I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.
But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.
My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.
The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.
The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.
Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.
This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.
But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.
Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.
- I won the game in the end, in case you were wondering.
- Yes, El Grande came out in 1996. It feels timeless, as modern as any game that came out this year.
- I should note that honesty and fair play go out the window with social deduction games. I will lie to your face with a smile in Tempel des Schreckens or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong if it gives me an advantage, but of course that’s the whole point of those games. I don’t consider them within the same scope as a traditional strategic game.
- The others involve things like fairness and willingness to teach, stuff that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you’ve read what I’ve been writing here for any amount of time.