Almadi board game: A four-sided review

The Almadi board game is a tile-laying puzzle game for 2-5 players, which takes about an hour to play. It is recommended for ages 10+, which feels about right.

While there’s talk of sultans, palaces and markets, this is a purely abstract game with a fresh-feeling combination of set collection and pattern building, where the ways to score points are far more complex than the vey simple rule set.

In the box you’ll find five small boards, 88 cardboard tiles, 120 cards, 30 plastic rubies, five player aids and a scoring pad. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for just under £30. While this doesn’t exactly feel like a bargain, for the quality of components it feels about right.

Also, if you like what you read, note that the game is available to play on the website Board Game Arena. At the time of writing the game was listed as being in ‘beta’ on the site, but it appears to play perfectly.

Teaching the Almadi board game

The Almadi board game is extremely easy to teach in terms of mechanics. Over the course of 16 rounds each player will take one tile per round from those available and add it to their tableau. Both the tile board and your tableau have four columns and there will always be eight tiles for you to choose from (two in each column). The only restrictions are that the tile you take must go in the same row on your board you took it from. And that the tiles must be the correct orientation (easily determined by the tile art).

There are only four types of tile, each of which will score at the end in in different ways. What makes each tile different are the symbols on each of their four sides. These are either an activation arrow, or one of six activatable effects. Two are just for end game scoring (in the basic game). But the others have immediate (optional) effects. Two more give you cards, which again can help you score more points. One lets you reserve a scoring card (which can then be claimed during the game). While the last lets you move your tiles arounds in your tableau. Which is where the game often really comes to life.

Advanced rules

There’s also the option to play with the set of character cards. If you do so, the rubies (a majority scoring item in the base game) are instead used to pay for these characters. Once active, they’ll give you an ongoing ability or add an extra way for you to score end game points. Once you’ve got the base game down, they’re definitely worth adding to the mix.

The in-game scoring cards give you optional short term goals. they often want a tile type to be in a certain pattern, or for a number of a symbols to be active in your tableau. Once you’ve claimed and then scored a card, you can later change your tableau to a different configuration – it only needs to be correct in that moment. But if you reserve (but don’t score) a card, you’ll lose points for it at the end of the game.

When it comes to final scoring, again it’s all about positioning. Your yellow (caravan) tiles want to be in large sets, as that will give you more goods (green tiles, and some cards) capacity – and all the goods you can ship get you points. Blue (oasis) tiles score if paired together, but you’ll get a bonus for having the largest one. While red (palace) tiles will score points for adjacent markets and oasis – as well as for the other type of bonus card.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While the Almadi board game doesn’t break new round, its combination of mechanisms does feel fresh and interesting. Unlike many tile games where you’re making your own tableau, you’re not restricted to a 4×4 grid. And the movement of tiles to be useful at different times can be truly mind-bending (in a good way) This can induce AP in some players, but for me it’s totally worth it.
  • The thinker: I agree the concepts on show offer an interesting puzzle. But there’s a little too much luck of the draw with very little mitigation. Eight tiles sounds like a reasonable amount of choice. But each tile can only go in one row. Being able to move tiles certainly helps. but only if you can trigger the action. So while this isn’t a game I will veto, it is definitely more for those who like to make the best of a tight set of constraints.
  • The trasher: There are slim picking here for those who love interaction. But I do like the mechanic of claiming (and possibly taking away opponents’) scoring cards. Triggering the action needed to reserve a card can be tricky, so if you get one you don’t want to waste it. But it’s much safer to meet the conditions of a card first. I like this tension, but it’s not enough to make this a game I’m overly interested in playing.
  • The dabbler: I found Almadi hard on my first play. Hard, but worth it. The simple rules lull you into a false sense of security, because beneath it’s a real brain burner! This is great for me, as a more casual player. Because the rules get out of the way quickly and let me try to work out what the hell I’m doing to get the most points. And while the theme is non existent it is pretty. Overall, I approve!

Key observations

The Almadi board game plays very well with three or four players, although there’s not much to do when it’s not your turn – except think! There’s nothing worse than studying the available tiles and finding the perfect one, only for your neighbour to snatch it from you the turn before yours. This obviously improves with less players. But with just two, I find it harder to specialise as there are only 10 of each tile type in the game. This isn’t broken, but it does feel like it reduces your options a little bit.

A common complaint is the difficulty in moving tiles and the generally getting around the constraints the design puts on players. Rather than being a game fault, this is clearly a ‘horses for courses’ situation. If you like making the most of a tricky set of options, this game is probably for you. But if you like to create the perfect, purring tableau engine you may well come away from Almadi frustrated. Often, as several commenters have said, you’re trying to make the least worst choice and hoping to trigger things later.

Which brings us to the ‘analysis paralysis’ (AP) debate. Especially with four, with a couple of slow players, Almadi can become a long game. I personally don’t mind this. I’m happy to chat, and drink, and pass the time. I don’t feel a time pressure to play X games in an evening. But I realise mileage will vary a lot on this point. There are so many combinations available, especially later in the game, that a slow analytical player may grind to a halt. Again, not a fault – just a fact.

Conclusion: The Almadi board game

I was immediately won over by Almadi over at Board Game Arena. And my enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened now that I have a physical copy too. Although I do like the fact it highlights your movement options when playing online. And I don’t tend to play live on the website, so can take my sweet time without annoying anyone! But the physical copy is a definite keeper for me. It feels both familiar and original and has carved its only little niche in my collection. Which is largely what I look for nowadays.

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