I have to admit, I was tempted to be a bit of a snob about The Quest For El Dorado, Reiner Knizia’s Spiel des Jahres-nominated family-weight deckbuilding/race game. I was there in the early days of Dominion! I know what deckbuilding is about, and the original is still the best! What’s this Knizia whippersnapper going to do?! Well, he’s going to take the entire concept of deckbuilding and perfectly adapt it for a wider, family-weight audience. I guess he knows what he’s doing.
I didn’t know this was needed until I played El Dorado, but looking back, deckbuilding has always been a bit of an inside baseball genre. With Dominion you’ve got most of the rules exported to the card text, which is familiar to CCG players, but can be intimidating to the outsider (whether it’s more or less intimidating than a steeper initial learning curve is probably up to individual taste). Dominion’s also a highly strategic game, where good play is often dependent on having a solid plan from the start. It also requires an acute understanding of what cards are in your deck at any given point in time to play competitively. As with any game, you can play it casually, but Dominion tends to bring out a sort of competitiveness given how much information is open to the players and how quickly you feel the impacts of your decisions.
Star Realms is the lightest deckbuilder I’ve played, but even it has some soft barriers to the uninitiated, especially with its more tactical nature requiring frequent snap-decisions of how good a card is in a particular context. What Knizia has done with El Dorado is create a design that gently pushes the players towards not only understanding the rules of the game, but understanding fundamental deckbuilding strategies. It’s absolutely lovely. Here are some examples.
1. Player Aids
Most deckbuilders won’t bother, but El Dorado comes with a small rectangular player aid that not only reminds the players of the simple turn structure, but provides a space for the deck and discard pile. I didn’t bother keeping the cards there when I played, but having everything marked for the players in their play space can be so reassuring to someone who is perhaps nervous about their understanding of the game. Also, by having the deck on the left and the discard on the right, the aid visually reinforces the card’s circular path: deck, to hand, to play area, to discard, and back to the deck.
2. Cards Resolve One At A Time
Nothing “floats” in El Dorado. The rules specify–and the player aid reinforces–the fact that every card is resolved completely before the next card is played. So if you have a “2 green” card, that will get you through 2 green barriers on your path to the finish line. If you’re in front of a 3 green barrier space, that card won’t let you move, and you can’t combine it with another green card to meet the requirement. That gives Knizia some room to challenge the players with tough to access areas of the map, but more importantly it completely eliminates the need to mentally keep track of any information as you play out your turn. Where a complicated turn in Dominion might have you drawing cards while retaining or gaining actions while also resolving intermediary effects, before looking back to see how many buys you have at the end (or accounting for duration cards or post-buy phases when you’re playing with certain expansions), El Dorado keeps it as simple and on-the-board as possible: you play a card, resolve it, and you never have to think about that card again.
3. Pseudo-Static Card Options
What do you do if you don’t want to surprise people with a constant rotation of new cards a la Star Realms or Clank, but you also don’t want to overload them with too many options as in Dominion? If you’re smart, like Reiner Knizia, you have all of the available cards in the game face-up from the beginning, but gate their access. Brilliant.
Every game of El Dorado starts with the same handful of options, but as soon as one of those card piles dries up, whoever buys next chooses a new card pile to add to the available options. It’s the best blend of both worlds to keep choices limited but also allow for strategic, long-term play. The design also encourages people to buy cards they want for their particular strategy right away because there are only 3 copies of each card in total.
4. An Elegant Catch-Up Mechanism
Anyone who has played Mario Kart understands the dangers of a too-aggressive rubberbanding mechanism in a game, but a hallmark of German game design is keeping everyone in the game until the end. This means not only removing any player elimination, but ensuring that even competent play is rewarded with a feeling of “being in the mix” until the end. El Dorado’s catch-up mechanism works beautifully from a number of different angles. The central board is comprised of a number of different hexagonal tiles, which are connected via narrow puzzle-piece segments. These pieces are in and of themselves spaces to traverse on the path to El Dorado. However, only the first player to that spot has to pay the cost to go over that space. They then collect the piece, and thus make the path for those following them marginally cheaper. Collecting these pieces gives you a tiebreak advantage if you and someone else take the same number of turns to reach the destination.
So you’ve got a catch-up mechanism that also provides a small boon to the leader, and a great bit of design that communicates two different strategies players can take: rushing or building up for a late push. In a game like this both are viable, but both might not be visible to the beginner on first glance.
5. A Race Instead of VP’s
When you think about it, there are a number of games that are functionally “races” even if they don’t have a race as a theme or even any physical or visual goal at the far end of a track. Race for the Galaxy is a bit cheeky with its name, as going into it blind you might think it’s about sci-fi expansion. Really, it’s a race. Viticulture is a race. And all of the deckbuilders so far mentioned function as races. That is, they reward the player who hits a particular scoring milestone first.
Star Realms gives the victory to the player who can decrease their opponents health a certain amount first. Dominion isn’t necessarily a race, but a 2 player game with no divergent VP generators (like the “Gardens” card) is almost always a race to the 5th Province.
El Dorado sidesteps all ambiguity and makes it explicitly a race on a physical board to a finish line. The cards you play will progress your person down that track, but is that so different from VP’s or doing damage to your opponent? Not really. What it is is more clear and more intuitive for anyone to understand. There’s no ambiguity about who is presently winning a game of El Dorado: it’s the person furthest along the track. There’s no level of thematic abstraction for the win condition to hide behind. The theme is a race and everyone can understand that.
6. Single-Use Cards
Nearly everyone regularly overestimates how many turns they have remaining in a game. I have to constantly remind myself of this and make sure I’m evaluating the state of the game correctly. I think this is mostly due to how games tend to have the players gain power as they progress. As they gain power they can move more quickly or make a big push towards the victory condition in the latter half of the game. Maybe in a game like El Dorado the first third of the player’s progression takes the first half of the playtime.
Regardless of the reason, Knizia helps players think through these kinds of efficiency decisions by including a good number of single use cards available for purchase. For nearly every card available there’s a cheaper, more powerful single-use analogue. Based on some quick calculations with my one play of the recommended starting game, I suspect Knizia aggressively priced those cards a hair in order to show people how powerful short-term boosts can be.
In a deckbuilder, this also helps people think though ideas of deck-thinning and keeping a lean deck in order to access more powerful cards more often. These kinds of opaque calculations (I can get a weaker card and maybe get 2-3 uses of it, or the more powerful card at 1 use, while marginally increasing how much I see of the rest of my deck…) are at the heart of deckbuilding strategy, and I love how seamlessly they follow from the basic mechanisms of El Dorado.
7. Helps Players See The Whole
As a race along a physical track, every phase of a game of El Dorado is available to you from the beginning. You know precisely what kind of terrain cards you’ll need access to at any given point in the game. A key skill in a traditional deckbuilding game is being able to understand an endpoint for your deck and figure out how to reach that state through the twists and turns of the game. Maybe you’ll buy a particular card in Dominion to get faster access to the lone +buy card available and then leverage that into a particular 2-card synnergy to drive your economy.
El Dorado isn’t nearly as complex as that, but it encourages a similar mode of thought. If there’s a large desert in the middle of the track, you know you’re going to need to plan ahead and stock up on cards that allow you to traverse that. What happens if there is no more desert after that particular stretch? How do you plan for the last leg of the journey? By literally painting the ebbs and flows of the game in color on the playing surface, Knizia helps players think about the whole of the game rather than merely the short term.
Honestly, while I’d certainly play The Quest for El Dorado again, I’m not champing at the bit to add it to my collection. Perhaps there’s enough there to sustain my interest over the long term, but I already have a number of interesting, more robust deckbuilders on my shelves. That said, I don’t think it’s designed for me, and that’s perfectly fine. As a design I have a great amount of respect for it. Dr. Knizia has created something so lean and so cleverly constructed that I can’t help but sit back and admire it.
What are your favorite aspects of The Quest for El Dorado? Did I miss any ways in which it communicates deckbuilding principles to beginners?