Wednesday, September 15, 2010

El Grande Tactics 201

Jay Fox's 10 Strategic Tips for Tournament El Grande

At the 2004 WBC I finally broke through the semi-final ranks and went on to win the El Grande tournament. Having had a long-standing affair with Kramer and Ulrich’s masterpiece, I feel I owe a debt both to my wife for the many hours (and days) spent apart from her while moving caballeros, and to for the endless resource of knowledge provided for all games. I only apologize that it took me this long to write something.

So with that mildly verbose introduction aside, I offer readers ten strategic points that finally helped me successfully acquire "wood" at the WBC for El Grande. I take no collective credit for these kernels of wisdom. Many of you will be familiar will some or even all of them. But perhaps I can lend a different perspective that will help game play in a tournament setting, where in my mind the real action unfolds.

NOTE – I do use him, his, he, etc., in this article. Rather than alternate or struggle for gender-neutral terms, please assume the player references apply equally.


If during a tournament one or more of my fellow players picks up an action card simply for the purpose of review, then I feel as if I already have an advantage. Nothing in the quest to improve your play in El Grande has more of an impact than knowledge of every action, and the frequency of each action in each particular pile.

The 3-pile contains two Score the Fives Regions action cards. In the 2004 WBC championship game, neither had come up through the end of round six. During that round, and then in round seven, I began taking up a stronger position in all of the Five regions. In round eight a Score the Five Regions card was turned over, I played my 13 power card, and earned fourteen points. At the end of the game, the final differential between first and second was twelve points.

Many players I watch focus on the Royal Advisor action for fear that it will ruin their well-planned 1 followed by 13 power card play. I hope my brief example demonstrates the power of knowing all the actions card, and planning on their arrival, particularly late in the game.


I am forever indebted to Jason Levine, the 2001 champion, for the following tidbit of good play. Whenever possible during the first three rounds (and even the fourth occasionally), take an initial position of at least two caballeros in a province. Intrigue actions and the normal placement of other players' caballeros simply wreak havoc on solo cabs. That wonderful board position of four single caballeros holding the fort in four separate provinces will disappear before (in the words of Moe Howard) you can say Ticonderoga.

There are exceptions to this rule. A lowest power card play, followed by the highest power card plays often work wonders for locking up a very strong region with only one cab (see point 9 below). An early Score the Firsts action will often necessitate solo cab placements to reap a full reward.

But exceptions (and there are others) aside, those who follow the Rule of Two will generally find happiness. Those who follow the Rule of Two will discover that other players are hesitant to use intrigue actions to move two cabs of one player early in the game. And those who follow the Rule of Two will find that other players are unwilling to compete early in regions where they now have to place three cabs for a majority.


When playing El Grande, my mantra is the chorus made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – "Love the one you’re with". Five player El Grande games are the equivalent of hurricanes, both in swirling confusion and the unpredictable. Short-term plans get things done in the game. Long-term plans are as effective as levees against Katrina.

It is easy to spot the violators of this rule. They often have 15 cabs in New Castille battling out their opponent’s 14 cabs. Or they are trying to make-up a 25-point differential in the last three rounds; but they are just so primed to play that 1 power card in round eight, followed by the 13 in round nine. Or they just gave up a nice Score the Region of your choice action in round four, because it would have given them the lead and you know that in El Grande everyone goes after the leader (see point 10 below).

Addressing the first example, if someone is stealing your province, find another place to roost or shut him out with the king. 2 points for the Grande is not worth a commitment of several cabs that could be working for you elsewhere. And so on. And so on. Each El Grande game evolves differently. Love the one you are with and leave your grand strategy outside the tournament room.


Speaking of planning, it can be done. But my successful planning has always been short-term planning. And for that I use the Rule of Three.

In my view, El Grande is actually three games, consisting of three sets of three rounds, each culminating in a scoring round. Rather than trying to plan for an entire game, which I have already said is a recipe for disaster, my suggestion is to plan for the next scoring round.

For instance, after the flip in the first round, a nice early scoring opportunity may be available. Perhaps you can play a 11 or 12 power card, grab a Score the Fives and, because of the placement of the King and possibly your own initial province being a five region, suddenly you hammer home 17 points. At that point, Rule of Three planning says make the first three rounds a scoring set. Perhaps the second set of three rounds, you stock up your court and take up strong positions in two provinces, to avoid being readily clipped by intrigue actions.

Beware, though, that rigidity kills. Keep the blinders off. Round three affects round four, and round six affects round seven. The purpose of the Rule of Three is to give your game direction in the first round of each set, so that when you arrive at the scoring round you have not been wandering aimlessly through the desert.


In hockey, the guy who plays puck instead of the man often finds out what that little red light behind his goalie is for.

In El Grande, the rule is the opposite. Play the board, not the players. I have violated this rule more times than I care to admit (including the 2005 semi-finals where I was defending my title), and I always find myself well off the lead when I do.

If you are a tournament player and a known strong tournament player is sitting across from you, avert your eyes, focus on the board, or risk being turned into a pillar of salt. Almost all tournament El Grande games are 5 player affairs. Zoning in on one or possibly two players who you perceive as the main threat to your victory will lead to your ruin. Why? Because those two perceived weaker players now get free reign over the rest of the board you are ignoring.

Harder still is ignoring that strong tournament player if he is attacking you because he perceives you as the threat. Again, play the board. If you allow yourself to be drawn into a fight, the other players will be the only beneficiaries of your reactive play.

FIRST NOTE – Although this is a whole game strategic tip, if you and the strong tournament player are tied for the lead in round nine and far in front of the other players, you should be doing your best to beat the hell out of each other.

SECOND NOTE – the scoring track is part of the board. If the first place cab color has a lead of 25 points, rally your fellow players immediately.


Financial planners advise that you diversify your portfolio. Piggybacking on that wisdom, my advice is to treat El Grande regions like stocks. Since you have no idea in Round 1 which will pay you the best dividends, it is best to choose a few regions and capitalize on your opportunities as the game progresses.

One early strategy that I have found works well is to take up one position in each of the region categories (a four, five and six/seven region). Score the regions make up five of the eleven cards in the 3 pile. As those cards are turned over, your resources should shift accordingly. For example if both Score the Fours are gone by round three, begin to take up stronger positions in the other six regions as you prepare for the remaining score the regions cards to appear.

I consider the Castillo a weak alternative for 3-pile diversity. Score the region cards offer maximums of twelve to nineteen points (excluding bonuses); the Castillo is a flat five. However, if four of the Score the Region cards are out by the end of Round 6, load away in the Castillo for the last scoring set. Such a strategy might well produce fifteen points (two Score the Castillo cards and Round 9 general scoring).

And although diversity works well, guard against spreading yourself too thin. Again, tournament El Grande is almost always a five-player affair, where a weak board position is difficult to reverse after Round 5.


In tournament El Grande, if you lose count of how many caballeros each player (including you) has dropped into the Castillo, you will lose the game. If you lose count of how many caballeros each player (including you) has dropped into the Castillo, you will lose the game. If you lose count of how many caballeros each player (including you) has dropped into the Castillo, you will lose the game. If you lose count of how many caballeros each player (including you) has dropped into the Castillo, you will lose the game.

Point taken?

Okay, sometimes you get lucky. But in tournament play, I prefer to rely on skill, and rather than be thankful when fortune shines upon me.

In 2004, I won my semi-finals when my chief rival (who was in the lead) lost count in the final scoring round. His miscalculation lost him a shot at the championship.

Point taken?


My father is a wonderful poker player. His favorite saying is "they play the cards and I play with them." When he sits down to a game, he spends a lot of time schmoozing the table, getting to know the other players. Most people love to talk about themselves, and my dad does a great job of giving them that opportunity.

By doing so, he accomplishes two things. First, he makes the game an experience where you actually learn about your fellow human beings. Imagine that?

Second, he earns himself a few friends during the course of play. In poker, friends are good. They hesitate to screw you (choosing instead to screw the a-holes at the table). They often show you their cards, even when you do not call them. And when the game is over, you shake hands, share a laugh, and go your separate ways.

Lets return to my 2004 semi-final. I actually needed two things to win. First, was the ninth round Castillo count miscalculation discussed previously. Second, was the neutralization of an intrigue action the leader was going to use against me in Round 8.

Rather than detail the action card play, let me instead detail the human interaction. Player X (not the leader) had acted rather supercilious throughout the game. During the game, I had befriended Player Y (also not the leader) who had enough of Player X's antics. In Round 8, Player Y, who I was certain was going to execute a power card 1-13 play, threw down the 13, took the intrigue card that I had feared, and used it against Player X. Even better, it opened up a 1-13 play to me, which I could then use against the leader.

In the championship game that followed, I finished not only in first, but also with a genuine handshake from every other player, all of whom I learned oodles (job, family, interests, etc.) about while we played.

Yes. You are playing with human beings.


First principle – every power card played, every action taken, every caballero moved should in some way better your board position and/or bring you points.

To some degree, this personal rule builds off of point five (play the board, not the players). But the focus here is to have your decisions grounded in offense. And why offense?

Second principle – generally offense helps you and defense helps others.

Here is an example. In Round 5 Player X is the leader. Player Y is three points back. Player Y has selected the Score the 5s card. Player X will get 14 points. Player Y will get 11 points, and the remaining players get no more than 1 or 2 points. Player Y chooses not execute the action.

Select and refuse actions only as a last or unavoidable resort. In this example, Player Y lost the opportunity to distance himself from the field, because he did not want to give Player X an additional three-point lead. True, the example is abstract without a board in front of us to analyze. But from my experience, ninety-five percent of the time turning down the action in this situation is the wrong defensive move.

Intrigue actions are often misused defensively, as well. Many players see these moves as good opportunities to undermine their opponents' positions. Since an intrigue action often occurs as the last action taken (meaning the executing player has the lowest card), it should be viewed as a larger platform for offense in the following round.

Taking back-to-back actions (last in one round, first in the next) is usually one of the most potent plays in El Grande. Foreseeing them, and more importantly using both of them offensively for your position, will separate tournament success from failure.


Players who gripe about being ganged up on when they have the lead should be slapped. Alright, maybe not slapped, but at least chastised. Give me the lead any day, any time. I would rather protect a 15-point margin, the try to make up a 15-point deficit.

I think the reason so many tournament players complain about the lead, is that they often violate one or more (usually more) of the previous nine strategic points outlined. I am reminded of a WBC tournament game I played a few years back, where someone took the Score the First Place in All Regions in Round 1 with a 13-power card and a well-positioned king. Obviously he was squarely in the lead by the end of the round.

But instead of point piling at the expense of his court and higher power cards, he consolidated, improved his board position, etc. In other words, he used the initial point padding as part of a balanced approach. We did close the gap, but by that time he was strong enough to complete his wire-to-wire finish.

Lesson – Bad play and weak positions ruin leads

It is true that the leader usually is the focus of the intrigue screw cards. That’s the point of the game, folks! But the talented leader should have the position to deflect the attack. Will it always work? Of course, not. Just like lying in wait behind the leaders does not always work.

The difference is the guy who built the lead has seen the action cards that got him there. The person lying in wait can only hope he gets the cards he needs to overcome the lead differential. And in my book that is a poor way to go about winning any El Grande Game, whether or not in a tournament setting.


I hope some of what I wrote has been helpful. Please keep in mind these are just my opinions. Respondents are asked not to take offense or offend.

In the end, we do the best we can, particularly with this game. The WBC El Grande tournament has gone through six successive years without a repeat winner. And all without a die being cast.

With that, see you in Lancaster! J

PS – Feel free to email me with any questions or points for discussion. I love talking about this game. In other words, you are not imposing.

Jay Fox's 10 Strategic Tips for Tournament El Grande