El Grande – Conquer Spain And Overthrow King Phallus the First

I will tell you, folks, I absolutely love this game. I’m no good at it, and every single time I’ve played it I have lost miserably, but I still want to play it as often as I can. It’s not the theme that keeps me interested, because I would really have a hard time finding something that I could possibly give less of a shit about than Renaissance-era Spain. Hell, I never even knew there were cowboys in Spain except those in Sergio Leone movies! Anyhow, it’s not the art, because while adequate and quite appropriate for the theme, it’s not “Witch of Salem” or “Camelot Legends”. Maybe it’s the inclusion of a replica sex toy with the game, but since I’m not really into that, maybe not. I guess it must be the actual gameplay, because that is absolutely outstanding, not to mention that this game is about as backstabbity a game as you’re going to play. And those of you who read my musings KNOW that I love backstabbity games.

The theme of this game is that you play a member of the aristocracy in Spain, circa 1550, when the King is at his weakest and you’re poised to start some trouble and gain some territory. These nobles in the King’s court would be a Duke, Earl, or Viceroy somewhere else, but since we’re in Spain, you’re a Grande, hence the name of the game. That being said, the theme is truly rich and intriguing, and all of the cards, art, and supporting material help you truly feel like a noble, vying for control of Spain. The one exception is the King, who is shaped like a small dildo, but hey, Spaniards are known to be hot-blooded Latin lovers, I hear, so maybe that’s thematic too.
When you crack the nicely illustrated box, which is about the same size as a Monopoly box but slightly taller, you’ll find a durable gameboard laminated with a lovely map that is made to look like an old parchment drawing of Spain in 1550. Also included are five D6-sized wooden blocks that represent the Grandes themselves as well as five sets of 31 smaller, Euro-standard sized cubes to represent your troops, the caballeros, which means “cowboys” in Spanish. There are also five sets of numbered cards inside, one to thirteen, which are used to determine the order of play. Additionally, there are a great many tiles and cards inside that are used for various things I’ll get into later, and a big wooden Castillo, or castle. The last, and definitely the most hilarious, is the King pawn that I spoke of earlier. King Phallus the First of Spain is the single most influential piece in the game, and literally the whole game you think to yourself, “the King is a real dick”, or “man, the King really screwed me over that turn.” It’s the only game I’ve ever played that has people actively attempting to take control of a dildo and move it into a region of their choice, with others in the room watching enviously.
This is, at its core, an area control and resource management game, and every province on the map has three values printed within that indicates how many victory points a player gets when they have the first, second and third highest amount of caballeros in the province when a scoring situation occurs. Scoring normally happens after every third round, but there are also special situations that allow certain regions to be scored that can be played when they become available. Thus, making sure to deploy caballeros smartly and being sure to control your dwindling resources to be able to deploy them in the first place is the key to being an effective Grande.

Each Grande starts the game with a randomly selected province at their command, 2 caballeros in that province to protect the big cheese himself, and 7 caballeros in your active reserve for later deployment. Once you’ve placed them all in their respective places, you’re ready to begin. Every round consists of a player selecting one of their numbered cards, which have icons on them indicating how many caballeros that you can move from your inactive reserve pool to your active reserve. Once you’ve selected a card, each player bids it in turn with the highest bidder taking their action first. The higher numbered cards allow less troops to become active than the lower cards, forcing you to decide if you’d rather have more available troops for deployment or if you’d rather get to take actions before your opposing Grandes. To make it even more challenging, once you use a card, it is out of play until either an action allows you to retrieve it, or until the end of the game. Finally, the player who bid lowest, and subsequently played last, gets to bid first on the next turn.

After the bidding phase is complete, players, in turn, select one of five actions from the action pool. This pool is comprised of five cards with various abilities on it and an amount of troops that you get to deploy on that turn. Obviously, turn order is very important because the sooner you get to play your turn, the more options are available. These cards grant a variety of actions, such as the ever-present ability to move the king to any province of your choosing, scoring a specific region or group of regions, and the ever-favorite backstabbity powers like Intrigue, which allows you the ability to move opponents’ caballeros, thereby pissing them off to no end and potentially ruining their plans for that turn. I should mention one thing before going further, which is that while many games have rules that are allowed to be broken, El Grande has one hard-and-fast rule that is never broken: wherever the King is at, nothing can change in that province. Hail to the king, baby!

Once you decide to deploy troops from your active reserve, you can only place them in a region adjacent to the region King Phallus is in. Thus, wherever the King is resting his head, so to speak, the surrounding regions are the only ones that come into play for deploying your little cowpokes unless a played action allows you to place them to non-adjacent regions. The exception to the adjacency rule is the tower, which you can place your caballeros into on your turn, and they are released to the province of your choice, which is secretly chosen just before their release, during the three normal scoring phases.

Once the final scoring round is accounted for, just after turn nine, the game ends completely anticlimactically, in most cases, and the winner gets to scream “Goooooooooooooooooal” incessantly until the other players kick him hard in the nuts. Well, at least when I play. While the end of the game has no “Gotcha” moments, in my experience, the battles for second and third place are usually bloodthirsty and you generally don’t know how it will turn out until the last few provinces are scored.

Things I Loved:
*The theme, while uninteresting, is adhered to incredibly well and all aspects of the game create great atmosphere
*The balance is absolutely incredible, and nothing is left to chance
*There are just too many puns and one-liners about King Schong or King Phallus to not have fun
*Backstabbing and treachery galore, with a healthy dose of “Fuck You” in every round
*Learning curve is so small that from setup to the end of the lesson is 10 minutes

Things I Hated Like Screaming Babies And Taxes:
*If you get out in front early, there is no real catch-up mechanism, and the game becomes an attempt to be the King of the Losers
*Conversely, getting stuck at the back of the pack becomes a game of “Who should I cause trouble for, just to be a dick”

This game has become an all-time favorite, even after only a few plays, due to its simplicity, requirement for treachery and troublemaking, and its exceptionally fast-playing turns. Some Analysis Paralysis can set in from time to time, but even then it’s not more than a minute of waiting per turn. It’s just a brilliant, fun game.


Learn more about El Grande at Rio Grande Games’ web page:

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