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Subject: The Alhambra Family Box: A Great Value for A Fine Gateway Game rss

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(Note: this review is an edited version of a review I published at Epinions.com. This review has been edited to discuss the Alhambra Family Box, which includes Alhambra, Granada, and the first Alhambra expansion. Here is the URL to the original Alhambra-only review: http://www.epinions.com/review/queen-games-alhambra-qng60373...)

Alhambra is a tile-laying game published by Queen Games, which is based in Germany. That's right -- this is a Euro-style game that involves somewhat indirect competition, resource management, some randomness (but mitigated compared to classic American "board" games), and featuring a theme that does not really impact game mechanics directly. This review explores the various aspects of this game, which earned the coveted Spiel des Jahres "German Game of the Year" award in 2003, as well as briefly discusses the two other parts of the Alhambra Family Box: Granada and the first Alhambra expansion, The Vizier's Favour.

Premise:
The premise of Alhambra is simple: you are a master builder in the Middle Ages who must construct numerous structures in a palace called the "Alhambra" (Arabic for "red palace") in Granada of present-day Spain; these structures are built by paying artisans and craftsmen from four currencies (dirhams, denirs, ducats, and florins). As you purchase structures, you place them in a configuration around a fountain, taking into consideration where your walls are located and whether you can reach any structure from the fountain "on foot" (otherwise known as the "pedestrian rule," which I will discuss later). The game is scored in three rounds and players earn points based on how many of each structure they have relative to other players.

Box Contents:
In the Alhambra Family Box, there are:

* Nine tiles for each of the six building types for the Alhambra game totalling 54 one-sided tiles
* Six tiles for each of the nine building types for the Granada game totalling 54 two-sided tiles
* A deck of 108 currency cards
* Two cards for signalling Alhambra scoring rounds
* One large, two-sided game board that serves as a scoring track, a marketplace for building tiles, and as a shared reserve board with six boxes for each player to place their reserved tiles; one side of the board is for Alhambra and has an Alhambra illustration, but the other side has a town illustration
* Six fountain tiles from which players build their Alhambras
* Six pairs of player pieces colored green, orange, red, blue, white, and yellow. The box also contains a bag in which you place the tiles and from which tiles are drawn at random.
* The four modules of The Vizier's Favour, which includes:
*** Six currency exchange cards
*** Six vizier blocks
*** 24 worker huts
*** 10 bonus cards for scoring extra points for certain building tiles

The building and fountain tiles, as well as the scoring track, reserve, and marketplace board are beautifully rendered with what I would imagine a medieval Spanish/Moorish theme would be. Also, the elegant simplicity of the player pieces (essentially, they are painted wood discs) are handsomely unobtrusive, though some may prefer meeple-shaped markers.

Note that the names of the six building types in the Alhambra Family Box correspond with the "International" version of Alhambra, in which the buildings have no names -- they are simply the blue, red, brown, white, green, and purple buildings with diamond symbols where the building text would be.

Basic Gameplay:
Alhambra begins with each player receiving currency cards equaling at least 20, regardless of how many cards it takes to reach that total. Before the game actually begins, four tiles are removed at random from the bag and placed on four boxes next to the four currencies. The money card pile is put face down and four money cards are drawn from the pile; those cards are laid face-up near the money card draw pile. The player with the least amount of cards goes first.

It is crucial to note that everyone is building their own Alhambra. Unlike a game like Carcassonne, in which people build a shared map, each player begins with a fountain tile adjacent to which initial building tiles are to be placed. Each player also have a reserve board onto which he or she can put a purchased building tile "on reserve" until a subsequent turn during which that tile can be positioned in the Alhambra (the placement rules are discussed below).

During each turn, players can perform one of three basic actions: draw money cards equalling up to five or one money card that is more than five; purchase a building tile based on the number on the tile and with the currency corresponding with the square on which the tile was placed; or, remove a tile from one's reserve area to be built in the Alhambra. If a player takes money cards or places a tile from reserve into his or her own Alhambra, that player's turn ends. Likewise, if the player purchased a tile with more money than the cost of the building, the player then places the builder in his or her Alhambra or on the reserve board and ends the turn.

If one or more tiles are purchased by a player, the turn ends with the placement of those tiles in legal positions in the Alhambra. As mentioned earlier, there are rules for tile placement: one must be able to "walk" to the tile from the central fountain, which means that walls or open Alhambra spaces cannot impede "movement"; tiles must be placed in a right-side-up orientation with the price legible to the player; walls must touch walls and open edges must touch open edges; and, there can be no open spaces (i.e. no tile) surrounded by buildings. Essentially, the tiles should create a contiguous structure that a pedestrian could explore, thus the colloquial term "pedestrian rule" is appropriate.

Scoring:
Scoring takes place at three points in a game. The first two rounds happen somewhat randomly and are signaled by drawing one of two round cards from the money card draw pile. These scoring cards are inserted into the pile before gameplay starts by dividing the pile into five smaller piles, placing the first and second round scoring cards in the second and fourth smaller piles, and then restacking the smaller piles from first pile to fifth pile. This kind of deliberate shuffling ensures that the first two scoring rounds will take place some time after the start of the game and some time before the end of the game. The third scoring round is at the end of the game.

At the end of each round, buildings are scored based on building type and who has the most of each type. The value of each building type ascends in the following order: blue, red, brown, white, green, and purple. During first round scoring, only the players who have the most of each building type scores points; during second round scoring, the players with the most and second-most of each building type scores points; and, during final scoring, the top three players that possess each building type earn points. I am not going to express in detail how points are distributed; it may suffice to say that the more valuable the building type, the more points are scored. Also, if two players tie for possessing the most of a building type, then the points are split and rounded down during the first round, or the first- and second-place totals are added and then split between the players.

After the building tiles are counted and scored, each player earns bonus points for each wall segment that constitutes the longest contiguous wall in their Alhambras. Wall bonuses are scored during each scoring round and should not be dismissed -- they often are the difference between victory and defeat.

Strategies:
There are a few key strategies in Alhambra, the most interesting of which is when a player pays the exact amount for a building tile; if this occurs, the player gets an extra action, which he or she can use to purchase another building tile, take money cards, or move a tile from the reserve board to the Alhambra. Potentially, a player can pay the exact cost for four building tiles AND draw money in one turn; the key is that the player pays exact change. Playing the exact cost of a building tile is a powerful way of "taking extra turns," so to speak; this maximizes the economy of one's turn by getting the most actions out of the turn. In one turn, if a player pays exact cost more than once, he or she can significantly augment his or her Alhambra and surge ahead in points.

As mentioned above, a player can purchase a building tile and place it on his or her reserve area; the player may choose to do this because there is no legal position for the tile in the Alhambra, the player is waiting for a more advantageous configuration, or the player acquired the tile to deny another player from acquiring it. Moving a tile from the reserve board to one's Alhambra, or exchanging a tile in the Alhambra for a reserve tile, takes one action, so this tactic should be used with caution and only occasionally.

Another strategy to consider is positioning your wall tiles to build the longest wall possible; though this yields valuable bonus points, be careful with placement of these tiles at the start of the game because you may restrict where you can place new tiles vis-a-vis the pedestrian rule. In other words, I have found that starting off the game by building up one or two sides of my Alhambra to be helpful because I leave two or more sides open for expansion. If you wall in your Alhambra too soon, you limit where you can place future building tiles. As with using your reserve board, placement of wall tiles requires caution.

There are other strategies that are useful. One strategy is to focus your purchasing on two or three building types to vie for first place for each scoring round; this is a simple strategy, but you may end up waiting for tiles that do not appear often enough. I tend to take a different approach: I buy whatever I can buy with exact change during the first round of scoring, and then let what I purchased dictate on what I focus for subsequent rounds. The detriment of this approach is that because I end up purchasing less expensive buildings by paying the precise amount, I sometimes involuntarily avoid towers and gardens, which are the most valuable building types in the game. A third strategy is to play a denial game in which you purchase tiles that you know your opponent wants; this could lower overall score totals among players, but this startegy could backfire and earn few points for you.

What about Granada?
Granada is essentially the same game as Alhambra with a couple of distinctions. The greatest distinction between the two games is the building tiles themselves. In Alhambra, the building tiles are one-sided, but the tiles are two-sided in Granada. The building you purchase depends on the side that is displayed during the time of purchase; this is determined with a black token that is alternatively placed on an "odd" space or an "even" space because one side of each tile has an odd-numbered cost with one building type and the other side has an even-numbered cost with a different building type. In other words, there are 108 possible buildings on 54 tiles, or two different types of buildings on each tile; this engenders a greater degree of variability than in Alhambra, especially considering that you can pay 3 more of any one currency to flip the tile to the side you want. In turn, this compels you to possibly give up 3 of a currency to get the building tile you want now but also give up the chance to buy that other tile you want during the current or next turns.

A second distinction between the two games is scoring. In Granada, scoring happens in three rounds like Alhambra, but no one building type is more valuable than another; all building types are of equal value. However, during scoring, building types are scored sequentially and the same scores are given for the players who possess the most of any building in the first round; points are given to first and second place during round two; and points are given to the top three players that possess each building in the final scoring round.

Besides scoring and the tiles, instead of the walls in Alhambra, the buildings in Granada have moats, but moats must touch moats just like walls touch walls in Alhambra.

Granada is a standalone game that is played very similarly to Alhambra, but it can also be combined with Alhambra to play out one mega-game in which you build your Alhambra and surround it or intersperse it with Granada city tiles. Moats match up with walls and Granada and/or Alhambra tiles may be available in the marketplace during each turn.

The Vizier's Favour:
Included in the Alhambra Family Box are the four modules that comprise the first expansion of Alhambra called The Vizier's Favour. I shall not explore the details of this expansion as it is already reviewed by others here at Board Game Geek, but I can say that the currency exchange cards and the vizier blocks are the two modules I like the most.

The currency exchange cards allow you to buy one building tile with two different currency types if you pay with both the currency cards and the appropriate currency exchange card for a tile that corresponds with one of the two currencies in the marketplace. This increases the flexibility of payment for any player fortunate enough to draw a currency exchange card.

The vizier block lets you purchase a building tile at the end of someone else's turn after that player has purchased his or her tiles by turning over the block and declaring your action. Then, during your turn, you can turn over the block face-up as your one turn action. This ability enables you even more to plan ahead, but also to snatch up that desired tile before your opponent upsets your strategy.

The other two expansions (the bonus cards and the worker huts) are acceptable with the worker huts having the potential of tipping scoring in your favor when you place a certain-colored hut tile next to other like-colored tiles, though the bonus cards are rather random and only scored when you possess the exact tile illustrated on the card.

Conclusion:
Like Carcassonne(http://boardgamegeek.com/article/12043312), Alhambra is a tile-laying game that involves building something, but this is where the similarity ends. I thoroughly enjoy the creation aspect of tile-based games, which earns Alhambra a special place in my heart. Yet, unlike Carcassonne, in which the base rules require players to draw one tile per turn randomly, in Alhambra tiles are drawn and placed in a marketplace; players can then purchase they prefer depending on if they possess the correct currency. This mitigates the randomness that plagues the base rules of Carcassonne (unless you play with house rules like I do) and allows for some future planning, albeit one's plans are easily thwarted by other players. The reduction of randomness is indeed a positive aspect of Alhambra, as well as the challenge of acquiring the correct currency before a desired tile is snatched up by an opponent.

Alhambra is a marvelously illustrated and designed game that can challenge an experienced group of gamers with under an hour of gameplay, but is simple enough to draw in new or casual gamers. With both experienced gamers and newbies in mind, the Alhambra Family Box is an excellent value since you can play with the base Alhambra or base Granada games with new players, or combine the two for more advanced play, as well as insert any or all of the four modules into the base Alhambra set to elevate your options. Whether you play Alhambra, Granada, or both, the games are quick to set up, involve only a few possible actions per turn, have enough creativity inherent to the game to support both more and less aggressive approaches, and are portable, unlike more complex war games and Euro games that have numerous pieces, cards, boards, and other paraphenalia. Alhambra is also easily playable by children as young as seven-years-old; my youngest son grasped the concepts of the game quite easily, though he has some experience with Carcassonne which helped. I cannot recommend the Alhambra Family Box enough, though I'd also recommend picking up the second Alhambra expansion (The City Gates) if only to get the diamond currency cards and the city gates.
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The Soot Sprite
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Thanks for the review.

Does Granada offer a different enough experience to justify Buying it if we already have and like Alhambra?
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spritey wrote:
Thanks for the review.

Does Granada offer a different enough experience to justify Buying it if we already have and like Alhambra?


I think that the scoring in Granada alone justifies buying it because scoring doesn't emphasize the value of each building type as much as mere accumulation.

The idea of double-sided building tiles is also appealing; it may be an extra step to track when having to flip tiles from even side to odd side, but with 3 more of any currency you can flip the tile to the side you want. I think this adds a bit of drama to the game: should I buy the tile showing a side that I don't really want or pay 3 more to get the side that I want, but sacrifice a possible chance to buy another tile next turn?

I also like the look of Granada; it reminds me of a tabletop SimCity.

All of that said, if you like (but don't love) Alhambra, you may be satisfied with Alhambra only. It's the same question that people ask about New York, though I think that the New York is not very aesthetically pleasing and is truly redundant. If one owns neither, Alhambra just looks better, so I'd lean towards Alhambra.
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RetroBeliever wrote:
spritey wrote:
Thanks for the review.

Does Granada offer a different enough experience to justify Buying it if we already have and like Alhambra?


I think that the scoring in Granada alone justifies buying it because scoring doesn't emphasize the value of each building type as much as mere accumulation.

The idea of double-sided building tiles is also appealing; it may be an extra step to track when having to flip tiles from even side to odd side, but with 3 more of any currency you can flip the tile to the side you want. I think this adds a bit of drama to the game: should I buy the tile showing a side that I don't really want or pay 3 more to get the side that I want, but sacrifice a possible chance to buy another tile next turn?

I also like the look of Granada; it reminds me of a tabletop SimCity.

All of that said, if you like (but don't love) Alhambra, you may be satisfied with Alhambra only. It's the same question that people ask about New York, though I think that the New York is not very aesthetically pleasing and is truly redundant. If one owns neither, Alhambra just looks better, so I'd lean towards Alhambra.


Thanks for this review.

The situation with Alhambra is a bit frustrating because each of the different incarnations seem to offer something different, but it would be redundant, expensive, and space-consuming to try to acquire them all.

Alhambra Big Box is clearly the best value since you get all 5 expansion modules and base game for a great price. However, it's missing the large game board (the importance of which is debatable; thematic with nice looking and centralized market and scoring track, but unnecessarily takes up a lot of table space).

Alhambra Gold Anniversary Edition debuted the game board and also included wooden pieces (again, the practicality is debatable as the basic different colored fountain tiles can't be knocked over). Now out of print and generally unavailable.

Granada introduced some advanced rules and scoring and also had the game board, but is not designed to be compatible with any of the expansion modules (but this thread states that many can nevertheless be used).

Alhambra Family Box is a mish-mash of the above, and owning it along with Big Box (or the separate expansion boxes) would be very complete, however you would be paying a lot of money and duplicating the base game and one expansion box. Also, the removal of building-type names from the tiles is, thematically, quite disappointing.

Ideally, Queen should release an "Deluxe Alhambra Big Box Advanced" that adds to the current Big Box:
- the large game board,
- the Granada tiles (from Family Box), and
- the wooden pieces from the Gold Anniversary edition.
(This also should be localized [English language] so the tiles have building-type names instead of just colors).

If they raise the list price of Big Box $10-15 because of the added components I'll still gladly be in for a copy!
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It seems like a lot of the modules in the Alhambra expansion cannot be used for Granada, especially if you buy Granada as a standalone game. However, if you buy the Alhambra Family Box, you get currency cards that say "Alhambra" on the backs, which means that any other currency-based modules (the currency exchange cards in The Vizier's Favour or the diamonds in The City Gates) for Alhambra can be used for Granada. I also use the vizier token for Granada games. Of course, Camp or Worker Hut tiles are not usable with Granada...

Anyway, you made a great point about the value of the Alhambra Big Box, though I'd contend that most of the modules are not that great. Granada is worth your time; even though the "only" real differences between Granada and Alhambra are scoring and the ability to flip tiles, a lot of strategic depth has been added as a result of these two differences.

By the way, I also agree about your idea about a Deluxe set with the Granada tiles. It's just too bad that I've already purchased the Family Box.
 
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blindsorrow wrote:
[q="RetroBeliever"][q="spritey"]
Alhambra Big Box is clearly the best value since you get all 5 expansion modules and base game for a great price. However, it's missing the large game board (the importance of which is debatable; thematic with nice looking and centralized market and scoring track, but unnecessarily takes up a lot of table space).

Alhambra Family Box is a mish-mash of the above, and owning it along with Big Box (or the separate expansion boxes) would be very complete, however you would be paying a lot of money and duplicating the base game and one expansion box. Also, the removal of building-type names from the tiles is, thematically, quite disappointing.

Ideally, Queen should release an "Deluxe Alhambra Big Box Advanced" that adds to the current Big Box:
- the large game board,
- the Granada tiles (from Family Box), and
- the wooden pieces from the Gold Anniversary edition.
(This also should be localized [English language] so the tiles have building-type names instead of just colors).

If they raise the list price of Big Box $10-15 because of the added components I'll still gladly be in for a copy!


I cannot agree more with most of your points. Removing the names from the tiles seems to really remove a good chunk of the theme, albeit a minor change. Saying, I want to build the star building, versus tower or what not seems to be a horrible change. Hell, I would rather have the names in another language as opposed to just symbols.

About the board, I am one that thinks it is a big deal. While it has no functional difference on the game, it looks nice, can potentially help the game seem less abstract to new players, and I find having a nice board or centralized area, versus several seperate items, helps make the game more attractive for new players (of games in general) and for new board gamers. It simply just makes the game look more interesting from the get go and sets your game experience off right.

I would love it if they made they made a new edition which simply put the board and nicer pieces in the big box, but I would wager at this time most people who want the game already have it in some form and its probably not economically advantageous to reproduce. It would be my guess that the Family Box itself originated from excess inventory of its components and was a means to clear stock.
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New version on Kickstarter!
 
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