Do you like the concept of building a palace for you and your family to live in? Do you enjoy managing your capital resources to make sure you are always ready to purchase the next component of your masterpiece? Maybe you are just interested in the era when the Moors ruled Spain? Could you just be a gamer with an interest in what is considered to be a classic tile-laying game? If your answer to any of those questions was ‘yes,’ then continue reading our review of Queen Games’s Alhambra.
Alhambra puts players in the role of a Moorish lord in Grenada with the goal to build the most lavish and expansive alhambra. This is accomplished by purchasing towers, gardens and other rooms, and by managing four different types of currency. During the game, players will be playing cards from their hand corresponding to the value of a structure they want to buy. They also have to follow certain guidelines when constructing their alhambra in order to place rooms correctly and maximize scoring.
Scoring occurs at two points during the game and once during a final scoring round at the end of play. A player’s score is based on how many of a particular structure (represented by colored tiles) they have in their building compared to their opponents, and also how long the exterior wall they have constructed is on their alhambra. In the end, the player with the most points is declared the victor.
Like most tile games, the components for Alhambra are sturdy and durable. Since both the cards and tiles end up with a great deal of wear due to handling and playing, they are designed to hold up in the long run. The game boards are also of good construction, and the wooden player and score markers, while not remarkable, are very functional.
The artwork is functional as it relates to the tiles. Each type (color) of tile has a different drawing showing the structure it represents, but the art is relatively unremarkable. The only redeeming value is that the tiles are easy to read and it is very clear as to which color family the tile belongs to. The art on the cards is equally functional in terms of giving you the information you need quickly, but don’t do much else, unfortunately.
How to Play
The communal game area is made up of the money market and the building market. The money market contains cards representing various currencies of four different colors. The building market contains four spaces, each corresponding to one of the colors of currency, with a palace structure in each of the spaces available for purchase. Each player starts the game with a random hand of currency and a starting tile representing the center of their palace.
On a player’s turn, they can choose one of three possible actions.
1. Take a currency card from the money market, or multiple cards, so long as the sum of the cards is less than five.
2. Purchase a building from the building market, by discarding an amount of currency equal to or greater than the value listed on the building. The currency card must also match currency color of the space in the market the building is occupying. This building is then placed in the alhambra according to placement rules or placed in a player’s reserve.
3. The third action is to engage in construction and reconstruction, which allows a player to remove a tile to their reserve or add a tile from their reserve. At the end of a player’s turn, the money market and building market are refilled and the turn proceeds to the next player in order.
The rules for tile placement are straightforward. Each tile side either is either open or bordered by a wall, and neighboring tiles need to correspond when placing (meaning you cannot place a wall edge next to a tile with an open edge). In addition, each tile must be placed so that you can “walk” from room to room without interruption, creating one giant space. Finally, the tiles must be oriented face-up according to the pictures on the tile, which lends some strategy as to which tiles are purchased. If you purchase a tile that cannot be placed (or one that you do not want to place), you can hold it in reserve, then use another turn’s action to place it when a spot opens up.
The game adds a reward mechanic for purchasing buildings with the exact amount. If this occurs, the player may immediately take another action. If planned out correctly, it is possible to string together multiple purchases in the same turn.
Scoring is done in two parts. First, the players compare the number of each color tile they have in their alhambra, and award points according to an increasing scale. Second, players earn a point for each segment of their longest continuous wall. When the game ends, three rounds of scoring will have occurred, and the player with the highest score is declared the winner.
Alhambra is a good game that is very straightforward in both game play and play experience. It’s perfect to bring to the table when you are in the mood for a lighter game, or if you have friends over who you want to introduce to the world of hobby board gaming. That said, if you’re looking for a meaty, strategy-laden experience, I would suggest that you look elsewhere. While there is a small element of long-term strategy, in terms of keeping track of your color counts compared to your opponents, most of the game play involves looking at the markets on your turn and making the optimal move at that given point in the game.
This leads to a very important point, which is the number of players. Having played Alhambra with all the numbers of possible players, I feel Alhambra plays best with either two or three players, because of the point about strategy mentioned above. With less players, some (OK, a little) strategy can get worked into your game play, which is definitely a good thing. With four or five players, the game becomes very chaotic with no strategic play, as it is possible to have a completely different set of tiles and currency in the market by the time your turn comes back around. The two-player rules call for the addition of ‘Dirk,’ a third ‘player’ who gets a certain number of tiles assigned to him at different points in the game, which provides another bit of strategy to the two-player game. However, in the many plays I have had with ‘Dirk,’ he has never beaten any human player.
As a player who looks for an immersive theme that contributes well to game play, Alhambra leaves me wanting here. The theme is definitely pasted on, as I could very well be constructing a space station or a yacht or a modern city (in fact, Manhattan is a re-theming and re-release of Alhambra). The theme doesn’t add to the game play, nor does it distract from it: it’s just there.
In terms of game play, there is something satisfying about building the alhambra, and putting together a structure that keeps its flexibility. This is important because if you created a more closed structure with many wall segments, you limit the amount of options you have to add more tiles when your turn comes back around, but potentially maximize the number of points you earn for your ‘longest wall.’ With a more open structure, you may not be able to earn as many points for your wall, but you keep the flexibility of being able to add many types of tiles to your board.
It should be noted that there have been many expansions released for Alhambra over the years, and now Queen Games sells them in a massive collector’s edition including the base game and all the expansions. Not having played with any of the expansion sets, I’m not in a position to review them, but they may be worthwhile to research more about when considering whether to own Alhambra.
Alhambra fulfills its role as a very light game that gives you the enjoyment of constructing a building without a complicated rules set or long game length. Leave this one on the shelf when your hardcore Euro-playing friends come over for game night, or if you have a gaming group that is interested in innovative mechanics or immersive theme. Once you get the hang of the rules, a 2-3 player game can be easily completed in under an hour, which is definitely a selling point.
Should you add this to your collection? Sure. Alhambra is a decent game for newcomers and casual gamers because of all the reasons listed above. If you find your game nights skew more towards Le Havre and Dungeon Lords, Alhambra may not necessarily be for you, but you may find it worthwhile to hold onto for nights when you have rookies and non-gamer family over.
If you are interested in getting a copy for yourself, it’s about $40
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – A decent tile-laying game that will appeal to both newcomers to the hobby and hardcore gamers looking for lighter fare.
• No strategy possible with 4-5 players
• Weak theme does nothing to improve game play