I just received The Gardens of the Alhambra this week and got the opportunity to play it with another avid gamer yesterday. What follows is our opinion of the game, not a detailed description of the mechanics or gameplay as that's already been covered in other reviews.
Learning the Game
Gardens is very easy to learn. We read the rules in about 5 minutes, and played two games on our 1-hour lunch break. We had to refer to the rules maybe twice during play. Explaining this game to a new player would take all of maybe 1-2 minutes. It would take longer to explain how to play Candyland than to explain how to play this game.
Game play is very fast at first as there are few options to weigh when laying your tile. Plus, as we laid a tile, we picked a new one up during our opponent's turn as opposed to waiting til their turn. This sped things up as well and didn't seem to adversely affect gameplay. Midway through the game the options for laying your tile double or triple and you occasionally hit a pause while one player is calculating the best move. However, we rarely noticed these pauses because we'd already chosen our next tile and were also analyzing. Near the end, things speed up again as the options dwindle again. Due to the speed at which you play, we found that a game usually lasts about 20-30 minutes.
To Flip or Not to Flip
When a building is fully surrounded, the rules call for it to be flipped to it's picture side. This involves slightly separating the pieces (read: displacing all pieces connected to it) in order to flip it. The gripe is that there's no need to flip the tile - other than to look at a pretty building as opposed to a number for the rest of the game. Then you have to re-situate all the displaced pieces to where they belong. About 6 buildings into the first game, me and my buddy decided we could live with looking at the numbers.
Randomness Can Easily Skew the Game
The tiles have 1-6 bushes on them. The higher the number of bushes, the more powerful the tile. The first game, my buddy and I seemed to draw about an even distribution of tiles in terms of numeric value, and we finished within 10-15 points of each other with me pulling ahead slightly at the end.
However, during the second game, my buddy hardly drew any tiles with a value less than 4 while I rarely drew one with a value greater than 3. As a result, he came within 1 point of "lapping" me on the score track. In other words, he won by 99 points! While I'm sure some of that was due to strategic play, we both agreed that a lot of it was due to his luck in drawing tiles.
Plenty of Strategy
I don't mean to give the impression that the game is ruled by luck. I believe our second game was a statistical anomoly and most games will be more balanced on the luck and determined more by your strategic play. There are several strategic factors to consider when playing your tiles - by enclosing a building, what sort of advantage/disadvantage are you giving your opponent? What is the net value of your move instead of the perceived value? How can you plan a series of moves to maximize your return? And can you influence your opponents play by giving him options he can't ignore? All these and more must be considered.
A Perfect Gateway Game
Because of its simplicity, speed, and beauty it will make a great gateway game - especially for people (read: girls) who are fantasy/wargame-phobic like my wife. If she hears "dragon" or "wizard" in the description of a game, her mind shuts like a steel trap. However, she loves to play games - don't ask me to explain it. Also, because the game is visually beautiful, it should appeal to more females than, say, the same game with a dungeon theme.
We enjoyed the game and look forward to playing it with more than 2 people to see how that changes the strategy. However, it will likely not be a favorite for me, and thus my solid "5" rating for it, because my favorite games tend to have more mechanics and more layers of strategy as I'm a very competitive player by nature and like to play more complex games. As a filler though, this one is very good.
There were about 6 extra diamond tiles in the game that had no apparent use. We scoured the rules and couldn't find any mention of them - not even in the "Contents" list. Instead of the buildings/numbers that the other tiles have on them, these are the same yellow color as the board and have little paths printed on them. If anyone figures out what they're for, I'd love to know.