What brought my attention to El Gaucho was the publisher - Argentum Verlag, which published Hansa Teutonica a few years ago. Different designer though. El Gaucho is a medium-weight Eurogame with set collection as your core activity. You are collecting cows to be sold for money, which is victory points. The larger your batch of cows, the more VP's you'll get. There are five different cow types, and when collecting cows, those of the same type must form a set, and the cow values in the set must be in either ascending or descending order (i.e. a little like Lost Cities or Keltis).
My cowboys and my cattle. You collect cows in sets, and you must go in ascending or descending order. The moment you bring a new cow which breaks the sequence, you must sell the old set to start a new one. The value of a set is the number of cows in the set multiplied by the cost of the most expensive cow. So my brown cow set is $36, and my yellow cow set is $8. For now.
Buying cows is your main activity, and there are a number of mechanisms and special abilities around that. The actions you can take depend on die rolls. Every round a new start player will roll all the action dice for the round, and then everyone will pick two from the pool to execute actions. You use dice to buy or reserve cows, and the die or dice you use must match the value of the cow (whether the full cost or the deposit cost) precisely. No more, no less. Naturally the start player has more options than the last player. One tricky part in buying cows is you can't collect your cow until all cows in the same row have been bought or reserved. So sometimes you need to "take one for the team" and buy that last ugly unwanted cow (no mother-in-law jokes please). Or you can persuade someone else that it is a sound investment.
Other than buying or reserving cows, the other thing you can do with dice is to gain or use special abilities. There are 6 different types, and they do things like allowing you to rob a cow from another player (he will get compensation in the form of victory points though), allowing you to insert a newly bought cow in the middle of a set (thus circumventing the must-be-in-sequence rule) and allowing you to change one die to any value. For each of these special actions, within the same round you can either gain it or use it, and never both. You can't gain one and use it immediately. You can't use one and gain the same ability immediately to be used in the next round. Special abilities are usually a good investment. You can easily find an appropriate opportunity to use them.
The game ends after the stack of cows run out. Everyone sells all remaining cows, and richest (in VP) wins.
The green area of the game board is the pasture, with rows of cows on sale. The yellow area of the game board is the town, with various buildings where you can earn special actions. The fenced area is your dice tray.
The dice tray seems gimmicky at first, but I found it to be very practical. It stops the dice from knocking over other pieces, and having the dice at the centre of the table makes it easy for everyone to see what is available. It's not absolutely necessary, but I appreciate it.
We did a 4-player game, and I think El Gaucho is better with a higher player count, because there would be more competition among players. There is a cyclic rhythm to collecting cows and scoring (selling) them. There is a build-up to a climax, where you get increasingly nervous whether your competitor collecting the same cow type would steal that juicy $12 cow from your set and immediately sell it together with his set, earning a windfall and also significantly devaluing your set. This happened to me. I should have seen it coming. I was pondering Boon Khim's cows, and thought if I were him I would so steal my cow and then sell the set for a tidy profit. At that moment I realised I had neglected the danger for too long. Boon Khim smile apologetically to me and said sorry, and did exactly what I was thinking about. Great minds think alike.
The game is quite interactive because you need to watch what your opponents are collecting. You need to guess who will (or will not) go for what, because whether and when you get to claim cows from the board depends on whether others have also bought or reserved the other cows in the same row. The special abilities are nifty tools to help you with the set collection.
Cowboys lying down on cows mean you've made a downpayment. You need to pay the balance using another action before the cow is yours. Cowboys standing up on cows mean you've made the full payment. You are just waiting for the whole row to be tagged by cowboys (regardless of full or partial payment) before you can claim your cows.
I like that in El Gaucho your scoring has a cyclical rhythm to it. There is a build-up and a climax and the accompanying tension. This is unlike many VP-scoring Eurogames where almost everything you do gives you some points. El Gaucho is a medium weight game that plays smoothly. Afterall you are just collecting cows of the same colour. The mechanisms and special abilities around the core set collection activity give you the means to outdo your opponents and to be creative. You don't really go through many cycles of scoring. You only have a few opportunities to maximise the values of your cow sets. The game doesn't outstay its welcome.