Alhambra board game: A four-sided review

The Alhambra board game won the Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) back in 2003, alongside several other awards. And is still going strong today. It is a family game (ages 8+) for 2-6 players taking 1-2 hours to play.

I browsed my ‘Top 40’ for the highest ranked game I hadn’t reviewed. With one caveat: you can play it online for free (in this case at Boite a Jeux). With so many social distancing, it seemed apt. This will be the last ‘classic’ covered for a while though, as I have some new-ish releases on the table right now. But if you like my reviews of these older games, let me know and I’ll work more into the schedule.

Alhambra is a tile-laying game, where players buy tiles from a central market to build their own palaces. The buying is done through a card-driven set collection process. While the bulk of the scoring is done through a competitive majorities mechanism. So you’re building your own Alhambra – but worrying about your opponents in terms of scoring it. In the box you’ll find 60 cardboard tiles, 110 cards, eight player/game boards and a few tokens. And either a cloth bag or tile tower, depending on the edition (see below). The components are nice quality, with everything clear and easy to understand. But don’t come for the ‘theme’.

Teaching the Alhambra board game

Each player starts with a single tile, from where their personal Alhambra will grow from. Plus some starting cash, dealt randomly. You’ll also set up a bank area (four face up money cards from the draw deck) and the building board. This has four tile spaces which are randomly dealt to from the tile bag. Each tile space matches one of the game’s four currency colours.

On an average turn you’ll choose one of the two main actions: take cash cards or use them to buy a building. (There are also a few lesser used actions which let you reorganise your Alhambra if you change your plans). If you take cash, you either take a single card; or several adding up to less than six value. Card cash values range from 1-9 but as you’ll see below, taking some small change can certainly prove beneficial later.

To buy a tile, simply discard cash cards equal to or above (sorry, no change) the tile’s cost. A tile’s colour isn’t important: it’s the colour of the space on the tile board that counts. What does make a difference is paying the exact money. If you do so, you immediately take another turn. The tile market is only replenished at the end of your go. So in theory you can buy four in a single turn – and still take some cash cards from the bank. This makes planning for a big turn tempting – but that comes with its own risks.

Building your Alhambra

Once bought, you can immediately add your tiles to your Alhambra. Alternatively you can put some to one side and add them later, using those other actions I mentioned above. This is less efficient, but sometimes necessary.

What makes placement tricky is most of the tiles have walls along one to three edges. Generally, the less walls they have the more expensive they are to buy. The golden rule is you must be able to walk unhindered from your start space to the new tile. And tiles have to be in a set orientation (unlike games such as Carcassonne). Walls can be good (see below), but the more you have the more you can get hemmed in – restricting choice later.

The tiles come in six different colours. This doesn’t affect purchase or placement, but is all important for scoring. The largest scoring round happens at the end of the game. But two others are triggered at semi-random times from the cash card deck. You score for majorities in the six tile colours and for your longest wall. Which is why it’s risky to hold back on making purchases.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Due to its popularity, the Alhambra board game has seen many expansions over the years. These are modular, meaning you can add as many of them to a game as you fancy – so are super flexible. After 30+ plays I’m still happy to play just the base game. But each module in each expansion adds a little extra twist, meaning the game has incredibly strong replay value if you like the base game.
  • The thinker: While light, and perhaps a little too long and tactical for my usual tastes, I don’t mind Alhambra with just a few players. Games throw up interesting decisions around whether to make do with inferior tiles, or wait for better ones. But you’re doing so in the knowledge you could still be sniped for the tiles you really want, especially in games with more players. The random draws, both of tiles and money, can make for a frustrating experience. But on the whole I’d have to give the game a thumbs up.
  • The trasher: While at first Alhambra feels like a tile placement puzzle, it soon reveals itself as a cutthroat majorities game. Building your wall offers nice points, but you’ll probably all be getting roughly the same overall. Where sniping a tile to ensure a majority – even if you put it in your reserve – can see a 20-point swing in your favour. So the game also gets a thumbs-up from me – but only with four or less. With more, the tension disappears and the downtime/luck element becomes painful.
  • The dabbler: There’s a lot to like about this game. Like the place itself, the tiles are lovely and there’s always something satisfying about building up your own tile tableau. And the mechanisms are simplicity itself to learn, with the tricky decisions coming in the placement. But why on earth did they make two of the tile colours the same as two of the money colours?! Someone new (or sometimes old!) always gets muddled up and realises they’ve been saving up the wrong colour of money, looking at the tile and not the tile board. It’s a shame, as otherwise it is a lot of fun.

Key observations

Alhambra is a well-loved game that has stood the test of time. It has been rated by more than 27,000 players at Board Game Geek and still ranks above a seven – impressive for a family game. So any criticisms here should be taken in that context. I think I’ve covered issues of game length and the level of randomness above. I certainly wouldn’t play with more than four players and prefer the game with two or three. This helps with both problems. But even then, you can have frustrating plays.

Saying the game is solitaire and lacks interaction kind of misses the point. However, I do buy this issue at higher player counts – where the randomness means you may as well not bother looking at other players’ boards. You simply can’t do anything about it. However, with two to three especially, failing to pay attention to your opponents and to act accordingly is likely to lose you the game. no, it’s not direct interaction. But it is certainly not solitaire.

But I do see how a new group fresh to the game, or with a bad teacher, could have a bad first experience. It’s very easy to pootle along, buying tiles and happily building your little city. Only to come to scoring and get no points. This can of course be deflating and frustrating. But the rules make it very clear this is how the game is scored. So even a half decent teacher should get that across to players before you start playing.

Conclusion: The Alhambra board game

Alhambra has been on my shelves since 2011 and I’ve never considered getting rid of it. Including online games I must be well over 50 plays. And with the caveat I do have several expansions for it – and never play with more than four now – I never find it boring. It ticks two important boxes for me, being an interesting personal puzzle while forcing you to pay attention to what your opponents are up to. So if that sounds like a combination you also like, I’d definitely advise giving Alhambra a try.

NOTE: This review and my component pics are of the original version, not the ‘revised’ edition pictured in the box cover image. The Revised Edition is a little more shiny, with small changes to the art and layout. But the game play and component list is largely the same.

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