Posted by: gschloesser | July 13, 2011

Alhambra

Designed by:  Dirk Henn
Released by:  Queen Games
3 – 6 Players
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Editor’s Note:  This review also appears in the July 2003 Boulder Games
“Game Notes”

This must be the year of “re-makes”. We have Edel, Stein & Reich (Basari), Domaine (Löwenherz) and now Alhambra (Stimmt So). There’s probably more, too. Amazingly, all three of these remakes are very good and I actually prefer two of them over the original … and the other one is an excellent game in its own right!

I’ve always enjoyed playing Stimmt So, but on a lighter, casual level. It was never going to rise to the level of “greatness” for me, but it was one that I could play with a wide variety of folks and enjoy the experience. It was never a game, however, that I was overly excited to play. So, when I heard that the game was being re-released as Alhambra, it barely registered a “blip” on my radar screen. I had no urge to rush out and purchase a copy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I would pass up the opportunity to play the new version! That opportunity arose back in April at Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends, where the one copy of the game available saw near constant use. I was responsible for much of that usage, as after one play, I was smitten with the new additions to the game system and played it several more times during the course of the week. In fact, I rated the game in a virtual dead-heat with Amun-Re and New England as my favorite new game of the Gathering.

The game has been given a bit more exotic setting than what was present in Stimmt So. Now, players secure the skills of master construction crews to build elaborate palaces. The crews insist, of course, in being paid in the currency of their native land, so players must make sure they have an ample amount of the four types of currency on hand. Having the most is the object, as players are richly rewarded for building the palaces with the most gardens, towers, pavilions, arcades, walls, etc.

So, in place of the stock certificates of Stimmt So, Alhambra gives us various buildings, all artistically depicted on thick cardboard tiles. The price for these buildings will vary from 2 – 14 and must be paid in the correct type of currency. Certain buildings (the towers, for instance) are inherently more valuable than others (pavilions being the least desirable). Further, many building tiles also depict walls along one or more of their edges. These walls often create placement dilemmas, but will also reward players with bonus points for contiguous exterior wall segments.

The idea is the same as in Stimmt So: collect buildings and reach majority, secondary or tertiary positions in as many different building types as possible.

In Alhambra, however, these buildings are not simply placed in rows in front of the players. Rather, there is a building aspect to the game as players must properly arrange their building tiles and “build” their palace. This is THE major difference between Alhambra and Stimmt So. Each player begins with a fountain tile and their palace grows around this fountain. Several placement restrictions must be observed when placing these tiles:

• All tiles placed must maintain access to the fountain. You see, many building tiles also depict walls along one or more of the tile edges. Care must be exercised in placing these tiles since no building can be isolated from that all-important fountain.

• All tiles must be oriented correctly; no inverted tiles allowed!

• No “holes” are allowed – all tiles must touch a previously played tile and no completely surrounded empty regions may be formed.

• The borders of adjacent tiles must match: wall to wall or no-wall to no-wall.

This aspect of the game also adds further decision-making and planning into the game system. Now, players not only must keep an eye on how a particular tile will benefit them in terms of their majority status in that building type, but they must also carefully consider if that tile will be able to be properly placed into their palace system and if it will increase their “wall” bonus. More decisions with more dilemmas – a VERY nice addition to the system!

The basic mechanics of the game remain the same. Four building tiles are drawn randomly from a bag (which is provided with the game) and placed onto a board. Beside each of the four building tile spaces is an illustration of the type of currency that must be used to purchase the tile on that space. Thus, there are four types of currency in the game: Gulden (Gilder), Denar (Dinar) and Dukaten (Ducat) and Dirham (uhh …anyone know what the English equivalent is for this one?). The currency is differentiated by illustrations, symbol and colors, so folks who have difficulty distinguishing between similar color shades can rely on the symbols or illustrations. Four currency cards are revealed and placed below the board. A large, winding score track is depicted on a separate board and is used to track the player’s scores after each of the three scoring rounds.

On a player’s turn, he has three options:

1) Take Money. A player may take any one currency card from the four face-up cards. There is another option, though, that is NOT present in Stimmt So. A player may take multiple currency cards if the sum of those cards does not tally greater than ‘5’. This is a VERY nice improvement as no longer will a player be consistently stuck with four low-valued cards on the display and be forced to take just one of those cards.

2) Purchase and Place a Building Tile. A player may purchase a building tile from the display. However, he must use the type of currency depicted beside that tile. An important caveat, however: no change! If you overpay for a tile, you get no change in return.

If, however, you pay with an EXACT amount, you are rewarded by being allowed to take another turn! You can then again execute any one of the three actions possible on your turn. And, if you opt to purchase another building tile and are able to pay with the exact amount again, you get to do it again! Building tiles are not replaced until the end of your turn, however, so eventually this “take another turn” series will end.

Any tile purchased must either be placed into your palace system immediately (following the rules outlined above), or placed onto your player mat into reserve.

3) Change your Palace. You can either:

a) Move a building tile from your ‘reserve’ and place into your palace complex; OR
b) Take a building tile from your palace complex and put it into ‘reserve’; OR
c) Exchange a building tile from your reserve with one from your palace complex. The new building tile must be placed in the same location as the tile you removed.

The use of the ‘reserve’ mat does allow players to purchase building tiles that are not immediately useful or do not currently “fit” into their complex. However, it does take a full turn to get them out of reserve and into your complex. Tiles left in reserve when the game ends are worthless.

When a player completes his turn, the displayed building tiles and currency cards are replenished to four apiece. The next player then takes his turn and this process continues until a ‘scoring’ card is revealed from the currency deck.

When a scoring card is revealed (there are two mixed in the currency deck), play is temporarily halted. Players earn victory points based on their holding position in each of the six building types. In the first scoring round, only players holding the majority of a building type earn points. In the second scoring round, majority and secondary positions are scored. At game’s end (when there aren’t enough building tiles to fill the display), majority, secondary and tertiary positions are scored. The points earned escalate with each passing round and, as mentioned, some building types are more valuable than others. All of this must be kept in mind when deciding upon which buildings to purchase.

Players also earn bonuses for contiguous exterior walls during each scoring round. Each exterior tile edge that is part of this contiguous wall earns the player 1 victory point. I’ve seen several games wherein these wall lengths made the difference in determining the victor.

As mentioned, the game ends when the building display cannot be re-filled. At this point, each remaining building on the display is awarded to the player who has the most currency of the type required to purchase that building. Thus, players may wish to conserve some of their funds as the game nears an end. However, there is no guarantee as to which buildings will be remaining on the display at the game’s conclusion, so you have to get a bit lucky here. A final scoring is held and the player with the greatest total is victorious.

No doubt, the game does have a healthy dose of luck involved, particularly involving the positioning of the building tiles and the types of currency available each round. The new rule wherein you can grab multiple currency cards as long as their sum doesn’t exceed ‘5’ is VERY good and helps alleviate some of the ‘currency’ luck. Plus, these small currency values allow a player to form ‘exact’ amounts more often, thereby rewarding him with an additional turn.

There is also the frustrating – occasionally VERY frustrating – problem of having your opponents purchase the building tiles you have been planning on purchasing prior to you having the opportunity. This can happen repeatedly and cause one’s frustration level to rise precipitously. I know … it has happened to me on several occasions! Still, I accept this as part of the game and can live with it without becoming too upset!

In spite of the luck factors, there is ample opportunity for careful planning and management. There’s a LOT to analyze and consider here, but not too much to cause the game to bog down. Indeed, the game seems to move along at a fairly brisk pace and plays to completion in about 60 – 75 minutes. No doubt, with more players, a degree of control is lost, which may frustrate some folks. If this sort of thing bothers you, then I’d suggest playing the game with less people. I’ve found 4 or 5 to be the optimum amount, but could see where it would also work well with just 3 players.

The end result? In spite of my initial apathy, I’ve found Alhambra to be a delight to play and a significant improvement over Stimmt So. There’s more here to whet my appetite and elevate the game out of the “lighter” category occupied by its predecessor. Yet, the game remains one that will appeal to casual gamers as well as fanatics such as myself. Here’s another rare case of the sequel being better than the original.

Apparently, the Spiel des Jahre jury agrees with my assessment. Alhambra has just been named the recipient for this prestigious award for 2003. Further, it has been named as a finalist for the 2003 International Gamers Awards.  Kudos to Dirk Henn and Queen Games!

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Responses

  1. Alhambra is fast and pretty, although player interaction is low and the scoring is a bit disruptive and chaotic (both). The 20 expansions in 5 boxes reflect the blandness of the original. Among tile-laying games, Alhambra is a reliable crowd-pleaser. For action, it beats the pants out of the stodgy Carcassonne. The Granada re-implementation is better. (6/10)

  2. I enjoy all of the basic game. I have not played any of the expansions because I like the basic game so much. (8/10)


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