to action cards, which are drawn and played each turn. These cards alter the political situation on the board, or they give bonus points instantly. Getting these cards and playing them in clever combinations (just the right mix of adding Caballeros to the board and moving them around before scoring occurs) is the key to the game. Because of the numerous scoring combinations possible, the outcome of a game is usually in question until the last territory is scored.
A word of advice: The game comes with a small poster that contains step-by-step instructions for playing a practice game of El Grande. Go through this at least once; I recommend playing through it twice. Once you've played through it, the rules which seem complex at first become quite clear and the subtleties of the game become evident.
El Grande is a game strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys the board game Risk and wants a little more meat, or enjoys Diplomacy. Both of these games have strong similarities to El Grande, and both are recommended to players of El Grande.