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Subject: Alhambra Review rss

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Darin Stephenson
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This is a review of Dirk Henn's 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner, Alhambra. The game effectively combines a majority-collection objective with a tile laying component, as players attempt to build the most prestigious palace of Alhambra. This review is for the German language edition from Queen Games (although I believe that the rules and components for the English edition from Rio Grande has the same rules and virtually identical components).

Components: The game comes with 60 tiles: 6 starting tiles (fountains) and 54 building tiles (7 pavilions, 7 seraglios, 9 arcades, 9 chambers, 11 gardens, and 11 towers). There are 108 currency cards, 3 of each number (1 through 9) in each of 4 colors (blue denars, green dirhams, brown ducats, and yellow florins). There are two boards: a scoring track and a building market -- the building market has four squares with colors corresponding to the four colors of currency. There are two counters in each of the six player colors -- each player has a counter for the scoring track, and a counter to place on his fountain, so that everyone can remember who is which color. Each player has a Reserve Board, on which he can store any tile that is bought but cannot be placed at the end of the turn. There are two scoring cards that are placed about 1/3 and 2/3 of the way down in the money deck, and a bag for the tiles.

I want to stress that this is a really nicely produced game. The tiles, boards, and money cards are colorful, and there is useful player information printed on the reserve boards. The tiles get spread out around the table as the game progresses, and it is neat to see the Alhambra develop before your eyes.

Rules: While my game was a German language edition, it came with a very nice English translation of the rules. The rules were very easy to learn and explain, and we had no trouble with ambiguities or inaccuracies.

Each player is dealt money face up, until everyone has at least 20 in total currency. The player who receives the lowest total goes first, and play proceeds clockwise around the table. On a player's turn, there will be four buildings on the four colored spaces in the building market, and each building has a cost printed on it. There will also be four currency cards face up. On his turn, a player has a choice of either buying a building, taking money cards, or performing a reserve action.

If the player chooses to buy a building, he must pay the cost printed on the building or more using currency in the color on which the building sits. The player may only use currency denominations he possesses, and no change is given. If the player is able to pay exact change for the building, the player immediately gets another turn (with the same options as given above). If the player overpays for a building, the player's turn ends. Either way, the building purchased is placed aside for placement once the player's turn (or series of turns) is completed.

If the player chooses to take money, he may take any one of the face up money cards. He may also take more than one money card, so long as the total taken does not exceed 5. The player's turn ends.

A reserve action consists of (a) moving a tile from the player's reserve board to the player's Alhambra, (b) exchanging a tile in the player's Alhambra with a tile from the player's reserve board, or (c) moving a tile from the player's Alhambra to the player's reserve board. The player's turn then ends.

After the player has executed his turn, or series of turns, he places any buildings purchased into his Alhambra. Each building has walls on from 0 to 3 sides, and there are several rules as to how buildings may be legally placed. In particular (i) buildings must be placed with the correct (right-side-up) orientation, (ii) where two tiles meet, they must either both have a wall or both have no wall, (iii) there must always be a path from the center of any tile to the starting fountain so that no wall must be crossed, (iv) each tile placed must border on one tile already in the Alhambra (on a side, not just a corner), and (v) no empty space can be surrounded by tiles. Any purchased tiles that cannot be legally placed must be placed on the player's reserve board.

The building market is then refreshed with randomly drawn tiles from the bag, and currency is turned up so that there are 4 face up currency cards for the next player. Play passes to the left.

Scoring: Scoring occurs three times during the game. When one of the two scoring cards is drawn during the money replenishment, a scoring round immediately takes place. When the building market cannot be replenished to 4 tiles because the bag is empty, the game ends and the final scoring takes place (there is a mechanism for giving certain players any buildings remaining in the building market when the tiles in the bag run out, and these buildings are placed before the final scoring). In each scoring phase, both majorities and “longest outside walls” are scored. In the first scoring phase, the player with the most of each type of buildings scores a certain specified number of points (pavilions 1 point, seraglios 2 points, arcades 3 points, chambers 4 points, gardens 5 points, and towers 6 points). Points for ties are split and rounded down. In the second scoring phase, the first and second place players in each building type gets points (pavilions 8/1 points, seraglios 9/2 points, arcades 10/3 points, chambers 11/4 points, gardens 12/5 points, and towers 13/6 points). In the final scoring phase, the first, second, and third place players in each building type all get points (pavilions 16/8/1 points, seraglios 17/9/2 points, arcades 18/10/3 points, chambers 19/11/4 points, gardens 20/12/5 points, and towers 21/13/6 points). In each scoring phase, each player gets points for the “longest outside wall” around their Alhambra (one point per exterior wall segment). The player with the most points after the third scoring phase is the winner. There is no tiebreaker.

Luck vs. Strategy and Tactics: You can try to plan a bit, but for the most part, your actions are determined by what buildings are present in the market when it comes your turn. Still, there are some tactical decisions to be made, like deciding when it is necessary to overpay for a building as opposed to collecting more currency in hopes of paying exact change the next time around.

It is necessary to watch what other players are collecting, and there are at least four reasons to want a building: because it helps your majorities, because it helps your outside wall, because it “frees up” spaces in your Alhambra for future building, or because you want to keep it away from another player. I would rate this game “light-medium” in terms of the game play -- there is nothing deep here, but there are some nice decisions to be considered.

Players: The game is recommended for 2-6 players, and plays best with 3-4. With more than 4 players, the game becomes too chaotic, since the building market will change almost completely between a player's successive turns. I would therefore not recommend this game with 5 or 6 players. The two player game includes a “dummy” player that collects tiles (and is involved in majority scoring) but does not build an Alhambra. The two player game works rather well, although I'd slightly prefer the game with 3 or 4.

Overall Recommendation: I find this to be a really fun game. It certainly isn't a heavy strategy game, and the players don't have a lot of control, but the pieces of the game fit together nicely to make for a fun experience. I can see how the game might not be to the tastes of some -- if you're looking for strategic thinking or lots of player interaction, this probably isn't for you. If, however, you're looking for a light game that's easy to learn and quick to play, this might just be the game for you. This would also make a great family game, once you get past the initial hurdle of learning the tile placement rules.
 
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