Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Category: Deck-building, Racing, Family
Player Count: 2-4
Reiner Knizia is one of the best-known board game designers, due in large part to his huge success in the late nineties and early 2000s (he won the German Game Prize four times between 1993 and 2003). In recent years, he has focused on simpler family games, winning the Spiele des Jahres (family game of the year) in 2008 for Lost Cities: the Board Game (a.k.a. Keltis), and receiving a nomination again here in 2017 for The Quest for El Dorado.
Dr. Knizia has frequently disclosed he is careful to not play many other games outside his own designs—he thinks that it stifles innovation. I’m starting to think he’s serious, as he’s about ten years late to the deck-building party. And though deck-building might not be all that original at this point, El Dorado mixes deck-building with a straight racing game: the singular goal is to get to the other side of the board. No victory points here! Does it feel innovative? More importantly, is it fun? Let’s find out!
The game has a traditional Indiana Jones setting, so there are some mystical elements (see the front cover). However, the game is primarily about exploring the jungle with machetes and boats, finding treasure, and so on. I don’t find anything in the game particularly inappropriate for younger children, although the complexity of the game led to the publisher suggesting 10 years and up on the box.
When you first lay out El Dorado, it looks really nice on the table. I love the chunky hexes and the colors—even the “ancient” artwork on the cards. However, the printing isn’t particularly vibrant and doesn’t “pop.” It’s not as eye-catching and brightly colored as its competitors, but it still looks good. I do wish the cards were bigger, though. However, the game is priced very competitively at $44.99 MSRP.
And to answer one of the questions above, El Dorado is an extremely fresh take on a tired genre. The complete lack of victory points and the singular focus on racing makes the card play feel very different. While cards can be used as money to make purchases, it’s more advantageous to use cards for movement since racing is the point of the game. Furthermore, you can also save cards from turn to turn, allowing for explosive turns with huge movement gains. Lastly, the game system leaves only six cards available to purchase at any given time, but if one of the stacks is empty, a player can “bring down” a stack of their choice to the market. That ebb and flow makes for some really interesting timing decisions. All of these innovations are small, but they add up to a game that feels completely original.
At first glance, El Dorado doesn’t feel like Dr. Knizia’s previous work, but it will once you dive into the gameplay. In particular, the good doctor has a habit of always including little rules that do heavy lifting. One source of immense frustration for players is that cards cannot be combined for movement. This means if you need to move across a 3-Machete spot, you cannot do it by using three 1-Machete cards. This important rule makes deck-building essential; players cannot simply run to the end while other players mess around with their decks. It’s a small, subtle thing, but as usual, Knizia accomplishes quite a bit by using very little to get it done.
Although El Dorado was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, its primary competition in the U.S. is not Kingdomino but Clank!, another deck-builder with a board that involves racing (to escape a dungeon). However, Clank! is a victory-point game with tons of rules and concepts shoved into a wildly varied deck of cards, while El Dorado is a much leaner, far more strategic game. Clank! has a fun look to it and a cool, well-integrated theme making its huge following understandable. On the other hand, El Dorado is a similar concept for serious strategy gamers who appreciate a lean, efficient game that focuses on strategy over tactics.
And that strategy is not as intuitive or obvious as players think. Traditional methods, such as fast-scrapping your deck, are presented rather slowly in El Dorado, making their usefulness more questionable—additionally, scrapping is interestingly tied to movement on several spaces on the board. The balance between buying cards versus using cards for movement (some movement spaces require treasure) is a tough decision as well. I’ve played well over 5,000 games of Dominion and was ranked highly on isotropic back in the day, and I’m one of the top 20 Star Realms players in the world with another 7,000 games there. Even with all that, this game has me completely confounded (despite the general lack of luck—I haven’t won a single game yet). And I LOVE that. I love finding a new way to deck-build that reinvigorates the genre with simple ideas that require completely new mindsets.
Eventually, I may figure out that mindset to the level I have in other deck-builders, but I’ll be quite a few games in by then. It’s easy to question the game’s replayability due to the very few card types in the game—which are all available at some point in each game. However, I think that grossly undersells the huge variability in the map layouts. Each map piece is double-sided—not all are used in each game—and they can be rotated and connected in countless different ways. Each map lends itself to entirely different card strategies, and many cards are not even touched in most games. The first few purchases from the broader market are hugely important because in order to keep pace with your opponents, you have to be using your cards to move most of the time, so purchases are precious.
The last thing I’ll say about the gameplay is that you should not be put off by the 2-player variant. I am generally not a fan of the “each player controls two pawns” solution for 2-player versions of games meant for 3 or 4 players, but here it really works. Since there are no victory points—just a race—players simply need to get both of their pawns to the finish line. Now, if one of your pawns gets stuck behind your opponent, you can work on the other pawn instead of getting frustrated. I also found that the game still took only 30-45 minutes, which has been common for most of our plays (4 players may have been closer to 60 minutes). The game hits my sweet spot for game length (i.e., manageable while toddlers are around).
One way this game does not feel like a traditional Knizia game is its well-integrated theme. Knizia has been criticized many times for having dry, mathematical games that are more about colors and numbers than the themes “pasted” on top—not surprising, since he has a doctorate in mathematics. However, the singular focus of racing to the end forces this game to coalesce around its theme. The cards make practical sense—of course you would need to buy help from local adventurers, find cool relics to use, and so on. You can even think of the deck shuffling as them helping “when it’s their turn” to contribute to the adventure. The Caves variant adds bonuses to find upon exploring, and they enrich both the theme of discovery and the gameplay (I would use them every time, even the first game). The artwork really shines since the game is going for an old-school Indiana Jones vibe. While Knizia’s last big splash was Keltis, a game intentionally devoid of nearly any theme, El Dorado does the exact opposite, and does it very well.
I wouldn’t call The Quest for El Dorado a return to form for Reiner Knizia, because in my mind, he never left it—some of his lighter fare in recent years is among his very best work. However, El Dorado is certainly something special, and among the best games he’s ever designed. I highly recommend it, as it’s one of the best family games I’ve played in 2017.
Thank you to Ravensburger for providing a review copy of The Quest for El Dorado.
The Bottom Line
El Dorado is an excellent family game with simple innovations on deck-building that make it appealing for gamers too. It's one of Knizia's best, and one of the best so far in 2017.