Few games generate social media buzz based entirely on the packaging and components, but my Facebook and Twitter feed was filled with shots of newly-opened Island of El Dorado packages. A game by "First Created" designer/developer Daniel Aronson, Island of El Dorado delivered a bit early, and the component quality most everyone's expectations.
But is the game actually worth playing? We took an in-depth look at the game after it arrived last week.
Amazing Components: Island of El Dorado cost $54 shipped, that's a lot to pay for a light strategy game, but you can definitely see where the money went: the components! The game features 10 playable characters and each has their own intricately-carved, over-sized meeple. There are also three painted resin temples, and custom cloth bags for each of the game's five factions. If you were hoping for a game with components at Scythe quality, El Dorado doesn't disappoint (and honestly has a much better built-in storage system than Scythe.)
Intriguing Map Exploration: The game is primarily about exploring the "island" of El Dorado which is made up of farmland, gold hills, and jungle. Those tiles aren't that interesting (but they are useful to acquire resources), you are digging through the big stack of hexagons to find the three temples and the precious cave tile which can lead your adventurer to find the fourth temple. Unveiling a temple is hugely satisfying and means that as long as there are still hexes in the stack, spending a lot of points on movement is worth it. It can also be a lot of fun when an explorer keeps hitting water tiles when trying to find a path to a temple, it's almost like the island is conspiring against you!
Dice Choices: Each turn you will roll two dice and determine which will be your resource die, and which will be your movement die. So if you roll a 1 and a 6, you have to decide which action you will get much less from on the current turn (but you always get something.) This is almost always an interesting decision, and can almost certainly lead to your eventual win or defeat. It also makes for some exciting gameplay when you roll high on both dice.
What We Liked
The game plays wonderfully over about an hour. The box says "20 minutes per player," but we found the game to consistently come in at 45-60 minutes regardless of the number of players. This is because the game actually speeds up a bit once all of the tiles have been uncovered; players are forced to go at each other to achieve victory.
Exploring the continent is a lot of fun, and very satisfying. The Cave extension and exploration phase is a really neat "end game" addition, and a special reward for players lucky enough to find it.
Each of the characters has a simple, but powerful ability that gives them a special edge in the game. I wouldn't say they are all completely balanced (+1 extra move and +1 extra strength are very hard to compete with), but the rules state that you should randomly determine starting colors, so it won't be the same players with the same abilities every game.
Combat is basically dice rolling, but tactical decisions can be made to surprise your opponent, or catch an opponent unready. A bit of genius is the ability to spend one gold to move your villagers one space. This is a really fantastic mechanic that I haven't seen in prior games. Very few calculations need to be made before you roll the dice, and you have enough dice for both players in all but the most extreme combat scenarios.
What Could Be Improved
The problems with the game seem to stem from predictability of the end game. I think requiring all four shrines to be claimed makes for a much less exciting game because you always must follow the same steps towards victory. Players will need to tag temples, and when the cave is revealed, either race to the cave to score the last shrine first, or try to attack whoever gets there before you. It would be a much more interesting if there were multiple paths to victory. If the game could have been balanced in a way where the key to victory was guarding a shrine (preventing other players from laying tribute), or smartly collecting resources, or racing to explore the island, it would be a much more interesting game. Instead, all of these are pieces of a strategy towards what is the exact same victory condition in every game.
I think an obvious way to fix this would be to allow players to remove other player's shrines and in turn, reduce the number needed for victory. No one is going to be surprised when someone wins the game here, and it will be almost certainly because they were in the right position when Shrines or the Cave were found.
I am definitely interested in seeing how the expansion mixes up the end game, possibly giving players additional win conditions. We don't need a longer game, or more characters, we just really need more in-game options.
One other small thing that would be nice is if it would be possible to move your main character to defend nearby structures and villagers from attack. It's very easy to take out an opponent's citadel by simply avoiding attacking the main character. This could have been easily avoided if characters were allowed to move one space when a Citadel was attacked.
While I don't have a ton of room on my shelf for light strategy games, I think Island of El Dorado is a clear keeper. You get table presence, you get easy-to-learn rules, and you get a game that's all over in an hour.
Original Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1208693854/the-island-of-el-dorado
Backed at: $54 USD Shipped
Anticipated Delivery: June 2018, delivered early June 2018
Thom's Rating: 7.5 - Good - usually willing to play.
Jinko's Rating: 7.5 - Good - usually willing to play.
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