Warhammer 40k, El Grande: two obscure games that consumed our 2016

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I’ve been loath to highlight our “most played” of 2016 because they’re both out of print. So I guess if you like what you’re reading about here, you’ll keep your eye out for used copies online (or pray for a reprint).

El Grande
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I’ve never had so much fun pushing wooden cubes around in my life. El Grande throws you into an abstract — but still highly cutthroat — struggle for power in 16th Century Spain. The game's beautiful board depicts the country's nine regions. You command a “Grande” (a boss cube) and a bunch of little cubes (your faithful caballeros) that you must distribute across the nine regions to score points.

Scoring happens three times during the game, the points based on the value of each region and how many caballeros you’ve managed to send there.

But it quickly gets tricky and nasty. You’ve got to bid for your starting position each turn with cards that can only be used once. Furthermore, those cards determine not only the turn’s starting order, but how many caballeros you can bring in to help your cause.

Starting order also determines when you get your pick from a shifting menu of power cards (which also dictate how many dudes you can deploy to the board). The power cards all have unique effects, like being able to double-score a region where your caballeros are most numerous, shove other people’s caballeros to worthless regions, or alter regions’ scoring.

See that foreboding structure in the foreground of the photo? That’s the castillo. Each turn, you can hide caballeros in that thing. Three times during the game, you lift up the castillo and the caballeros come flooding out to inundate regions that players secretly target with a dial. The moment when the castillo is raised and everybody reveals the target regions on their dials is high on my list of Great Moments in Gaming. Figuring out where to send your dudes while trying to second-guess your opponents is excruciating fun, as is almost every other decision you have to make in El Grande.

One day they may reprint this game. Online sets are quite expensive. Or you may stumble across it at a secondhand store, in which case you should buy it immediately and run howling into the parking lot, pumping the box over your head like a crazed child on Christmas morning.

Warhammer 40,000: Conquest
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Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The two companies that teamed up to design and produce this game divorced last fall. (I panic-bought stacks of base sets and warpacks when I heard about it. The picture at left suggests I’m OK with that decision.)

Now, a bit of good news: Some hardcore players dumped their sets on the market when they heard no new cards were coming out, so unless you’re a highly competitive deck-builder, you can have years of fun with a secondhand collection.

The last time I wrote about this game, we were still figuring out how the basic mechanics and strategy worked. Things have changed. Play has deepened to obsession as the players to whom I’ve evangelized left behind the vanilla armies in the core set and jumped down the rabbit hole of deck customization.

“There’s so much to think about!” said my last opponent said as he looked at his hand and tried to figure out which of his Space Marine units he could afford to deploy against my marauding Orks — and where he should deploy them. I can relate: As you’re battling for supremacy across five planets at once, you’ve got to think about where you can win battles, where you can keep income (money and new cards) coming in and where you should cut bait to spare resources for more important objectives.

Each skirmish funnels you to a grand finale as your warlord gets beat up, your hand changes and the number of available planets diminishes. It’s wholly engaging in flavor and experience. Win or lose, I savor each game.

Add the customization factor and you’ve got a new dimension to fret about: Subtly engineering a custom army. A few weeks ago I had one of those weird nights where I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. So, trying not to rouse my wife, I crept downstairs, broke out a mixed Eldar/Dark Eldar force I was working on, and sat there until nearly dawn with my LED headlamp figuring out which four cards I wanted to swap out of the deck. Four. Cards.

Once you tweak a deck, you tremble to see how it performs next. If this sounds like grand fun and not the symptom of a mental disorder, then you may join me among the handful of players across the globe who kneel at the altar of this moribund masterpiece. (Caveat: This game only seats two and the rules will feel extremely crunchy to people who don't have experience with other head-to-head strategy card games like Magic: The Gathering. We're still arguing about action sequences and card effects in month six.)

In my next post, I’m going to talk about two other games that have grabbed our fancy recently — that are actually still in print and available at reasonable cost.

Play on, friends.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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