After hacking your way through a dense jungle, you find yourself at the edge of a giant river, desperate for a way to cross. Luckily, you took some flying lessons back home and you just rented a prop plane from a nearby village. But after the quick flight, you hear rustling from the trees behind you. You can’t afford having others following your trail, so you pop the plane’s pontoons with your machete and sink that sucker. It’s the smart choice. El Dorado awaits.
The Quest for El Dorado uses deck-building to power your explorer through a harsh map in a race to discover the lost city of gold, which begs the question, how do you know where to go if it hasn’t been discovered yet? Minor setting quibble aside, let me tell you why this Reiner Knizia game has captured my adoration for the past 2 years and years to come.
First off, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game for introducing deck-building to novice players. Most of the cards don’t have a wall of text on them, and few introduce outlandish combos that could scare people away. The available cards to purchase are limited, so players can learn about new cards as they enter the market. Even thinning your deck is built into the map with base camps, where players can learn about the benefits of slimming down their crew to only the strongest members. But that doesn’t mean that choices are easy in this game. Not even close.
The Captain seems like a slammin’ deal, until you realize that only a portion of the map is covered in water. You’ll move quickly across rivers, but what good will he be when cutting through the jungle? Cards can shift from boons to dead weight, depending on your positioning on the board or relative to other players. There you are, Trailblazer! I needed you 3 turns ago!
When a spot opens up in the market, the next card bought fills that space, closing off the rest of the offerings. Paying attention to when the market opens again can help plan your next turn, and you can even deny others the cards they so desperately need. This market is a fickle one, so you need to be just as ruthless.
It is oh so tempting to buy a card at every opportunity, but that also means having to work through a thick deck to find the perfect cards. What about a thin deck, you say? Hopefully you can get it to work in time because other players are pushing ahead, leaving you in the dust. The game give you all the tools, it’s just up to you to cobble something workable together to combat the terrain and other players.
The modular tiles that form the map each tell their own stories and have different strategies in tackling them. One pushes the adventurers into a narrow mountain canyon with few escape routes, while another is covered in villages that cost you a fortune to work your way past. So what does your deck need to look like when you encounter the former after the latter? Or the other way around? You can see the whole landscape from the start, so you get to feel like an explorer reading a tattered map, plotting trails and taking note of what supplies you need to make the journey swift and safe.
The game comes with a few suggestions for maps to explore, but the tips for route construction are so helpful that you’ll be building your own paths that only slightly resemble male genitalia in no time.
Caves aren’t dark and damp in this game, they’re full of possibilities! When you venture into a remote region, you can draw a helpful tile that you can bank on anytime in the future. These little nuggets of help range from a measly machete to getting to swap out icons on cards for others. It’s up to you to decide whether the detour is worth it from time to time. Caves are a simple addition to an already sweet system that makes it even sweeter. This cherry has a permanent spot on top when I play now, but I didn’t try it out for a while because the base game was plenty exciting already.
To top it all off, the game can be found for very cheap, usually hovering around $25. That’s outlandish! It’s a steal for a game that has designed variability through official layouts, maps you create yourself, and how cards enter the market during the game. You aren’t just drawing random ways to start the same game over, you are crafting an experience each time you play.
The Quest for El Dorado is a delight from steady start to frantic finish, which is the perfect arc for a race game like this. It’s fast, easy to learn, and full of things to explore. After reaching the city of gold, you’ll look back and find that the joy was in the journey AND the destination. You can have it both ways.