The Quest for El Dorado Review
The search for gold in South America has been a go-to adventure theme for generations. I grew up with Indiana Jones films and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (kids of the ’80s will remember the greatest theme music ever), and thanks to The Quest for El Dorado, I can re-enact it at home. Designer extraordinaire – Reiner Knizia – created this deck-building game of exploration and adventure. Does it scratch that mosquito bite yearning for jungle escapades?
Jungle is massive
The Quest for El Dorado drops you into the roles of expedition leaders. Each is trying to negotiate their way through the jungles, deserts, and lakes, searching for the golden treasure. That landscape is a collection of big, hex tiles, joined at the edges. There are several layouts shown in the rulebook, but there’s nothing to stop you from creating something which fits on your table better. Despite the hexes not being too big, by the time they’re linked, and the card market is on the table, it takes up quite a lot of space.
The best way to describe the game is a mixture of deck-building and racing. Some deck-builders can feel like a race. Dominion, for example, is basically a race to amass points before the last Province card is taken. The Quest for El Dorado, however, is a traditional race. Our intrepid explorers have to play cards that allow them to cut their way through the jungle, aiming to be the first to make it to the gold – and with it, glory. Something like that, anyway.
If we’re honest, the most satisfying bit of a deck-builder is crafting your deck. As in Moonrakers, Aeon’s End, and just about every other deck-building game ever, there’s a card market to visit. In an attempt to keep things thematic, your trips to card-Tesco in El Dorado result in you hiring more people to come on your trip. You might be hiring a Scout to lead your group, but in reality, all you need to know is that he’s a green card with a power of two. You might look at the card art and think about what each card represents, but that’s quickly replaced with a need to just glance at colour and value. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing necessarily, it’s just how deck-builders work.
Lean, mean, exploring machine
There are two distinct phases to most peoples’ introduction to deck-building. Phase one is when you buy all the cards, and revel in your glorious collection, like some kind of card magnate. Phase two is when you try to play with all the cards, and realise they don’t work together. It’s this natural turning point that leads inquisitive minds to think “What if I take cards out of my deck, so the cards I want come out more often…?”.
Trimming the fat. Separating the wheat from the chaff. Skimming off the cream. It doesn’t matter which analogy you choose, the result is the same. In El Dorado you’ll inevitably find some value in thinning your deck, and there’s a mechanism for doing exactly that. Visiting a base camp on the map lets you bin some of your cards permanently, but in typical Knizia fashion, it’s a calculated risk. Getting to a base camp means straying off the beaten path. In other words, your deck gets more useful, but it means you’ll often have to travel further.
The way Reiner has balanced The Quest for El Dorado is fantastic. I love the way you can plan your route long in advance, and then try to craft your deck along the way. If you’ve played the more-recent Cubitos, you’ll be familiar with the agony of choice you’re given, between the most direct route and the best bonuses. It’s a light game, in terms of complexity, but I’d still probably point newcomers towards Dominion first. Learning how to build a deck while planning a route can prove tricky for younger players. Any mistakes made during crafting your deck feel amplified by your lack of progress in the race.
I’m a sucker for jungley, adventurey, Indiana-Jonesy themes in games. I loved Escape: The Curse of the Temple, and The Quest for El Dorado conjures up the same feelings for me. On a mechanical level it’s just about growing a stronger deck of cards to cope with more difficult movement requirements. As you’d expect from a Reiner Knizia game, the mathematics behind all of this feel very nicely balanced. As long as you follow the official map layouts or use the principles in the rulebook (or these awesome fan-made maps), you’ll be able to create some unique and varied jungles.
This is a real keeper of a game. It’s not one of those that sits on your shelves for months between plays (I’m sorry, On Mars. I still love you). You could easily play it several evenings in a week and not get tired of it, thanks to the variable setup. I keep harking back to Dominion, I know, but El Dorado offers the same simplicity in rules and mechanical overhead as its forebear. Once you know how to play it, each time it lands on the table it becomes a game of figuring out what you want to do, not how to play, and that’s what all good games should do.
If you’re all about the heavy, brain-burning games, The Quest for El Dorado probably isn’t for you. As a svelte, accessible mix of racing and deck-building though, it’s fantastic. Even though Knizia has created hundreds of games, there aren’t many that I’d consider must-haves. El Dorado, along with Tigris and Euphrates, is a game that I think everyone should have in their collection. Dominion is still on my shelf after 13 years, and I expect The Quest for El Dorado to still be there in another 13. It’s brilliant.
Review copy kindly provided by Ravensburger UK. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
The Quest for El Dorado (2017)
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Art: Vincent Dutrait, Franz Vohwinkel
Playing time: 30-60 mins