Christmas Board Game Day with El Grande, Codenames, Agricola, and Five Tribes

I’ve previously told you about my gaming group that consists of my coworkers. But in addition to that group, I also play in a group of seasoned gamers which includes my brother, his roommate, and a friend of mine from my public accounting days. This is the group where me winning is a rarity but where I get a lot of good insights into how to play games better. It’s also the group most likely to experiment with new games, provided that the game in question has solid mechanics behind it.

So for that Christmas afternoon, we assembled together. What ensued was an awesome game session, partly because we got to try a slew of new games and partly because those games were so fun! Aside from our staple of Agricola, we managed to play El Grande, Codenames, and Five Tribes. All 3 were games that I’ve played for the very first time. With much excitement in tow, here’s a runthrough of how things went down:

El Grande 12-25

1. El Grande

The Setup: Given this group’s dynamics and tendencies, I figured El Grande had the ability to become a hit. Now, nothing is ever certain because the only sense I had was in reading through the rulebook, but the game mechanics sounded interesting: area control, a bit of bidding, and even some mindgaming potential. I was fairly certain they would embrace it.

What Happened: What happened was even better than what I expected. While El Grande’s area control mechanics were great, I especially enjoyed the mindgames that came about when people plotted which intrigue cards to take, what order to bid for the cards, and best of all, using the spinner to dump all of their caballeros onto their expected square. It also helped that the game was very easy to teach and all people had to do was to accumulate their meeples onto the territories they’d like to control.

Final Thoughts: As our game of El Grande unfolded, I was frozen out of the game’s first scoring moment and never recovered, coming in last. A game of pile-on the leader ensued, but even that wasn’t enough to stop my brother’s roommate from winning. In spite of that, the game was a blast through and through. I had a lot of fun trying to contest territories at the last minute by using the castillo piece and also using the King to preserve my provinces without being outbid in the process. Needless to say, I look forward to introducing this game to my other groups real soon.

Codenames 12-25

2. Codenames

The Setup: As soon as we finished El Grande, it was time for something light, to give us a bit of time to recover. We decided to go for Codenames.

In 2015, I had been hearing reports left and right about how fun Codenames was and how other groups have been loving it to bits. I was also interested in maybe another party game to get so I can mix things up with my other groups. Although I have a decent selection of games like Coup and Sushi Go, I wanted something that was easy to teach and contains enough of the thinky elements to keep me happy.

What Happened: We played through two rounds of Codenames and my team emerged the winner both times. Although I don’t remember much of what happened during the first game, the second game stood out a lot to me because I was the Spymaster. It’s a hard role, looking at all the words on the board and trying all these obtuse ways to connect them together.

With that said, I was very proud of the two clues I gave. The first was “Hamlet 3” which covered the following words: Shakespeare, Poison (because that’s how Hamlet’s uncle becomes King), and King (because the play involves King Claudius). The word Cast was also viable, but luckily, my partner wasn’t steered towards that one. Being culturally keen also helped. The other one that I was proud of was my clue of “Quidditch 2” which covered Fly and Bolt (a type of broom used in Quidditch). Unfortunately, my partner was steered towards Bat (which makes sense because the Beaters use bats) but we were able to recover from that and steal the game on the second go-around.

Final Thoughts: What I liked most about Codenames is its ability to play around with lateral associations. Sure, there are going to be obvious clues like linking “Coffin” to “Undertaker”, but the ones where you can put down those lateral clues and still come out correct because you and your partner are on the same wavelength are rewarding. It’s definitely a game I’ll consider getting in 2016.

3. Agricola

The Setup: After that reprieve granted to us by Codenames, we went back to an old favorite: Agricola! It wouldn’t be a board game day with this group if we didn’t trot out one of our old favorites. The only thing though was that aside from me, it’s been a long time since any of them had played Agricola and some of them were shocked by just how much the game ramped up, especially in the later harvests.

What Happened: As we got to playing, the person to beat would always be my brother, and we could only hope that our occupations would give us an edge. On my end, my strategy would rely on Hut Builder for growth and Market Woman for feeding. Chief’s Daughter would be used to secure points in the endgame. The only other person whose occupations I remembered was my brother’s roommate, who gave us a huge influx of grain because of his constant use of Market Crier coupled with the lovable Field Watchman.

Final Thoughts: Like with most games of Agricola, there was plenty of intensity to go around. And also like with most games of Agricola, my brother managed to come in first place. My only thoughts about the game session itself was that I should have taken the Sow/Bake option in one round sooner because of the feeding inefficiencies it caused later on and that I should have stolen the Basketmaker’s Workshop from my brother. Beyond that, the game is still fun and remains my favorite game of all time.

Five Tribes 12-25

4. Five Tribes

The Setup: Our session closed out with Five Tribes, a game that I’ve heard a lot about, but have never gotten around to actually playing. The mechanics itself looked pretty interesting given that it borrowed mancala mechanics, implementing it by having players pick up guys from one square and dropping them one by one on other squares until they reached their destination. Once the meeples reach their destination, they could perform the action associated with that square. Certainly a novel idea.

What Happened: So while Five Tribes’ mechanics were easy to figure out, the underlying strategies were a lot harder. I had a lot of trouble figuring out what the best moves might look like and how to value each square (probably impossible for a first playthrough). Compounding the difficulties was the board (a 6×5 grid), which made it difficult to pick a meeple square to move since you’d have to factor in how to place said meeples and which square to end up in. Finally, valuing squares was hard since I wasn’t sure whether the best moves would be to invest in certain meeple colors, investing in djinni, take the actions on the square without claiming it or claiming territory outright. I’m guessing it’s some combination of the above, but given that it was my first time playing, it’s going to require more plays for me to fully figure it out.

Final Thoughts: I didn’t win the game, but I wasn’t dead last, so that’s always a good thing. The game itself is decent. It just didn’t win me over like how Codenames and El Grande were able to, but I’d give it another go (or two, or three!) just to be able to figure out which of the selections are the best of the lot and how to balance out getting points. Five Tribes deserves a fair shot at least and one game does not a fair shot make.

With all the experiments and gaming done that day, El Grande emerged as the clear winner of the afternoon/evening. We all really enjoyed how tight the mechanics were and how easy it was to teach. I’m really looking forward to playing it again.

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