El Gaucho: A four-sided game review

el gaucho gameEl Gaucho is a light set collection board game that plays in about an hour. It’s light and family friendly, while offering a little more than traditional set collection games such as rummy.

The (mostly pasted on) theme backs the family game credentials, with players taking on the roll of Mexican cowboys (gauchos) tending to their herds (cows, represented by tiles).

Its cartoony art style is really charming, with each cow oozing personality. It takes two to four players, with a two-player game with experienced players running as fast as 30 minutes.

El Gaucho’s board is also very well drawn, while the cardboard ‘dice rodeo’ (fenced area to roll the dice) adding a nice bit of unusual bling. Throw in seven dice, custom meeples and a well laid out rulebook and you have a package well worth the £20 price tag.

In terms of play, in a round one player will roll the dice (two per player, plus one) and then each player will choose two to use. Dice can be used to claim cows of relevant values, but also to claim action spaces. Some of these actions allow you to mess with other players or give other extra roles/abilities in later rounds, while helping to negate the problem of low roles (you can’t be blocked out of an action space by other players).

The scoring is ingenious. Each cow of a breed (think card suit) scores the same value as the highest value same breed one in your herd: so if you have the 1,3,5 and 12 black cows, they are worth 12 each. This encourages players to save sets with a high numbered cow to score more later – but leaves the danger of another player stealing your prize beast before you do. In this example, losing your 12 would see your score cut from 48 (4×12) to 15 (3×5) – but you do at least score 12 in compensation when it’s stolen.

Teaching

El Gaucho cowsAs you’d expect from this kind of gateway game, teaching El Gaucho is a relatively simple affair. Turns are fast and all player information is open, so it is simple to give advice and reiterate things as you go.

There are a few key points that need explaining well: gauchos played onto action spaces can never be used in the same round they’re placed, for example, or that if you steal a tile from another player they will be compensated its value.

Also, cows are only claimed when all of those in a particular row on the board have been claimed. This can be important to set collection, as if you claim one out of sequence you must start a new set in that breed and score the old one (one action does mitigate this). But generally the rules are very simple to grasp.

But there are some subtle and interesting moves to be made. For example one option is to lay ‘lazy gauchos’ onto cow tiles, essentially reserving them for later. This action can be manipulated to several ends – reserving, blocking, forcing rows to complete, or to save yourself a dice. But you should let your players discover these nuances for themselves, as this should hold the attention of more experienced gamers.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m a fan of set collection games and went into this year’s Essen looking for lighter fare after a few years collecting some great mid-to-heavyweight euros. This and Johari seemed to fit the bill and both proved great buys. El Gaucho is very light, but there are interesting decisions to be made and games tend to be won by the person making the best calls throughout. And while not everyone has rushed out to buy a copy after playing, there have been no complaints either.
  • The thinker: While I won’t be demanding this particular hour of my life back, I also won’t be rushing forward to play another game of El Gaucho any time soon. There is nothing wrong with the game, but despite all the bells and whistles (read: dice and actions) this is still a one-dimensional set collection game. At least Ticket to Ride has you building routes, giving some room for a long-term strategy; this is just rummy on steroids. Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing (which I don’t).
  • The trasher: Cutesy art set collection doesn’t make me sit down with a great deal of confidence, but I had a surprising amount of fun with this one. While stealing people’s cows or claiming ones you know others want (to try and get them to oust you for cash) isn’t as much fun as shooting their spaceships in the face, it is fun. And it doesn’t even have to be the act of stealing – just putting one of your gauchos on the steal space is enough to set fear into the more timid players. Not a game I’d clamour for, but one I’d be happy to play any time – but not with AP gamers…
  • The dabbler: El Gaucho is an absolute treat! The cows are gorgeous and funny, the board adds to the theme and the game is simple – but with a bit of depth. Super fast turns make it zip by and everyone is engaged throughout, as you need to know what’s going on with other players’ herds. And the dice rodeo is fab! It’s just a small thing, but works perfectly (dice flying everywhere can be a problem in games!) and helps add a little uniqueness to proceedings. The threat of thieving gauchos also ads to table banter, with everyone suggesting other players to steal from once someone goes into that action spot. Great fun.

Key observations

El Gaucho dice rodeoThere are two main concerns I’ve seen so far, and it seems contradictory to try and disprove both, but I’ll give it a go anyway…

First is the complaint that there is not enough here – that it’s ‘just’ a set collection game; a glorified filler. But I don’t think the game pretends to be much more than this – and as long as you don’t play with AP prone players the game plays very quickly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the players who rate this with low scores say it is too long, while those rating it highly describe it as a fast game…

I think the large box, worker placement aspect and tiles, dice etc lead to a misconception about what’s inside – which is a shame, because played for what it is this is a solid and fun little game. But then taking El Gaucho is a glorified filler, isn’t it too expensive for what it is? Why pay so much for a game which is so fast and basic?

I’d argue the game’s strong gateway potential, but also that £20 isn’t a high price for any well produced board game. What about Can’t Stop, or King of Tokyo? The components here are easily worth the game’s price.

Conclusion

El Gaucho worker actionsWhile El Gaucho isn’t for everyone, it easily found a place in my stock of gateway games. It’s different enough (and shorter) when compared to the likes of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers, while offering a lot to new gamers and just enough to more seasoned ones.

Would I want to play it every day? No. Do I think it has hidden depths? Nope. But not every game has to, does it? Taken on its merits, it’s a fun and easily accessible game that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Except of course for when it does. Each game of El Gaucho I’ve enjoyed has been played in the right spirit, with players largely skipping through their turns and playing with smiles on their faces. But I’ve seen others playing in silence, staring at the board trying to grok it to death – and for those players, it must’ve been a truly miserable experience.

If you like lighter games, in particular set collection ones, then I’d certainly advise you to get a play of El Gaucho – but terminally serious AP gamers need not apply.

Essen Spiel 2014: My 10 biggest hits (and misses)

spiel-14It’s three weeks today since I played my first demo game at Essen Spiel 2014. Since then I’ve been to Edinburgh, been to Eastbourne, been to bed with the flu, and been maniacally trying to remember what I do for living after three weeks off work. Hence a lack of content about Essen. Sorry.

So to get the ball rolling again I present, in no particular order, a pithy report on the 10 games from this year’s fare that had the biggest impact on me – both positively and negatively. Longer reviews to come on the good ones once I’ve had a few more plays.

Hits

Deus boxDeus was everything I’d hoped it would be; a tableau building euro game with plenty of room for clever combos that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Some will say its a little too puzzley and heads-down, but while there’s not a lot of interaction you do need to be careful of both players’ board positions and how their tableaus are set up in terms of ending the game (a little like Race for the Galaxy and a player’s 12th card).

El Gaucho is a very pretty board, dice and tile game game that is, at its heart, a rummy variant with a few bells and whistles. I think the bling is leaving some a little disappointed at its lack of depth, but that’s looking for complexity where none was intended. Taken as a simple set collection game, embellished with actions to mitigate bad rolls, it’s a nice quick gateway game that plays in an hour.

Ancient Terrible Things takes the basic Yahtzee idea and throws in a comic book Cthulhu theme and special items/tokens, making a one-hour push-your-luck dice fest I’ve found thoroughly enjoyable so far. It’s definitely over produced, and maybe too expensive for the depth in the box, but with a nice amount of variety in the box and an expansion on the way I think there should b more than enough here to keep me entertained.

Johari is another one-hour set collection game, this time sticking to cards but keeping action selection and adding a few special powers – plus a strong turn order mechanism that really drives the game. The jewel trader theme is a bit done to death right now, but don’t let that put you off; this is a clever little brain burner that’s deceptively tricky to get right – especially with the pesky inspector having away with your fake gems.

Steam Donkey is a small box card game from the ever so slightly bonkers Ragnar Brothers. The thin theme sees you building a Victorian seaside resort (including Eastbourne) steam punk style… The basics see you spending cards to lay other cards into your tableau to score points, with the ‘advanced’ game adding some interesting player powers and interaction into the mix. Daft but clever with a unique theme.

Misses

Imperial Settlers boxImperial Settlers should’ve been another Deus. Tableau building, resource manipulation, a bit of player interaction – right up my street. And it seemed that way, until about half way through when the gaping holes started to appear. Overpowered cards you may or may not see but that will win or lose you the game; plus repetitive actions to nowhere that got boring even before the end of our first play. A terrible waste of a good idea.

Madame Ching also started promisingly; a clever card game with interesting decisions to make about how to score your points (quick risky and often, or slow and more measured). But once we started to see some of the ‘special’ cards come into play it soon became clear they were totally unbalanced and game breaking. This kind of chaos works in some games but is totally out of place here, where planning should be key but can be destroyed by blind luck.

Amber Route was probably the most beautiful game at Essen. The art is incredible, the bling off the chart (real amber pieces, anyone?) and the race idea on a constructable board  good one. In fact I had to play two disappointing demo games just to make sure I didn’t want it. Why? Because it was ridiculously easy, making everything you did seem pointless. Again, what made it more disappointing was how close it was to being cool.

Murano is a beautiful island just outside Venice. Murano the game is the driest of dry euros which started to feel old during the rules explanation and outstayed its welcome soon afterwards. an hour or so later it was over; I don’t even remember who won (it might have actually been me). Maybe I’m just done with this kind of game, but I found it totally cold and heartless. Some enjoyed it a bit, but average at the very best.

Grog Island has been chosen to represent all the games at Essen this year (and there were many) that added one interesting mechanism to the cannon – then forgot to do anything interesting with it. The idea of a bidding mechanism using different coloured dice rolled each round is ingenious; making the boring resulting marker placement/secret scoring cards game even more disappointing. Hopefully this mechanism will be back.