The crown jewel of Islamic architecture, the pinnacle of city planning, and now a modern gaming classic; except for all those pesky walls.
Players: 2 – 6 Best with: 3 – 6
Age: 8+ GN Age: Pre-Teen
Game Type: Board Time: 45 – 60 minutes
Publisher/Year: Queen Games / 2003(Game of Year)
Game Play: Tile Placement, Deck Management
Available from: Game Hobby Stores, Online
Score: 11 out of 12
Alhambra joins a long list of games with a very similar blueprint. Find an exotic far-away locale with a mystical name. Throw a couple of mechanics at it to reduce this vibrant, magical, and evolving land into two or three bullet points. Slap on a veneer of artwork and style that evokes its ephemeral nature… And, voilà! Instant Jarhes des Spiel.
Alright, maybe there’s a little more to it than that. Whatever the magic formula is, Alhambra does it beautifully. At its heart, Alhambra is a tile-laying game where you are tasked with building your personal vision of one of the most eclectic palaces of the Islamic world. Centrally located in Granada, Spain, on an important trade route, Alhambra (the place) has changed hands and served many masters over the centuries. This is evident in the multitude of overlapping architectural styles and influences. From Byzantium to Medieval Gothic, Italian Renaissance, and even Celtic, Alhambra is a masterful cacophony of brick, stone, and mortar.
Alhambra (the game) brilliantly reflects this confluence of cultures. You build your palace by selecting the various districts or buildings (there are six types) that are available from the marketplace. You pay for its construction using the various forms of currency you collect through the game. But here’s the catch; there are four different construction crews each representing a different culture and worse they will only accept payment in their native currency. So, you may want the seraglio (what the heck is a seraglio?) that is going to cost you 5 green liras, but if you only have yellow denarii and orange florins then you better pray that no one else grabs it while you spend several rounds collecting the necessary funds.
Once you have your building tile then the second challenge begins; placing it into your map. There are only two rules. You must place the new tile adjacent to an existing tile while creating a walkable path between the two that is not be blocked by any walls. Secondly, the adjoining sides must be the same; both sides must have a wall or both must not have a wall. As simple as this may seem, your map will quickly become a real challenge as your expanding little world gets smaller and smaller and the walls start closing in.
On your turn you can take one action; buying and placing a tile as we’ve mentioned, collecting funds to buy more tiles, or rearranging your Alhambra. When collecting funds, you may draw any one money card, or more than one so long as the total value does not exceed 5.
To help you redesign your Alhambra, each player has a Tile Reserve Board. When you choose this action, you may do one of three things; move a tile to the Reserve Board, place a tile from the Reserve Board to your Alhambra, or exchange a tile from your Alhambra with one from the Reserve Board, provided that it does not violate any of the rules for placing tiles. I guarantee that at some point you will have to take this action when you realize that your walls are keeping you from expanding your perfect little Alhambra.
The key strategy to playing the game, is paying for your building tiles with the exact amount of money cards. Normally you only take one action each turn. If you buy a garden that costs 8 ducats (blue) but you have 9 ducats, that’s fine. You can still buy the garden but you don’t get any change and your turn is over. But if you buy it with exactly 8 ducats, then you can take another action. If you are able, you can even buy another tile. And if you pay for that tile by the exact amount, you can choose another action! You can keep doing this until you chose a different action, overpay for a tile, or run out of tiles or money. And since your score is based upon the number of tiles placed to your Alhambra, having more is certainly better.
Speaking of score, there are three Scoring Rounds during the game. The first two occur randomly as new money cards are drawn. Points are awarded for having the most of each building type. In the first round, only the player with the most scores any points. The top two score points in the second round and in the final round, the top three score points. The tension comes when two (or more) players are racing to collect the same type of building, such as towers which are worth the most points. But you can’t put all your attention in only one building type, you should maintain an Alhambra of at least two
other building types.
My only complaint is that this scoring system can quickly lead to a wide gap between leaders and losers. The players fighting over the towers and gardens will always win the game, while the player who is stuck with all the pavilions and arcades will not. Also, this tends to make all the Alhambras lopsided in terms of aesthetic; palaces packed with one or two building types but virtually none of the other. I wish there was a bonus score for having one of each building type; maybe 10 points for each set of six. That would allow for the lower scoring players to stay competitive.
Also, we are not fans of the two player rules. They are fine. They are functional. But neither of us felt that they were very fun. We recommend playing the game with three or more people.
But these minor points aside, Alhambra is one of the best games on the market and fully deserving of its Game of the Year Award. It has all the fun map building of Carcassonne to keep the younger players entertained, while the unique marketplace adds a level of strategy to satisfy all the adults. The rules are simple enough that an 8-year-old can learn the game. Although for a fun family game, the kids should be about 10+ to play strategically.
And once you’ve mastered the base game, there are several excellent expansions that bring even more depth and detail to your Alhambra. Adding viziers, gates, traders, thieves, bazaars, sultans and more to bring even greater glory and triumph to the greatest palace even conceived, Alhambra!
As always, a seraglio is the house for your harem, so stock up on those and Game On!
Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls. – Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra