|From:Rio Grande Games Cost: $20 Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 60-120 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 7 Complexity: 5 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich struck it big a couple of years ago with the Spiel des Jahres winning El Grande. With that success under their belts, theyíve teamed up again to bring us El Caballero, the thematic sequel. The box may be far larger than it has to be to hold the gameís components (consisting of cards, tiles, and tokens), but thereís more than enough gameplay to fill the rest of the space. If Verrater is the best gaming value under $10, El Caballero must be the best under $20.
I say that even though El Caballero probably wonít see a tremendous amount of play on most playersí tables. It can be difficult to fully assimilate the state of the game at a glance, and the ramifications of each move arenít always immediately obvious. Consequently there can be quite a bit of downtime between turns as players consider their options. This makes the game take longer than it should, which will keep some people from taking it off the shelf as often as they might. Thatís a shame, because thereís quite a bit to like here.
El Caballero is a tile-laying game of naval exploration and territorial control. At the start of each round a set of five tiles are turned up. The tiles are attractively illustrated by Doris Matthaus. Each tile shows a combination of land and water. As the game progresses tiles are laid next to each other like dominoes, land-to-land and water-to-water, forming a map of the new world. Not our new world, of course, but letís not quibble.
Aside from the caballero terminology, the only concept carried over from El Grande is each playerís use of an individual power card deck to determine player order and troops received. As before, these decks run from 1-13. We found that turn order is often less crucial than in El Grande, since thereís often more than one way to accomplish your goals. Consequently youíll be choosing power cards more for their caballero flow.
A turn begins by choosing a tile from those remaining and adding it to the map. The object is to create large land masses and then control them by stationing more caballeros on them than your opponents. Unlike El Grande, there arenít any colored wooden cubes to represent caballeros this time out. Instead, cabs take the form of special tiles. This simple design choice has tremendous ramifications throughout the game, from strategy to usability.
The system is a familiar one to anyone who has played the Settlers of Catan Card Game or Finale. The edges of each tile are numbered 1-4 on one side and 5-8 on the other. If you had a reserve of 11 caballeros, youíd show it by having two caballero tiles in front of you- one with the 8 facing you and the other with a 3 facing you. When you use caballeros, you rotate a tile to show a lower number, adding and removing tiles as needed.
Deploying caballeros to a land mass means placing one of your caballero tiles next to it. To deploy 3 caballeros, rotate the tile so the 3 touches the land mass. Each tile can hold no more than eight caballeros, so if you need more you need to play another caballero tile adjacent to that land mass- if you can find a free spot. Each player has a finite number of caballero tiles, so you canít just sprinkle them willy-nilly.
To prevent the other three sides of the caballero tile from giving you freebies, no caballero tile is ever allowed to touch more than a single land tile. If a second land tile is placed next to it, the caballero tile is immediately removed from the board and all caballeros on it are lost! This crucial rule leads to much of the nuance of gameplay, as players lay traps and defend against their tiles getting popped. If your group likes to table talk, be warned it can be a problem here. Players are usually safe from any single tile placement, but a series of two or three tiles played by like-minded opponents can sneak up on you and knock out a key caballero tile. You can purchase a castillo for limited protection, saving your caballeros should their tile get ejected, but the only sure defense is to surround the caballero tiles with water.
Speaking of which, thereís money to be made on the seas as well. Ships can be purchased and placed on cab tiles touching water. In each of the gameís three scoring rounds, every ship earns its owner points equal to the size of the sea itís on. Land masses score twice as much, but only for the player with the most caballeros on it (second place scores half).
Some tiles feature gold deposits or schools of fish, doubling that tileís value for land or sea respectively. As you might expect, such tiles tend to be the first ones picked.
There are some neat tricks at a playerís disposal. Youíre allowed to remove your own caballero tiles from the board if you wish (vital if you run out of tiles). Doing so unexpectedly opens up a land edge where none existed before, allowing tiles to be played next to it which could cause opposing caballero tiles to get popped. The 9 power card carries with it the ability to play two tiles at once. Usable only once per game, setting up a good use for it is never far from a playerís mind. Combine it with the removal of a caballero tile as described above and you can cause a devastating change of fortunes.
Another neat trick lets you get caballeros for free. Placing a caballero tile next to water costs a flat fee- the number facing the water is irrelevant. But if a land tile is later placed next to that caballero tile, the cabs abutting the land count- at no cost to their owner! Skillful application of this rule can help stretch a thin caballero supply.
Earlier I mentioned the difficulty of taking in the game state at a glance, and the fault lies mainly with the caballero tiles. Your eye wants to follow the contours of the map, but is continually confounded by those tiles. On the other hand, I donít see any better options- even ignoring for the moment the aspects of the design which depend on caballeros being represented by tiles. Cubes placed directly on the land tiles would be difficult to count. Numbered counters might work, but wouldnít be any easier to pick out at a glance.
El Caballero has all the gameplay many of us hoped Entdecker would have. The irony is that it lacks the simpler gameís thematic flavor. Any feeling of exploration has been leeched away by the abstraction of the game system. Perhaps the fault lies with the caballero tiles, which interrupt the map development and call attention to the mechanics at the expense of the theme. Or maybe itís the relative freedom of where tiles get placed, removing any sense of sailing from one place to another. Despite the undeniable pleasure in shaping a new landscape every time, the result is a game with an appropriate yet completely unevocative theme.
If this isnít a problem for you, youíll be happy to learn that the game works equally well with two, three, or four players. The game feels different at each size, of course. The two-player game is very opportunistic as players try to set up opportunities for themselves which their opponent wonít be able to foil with the remaining tiles. With more players multiple fronts arise and multi-way struggles for control can emerge.
El Caballero is a game Iíd like to play more, but for the reasons described earlier (mainly the long-lag-time cloaking device) it doesnít get pulled off the shelf often. I hope to work on that, because Iíve enjoyed every game of it so far.