Growing up in East Yorkshire in the 1970s there were certain things I held to be true: trousers were flared, Hull City were poor, Granada was a TV company in Manchester and the Alhambra was a theatre in Bradford. Dear reader, imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was wrong: the Alhambra is actually a Moorish palace in Granada,Spain, Hull City are a successful football team and, um well, I still wear flares, (they hide my oversized ankles) *
Being a lover of all things Spanish, I have started on a journey to discover board games with an Iberian theme. My first stop: Alhambra, produced by Queen Games and designed by Dirk Henn.
Alhambra challenges 2-6 players to build the most successful palace in a shade under an hour. How is success measured? Well, this is a Euro game, so there is a scoring track. Scores are awarded based on who has the most tiles of various types over three, (increasingly more valuable), scoring rounds. Points are also awarded for the length of your palace walls. The highest score wins.
Queen Games produce a couple of different versions of Alhambra. This review is based on the basic set. A big box edition is available, which comes with a bigger board and some expansions thrown in. The game comes with 60 tiles for building your Alhambra, a score-board, a market place board, some wooden scoring tokens, a thick wad of card money and a natty draw-string bag to pull the tiles from. All the components are top quality.
Setup couldn’t be easier:
- Pick out the fountain tiles that will form the core of your palace.
- Put all the tiles in the bag.
- Deal out money to a value just exceeding 20 to each player.
- Place the two scoring cards into the remaining pile of money.
- Lay four tiles on the market board.
- Lay four money cards out.
- Vamos a jugar!
There are six types of tiles, blue (pavilions), red (seraglios), brown (arcades), green (gardens), white (chambers), and purple (towers). In scoring, the tiles are worth more ranging from blue to purple.
Money comes in four colours, (orange, blue, yellow and green), ranging in value from 1 to 9. These colours represent different currencies which can be used to buy tiles.
There are four spots on the market place, representing builders from around the Mediterranean and Europe that will help build your palace. For the purposes of the game, they have to be paid in their own currency. Each building tile has a value on it, but the currency paid depends upon which market spot it is placed. This means that a Gardens tile on the Orange spot can only be bought with orange money (Ducats).
At the start of each turn, you have three options:
- Buy a tile and add it to your palace.
- Take some money.
- Remodel your palace.
Play continues around the table, tiles and money are refreshed as required at the end of a turn until the first scoring card pops up in the money deck, then the second scoring card. When the tile bag is empty and the market cannot be filled, the remaining tiles are auctioned to the highest bidder and final scoring takes place.
So far so good, but I’ve missed some stuff out:
Exact change:- You can overpay for a tile, but if you pay the right money you get another go.
Money:-You can pick up one card, of any value, or as many as you like if they total 5 or less.
Walls:-Most of the tiles have walls on one or more sides. Linking the walls can push you to the winner’s enclosure.
Planning regulations:- As a vizier you are picky with your palace. You want to be able to visit your whole palace by walking from the fountain, this means no walking on empty spaces or climbing over walls. Also those walls? Building regulations dictate that where tiles touch they must be ‘wall to wall’ or have no walls.
These four tweaks are like whisky in your porridge: flavour and danger lurk beneath the surface. They turn what should be a nice game about building a nice palace into a brain-burner. A game where you will discover a pressing need to crush the hopes of your fellow players.
How does this happen? Lets assume a basic winning plan: place one more tile of each colour than anyone else. That’s not going to happen, but working out which colours to back and which to drop is key to maximising points. So you’ll be keeping a close eye on what everyone else has bought, as well as what is in the market and working out how many gardens are left to come out. While you are at it, why not watch what colour cash people are buying? Or sneak a peek at the shape of their palace? The shape of their walls could hint at the next tile they want.
This will lead you to your next decision tree: when do I pick up money, what money do I pick up, or do I overpay to snag a vital tile? Exact money is great, buy a tile and get another go. Pay with exact change and you could buy another tile, or fill your coffers with more cash for the next corporate raid. So, decisions, decisions – do you pick up cash to buy for the right money and risk losing a tile, when one colour is tight, do you pick it up just to spite the others? Also it’s not just about the colour, it’s about the walls. You need to put your palace together in a progressive way to encourage further growth. Tiles that don’t fit can be bought to stymie your opponents, but if you can’t place them in the palace, they don’t go towards your majority. That’s fine, you might be able to squeeze them in later, or swap them in to your tactical advantage.
Playing with Three
Alhambra plays up to 6. Playing with three is just great. Turns come around quickly and with a good chance that the tiles you were after are still on the board. Playing with 2 uses a dummy player and I usually shy away from that sort of thing, but here it works rather well. The dummy player gets a fistful of tiles at three points in the game and you can buy tiles for them to mess with your opponent.
How easy is it to teach the game?
The rules are well laid out and pretty straight forward. A couple of trial rounds and and building an example palace should cement the deal. The need to place walls against walls, (and open sides against open sides), can be initially confusing, but it is well covered in the instructions as is remodelling.
Can complexity be scaled?
The game doesn’t feel like it needs to have its complexity drip fed. More complexity comes with the expansions.
Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?
I’m experimenting with an extra turn at the beginning for my son. At 11 he understands the rules, but is struggling to work out how to win. We have an understanding in games that he can call in a strategy consultant, (mum or dad), for advice.
How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?
In my case, there is an increasing chance of child flippage. Playing without handicapping has left him placing third in most games, to his growing frustration.
Beyond the game
We researched the Alhambra and the Lion Fountain. We have started our collection of Spanish themed games, our next purchase is El Grande. I have also spotted a tile laying game called Don Quixote.
What do I think?
Let me start by saying that Alhambra is a game that hits a lot of my sweet spots. It is fairly simple game, it plays in under an hour and, most importantly, there are tiles that can be laid. In fact the first time I played, I had sense of deja vu such was its resonance with me. What more can anyone want?
I’m a huge fan of games that let you build something. Coming out of a game with a graphic representation of your efforts is a reward in itself, win or lose. Alhambra gives you that, along with demanding you process a chunk of information in order to play and win.
I do have a couple of minor criticisms. The black marker pen lines that represent the walls are ugly. I can see that there is a need to make them clear so that they can be seen from across the table, but I think they could have been done better. Something that looked like a wall and in keeping with the art style would have been nice. I also think that each tile could have been individually drawn, it would make no difference to the game, but it would make each palace unique
In conclusion, I highly recommend Alhambra as a family game. Just remember not to crush the dreams of your opponents too much, or they may not want to play with you.
*Actually, my ankles are of fairly normal proportions.
Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.