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Alhambra: Tense but simple mechanisms keep me coming back

Jeff Myers
United States
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The original post can be found at I thought I might add some additional thoughts here, though.

I was recently asked to consider the common features of some of my favorite games. Basically, I like to have interesting choices on my turn, but I don’t want too many of them. Three is a good number. I also like collecting things or completing networks or structures for victory points, rather than trying to eliminate other players or having to create a complex economic engine to generate point revenue. I’ve also been thinking about how I’m falling behind in my quest to review all of the Spiel des Jahres winners, so I thought now might be a good time to talk a bit about Alhambra.

Created by German designer, Dirk Henn, Alhambra is a game for 2 to 6 players, and has all of the elements of what I typically enjoy in a eurogame. Alhambra has received many awards, including the Spiel des Jahres in 2003. It takes about an hour to play and is recommended for ages eight and older. The two-player game uses a dummy player, and it’s not bad. It’s not as good as the robber in Pergamon, but it’s pretty good. Three is the sweet spot for the number of players. If you get more than four then it’s impossible to plan anything, and you spend a lot of time just waiting for your turn.

I recently played with four, and the wait wasn't too bad, especially when there are no AP sufferers.

In Alhambra, players gather a variety of currencies that they then use to build structural additions to your palace. Everyone starts with a fountain tile and then builds out from there as they see fit. While the game rewards efficiency in the purchasing of tiles, the placement of those tiles is very free form. This actually fits thematically, as I discovered while reading a bit about the real Alhambra. Mark Johnsonwould call this “wiki-worthy.”

The Alhambra did not have a master plan for the total site design, so its overall layout is not orthogonal nor organized. As a result of the site’s many construction phases: from the original 9th century citadel, through the 14th century Muslim palaces, to the 16th century palace of Charles V; some buildings are at odd positioning to each other.

On your turn, you can choose to take currency from a set of face up cards, use currency to purchase building tiles and place them in your collection, or make some simple alterations to the arrangement of your tiles. Normally, you only get to do one of these things, but if you can purchase a tile with exactly the right amount of money, then you get an additional action. Since there are four tiles available at the start of your turn, you could potentially take up to five actions, if you had enough money. I can see no thematic explanation for this mechanism. Well, I suppose that people who are efficient make better plans, so maybe that’s it, but I can’t recall a time I was rewarded in the real world for having exact change.

You score victory points based on having the majority of a particular type of building. This happens three times during the game, based on card placement within the currency deck. The game ramps up a bit as players start to accumulate buildings and you can see who you else has buildings of the same type as the one’s you are trying to collect. It’s very difficult to plan anything, because the tile board and the available currency can change so much between your turns. This is why having three players is best. Otherwise, all you can do is try to have a variety of currency card types and values available, in hope that you can take advantage of whatever comes up on your turn.

You also score points by forming a contiguous wall with your tiles. This and some additional rules for tile placement make building your palace pretty interesting. I rarely take advantage of the restructuring option, but every so often it’s important to make room for a new tile, especially when building out your wall.

I know some people don't care for the restrictions that the walls bring. I guess having to place the tiles to a particular orientation is enough restriction for them, but I like the wall mechanism. It allows for players who may be behind in building collection to potentially stay in the point game.

I enjoy Alhambra, and it seems to hit the table at least once a year. I think it’s the tension between the available currency and the available tiles that makes this fun for me. Queen Games has published quite a few expansions for the base game, but I’ve never tried any of them. I like the regular version just fine, and I think you might like it as well.
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