The Dead Eye board game: Kickstarter preview

‘The new normal’ is a common phrase right now. And I think solo gaming is one of the niche areas that will benefit from the covid 19 lock down. I’ve picked up several solo board games recently. But I was also lucky to be involved with a development project that’s just coming to Kickstarter. The Dead Eye board game. The project is live now and you can back it until July 3, 2020.

As a disclaimer, I’ve been working on this game a bit. I’ve been helping with play-testing, hence know enough to write about the game here. But I’m writing this because I want to support the game (I’m not financially invested). If I hadn’t liked the game, I wouldn’t be writing this.

So, to the basics. The Dead Eye board game is a small box card game. It is a solo sci-fi experience that takes less than an hour to play. But despite its short play time it’s tense with tricky decisions. While also being packed with personality and atmosphere (always handy in a space ship. Sorry). But lease remember I’m discussing my experiences with pre-launch prototype components.

A unique feel

While moving away from franchised fictional settings can be a breath of fresh air, it can lead to a soulless experience. Because if there’s something worse than ‘star [blank]’ settings, it’s settings that use white-label cliches in an unimaginatively parallel universe.

That’s certainly not an issue with The Dead Eye. The art style and language are unique. But importantly they don’t add difficulty in learning the game. Creative use of language gives the game a feel I’d liken to the Belters of The Expanse. A pidgin patois which brings words to the game such as ‘partz’ (equipment), ‘tox’ (your impending doom) and ‘safe havn’ (your destination). Also, not everyone will get on with the 3D art style. But even without the glasses it adds an other-wordly look to an already distinctive art style.

It also has the claustrophobia of the earlier Expanse seasons. But perhaps more of the slow tension built into films such as Silent Running or Aniara. although I don’t want to over egg this. We’re talking about a short-playing card game, not a sci-fi epic. I just think it tells an interesting story as best it can with such a small number of components.

Playing The Dead Eye board game

The game involves completing a series of ‘runs’, which eventually lead you to ‘safe havn’. If you fail a run, you simply try your luck and start again at the beginning. Each run has three or four ‘destination’ cards which have a criteria to meet. Which basically means collecting the right cards without running out of time.

Your starting hand has 14 cards, 12 of which have either a ‘heat’ (bad) or ‘juice’ (good) icon. But the main part of each each card shows the outcomes for completing it as an encounter. You’ll want to add them to your tableau as either ‘partz’ or ‘distance’ (which allow you to meet destination requirements. But bad luck (and/or poor play) may lead to a negative outcome.

Putting a card (destination, partz, or distance) in the board’s ‘encounter’ slot means you’re trying to complete it. Now, the cards you turn over are used for their ‘heat’ or ‘juice’ value. Each encounter has a value for each, and when you reach one or other value the encounter happens – either for good or ill. Enough juice, and you’ll get your card (yay!). But too much heat and you get the bad outcome.

A bad outcome often adds a card to your draw deck. This can be a good thing, as it adds cool new partz to your deck. And/or add more cards with ‘juice’ icons, swinging the odds in your favour. But when too many cards are added to your deck ,the run ends in defeat. It’s more complex than that, but hopefully you get the general idea.

The Kickstarter experience

I’m generally not a fan of Kickstarter. But a lot of smaller publishers rely on it as an amazing advertising platform and for forward-funding production costs. I avoid backing many games as I’ve been burnt in the past. But I’ve been impressed by all the titles I’ve played from Pleasant Company Games. Especially Ancient Terrible Things and Snowblind, both also created by The Dead Eye’s Rob van Zyl and Simon McGregor.

So if you’re looking for a short-ish small box solo card game experience I’d recommend The Dead Eye board game. It feels, looks and plays original, while evoking a classic sense of tension and dread as you flip your cards. It rewards multiple plays, as you start to learn how to play the deck. And for such a small amount of cards it has a surprising amount or story and replay value built in.

So if you’re up for the challenge, remember: “You are pilgrm. Get Partz. Get furtha. Beware the tox.” I’ll see you at safe havn.

Find out more about The Dead Eye on Kickstarter.

Gloom of Kilforth board game: A solo review

The Gloom of Kilforth board game is an epic fantasy themed experience. Released in 2017, the game will take 1-4 players around 2-3 hours to complete. And due to its complexity and dark theme, the age range is around 12+.

As the current coronavirus lock down continues, I’ve decided to put out some solo game reviews. While Gloom of Kilforth can be played with more it is generally only recommended for one to two players, and is largely considered at its best as a solo game. I have only played it solo, so if you’re looking for a review covering more players I suggest heading to Board Game Geek.

This is largely a card flipping/dice chucking game, as you explore a 25-card map grid trying to complete one of the game’s eight story lines. You’ll take on a number of encounters, picking up equipment and experience before taking on one of four end game bosses. In the box you’ll find 300+ cards, 150+ cardboard tokens, eight cardboard standees (no minis), six dice and a cloth bag. The component quality is generally good, but the artwork is of a high standard. However, you’re going to have to like a dark Gothic fantasy theme to really dig it.

Playing the Gloom of Kilforth board game

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but instead cover the basics. Just know that these basics have a long list of smaller rules behind hem. And be aware the game has a 28-page rulebook which, for me, was far from from intuitive to use. But it does have a detailed index and the game also contains a nice double-sided A4 player aid. It takes some dedication to get all the rules into your head, so you’ll need a player who’s happy to be the rules lawyer.

The game is played over a number of turns, each of which has a day and then night phase. During the day you’ll be taking your actions. Then at night the game takes its turn, (usually) throwing up some fresh obstacles. There are 25 ‘night’ cards, one for each of the game’s locations. This deck also works as a game timer. If you run through the deck, you’ve lost. To win, you’ll need to defeat your chosen saga/ancient before this time runs out.

To begin you’ll lay the location cards out in a random 5×5 grid around your central start spot. You’ll choose a race and class (taking their cards and standee), which will give you your starting attributes. This basically equates to the amount of dice you can roll when taking skill checks in four categories: fighting, studying (spell casting), sneaking and influence. Next, you take a set of ‘saga’ cards – complete them all and you win. To make things easier you can pick a saga that roughly match your class strengths, or ignore some enemy abilities.

The hero actions

You start with four health points, which can raise to eight before the end of the game. These are doubly important. If you run out, you’re dead. Not good. But the amount of health you have at the start of a turn also dictates how many actions you’ll get that day (one per current health). You can do these actions in any order, any amount of times each.

Move (one space), rest (heal one point) and market (shop for items) are simple. Regale advances your saga to the next step if you meet the criteria. Hide mostly gives an advantage in, or way to avoid, battles. Discover and clear get you stuff when in the right areas. While search and confront let you roll some dice and try and defeat a card at your location.

Anyone used to skill-based RPG or adventure board games will be in very familiar territory. Most locations (strangers, quests, places) are defeated by dice rolls (5-6 is a ‘success’, with more needed for harder tests). And battles are slightly more complex versions of the same. Each part of your saga requires you to have collected cards with particular keywords; while the ancient you need to finally defeat will be the toughest enemy you fight all game.

The five criteria

In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.

  • Elegance: The Gloom of Kilforth board game is in no way elegant. It’s fiddly in much the same way old school FFG titles were. There are definite similarities to Arkham: needing 5-6 on rolls to pass a long series of very similar skill tests masked by short pieces of text. And constantly having to dip into the rulebook to find little rule exceptions. You won’t find many games with more keywords. Some of which mean something different if they’re in brackets…
  • Meaningful decisions: As with many solo/co-op experiences, much of the decision making is around risk. Being gung-ho can work – but you’ll need the dice on your side. Caution can also work, but the more you try and prepare the more time you’re wasting – meaning the game probably puts more obstacles in your path. While you do need to react to these challenges, it does feel as if you’re largely choosing how to complete each task. You can certainly complete a game in a number of different ways.
  • Replayability: If I go slow, I’ii probably get to roll more dice during skill checks. If I play a rogue I’ll be looking for ‘sneak’ tests, rather than ‘influence’ checks for my priest. But all that really changes is the colour of the skill check/narrative flavour text. Worse, the four sagas play out identically for the first 50-70% each play. Find keywords, pay money, complete. The ancients add variety, but is that enough for multiple plays? If you like the basics, then yes – just about. As for difficulty levels, there are ways to make your first games easier. But once on ‘normal’ mode there’s nothing harder – unless you find something online or set your own challenges.
  • Theme and narrative: I found Gloom of Kilforth too fiddly to lose myself in. Even near the end of my third play I was having to regularly check rules exceptions. The 80 location cards add variety, but soon become a little repetitive as the game’s main way to deliver narrative. As for theme, it is fantasy 101 – which will be fine for many. But for me, bog standard kobolds, elves and paladins feels so tired in a thematic game. However, it is done solidly. The artwork is high quality, fights feel dangerous and the flavour text is relatively well written.
  • The ending: The game certainly builds towards a climax. Each turn another location card is flipped over and if you end your turn there, you take damage. There are also plot cards which must be dealt with or they make the ancient battle tougher. You get skills as you complete saga cards and get a large boon just before the final battle, meaning each finale should be a brutal and often short dice fest. So win or lose, the game does build nicely. But all the prep in the world won’t save you if you roll a bunch of ones and the ancient rolls a bunch of sixes. Whether that’s OK with you is going to be very much a matter of taste. Solo it’s basically a binary ending: win, or lose.

Key observations

I’ll start with my usual ‘highly ranked game’ caveat here. With more than 1,000 ratings on Board Game Geek, Gloom of Kilforth ranks well over a 7.5 average and is just outside the top 1,000 board games of all times. However, that should be tempered by the fact the vast majority of people that have played it would have gone in expecting/wanting to like it. It won’t be a random pick-up for many – or game you risk playing with non-narrative game fans.

Yes, the fantasy art is – well – fantasy art. It’s cliched, dark and booby at times. But it is of a very high quality if you like that kind of thing. But yes, its orcs and elves and dwarves and zzzz… But that’s hardly a criticism – if you don’t want that in a game, why buy or play it?

The rulebook, for me and many others, is awful. And I have the second edition of the game which already had a lot of improvements. Due to all the exceptions and keywords, it could have done with a proper old school war game style rulebook. Instead it meanders around and nothing is easy to find. This constant rulebook diving also makes the game play very long. I expect most players will be looking at 3-4 hours – at least until you get the hang of it.

Putting your imagination to the test

The ‘illusion’ of replayability and narrative are strong and common negatives too. The keyword collecting makes it feel like a set collection game. And there’s a real lack of imagination in the sagas, where you feel the narrative could really shine. Negative reviews talk about Talisman and Runebound – with a bit of Arkham thrown in. But funnily enough, while this will ring alarm bells for some it will turn the heads of many others. But you’ll have to use your imagination to find the story being told through this very mechanical dice game.

I don’t fully agree it’s a luck fest. Yes, there’s a lot of dice rolling and card flipping, hoping for the right keyword. But there are many ways to mitigate the dice and a cautious player, with average-ish luck, should be able to work their way through to the end game with relatively little trouble. But then, is that a good thing? Once you know the formula you are only going to fail if you get really bad luck on the dice, or in the card draws. And worse, that will likely happen in the final battle. If you know that going into each play, what is drawing you back?

Conclusion: The Gloom of Kilforth board game

I really wanted to like Gloom of Kilforth. I’d heard good things about the game and company, thought the artwork looked impressive, and wanted a solo adventure experience. But sadly this is not a game that will be staying in my collection. For me it was too mechanical, too cliched, but worse too samey. Combined with constant diving into the rulebook, the negatives easily outweighed the game’s positives. However, it positives are there for the right type of players. So if you’re an adventure game fan who like to chuck dice in a fantasy setting, especially if wanting a step up from Talisman et al, you should certainly take a peek.

Online board game mini reviews: Kahuna, La Granja, The Ruhr, Seasons & Vanuatu

Like many gamers, I’m managing to stay sane in lock down thanks to free online board game websites. I’m lucky some of my absolute favourites are available, such as Concordia, Terra Mystica and Oracle of Delphi. But it has also given me the chance to learn a few new games and play some others I haven’t played for years. Below you’ll find mini reviews of five of the latter. Bare in mind these were written after one or two recent plays of each, and that these games are all designed primarily for the tabletop.

I’d happily give each a proper go ‘in real life’ some time after this nonsense is all over. But here are my impressions of their online implementations – with links to where to play. If you want to check out more games that are available online at these sites, take at look at my posts about online board game websites Yucata and Boite a Jeux. And as always, if you want to support the blog please click here before buying anything over at Amazon.

Kahuna (1998, 2 players, 45 minutes, ages 10+)

I’m a big fan of many two-player games from publisher Kosmos (Rosenkonig, Balloon Cup, Targi, Lost Cities etc). So its nice to see quite a list of them available on Yucata. I’m not really seeing Sarah due to lock down, but I have talked her into playing a few lesser known of these titles online. In typical Kosmos fashion, this is small box, small board abstract game with brightly coloured pieces and a simple yet cunning rule set.

This series often blends classic abstract mechanisms with a level of randomness, usually via a deck of cards. Kahuna is no different. Here you lay bridges between islands, taking control of the islands once you control more than half the bridges leading to it. But to play bridges, you need the right cards – and there are are only a few per island per round. Worse, if you lose a bridge you can lose island control – which can have a cascading effect onto other islands. It was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to more plays – and grabbing a copy when we’re finally allowed to visit Germany again.

Available free online at at Yucata (Designer: Gunter Cornett)

La Granja (2014, 1-4 players, 2 hours, ages 12+)

As with many of publisher Spielworxx’s releases, La Granja sold out in a flurry of fandom when it first arrived. And by the time it was reprinted by Stronghold (and others) I’d lost interest in it. Because despite its brief time at the top of the hype parade, it’s not one I used to see much on tables after the initial hubbub. But when London on Board friends Sam and Alex said they’d played online, I was definitely up for filling in another unsightly gap in my euro ‘played’ games list.

Unfortunately the BGA version leaves much to be desired. The game has extra actions you can do whenever you like. But instead of listing these somewhere clickable (as, say, Yucata does with Terra Mystica) it makes you answer a question on whether you want to do an extra action after each game phase. And there are a lot of phases. And sub phases. Thankfully the game is served much better at Yucata, where the extra actions are organised much more sensibly. I’d definitely recommend the Yucata implementation over BGA.

Available free online at Board Game Arena and Yucata (Designers: Odendahl & Keller)

The Ruhr: Story of the Coal Trade (2017, 2-4 players, 2 hours, ages 12+)

This is a re-implementation of 2012 Spielworxx title Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890, now reissued by Capstone Games. It is a medium-heavy pick-up-and-deliver/worker placement game with a classic euro ‘theme’ – 18th Century German canals. And yes, it has Essen on the map. The online implementation is slick, although some of the icons (especially area crests) are a too small to see clearly. But generally it was a smooth online experience.

The game has an extremely tight economy, seeing you scrap for every coin. And while there isn’t direct interaction as such, this is an incredibly interactive game. Players are constantly vying for precious resources, while racing to grab vital bonus markers. Turn order can be vital, but can change phase to phase, making it a constant worry. But despite the tightness of the system, it felt as if there were different viable routes to victory. My fear would be over long-term replay value. But I very much enjoyed the game’s challenges.

Available free online at Board Game Arena (Designer: Thomas Spitzer)

Seasons (2012, 2-4 players, 1 hour, ages 12+)

I first played Seasons near its release in 2012. That was a great year for euros – Terra Mystica, Tzolk’in, Snowdonia and Manhattan Project to name a few. And in the face of such competition, Seasons didn’t catch me enough to stay on my radar. But I was encouraged into a couple of online plays by local gaming friends Chris and Jonathan. The lovely artwork looks great online, while the interface is simple and well implemented. It’s just a shame you don’t get to roll those big chunky dice.

This is very much a ‘cards with words’ game. Players draft dice to gain resources that match the seasons. A game clock clicks through years, with particular symbols more prevalent in each month. You use the resources to play cards, which in turn give you bonuses and victory points. It’s a slick system that makes thematic sense. And there’s just the right amount of ‘take that’ cards and actions to keep it feeling competitive. The first game was fun, but back-to-back plays felt a bit samey. There just isn’t enough card variety without the expansions being here. But for occasional fun it hits the spot and we’ll surely play more.

Available free online at Board Game Arena (Designer: Regis Bonnessee)

Vanuatu (2011, 2-5 players, 2 hours, ages 12+)

Vanuatu got some buzz on its release. But its second printing went through crowdfunding hell, losing its momentum. So despite a 2016 re-release by Quined Games it still flies largely under the radar. I’ve never picked it up, as most of my regulars don’t like mean games (more below). Plus, it plays best with more players. However local friends Chris and Jonathan are up for a scrap, so we gave it a go online.

Don’t let the game’s theme and art fool you. Because that cartoony depiction of beautiful pacific islands and their laid back inhabitants hides a monster. Sure, on the surface Vanuatu is a relatively straightforward action selection game. But playing those actions is hyper competitive and a poorly planned round can leave you with literally nothing to show for it. The implementation is good, apart from the board being in French – which doesn’t gel well with the English instructions. But this didn’t slow us down much (the iconography largely gets you through) and I really enjoyed my play. I may have to pick this on up after all…

Available free online at Boite a Jeux (Designer: Alain Epron)

Best gateway games: A board game Top 10

Before I go into what I think are the best gateway games, I should answer the question: What is a gateway game? Basically, they’re games considered ideal for helping non-gamers understand what a hobby game is. To be ideal to make this transition they need to be relatively short (say 90 minutes max) and simple to play – so are also normally family games too. But they need to have elements (mechanisms) from more complex games, to best demonstrate why we love these modern games.

This still leaves an incredibly broad range of games. So the next step is to identify which of these games will best appeal to your intended audience. Maybe they like traditional card games, a particular theme, or be wowed by a visual factor. Or you see them as a type of gamer: competitive, thoughtful or theatrical. The idea is to give those tainted by poor high street game experiences (hello Monopoly) a glimpse into our fantastic hobby.

Below you’ll find 10 games I’ve had (or seen) great success with and that many list as games that got them into the hobby. I largely chose big names as they’re in print – and if you decide to get any from Amazon, please click here to help the blog. I’ve also given quite a few alternatives. And I’m at the end of the social medias/email to answer specific queries.

The best gateway games – board games

Ticket to Ride (Released 2004, 2-5 players, 60-90 minutes, age 8+)
My number one gateway game. The theme is accessible and while the board is a little grey, it soon radiates colour as you place the chunky plastic pieces. The mechanisms are immediately familiar: collect cards in colour sets to complete routes. But the way people play evolves over time as they learn the intricacies – essential for a game’s longevity. Plus, it has a bunch of expansion maps available for added replay value.

See also – Thurn and Taxis: Slightly trickier and a small step up. But it has similar mechanism (collect cards and lay routes), making a nice follow up purchase.

Carcassonne (Released 2000, 2-5 players, 60 minutes, age 8+)
The cute square cardboard tiles give this game immediate table appeal, while the rural theme is accessible. The basic rule couldn’t be simpler: draw a random tile and place it. But the subtlety of scoring soon starts to emerge, revealing what is actually quite a cutthroat and tactically clever game. Once again, its success have seen a number of expansions and spin-offs hit the shelves. So fans can easily give the game a new lease of life when required.

See also – Kingdomino: This has a very similar look to Carcassonne, just replacing squares with dominoes. And you build your own kingdoms, rather than a shared one. But clever tile taking rules make it still feel competitive.

Downfall of Pompeii (Released 2004, 2-4 players, 60 mins, age 8+)
I’ve relegated the ‘big’ name to the ‘see also’ section, as Pompeii is one of my favourites. This theme is uncommon in games, but universally well known. It has simple rules and familiar concepts. But is a great choice for players with a bit of a mean streak. The early game sees you placing pieces together to expand your population. But then its every player for themselves and the knives come out, as you try and lead your own people to safety.

See also – Catan: This can be a great gateway game, but requires conversation. Things move along nicely if players trade goods. But if they don’t, it can drag. So if you think you’ll have a chatty, interactive table it can be a great choice.

Stone Age (Released 2008, 2-4 players, 90 minutes, age 10+)
Worker placement and action selection games are a staple of the hobby board game market. And this is a great introductory example. The theme is light and the components high quality. While the rules are straightforward and the element of luck with the dice can be a nice leveller – especially as there are strong ways to mitigate it.

See also – Lords of Waterdeep: This introductory worker placement game is great for fantasy RPG fans, as it is set in the D&D universe.

Abstract and co-operative games

Azul (released 2017, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, age 8+)
This beautifully crafted abstract game also benefits from very simple rules. But let the gorgeous, tactile pieces lull you – this is a set collection game with a difference and a harsh mean streak. Again, it benefits from emergent game play. Once you’ve got the basics down, you start to see how you can really make the game’s limitations work to your advantage. Or more specifically, how you can ruin your opponent’s plans.

See also – Ingenious: Another classic abstract game which is a little bit dominoes, a little bit colour matching and a lot clever. Short, tight and highly competitive.

Patchwork (released 2014, 2 players, 20-30 minutes, ages 8+)
In the best gateway games, two-player only titles are often sought by couples. Looking to get your better half into the hobby? Try something light, good looking and made for two. Patchwork perfectly fits the bill. The rules are super simple and based around the Tetris puzzle concept we all know. So again, the same mantras we keep returning to apply – short, approachable, competitive and with emergent strategies.

See also – Jaipur: Another two-player only title, it is also light on rules, theme and play time. It has card play with a clever twist, plus highly competitive set collection.

Forbidden Island (released 2010, 1-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 8+)
The last decade has seen a huge rise in popularity for co-operative board games. Some may know one-versus-all title Scotland Yard (a solid pick too), but here you all work together against the game. Forbidden Island is a great introduction to the genre, with gorgeous components and lightness of touch that hide a really tough game to beat. So if you think your friends will like to work together, look no further.

See also – Exit, The Game: The huge popularity of escape rooms has seen a slew of board games that mimic the experience. The Exit series is the most popular and for good reason. Just remember, these are ‘one and done’ games. Once you’ve played it once, that’s that.

The best gateway games – card, dice and party games

For Sale (Released 1997, 3-6 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+)
Card games are a great gateway choice because so many people are familiar with the basics. Fir Sale uses lovely cartoon artwork to hide a highly competitive betting mechanism, with a good dose of push-your-luck and reading opponents thrown in. It pivots at halfway, feeling like two games in one – but they gel brilliantly. And it feels like a proper traditional card game, so you should be able to lure anyone in for a game.

See also – 6 Nimmt (traditional card game), Sushi Go (very light card drafting), Love Letter (fast and fun take-that game). And see my previous posts on great small box card games.

Codenames (Released 2015, 2-8 players, 30-60 mins, ages 6+)
If you like word games, this series has taken the genre by storm. You’re trying to group words and give a single word clue that describes them. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, made tougher by big penalties for failed attempts. The basic game is for two teams, so 4-8 players. But there is also now a two-player version (Duet), a visual version (Pictures) and a slew of themed editions (Disney, Marvel etc).

See also – Dixit (creative word game), Junk Art (dexterity/balancing), Wits and Wagers (quiz show) and Ice Cool (flicking game). There are so many great modern party games to choose from if you’re looking for the best gateway games!

Can’t Stop (Released 1980, 2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 6+)
Who doesn’t love rolling some dice? Can’t stop is simplicity itself, with players taking turns to push their luck to try and complete three rows of the board first. The easier the number to roll, the more successes you need to complete it. But it is also easy to bust – and lose all your progress that turn. Simple, elegant, addictive and interactive.

See also – For a game that knocks Yahtzee into a cocked hat, check out That’s Pretty Clever. Or take a look at King of Tokyo for a cartoony monster dice battle game.

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.