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Review – The Quest for El Dorado

Review – The Quest for El Dorado

This is a review of The Quest for El Dorado designed by Reiner Knizia. It plays 2-4 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 30 to 60 minutes.

Mechanics
At first glance, Knizia’s first effort at designing a deck-builder seemed a little lackluster but after roughly 3 rounds of play, I realized the folly of my ways. El Dorado sends players on a jaunt through the jungle, passing over various types of terrain in the hopes of being the first adventurer to reach the land of gold. That’s right, this is a racing game!

As one would expect from such a traveled and renowned designer, El Dorado presents an elegant entry in the deck-builder genre that injects a couple unique twists. Each player begins the game with a deck of 8 predetermined cards and draws 4 as a starting hand. On a player’s turn, they will play one card at a time and perform it’s effect/action. In addition to playing a card for it’s effect, multiple cards can be discarded as a currency to buy a single card per turn from the market, which is comprised of 8 small piles of cards dictated by the set-up rules. When used in this manner, yellow cards provide a number of coins depicted on the card and each card of any other color can be used for 1/2 a coin. As in any other deck-builder, the newly purchased card goes into the player’s discard pile and will be available to draw in future turns.

To the left is a sample hand for a turn with some of the most basic cards.  Playing each of the yellow cards allowed for movement through a yellow hex while the green card gave your adventurer the means to hack through one jungle space.  Finally, the Jack-of-all Trades card provides the flexibility to move through a yellow, green, or blue hex.  Each of these cards must be played individually and only grants one movement point in the corresponding type of terrain.  If a hex requires two movement points, as is often the case, the adventurer must purchase a card from the market that grants additional movement points.

In general, card effects allow for movement through specific types of terrain as mentioned above, provided that the hex is vacant because two players can never be in the same hex. An exception to this general rule are the purple cards, which perform unique actions such as drawing more cards, grabbing a free card from the market, etc. While not completely unique to El Dorado, it introduces another variable to balance in that some cards in the market are single use and are then immediately removed from the game.

Another unique twist exists in the manner by which the market is replenished after a stack of cards has been exhausted.  Rather than a card being drawn from a face down shuffled deck, the next player who purchases a card picks a pile containing three identical copies of a card to move into the vacant spot. This creates another variable for players to balance in that an opponent will have the opportunity to determine the next cards available in the market, thereby allowing them to dictate future purchasing options.

Finally, a turn concludes with the active player discarding any number of cards they wish to and drawing back up to 4 cards. Unlike other deck-builders, players can carry over useful cards to the next turn to plan for a strong turn of movement or purchasing a powerful card.

There’s not much more to say here than that this is Knizia at his best injecting a modern mechanic with a few unique twists while maintaining an exemplary level of sophistication and elegance.

Theme
As mentioned earlier, the theme of the game is that each player represents an adventurer or expedition leader traversing through the jungle in search of an ancient wonder. Predictably, the adventurer needs to pack a machete to create a path through the thick foliage, a boat to paddle across streams and sundry other bodies of water, and a plethora of money to cross the treacherous money terrain……okay, well most of it makes sense.

Unlike most deck-builders, the theme and mechanics feel married, largely because the cards are not simply an abstraction of something going on thematically but actually have a physical manifestation on the board. Given the mechanic and game length, players should not expect to truly feel like an adventurer making this trek while garnering the scars of likely and unavoidable hazards but the theme is present and pleasant.

Art

Artwork is not an area where El Dorado either shines or loses it’s luster. The colors are bright, vibrant, easily distinguishable, and intuitively tied to the type of terrain. At it’s high points, the card art is pleasant and at it’s low point is not distracting in anyway from the wonderful mechanics.

On the other hand, the graphic design both on the board and cards is superb. Symbols for the different types of terrain are distinct and intuitive. A typical occurrence in most deck-builders is to have all 4 players crowded in one corner of the table hunched over the market of cards. Aside from a couple action cards that have slightly lengthy text, the symbols are clear from any seat at the table and give a player a sense of the full effect of the card.

Pacing
It should be clear at this point that El Dorado moves rapidly and smoothly from player to player with minimal downtime between turns.  At the same time, you also have incentive to stay engaged during your opponent’s brief turn because the spatial aspect of the game creates choke points that can severely delay your progress if another player decides to or is forced to stop in that one spot you have the appropriate cards to move through. The frustration level can be high but in a purely comical and entertaining way as you bemoan your friend or significant other for spending 3 consecutive rounds in the same hex just purchasing cards and grinning at you smugly.

Value
If it has not been apparent up to this point, I fell for this game after a first play and would gladly pay between $25 to $35. Presently, the two large non-sponsor online retailers have the game for roughly $25, which is a steal. The components are not remarkable but of good quality and feed into the theme.

Accessibility
On the light to heavy scale, this is definitely light but in no way devoid of the choices and strategy necessary to leave you feeling satisfied. As with other deck-builders, choices are made each turn to build and thin your own personal deck to face the obstacles ahead. Unlike it’s peers, players also actively shape the market of available cards by strategically choosing when to buy the last card of a stack and cede control of the next card in the market to their opponent. However, the choices do not stop there because the terrain layout provides multiple paths to reach the finish line which can lead an adventurer to target certain cards over others their opponents are valuing.

All of that being said, new players will pick up the bulk of the strategy within a couple turns. Teaching time is roughly 10 minutes if the pupils are familiar with deck-building and, if not, the length may increase an additional 5 minutes or so.

Longevity
Undoubtedly, this game has found it’s way into my collection and will have a spot there for the foreseeable future. Deck-builders comprised of solely stacks of cards have been done to death and feel lackluster amongst the massive population of their forebears. For a deck-builder to capture my interest, it needs to pull in other game mechanics akin to Tyrants of the Underdark (area control). Albeit a lighter experience, El Dorado meets that mark by rolling the mechanic into a racing game in an unexpected setting but not losing the essence, simplicity, and pace of a deck-builder. As my fellow blogger Justin would say, “Viola!”

Final Thoughts
For me, this should have been the runaway winner of the Spiel des Jahres. It finds that great balance of being accessible and family friendly while also allowing more veteran gamers to feel satiated.