El Grande: Großinquisitor & Kolonien
original German edition
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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, Knig & 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, Groinquisitor & Kolonien does not take away from the game it extends.
At its most basic level, Groinquisitor & 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 shortlived, 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 Groinquisitor & 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 Groinquisitor & 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 Knig & Intrigant and Groinquisitor & 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.
This expansion to El Grande had all the signs of being a klunker - expanding with a few new areas and a bunch of special rules. There is France and 'The Ship', which are areas but work somewhat differently from the usual areas, and the New World and Mediterranean which have special rules for getting to (via the Ship, of course), and new rules for Gold, Wares, and the Grand Inquisitor (but of course!). Mostly just a bunch of chrome, you might think.
When you actually play it, it works surprisingly well. All the new bits put more emphasis on the 'relocation' cards, which are now more powerful (they were always perceived as weak in the past) and provide a lot of options. The Gold, Wares, and variations for the new regions provide a welcome change from the standard game, which could get a bit 'samey'. In general, there are a lot more options for tactical play, which opens the game up a lot in my opinion. The price is some added complexity, but it's really not too bad.
The expansion integrates cleanly with the original El Grande, but does not include any Konig & Intrigant style cards; to play with both expansions you use a mixture of the action card styles, which also works surprisingly well.
All in all, well worth the money and adds some interesting dimensions to what is already one of the best 'gamers' games' of the last 10 years.