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QUEST FOR EL DORADO, THE

Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore

THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO (Ravensburger, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; $32.99)

 

The Quest for El Dorado, is a new release from Ravensburger (2017), and well-loved designer Reiner Knizia.   While European editions were released in the spring, the English edition arrived in North America in the fall of 2017.

This reviewer has a long history with the designs of Reiner Knizia but, admittedly, many of those games were from a decade ago.  The Quest for El Dorado is the first “deck-builder” game from Reiner Knizia.  As most readers will already know, deck-building jumped into the limelight about a decade ago with the release of Dominion.  I do wonder why Knizia has now chosen to build a game with this mechanism.  I cannot answer that question, but I can report that he has crafted an enjoyable game.  Let’s take a closer look…

The Quest for El Dorado is an affordable mid-sized game that features a bright and enticing cover.  For experienced gamers you may be forgiven if it reminds you of the “Mask Trilogy” (Tikal, Java and Mexica) from Wolfgang Kramer from years ago.  For you see, El Dorado lies somewhere in the Central American jungle.

Opening the box, you find a large number of cardboard tiles are used to build a map.  The tiles are brightly colored depictions of jungle terrain.  Primarily, they feature green jungle, pools of blue water, and golden swaths, which might initially strike as desert, but in fact represent local villages.  These villages are yellow, as you will find gold is the way to pass through.  While these three colors are dominant, there are also impassable mountains, and a few red hexes, which I will come back to.  In addition to the larger boards, there are two mid-sized tiles, and a small goal-tile.  The boards will fit together in lots of different ways, making each quest unique.

The cards are small format.  There are three main groups of cards.  Each player has eight cards designated as his or her starting hand.  Selected upgrade cards will begin play in the market, and the balance will not be available initially – but are always included as a sideboard for future selections.  In addition to the boards and cards there are 8 meeples, two each in four colors.  Up to four players will participate in this card-driven race through the jungle to the ultimate goal – El Dorado.

Initially each player gets an eight-card deck.  These cards will allow you to pass through the easiest green, blue and yellow spaces on the map.  However, it will be necessary to acquire more potent cards in order to complete the trek to El Dorado.  On the map, any given space will indicate from 1-4 icons of a single color.  This is the minimum card value that must be spent to enter the space.  Players may not combine weak cards to pay the entrance fee, so your initial deck of cards will only get you so far.

Yellow cards start with a value of 1 gold.  (Later cards improve.)  But green and blue cards only have a buying power of ½ gold.  There are also violet cards, representing equipment, which also have a buying power of ½ gold.  With only four cards in hand, players must consider whether to move, to buy new cards, or perhaps a bit of both. 

Because the initial cards are only so good, players will quickly decide they must get better cards.  The turn structure is simple, start the turn with four cards.  First move, if you will.  This is simple, play a card of the color to enter the hex you wish to move to.  If you do not use all of the icons, you can keep moving along that color, so long as you have enough icons to pay the ‘toll’.  Once done moving, you can choose to play another card to move, or you can choose to use the buying power in your hand, to buy a single card from the marketplace. 

Initially, the marketplace is set up with a number of mid-level cards.  There are three copies of each card offered for sale.  When the last card of a set is purchased, it creates an empty slot in the marketplace.  The next player to buy a card is allowed to buy any card – remember those cards that were placed in the sideboard during set up!  When this happens, the buyer selects any card he or she likes.  He or she takes one of the three copies of that card, and then places the other two copies in the marketplace.  Now once again, buyers are limited to just the cards in the marketplace.  So only when an open slot is created may a player buy off the side board.  This is a strategic consideration.  When presented with a buying option, will you create that open slot for your opponent to fill?

This structuring of the marketplace is interesting.  Every card in the game is always set out at the start of the game.  But this narrowed opportunity to get the more advanced cards, allows each game to develop differently.  Obviously, movement needs will vary from map to map.  Combined, these two factors create the possibility of playing different deck-building strategies.  

Earlier, I mentioned the violet cards.  These represent equipment and other useful enhancements, such as a native guide.  The very best cards in the game are frequently limited to a single use, bearing an icon demanding the card be removed from the game after its been used.  Effects from these cards will vary, but generally speaking, they will either enhance your hand size (buying power), or help you speed across the map.  For example, the native guide allows you to move your playing piece one space without having to pay the usual entrance fee to a space.  This can be very helpful when needing to pass through an otherwise insurmountable admission price to a key hex.

Many players of deck-building games are aware of strategies around thinning your deck to rid yourself of the weak cards, and play the most powerful cards more frequently.  This is fully supported in the Quest for El Dorado.  On the map are a few sites, those red hexes previously mentioned, where from 1-3 cards must be removed from the game to enter the space.  Further, some upgrade cards also provide a way to dispose of unwanted cards from your hand.

The Quest for El Dorado is a fairly brisk game.  You can vary the length by selecting more/fewer tiles to the map.  But even a 5-tile map has played easily under 1 hour for this reviewer in games ranging from 2-4 players.  At its heart this game is a race.  But deciding whether to keep moving, or to hunker down while you buy those better cards is an interesting decision.  I’ve seen both strategies work.

In a two-player game, each player will control 2 playing pieces.  This gives the 2-player game a nice amount of extra heft.  The winner will be the first player to have arrived in El Dorado with both of his playing pieces. 

The game also includes a large number of additional tiles to support the “Caves Variant”.  While mountains remain impassable in this variant, each mountain chain has a cave visible.  Three tiles are set on each cave location, and players can choose to end a turn beside a cave to explore.  All of the reward tiles are helpful, giving extra movement factors, or other hand management boosts.  These tiles can be freely played during a player’s turn, giving that player a bit more muscle.  These tiles also inject some additional luck into the game.

Overall, The Quest for El Dorado is a nice tight package.  It is nicely produced.  The game play is fun, and the interaction between the card play and the board is highly thematic.  On board, each playing piece is another obstacle, as each playing piece may not be passed through. 

What remains an open question for this reviewer is how well it will hold up over repeated plays.  The map variability is helpful.  But even with the thoughtful restrictions around when high-level cards can be purchased, I do wonder if having every card in every game may lead to dominant modes of play.  I am only six plays in, and so far, this has not yet emerged.

Reiner Knizia has let it be known that he intends to introduce expansions for this game.  So, there will be more to follow should you decide to pursue it.  This reviewer has only dabbled with deck-building games and, from that point of reference, I am enjoying The Quest for El Dorado.  I like the direct link between the board and card play.  This is a very thematic game, something I have not always said about previous Knizia designs I have enjoyed.  For the long-experienced player of deck-building games such as Dominion, The Quest for El Dorado will be a big step down in heft and complexity.  But if you can enjoy a light game where you race through the jungle, I recommend giving it a try! – – – – Kevin Whitmore


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