Recent winner of the 2003 SdJ, Alhambra is an interesting game combining a unique auction with tile placement and obtaining majorities. With very nice graphics and nice strategic weight to the game, it certainly is a solid entry.
Players all start with a center tile, the fountain. During the course of the game, players will be acquiring and adding more tiles to expand their own alhambra, not unlike placement in Carcassonne. And, like Carcassonne, the placement is restricted somewhat to make the game more interesting.
But to even place tiles, players must first win them. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt out a hand of cards. These cards are numbered and colored, each color representing a different type of currency. At the beginning of a player's turn, there are four random buildings available, one for each type of currency in the game, and four randome currency cards available. A player may either: A. Take one currency card (or multiple currency cards if the total sum is no more than 5) or B. Purchase a building or C. Use a 'Reserve' action. Now the twists.
There is no change in the game when a building is purchased. If you overpay, tough luck. And there is another hitch to overpaying, it ends your turn. You see, if you pay the exact amount of the building cost, then you get to take another action: You could take a currency card, you could play a 'reserve' or you could purchase another building (and if exact amount paid, you could take yet another action!) So with a lot of currency, a player could buy all four buildings, if he had the exact amount for each.
But wait! Even if you have the exact money for a building, you may not want it. Players are scoring for majorities in each building color. There are seven colors and each has a different point value. In the first round there is only first place, but scores are low. In the second round, there is first and second place and points are a bit higher, and so on thru the fourth round. So you may be able to afford that building with yellow currency, but if it's a building you don't need, it's often better to wait.
Okay, but even tile placement is tricky. You see, you can buy any building that you have the currency for, but there is still the trick of placing it. Many of the tiles have black walls on 1, 2, or 3 sides of the tile. Tiles may not be rotated, they must be place 'ride side up' relative to the player. Rules for placement are fairly simple:
First, when a tile is placed, it must have access to the fountain starting tile. If it doesn't, it can't be placed. Secondly, any tile placed must match, empty to empty and wall to wall. Most of the time your'll want your walls on the outside of your Alhambra, but that is not alway possible. But there are additional points in this game for walls. Your longest unbroken chain of wall segments along a perimeter are worth one point per segment. Problem is, while working on a long wall, players might box themselves in way so that they will have a tough time placing additional tiles. If you can't play a tile you bought, you put it on your reserve board.
And the reserve action lets you play tiles you've dumped onto your reserve board, or to swap out an existing tiles (in case you've boxed yourself in.)
Well, that's the short gameplay round up. But is it fun? The acquisition fo currency so that you have lots of possible sums to purchase with is the first trick, but then you also need to buy buildings that will put you in the lead of several colors, and you need pieces that you are able to add on, and you are trying to manage your wall (which makes tile placement very tricky indeed.) It is a delicate balancing act. You may buy a tile that you can't place right away so that your opponent can't get it. But will you be able to play it? When? Will you sacrifice a turn later on to get it down to the board?
There is a fair dose of luck in this game too, which can be an issue. Good planning an acquisition makes up for most of it, but if the color you have a lead in suddenly comes up for other players on their purchasing turn, then you won't even have a chance to fight for that lead -- you have to work on something else.
All in all a good game though. Really best with 3-4 players, since 5+ tends to be chaotic, Alhambra is a neat game with well integrated mechanics. One complaint I have is that the center mat with the building on it can't face everyone, and having things 'right side up' makes the game quick, so I'd invest in a lazy susan if you purchase this game. One other knock: there is no easy way to keep track of who is ahead in which color, which means players are constantly having to look around at his opponents' upside-down boards to figure what color building he needs to buy to get points. Oh, and the game is a huge space hog. Whew! Quite a few minor knocks.
But it's the combination of minor knocks that takes this game down a notch for me. All together they make the game take longer than necessary, and that is too bad. This could be a 5-star game, but a few things keep it from being that. Still, with experienced players, it becomes a bit less of a factor, and the types of planning required involve majorities and tile placement, and it's rare to find a game that combines both so well.