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El Caballero: A design refinement to a well-respected Kramer/Ulrich design

Exploring new shores
Exploring new shores
Publisher (Rio Grande Games)

El Caballero

Rating:
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Buckle in, boys and girls, this is a bit of a long and bumpy ride.

Originally released in 1998, El Caballero was designed by a team - Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich - with a solid track record that includes a Spiel des Jahres prize in 1996 for El Grande. In all, singly and in collaboration with Ulrich and Michael Kiesling, Kramer has won five Spiel Des Jahres awards for Heimlich & Co., Auf Achse, El Grande, Tikal and Torres (the last two with Kiesling). Kramer also won a special designing award from the Spiel des Jahres folks in 2012. Personally, I will always remember Kramer and Kiesling as the designers of the game that introduced me to the world of Euro games, Mexica, which didn't win the Spiel Des Jahres in the year it was published (2002), but did end up winning a few other awards, including a 2003 International Gamers Award in the General Strategy, Multi-Player category.

So it was with some degree of eager anticipation that I cracked the cellophane on the Rio Grande Games reprint of the Kramer/Ulrich design of El Caballero, which was nominated but didn't win the Spiel des Jahres award. With art work by Doris Matthaus, very similar to that which she provided for the publication of El Grande, El Caballero was thought of, initially, as a sequel, though it shared only a few game play aspects with its predecessor.

It does share a certain area control via worker placement mechanic, but instead of a single board with clearly defined areas (El Grande), the so-called sequel features a developing landscape that emerges through player placement of area tiles, which, in various configurations, combine land and water. And instead of meeples (El Grande), El Caballero features Caballero tiles, printed with numbers which indicate the presence of meeples without having to actually produce the little wooden pieces. They also create some confusion in the way that they're utilized.

El Caballero is one of the half dozen or so games that I'll be demonstrating for Rio Grande Games at the upcoming World Boardgaming Championships (August 1-9) at the Lancaster Host Resort in Lancaster, PA. I know how to play it by now, though I suspect that my 'students' will encounter the same sort of confusion that I experienced, and to a certain extent, continue to experience as I play this game.

As noted a moment ago, there are what's known as Caballero tiles, which take the place of wooden meeples. They're colored for individual players (green, red, blue, yellow) and the 10 that each player receives are double-sided; one, with numbers 1-4 at the four sides of the tile, the opposite side with numbers 5-8. The idea is that when you place one of these Caballero tiles up against a land tile that's been placed on the board, the number adjacent to that land tile represents the number of caballeros that you're committing to (thematically) protect the region. You start the game with a Caballero tile in front of you with the number "5" facing you, indicating that you start the game with five caballeros. As with El Grande, an individual hand of colored cards, numbered 1-13 will determine turn order; each player, in turn order, puts a numbered card in front of them. When all players have done so, the player with the highest number goes first, the second highest goes second, etc. Each of these numbered cards shows a number of Caballeros on it, from 0 to 7. When you have laid down your card, you will collect the number of Caballeros shown and add them to your collection. You do that by turning the Caballero tile in front of you to add the appropriate number, or adding another Caballero tile to indicate the total. With the start tile showing "5," if you add three Caballeros, you could turn the single tile to reflect the number "8." If you add six Caballeros, you're going to need another Caballero tile to indicate that you now have 11; a "6" and a "5" (or 3/8, 4/7).

The idea is that on your turn, you're going to be adding land/water tiles to an area (mandatory), initially defined by a single, starting tile, and when you've done so, you are going to place a Caballero tile (though not mandatory) next to land or water, and attempt to claim the area as your own. Land areas are going to be contested, and if you've committed more caballeros to a land area than any other opponent, you'll score points in two scoring rounds (rounds 4 & 7; with the expanded game, included in the package, you have three more rounds of play and add a third scoring round at the end). Water areas are not contested. If you've committed a ship, which straddles a Caballero tile and adjacent water, you'll score for the water tiles. All players who have committed ships to a given water area will score the same points. With land tiles, the person with the most Caballeros associated with a land area will score double points for each tile, and an additional point per 'gold,' found depicted on certain land tiles. The person with the second most caballeros will score just the points associated with the number of tiles (except in a two-player game in which the other player with less caballeros does not score points). Players claiming water areas score a single point per tile involved with an added point for 'fish,' like gold, depicted on certain tiles.

Sounds pretty straight forward, but until you get into it, you don't realize that issues arise which confuse things. One of those issues, related to the expanded game, which adds concepts of a Governor and a Grande to the basic rules, is easily clarified by the elimination of a single word ("more") in the expanded rules. This clarification was detailed in a BoardGameGeek post in 2003!!!. Without spending a paragraph or two detailing the clarification, it relates to whether what is known as an "enclosed territory" (water or land) can have a Caballero tile adjacent to it. It can not, though the originally printed rule, which says "more Caballero tiles," seems to indicate that it can. The removal of "more" sorted that out.

It's not clear why the Governor and Grande components of the expanded game were separated from the original. They add very little in terms of complexity or physical 'bits' and are almost pointless to leave out. Their absence, particularly that of the Grande, makes for a different, though not necessarily less complex game.

In the base game, any Caballero tile you place on the board is subject to removal, if an opponent places a land tile adjacent to a second side of your Caballero tile (its presence on the board indicates that it's already adjacent to one land tile). Once that second land tile is placed, you lose your Caballero tile and all of the caballeros that it represents in the land area it's 'protecting.' You can, before this happens, place a small Castillo token on this Caballero tile, so that when someone effects this placement of a second land area tile, causing the loss of your Caballero tile, your caballeros go back to your 'court,' instead of your general supply. In the expanded game, you place the (single) Grande on a Caballero tile you want to protect, and it cannot be moved off the board. By the same token, you can't adjust the number of caballeros affecting a region on a Caballero tile protected by a Grande.

The Governor, represented by a round token, lays claim to what's known as 'enclosed territory' - two water tiles, for example, laid next to each other, creating a lake configuration, or two area tiles (or more) which do more or less the same thing. In the base game, because these areas do not have Caballero tiles adjacent to them, there'd be no points involved. With the Governor (you have five at the start), players can score points with these enclosed territories. So, all in all, no reason to leave the Grande and Governor out of the mix when you learn or play this game.

This game would work just fine if you didn't have opponents, which I guess is true of a lot of games, but in this case, opponents seriously impact what you're trying to accomplish. A territory you have claimed as your own can suddenly become enemy territory with the placement of a single land tile, or Caballero tile, bearing opponent caballeros that exceed the number you've committed to protecting the area. In its predecessor, El Grande, the territories are defined on an unchangeable map, and your decisions are all about where to place your 'armies.' With El Caballero, you have to be alert to the very landscape shifting in front of your eyes.

It's been called "El Grande meets Carcassonne," which is an apt description, albeit one that does not necessarily mean that it's a compatible combination. The 'masses' would concur, apparently. While El Grande is ranked among the Top 25 games (#22) rated on BoardGameGeek, with an overall 7.84 average from over 14,000 ratings, El Caballero is ranked at #1170, with an average of rating of 6.57 from just over a thousand ratings. It has not caught on as well.

It is just possible that in my admittedly limited experience with this game (played about four times), I have missed something. There's something in the back of my mind here, telling me that if I keep at this a little while longer, I'm going to find a fun and challenging game experience, as Derk Solko, one of the founders of BoardGameGeek, did. He's one of the five people, who rated the game at "10."

"I've always loved this game, even tho (sic) I never get to play it," he said in his comment on the game's BoardGameGeek page. "It rewards repeated play big time, too (making it nearly impossible to induct new players)."

"Very unforgiving," said Solko's BoardGameGeek partner, Scott Alden, "but (El Caballero) is really a top strategic game.

So. . . mixed reports. . . caveat emptor, as they say. Buyer beware.

El Caballero, designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, is in reprint by Rio Grande Games. Playable by 2-4 players, age 13 and up, it can be played in about 90 minutes. The expanded version, included in the box, does not add significant overall playing time. It retails somewhere in the vicinity of $35, with, of course, bargains to be found. A 'very good' copy was available in the BoardGameGeek marketplace for $19.75.