El Grande / Konig und Intrigant
Publisher: Hans Im Gluck / Rio Grande
Spiel des Jahres indeed
Who would think that a game about gaining influence in Medieval Spain would be such a hit? Not me, that was certain. Was I ever wrong!
El Grande is such a well-rounded game that I find myself wanting to play this more than anything else at the moment, including Settlers of Catan and Euprat & Tigris.
The mechanism for bidding for first choice of the action cards - playing a power card from 1 to 13 - is very clever. Bid high too often and you'll find yourself having little choice of action cards later when all you have are low-numbered power cards. Bid too low and all the good stuff is already gone. On top of that, the high-numbered power cards don't give you many playing pieces (Caballeros) to work with, whereas the low-numbered power cards give you plenty.
It's this kind of balance that crops up all over the place in El Grande. For instance, the action cards that let you place many Caballeros onto the board don't really let you do much else, whereas the action cards that only let you place one new Caballero on the board will usually allow you to get control of one or more regions through their special actions.
Not much is secret in this game. There is a hidden container (the Castillo) for storing Caballeros until the scoring round, when you can dump then into your opponent's home region and royally mess up their control. The real interest comes from when the next five action cards are turned up - always a different combination than you've seen in previous games - and you have to figure out how to use them best.
I've played this game several times and it usually has a close result, even with just two players. It plays even better with more players, where points are also earned for being second or third in a region.
My one complaint is that the scoring track around the edge of the board should have been marked in increments of five, not ten - I find that the only way to count is to step-step-step up the track one spot at a time rather than just doing the addition in my head.
El Grande is very grand indeed. Even if the theme of Medieval Spain doesn't appeal, try it. The game is so good that you soon forget its theme. If, on the other hand, the theme does interest you, that will only make the game more fascinating.
Konig & Intrigant
An intriguing new take on the El Grande theme
Most game expansions are of the type that add a few bells and whistles, or slightly improve the game play, or allow extra players to participate. König & Intrigant is about as far as you can get from that kind of expansion.
König & Intrigant ('King and Villain') instead rips out the entire engine of the original El Grande, and replaces it with something that behaves quite differently, but equally well. First, take all the power cards (the ones labelled 1 to 13) and all the action cards (the ones that you form into five stacks beside the board) and put them away. You won't be needing them for König & Intrigant. Instead, the expansion provides cards that do both the job of selecting turn order and your special action for the turn. Each player gets 18 cards, showing both a power (from 10 to 180) and a special action. Players each select 13 of these cards and put the others away for the game.
The next bit works rather like the original. In turn, each player selects one card and plays it. The power numbers on the cards determine the order of players for this round. They also determine how many caballeros the player may move from their court to the board, with the highest number played earning the most and the lowest number getting to move the fewest.
Players get to perform their special action on their turn, with one important twist that really changes the way the game is played. The highest power number played doesn't get to perform the special action that is on the card. Instead, the player assumes the role of the king and is allowed to move the king to a different region. Likewise, the lowest numbered card gives its player the role of the villain. This player moves one foreign caballero, or all of their own caballeros in one region, anywhere else on the board. (In a 2- or 3-player version of the game, rather than automatically replacing the card's special action, the affected players can choose to take the new action instead if they wish, or keep the original action.) The rest of the game is played as it is in the original El Grande.
The cards are of course in German, but there are only 18 of them so there is not much to learn, and as always, the images on them are self-explanatory. They may be played with the original Hans im Glück board or Rio Grande's English translation. Rio Grande was due to release an English language version of both König & Intrigant and the other El Grande expansion, Grossinquisitor & Kolonien, in late 1999.
The numbering of the cards in König & Intrigant has left large gaps of unused numbers, suggesting several expansions. Hans im Glück has already released ten additional cards which can be obtained by mail from the publisher. There is also a Player's Edition, containing 11 more cards written by fans of the game.
König & Intrigant still has the feel of the basic game of El Grande, but it plays quite differently. To El Grande owners, for the price of an expansion, it is effectively an entirely new game.
Grossinquisitor & Kolonien
Bells and whistles that work
It's usually a given that expansions for games that seriously change the games' mechanics are bad news. They so seldom work that most publishers have wisely given up trying, and instead focus on expansions that allow extra players to participate, or that tweak one or two little things in the game.
So when two expansions for the 1996 Spiel des Jahres, El Grande, were released, I wondered how they could possibly improve on the game. One of them, König & Intrigant, actually doesn't; rather, it rips out many of the game's mechanics and puts another equally good system in their place. The other expansion, this one, is more pedestrian in its approach and simply adds some flavour to El Grande. Yet despite the track record of this kind of expansion, Großinquisitor & Kolonien does not take away from the game it extends.
At its most basic level, Großinquisitor & Kolonien ('Grand Inquisitor and the Colonies') adds a number of regions (France, America, the Mediterranean and the ship) to the board. These four regions are represented by oddly-shaped board pieces that sit in opportune places on the regular El Grande board. Unlike the nine regions of Spain, these regions have special rules about who may occupy them and how the occupation is managed. America and the Mediterranean are accessible only indirectly through the ship. France may only contain three caballeros, and the ship and America both have special spaces that can be occupied for a bonus. Additionally, caballeros can collect goods (gold in America, wares in the Mediterranean) which earn bonuses when the caballeros bring them to Spain.
Complementing these new regions is a number of new action cards which form a sixth stack that players can choose from, as they do in the basic El Grande game. These cards usually have two effects. One is the regular effect of these sorts of cards: move a number of caballeros onto the board and perform a special action (some of which are diabolical). The other effect these cards have is to introduce new goods to the Mediterranean and America, sparking a new rush of caballeros to the colonies to collect them.
Some of the cards also refer to the Grand Inquisitor, the other major plot device of this expansion. The Grand Inquisitor does not go on the board, but instead resides in a player's court. While the Inquisitor is present, that player may move another player from the provinces to the court, or from the court to the board. Additionally, four black caballeros roam the board, acting for the Grand Inquisitor, and are counted as caballeros of the controlling player for scoring purposes.
The third advantage that the Grand Inquisitor grants is control over the limit table, a tile of six or ten (depending on number of players) spaces, upon which caballeros are placed; for that region, only the caballeros on the limit table are scored, and all others in the region are ignored. If, when the limit table is moved, there needs to be a choice made as to which caballeros are placed on it and which miss out, the decision is the Grand Inquisitor's. Control over the Grand Inquisitor is therefore short-lived, as players vie for its special powers. Ownership of the Grand Inquisitor is effected through a single-action-card seventh 'stack', akin to the stack that contains the King's card.
Those are the basic mechanisms of Großinquisitor & Kolonien; the only question remaining is how well it plays. The answer is surprisingly well, with no feeling of the expansion being grafted on. The Grand Inquisitor and Colonies blend seamlessly with the basic game play, and subtly with each other. One effect of the expansion is that scores seem to be higher than the basic game. This is not surprising because there are new regions, more victory points to be had from gold and wares, and more choice among the seven action card stacks for the action that gives the most points. Additionally, the action cards in the first stack, with their 'intrigue' actions that allow players to move caballeros at will between regions, are now more powerful as they allow caballeros to bypass the ship and teleport straight to America or the Mediterranean onto goods. This addresses a slight imbalance in the original game.
I'd recommend Großinquisitor & Kolonien unreservedly, but the need is probably no longer there. Owners of the English-language edition of El Grande will be unlikely to need this expansion, as Rio Grande Games has released The El Grande Expansions, an expansion containing English translations of both König & Intrigant and Großinquisitor & Kolonien in the one box. Both expansions can in fact be combined to form a hybrid expansion (though I have not tried this), giving three ways to play El Grande aside from the basic game. This is not even counting the free Grandissimo expansion.
If you already have El Grande, the plethora of expansions gives you an inexpensive way to have several more games with the same theme. If you don't own El Grande, these expansions are an excellent excuse to get the basic game as well. One of the multitude of variants is bound to please.