The QUEST for EL DORADO
Deck Building in South America for 2-4 players aged 10+
Designed by Reiner Knizia Illustrated by Franz Vohwinkel for Ravensburger
Currently (at time of writing) £29.99 from Zatu online.
Not many game designers can create such a semi-complex family/gamer pastime as The Quest for El Dorado and provide it to players with a rules booklet that covers everything there is to know about enjoying the game in just 8 pages. Because of this low number of pages, with one being the front cover and two others being a Glossary and a Variant, core/experienced games players may think it's going to be a lightweight; they would, in my opinion, be wrong - it's lower-mid-weight in gameplay and complexity. The Quest for El Dorado is 5 years old now and yet it's still as fresh as a daisy (not that I have been testing the freshness of Daisies recently).
This is a race game where the first thing for every game is to create a race course through the dense jungles of South America, following Paths to the famed and fabled city of gold 'El Dorado' over various types of terrain. At certain points the race map has to narrow to four tiles across - it can be any width, though usually less than eight tiles and any length - but it has to end on a specifically designed 'Gold' tile, three of which come in the box. At these narrow points the board has to be separated and random blockade pieces introduced.
When these are flipped over to their terrain side they have a requirement that must be fulfilled, once only. The player who breaks through the blockade keeps the tile as a tied game breaker. Of course once the blockade is removed the land-tiles that were opened to insert the blockade are pushed back together as if nothing had happened - possibly a landslide, tsunami or earthquake, take your pick. It doesn't matter, just know that it happens.
There is an 'Assembly Guide' that shows six different Paths to El Dorado; 2 are easy (Hills of Gold & Home Stretch), 2 are moderate (Serpentine & Winding Paths) and two are difficult (Swamplands & Witch's Cauldron). On the flip side of this chart there is a very basic, 'first game' setup which it is best to begin with if you are not playing with players experienced to this game. After your first game, unless you are playing again with different players, then it's time to head to the Assembly Guide, and from there you can delve into your own imaginations, creating islands and peninsulars of your own design.
The deck building begins with each player having 8 cards, comprising of 1 Sailor (Blue) 3 Explorers (Green) and 4 Travelers (Yellow). Each Turn you can buy a card from the Market (a board which has 6 stacks of different types and values of cards). You are allowed to buy a card even if you have moved - there is no penalty for doing both. Cards that have a Gold coin symbol and a value can be spent to buy cards from the Market, all other cards have a value of ½ a coin (thus 2 cards a worth 1 coin).
The card stacks on the Market are all 'starter' cards. The card stacks beneath the Market are moved up as each Market stack empties to create a vacant space. When the last card from a Market stack is removed, the space stays empty until the next time a player wants to buy a card. Then that player moves any of the 'neath stacks up onto the Market and can then, if they wish (they do not have to) buy one of those cards (or any other card from the Market).
Movement is the key to the race, and each hex has a symbol or symbols which show the type and number of cards required to cross onto them. For example a blue tile with a single oar symbol means that players need to play a card with (at least) one oar on it. If the blue tile has 2 oar symbols on it then a single card showing two or more oars is required. Note that I said a 'single' card, not two cards of value 1 each; these are not acceptable. You could play a #3 oar card and move across three single oar spaces. This introduces a touch of frustrating irrationality. Can you imagine a shopkeeper not accepting 5 x $1.00 bills for a $5.00 item? I know it's a game mechanism, but the number of symbols on the squares (at least in my mind) represent the difficulty to cross the terrain (i.e. the thickness of the jungle).
You generally hold four cards in your hand, drawing them from the shuffled cards you were dealt and any new cards collected. All cards used in a player's turn are discarded onto that players discard stack and four new cards drawn from the original 8 cards dealt. Cards bought leave the Market and find themselves on the buyer's discard stack - hence the deck building. You can discard unused/unwanted cards from your hand (always discard to your own discard stack) and then draw cards to make your hand back to four cards - fairly standard deck-building practice.
Purple cards bought from the Market are often one-shot only and have red crosses to show this; they also have some excellent abilities. When used these cards are removed from the game. They usually cost a little more but are mostly worthwhile having.
Players may never move their piece onto (or through) Mountain spaces, nor onto (or through) spaces occupied by opposing pieces. There are 'special' spaces such as Rubble and Base Camps. Cards used to move onto Rubble are discarded, cards moved to land on a Base Camp are removed from the game. This is how you can tweak your deck of poor, unwanted cards.
The game end triggers when a player reaches (enters) an End Tile space - it ends when all players have had a go that turn; it can end immediately if the last player in turn order is the one that triggers the endgame mechanic.
The QUEST for EL DORADO is a fine, fun, family/gamer entertainment. It is not an area, man or building management game, like so many new games seem to be. It can be frustrating, it can be downright dirty (gamers will almost certainly find strategies they can use to upset the plans of their opponents) by using pieces to block other player's pieces - if you have been watching what your opponents have been doing you will have a good idea what route they are planning and move your piece into the way.
It can be played with 2-players where both players have 2 colours each, and you can play with the variant Cave tiles that score you valuable Tokens. To get the benefit of cave tokens you must stop your adventurer next to (you never enter a Cave space) Cave and take the top token from the stack - if there are no tokens there is no benefit.
You can explore a cave more than once, but you have to move away from it (leaving at least one clear space between the cave and your adventurer) before you can move back in. You could say that moving is simply complex.
The QUEST for EL DORADO is a fairly typical Reiner Knizia game, full of fun and frustration - appearing to be blatently easy, but with a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. Despite this, it is good for gamers because of the variables, and great for gamer families, especially because 10+ year olds can play it, understand it, and enjoy it, without the presence of an adult.
This is a game worth regularly bringing to the table as long as you continually mix up the play map. I also suggest only using the cave tiles every two-three games, not all the time, as mixing it up rejuvinates it and keeps it fresh. Two other great ways to keep it fresh are to add in HEROES & HEXES which is a straight-forward expansion, and/or pick up a copy of the stand-alone-cum-expansion The QUEST for EL DORADO: GOLDEN TEMPLES which introduces these additional components (not all of which are required if used as an expansion): 1 starting tile, 3 terrain tiles, 3 temples, 1 ending tile, 6 blockades, 8 game pieces, 4 expedition boards, 1 starting player hat, 1 market board, 150 expedition cards. I have only played the base game and the Heroes & Hexes expansion, so this is just an assumption, but it seems like all three boxed sets can be combined to create the adventure of a lunchtime.