This Arabian-themed game is the most recent update of the 1992 mafia board game Al Capone. Originally released in German, the English language version of Alhambra was put together by Uberplay before they went the way of the dodo. Thankfully, creator Dirk Henn has continued to release extensions and as of 2013 there are six extensions available, but here we’ll focus on the original, a game that marries strategy and planning and will particularly appeal to those with a flair for design and an interest in aesthetically colourful games.
One for the Architects
Master builders use currency in the form of numbered cards with different colours to build their own Alhambra. Rather like 7 Wonders, there is no central board but a building marker with four building tiles on display, each square requiring a different colour currency: Blue, green, orange or yellow.
As players purchase tiles, further tiles are produced from a bag to replace them. The object of the game is to buy as many of the building tiles as possible, using them to build an Alhambra. The different tiles score different points, with extra points earned by the length of the Alhambra.
Your Move, Master Builder
During their move players can do one of four things: Pick up a card, buy a tile, place a reserved tile or redesign their Alhambra. Each player receives money at the start of the game and they can pick up a certain amount of money during a go, depending on which cards turn up.
There are two limitations to an average move: How much currency is required for the tile needed, and the amount of wall on the tile available. Some of the tiles have black lines around the edges, these indicate they are to be the wall of the Alhambra. But once you’ve placed your tile, you can’t move it somewhere else, so it’s all too easy to box yourself in with too many walls, or walls extending in the wrong direction.
The Lion Fountain tile also must remain accessible, with no holes in the Alhambra or walls blocking the way to it. That’s where reserving tiles comes in. If you have enough currency to buy a tile but have nowhere suitable to place it on the Alhambra, you can buy the tile and place it in the holding area for future use. It pays not to do this too often, since to place a tile you’ve reserved requires an entire move. You can also replace a tile in the Alhambra with another, but again this will take time because removing one tile and placing another is two moves.
There are ways to increase your productivity. The money cards have different amounts on hem, between one and nine, and if you can pay the exact amount of a tile’s price you then get another move, with no limit on bonus moves. Most players tend to pay more than the asking price, and you are limited by the cards available at the time of your go, but I cannot stress how useful those extra moves can be.
The most complicated part of the game is the scoring. There are three scoring rounds, the timing dictated by scoring cards hidden in the money card pile. Players receive points depending on who has the most of any one colour. So, if one player has three purple tiles in their Alhambra, and the others have less tiles of that colour, that player gets the points for purple. But the points increase with each subsequent scoring round, so having a balance of colours matters more as the game goes on.
This is where having those walled tiles comes in, because players receive extra points for every connected walled tile (emphasis on the connected, it helps to bridge those gaps).
Closing Thoughts on Alhambra
Alhambra is a game that requires judgement and skill in timing. It’s not just about gathering money but knowing when to buy a tile and when to wait for a better one to turn up. Designing your Alhambra is also fun, knowing where to place the tiles so you can acquire the most points from your wall. Visually it is very appealing, as the different coloured tiles combine to make each individual Alhambra a thing of beauty, and if you manage to build a long extending wall it’s extremely satisfying.
This one requires patience as the more you play, the better you get at making those decisions. I personally find the scoring system a little frustrating, as it’s all too easy to be caught out with too few of certain colours, and unless you score consistently well on every round it’s easy to be left behind by other players.
The scoring board itself is also rather confusing, with a layout of numbers up to 100 going in odd directions. But if you don’t mind playing a few practice rounds, this is a rewarding game that benefits from repeated playing.