I came across Alhambra over year ago when I was searching for a new game to add to my collection. It had won the 2003 Spiel des Jahres so I figured it must be pretty good. After about a dozen plays, I've decided that I like it and rated it an 8. Here's why...
The game comes in a mid-sized box the same size as Metro, Industria, Lucky Loop, etc. The plastic insert works very well for storing everything in its place. I wish every game was like this in that the box itself is designed to hold everything nicely. It just seems like common sense to make a game this way.
I admit, I'm shallow whtn it comes to nice components. A game could be one of the greatest but if the bits, board, and cards aren't that great it probably won't get my attention. Maybe that's why I like Alhambra. The tiles and boards are thick cardboard, the cards have a satin finish, the wooden pieces are nice, even the cloth bag for the tiles is nice quality. And of course, the artwork on everything is very good. The scoreboard is a bit annoying in that the score track zig zags back and forth, but that's a minor complaint.
The Game Itself
The object of the game is to buy buildings tiles from the marketplace and then design the best palace using those tiles. Players score points by having the most of each building types as well as scoring points for their longest continuous wall. Tiles types include Pavilions, Chambers, Gardens, Towers, etc. Scoring rounds occur twice randomly during the game and once at the end of the game.
The Rules and Set-up
The rulebook is easy to understand and explains the game pretty well. And it's a relatively easy game to learn once you've played a round or two anyway. There are enough illustrations that everything should make sense without much trouble. Setting up Alhambra doesn’t take too long. Each player begins the game with a fountain tile that will serve as the basis of their palace and a reserve card that includes a summary of scoring. Then each player is given money somewhat randomly from the deck of money cards. Each player is dealt cards until the values on the cards equal or exceed 20. For instance, a player might be dealt 2 nines and a four and that’s all. Or they might be dealt a four, a three, 2 twos, a six, 2 ones, and finally a seven before going over 20. So the denominations and amounts could greatly vary from player to player. After money is dealt, 4 cards are dealt face up to represent money that players may later take to replenish what they spend. Then 4 tiles are taken from the bag of tiles and laid out onto the market, one for each currency denomination. Then, the scoring round cards are placed randomly into the deck of money cards at approximately one-third and two-thirds of the way into the deck.
Playing the Game
On a players turn, they can do one of three things (1)buy a tile from the marketplace using the money cards in their hand, (2)take money from the face up cards next to the marketplace, or (3)rearrange the tiles in their palace. To buy a tile, the player must use the demonination of money cards matching the denomination where the tile is located on the marketplace. So, if a garden tile is in the 'yellow' section of the marketplace, you can only buy it with 'yellow' money. Players don't have to pay the exact amount, they can over pay, but no change is given. If, however, they pay the exact amount, they may then perform another of the 3 possible actions. After buying a tile, a player may build it immediately by placing it in their palace or may place it in reserve to be built later.
If a player chooses to take money as their action, they may take one card OR mutliple cards if the card values total 5 or less. This is how players get back money in later turns. Optimally, a player can pay exact change to buy a tile in the marketplace and then take money with their extra action.
If a player chooses to rearrange their palace as their action for the turn, they may either (1) take a tile from reserve and put in into play, (2) take a tile in play and put it into reserve or (3) make a direct switch of a single tile in play with a single tile in reserve. Why is rearranging important? Well, tiles either have walls or blank sides along the edges and tiles can only be placed so they the edges match up with adjacent tiles. Also, each tile must be accessible to the beginning fountain tile.
Once a player performs his action for the turn, the marketplace and money cards are replenished (if any were taken) and play continues clockwise. This goes on until a score card is revealed from the money deck when a scored round then takes place.
Players score by having more of each tile type in play than any other player. In case of a tie, players split the points. In the first round, only the player who has the most of each tile type scores points, while in the second and third scoring rounds, the second and third places also score points. Tiles in reserve are not counted! Playes also score points for each wall segment in their longest continuous wall.
The game ends when there aren't enough tiles to refill the marketplace at the end of the round.
Alhambra also features rules for a two player game in which a third "dummy" player is given tiles at the beginning of the game and more tiles after each scoring round. This just gives players an extra player to compete against for the most tiles of each type. The two player rules work fine but admittedly I find a game with more players better.
Alhambra is very pretty. It's relatively engaging and enjoyable. It has a good theme and I rarely turn down a game. There are a few things that I'd point out as highlights. One of which is the fact that scoring rounds are random. So, part way through the game players may sense a scoring round is coming and rush to bring their tiles from reserve or try to rearrange them to build a longer wall. I also like the feel of trying to "keep up with Jones" by building more of each tile type than your competition.
There are a couple things I don't like though. One thing is the game end and subsequent scoring round. Since the game ends when the marketplace can't be refilled completely, and since tiles are drawn from a bag, players could prolong the game by not buying as many tiles. This would give everyone more opportunity to rearrange more and bring out everything from reserve. Then again, a player in the lead could try to buy more tiles to end the game quicker. In this regard, the overall winner can often be guessed before the game is over.
Another thing that bugs me is that it's sometimes hard to catch up after being behind. For instance, if a player is way ahead with high scoring tile types, it can be difficult to compete for those points. This has only happened a few times though. It also seems that luck can become an issue but I believe that it's dispersed enough within the game that skill can overcome.
Overall, Alhambra is a good game and I'd certainly recommend it.
Man thinks, the river flows.
I just played my third game of Alhambra last night and it's growing on me nicely.
We had misplayed the endgame rules last time, stranding the remaining tiles at the end instead of awarding them to the richest player in each coin. So last night it was to my advantage to leave tiles on the board while picking up money instead -- I was in the lead but had a very short wall and needed all the help I could get for the endgame. The guy in second had a great wall and pushed the tiles as quickly as he could. He won the game with room to spare, but I cleaned the last three tiles off the board with my extra coins and I finished a very solid second.
The mechanics in the game suit me -- I'm more of a builder than a dealer, more of a budgeter than a battler. Alhambra gives you the opportunity to pick up pieces you know others will want, the opportunity to race each other in each building type, and the opportunity to push the game faster or slow it down. All in all a nice fit for me. I plan to play more.
Excellent review by the way. Deserving of tips.