The Quest for El Dorado
Time: 30 – 60 minutes
Times Played: 10
After playing and falling absolutely in love with Kingdomino, we started to wonder how the other Spiel de Jahres nominees of 2017 compared to the eventual winner and with The Quest for El Dorado being available for a reasonable $35 (and some places online for $25), I figured it was worth a purchase.
As mentioned in the Kingdomino review, Reiner Knizia, the designer of El Dorado, is responsible for some critically acclaimed games, such as Tigris and Euphrates, Modern Art, and Battle Line. El Dorado sees Reiner utilizing some new mechanics (for him) with this racing deck-builder.
If the title didn’t give it away, The Quest for El Dorado is a game where each player is an adventurer who is tasked with trekking through the jungle in order to find the mythical wonder. The path to such reward includes dense jungles, rapid waterways, and money, which can assist in making the journey a little less taxing. But don’t take too long as there are competitors vying to reach El Dorado alongside you and only the first one to reach the fabled city will gain its rewards (aka win).
As I have mentioned in the past and will continue to mention as long as I do this, I love variable and modular boards and El Dorado has just that. There are seven terrain tiles included (which are double-sided) and a unique ending piece that can be attached at any angle.
The hexes on the board are nice and large and the symbols are distinguishable from any seat at the table. The colors are bountiful and the card artwork is very easy on the eyes. I won’t say that any of the artwork or color is particularly vibrant but it does provide enough to catch your eye compared to some other board games. I would compare it to a Ticket to Ride where nothing blows you away but it’s nothing to scoff at either; plus, it’s incredibly easy to read.
Like Ticket to Ride (last comparison, I swear) El Dorado comes with the mini Euro cards that people either love or hate. In some games, where hand management is a big deal and you’re constantly adding more cards and rearranging your deck (…like Ticket to Ride), I hate them and wish them a fiery death. They are too small and too fiddly for that type of game. Luckily, El Dorado is not that kind of game. Hand sizes are routinely four cards (sometimes six or seven with a special action card) and you are constantly playing and discarding your hand. I really have no complaint about them in this capacity.
The cards also serve as a market, which is where the size of them really shine as any standard card would take too much room on the table and El Dorado is already a game that relies on space.
There are a few cards that have roughly a sentence of text but they can be read aloud or passed around so you don’t need to worry about disruptions or crowding around one part of the table. After a few playthroughs, my group was able to remember what each card was for the most part.
The Quest for El Dorado feels like a deck-builder for beginners. The game starts with each player receiving the same eight cards. This will not vary from game to game and are clearly marked to let you know to start with them (with the color you are playing being present in the bottom right hand corner of the cards). For your starting hand, you shuffle those eight cards and draw four.
On your turn, a player will play one card and perform that cards action. A player can play as many cards as they have in their hand if they would like. A player can also use multiple cards to create currency to buy one card from the market, which was set up before the game began. While there are twenty-four piles of cards available to choose from, only the bottom eight piles can be purchased from until one is completely depleted.
Each deck for purchase is composed of three cards. Once a deck has been depleted, the next player to purchase a card chooses the stack that will replace the empty marketplace.
Yellow cards have a coin symbol that dictates how much they are worth whereas cards without a coin symbol are only worth half a coin. When a new card is purchased, it is immediately transferred to the discard pile and will become available in later turns.
One of the main takeaways from all of this is that besides when purchasing a card, cards cannot be combined. You cannot use two Adventurer cards to hack through a two-machete jungle. You must purchase that card that allows you to explore a two-machete jungle first and then have it land in your hand when the time arrives.
You can use cards that are higher in value (such as a three-machete card for a two-machete jungle) but you will surrender that additional action if it cannot be used.
Each space on the board has a requirement for a player to enter that hex, whether it is green (machete), blue (paddle), yellow (coin), red (base camp) and/or gray (discard). The red hex allows you to eliminate a card(s) from your hand for the remainder of the game and the gray hex asks that you discard a set number of cards of any type to move there. There are also black mountain hexes. There is a variant for exploring them but in the base game, they cannot be moved onto.
There is also an additional space between the connected maps that acts as a barrier. This pieces requires a card(s) to be played to cross it. They are upside down and random so you won’t know what you need to cross them until you arrive at them. The first player to pay the tax removes the blockage and keeps the zig-zag piece. This could come in handy as the amount of pieces you have at the end of the game dictates who wins in the case of a tie.
But this is a race game, how are ties happening?!
El Dorado does not end as soon as someone reaches the golden city. Each player is allowed the same number of turns so if there is someone close on their heels, they might just make it. The above mentioned tie-breaker hasn’t really come into effect much for us (even though the games have been close) but it is there for these scenarios. We’ve had players finish in the same turn, but the amount of barriers the two possesed was different.
An additional movement rule is that two players can never share the same hex. This is important as it could block a player(s) or force someone to take a path they are not prepared for.
The purple cards, which can be purchased through the market, are exceptions to some of the rules mentioned above. Some cards are designed for a single use and once played, are removed from the game completely.
To end a turn, players can keep or discard any remaining cards from their hand that they would like and then they draw back up to four cards. This continues until a player reaches El Dorado.
Before playing El Dorado, I can’t say that I had the most experience with racing board games. We tried Lewis and Clark several times and it just did not stick with us and the only other two games of this genre we have played are Formula D and Snow Tails. Formula D is fun and we have definitely gotten our money out of it but you can only play a roll to move game for so long before you get tired of it. Snow Tails involves some hand management but my fiancee hated the drifting aspect of the game (whereas I loved it) so it hasn’t hit the table nearly as much as I’d like. Maybe Camel Up is considered a racing game as well but since you aren’t controlling one single ‘racer’, I am not considering that a part of this genre.
I feel like El Dorado is a simply take on an old theme and I love it for it. The cards can be used to move your adventurer throughout the harsh lands that surround the fabled city or be used for currency, which can benefit your future turns. This keeps your hand fluid and we never ran into a situation where holding a card was a bad thing. There were bad draws, don’t get me wrong (my first draw of our first game was a Sailor and three Coin cards) but I never felt like I was holding a card that was absolutely useless.
I want to return to something I mentioned in how it’s played earlier. “Each deck for purchase is composed of three cards. Once a deck has been depleted, the next player to purchase a card chooses the stack that will replace the empty marketplace.” This is absolutely huge for such a small piece of the game. Being the last to buy something might mean that the next player can choose the new deck and it might very well be something you do not want or need. The decision making that the marketplace brings is unlike anything else we have played (but I’m sure there are other games with similar or better mechanics).
Couple that with the fact that cards cannot be combined for moving makes each draw tense. This can lead to frustration if the draw, your plans, or a player blocking your path does not go your way so be advised. This basically means that you have to go to the marketplace, you have to build your deck, and you have to watch what your opponent(s) are doing. It’s very simple and very elegant in its design…aka very Knizia.
Regarding the Spiel des Jahres, compared to Kingdomino (but not Magic Maze as I have not played that as of this review), I still think Kingdomino deserved the win. Now, that being said, I don’t know if Kingdomino is a better game than The Quest for El Dorado. Kingdomino is a much easier to grasp, straight out of the box game with few rules and easy to follow gameplay. While El Dorado is easy to understand, there are a few more rules and additional set-up time. Kingdomino can be played to kill ten to fifteen minutes while you wait for delivery or an Uber whereas El Dorado feels much more like a traditional board game with set up. I think I might like El Dorado more as a game but the simplicity of Kingdomino is why I agree with its victory of the Spiel des Jahres.
As an intro to deckbuilding, I think El Dorado stands in a class of their own. This is a compact and strategic game that does not overly penalize a player if they have a bad hand. Whereas some deckbuilders have a tried and true tactic that leads to optimal play, it appears that there are a bevy of different ways to attack this game.
Of course, after a multitude of plays one strategy might present itself and with the few types of cards available, that is in inevitability. Which at first glance, makes it seem like this game may not provide much replayability once it has been “solved”. However, the game comes with a variable board and each piece can be orientated or flipped (as they’re double-sided) in any which direction. Not every piece is used in each game (although I guess you could if you wanted to) so there will always be some random factor to overcome. The maps that are created are not generic straight lines and can weave, curve, and double-back unlike any other “track” we’ve encountered. The rulebook provides a “tutorial” map and then offers several additional configurations that vary the difficulty. But that doesn’t mean you are pigeonholed just to what they provide, the world is your oyster and you can create whatever design you would like to explore.
There is also a variant that allows you to explore the mountain regions (black hexes) on the map. The cave tiles add some random elements to the game and are placed on top of the cave that is to be explored. Each token can provide a different action that can be used later in the game, ranging from actions that can be found on existed cards to some that are specific to the cave tiles. These could be a boost for buying and moving (as they are not technically a part of your hand so they can increase what possibilities you have available to you) but none of them seem overly strong or unbalanced.
Lastly, just to hammer home the variability, as there are twenty-four decks of cards available, the marketplace can be randomized countless times before ever encountering the same starting eight decks again. Couple that with the terrain and which deck will be the first replacement and no two games should be alike.
The game works at all player counts as well. Our first couple of games were at two-players which has players controlling two adventurers as opposed to just one. There are several games that do this as a variant just to ensure that it can be played at two-players but the essence of the game is typically lost or changed due to it. In El Dorado, it works. It actually helps relieve some of the frustration that might be felt by being blocked in or drawing a bad hand as you will always have a second meeple to move as you need both to reach El Dorado to before your opponent. Our two-player games lasted around the thirty-five minute mark whereas three and four player games crept up to forty-five minutes and an hour.
Depending on the map layout, there could be an advantage to having the “inside track” in a higher player count games. The player that is able to get out to an early lead may not always win, but in our experiences never finished outside the top two (barring a catastrophic bad hand/route choice once). Due to some choke points, it is possible for a player to basically block the progression of the explorers and force them to go an inopportune route but that also only happened to us once.
El Dorado is an amazing game. It has been requested at each of our game nights since adding it to our collection and I can only see our play count doubling before the holidays are upon us.