Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 1 May 2010

Erect Your Own Palace

Alhambra is a game that regularly ends up on our table, especially if my daughter is visiting. The 2003 winner of the “Spiel des Jahres,” Germany’s top gaming award, and based on the designer’s previous Stimmt So, it is a tile-laying game with resource management aspects and a simple theme. In Granada, 1278, each player directs a team of European and Arabic craftsmen to build the finest and largest version of the Alhambra, Spain’s most beautiful palace. Naturally, each artisan wants to be paid in his native currency.

Designed for two to six players aged eight and up and published by Queen Games, Alhambra’s components are all high quality, just as you would expect for any good Euro game with everything in full colour and done on hard wearing cardboard. This includes each player’s Starter Tile – marked with the famous Lion Fountain, and his Tile Reserve board marked with the game’s scoring information and a space to hold tiles in reserve. The Building Tiles are marked with various gardens, manors, mezzanines, pavilions, royal chambers, and towers, plus a number indicating their cost. Some tiles have walls along one or more of their edges. The Money Deck is divided between four colour-coded currencies in various values: blue coloured Denars, green Dirhams, orange Ducats, and yellow Florins. The Building Market board is the game’s heart and is marked with four spaces to hold tiles, each adjacent to a symbol for one of the four currencies. Also included is a bag to hold the building tiles.

Game set up is slightly complex. The Building Market is seeded with four new Building Tiles and each player receives a handful of Money. Several Money Cards are laid out face up besides the Building Market with the remaining Money Deck being seeded with two Scoring Cards, one about a third of the way through the deck, the second two thirds of the way. Play then begins.

A player can do one of three things on a turn. He can take Money Cards from the face up cards to spend later. He can buy a Building Tile, paying with the correct Money Cards – both in terms of currency and value, indicated by the symbol on the Building Market. A purchased tile can be added to the player’s Alhambra, or placed on the Reserve Board. The third thing that a player can do on his turn is redesign his Alhambra using his tiles in reserve.

The “exact” price does not have to be paid when purchasing a Building Tile – a player can pay more and often will if it gains him a Building Tile that will make a fine addition to his Alhambra. If the “exact” amount is paid for the Building Tile, another turn is gained! This extra allows the player to buy another Building Tile, take more Money Cards, or rearrange the tiles in his Alhambra. If the player uses this extra turn to buy another Building Tile and pays the “exact” amount, then again, he receives another turn. He can only do this as long as he has the exact amounts each time and until the fourth Building Tile on the Market has been bought.

Tiles are placed to according to simple, but strict rules. They must align correctly, and adjoining sides must match, including those tiles with walls. An Alhambra’s design can be as sprawling or as compact as a player wants. In general, cheaper tiles are more difficult to add to an Alhambra, while Building Tiles types that are worth more during the scoring rounds, such as the towers and gardens are more expensive. Scoring takes place when each of the two Scoring Cards are drawn and then at a game’s end. Points are awarded for having the most of each building type, plus the longest wall. The player with the most points is the winner and thus has the finest Alhambra.

Alhambra offers simple tactics, but difficult decisions. Does a player buy and lay the Building Tiles needed to score, paying over their value in the process? Does he take Money Cards to have the exact amount needed to gain those oh so important extra actions, and for how long does he keep taking Money Cards when his rivals could be snapping up decent Building Tiles? Of course, buying up a Building Tile denies it to a rival player, but sometimes a Building Tile will remain on the Building Market as no one wants it. In this way, it also prevents other – hopefully better Building Tiles from being pulled from the bag and added to the Building Market.

Dominated by the strong random elements of Building Tile and Money Card drawing, Alhambra lacks any real interactive element, participants almost playing self-contained puzzle games and coming together only at the Building Market. Yet the wait between turns is never very long even if they can be frustrating as other players grab better Building Tiles and Money Cards before you can, though one of the several expansions for the game – The Vizier’s Favour – adds a means by which a player can interrupt play to take his turn out of order. One potential issue with the game is with number of players. With just two players the rules recommend that a third dummy player be added, but in our experience this added a degree of the cumbrous to play; while game play is a little slow with five players.

Alhambra is a good family game, but it is not quite the gateway game, the type of game that you would get out to introduce new players to the hobby. It sits somewhere slightly beyond such entry level games as Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, mainly because it moves player interaction away from any kind of a board in the traditional sense.

Despite a lack an interactive element, Alhambra is still pleasing to play, in turns frustrating and gratifying as fortunes can change within a turn or two. The nicely spaced scoring rounds also allow players to catch up with their rivals. Beautifully and cleverly designed, Alhambra is a light and enjoyable game that is easy to learn and a pleasure to play. 

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