I never had much opportunity to build things when I was young. Sure, I had plenty of Lego which was generally used to build the tallest tower I could possibly construct before it tumbled over, but I wasn’t ever happy with the houses I made. Limited resources meant that they were never grand enough, never as opulent and sprawling as I wanted them to be. My small amount of bricks meant I was stuck with putting together bog standard bungalows with barely enough room to swing the slightly freakish looking cat that was included in the set.
Thankfully, now I’m older and have disposable income, I can go out and buy all the Lego I want. Or I could do if I didn’t blow the majority of it on games, anyway. Thankfully, there are plenty out there can can scratch the itch to build stuff, and one of my favourite ones is the 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner – Dirk Henn’s Alhambra. Players compete with each other to build the finest palace by collecting and laying tiles portraying different types of building. These tiles are bought by spending money (split into four currencies – one of the actions you can take on your turn is drawing from a set of upturned cards – I also play a house rule that you can draw from the top of the currency deck) that players have in their hand – each building is worth a set amount, printed on the tile. Only four buildings are ever on offer at one time, chosen randomly from a bag and put up for purchase on a builders yard board – another of the actions you may take. These buildings will not change until they’re bought and added to a player’s own collection.
As more and more currency cards are drawn, the three scoring phases of the game draw ever closer. The first two are triggered by the turning of scoring cards that have been placed into the money deck, the final one occuring at the game’s end. Players gain points by having the most (and later in the game the second and third highest amounts) of the building types – whoever has the most at the end is declared the winner. Simple! Well, not necessarily.
Those four tiles on the builder’s yard board can often scupper you – for example, if a tile you really need to get a majority of that set is available but you haven’t got enough of that currency, you’ll need to wait until you have enough of it, all the while waiting to see if someone else will pick it up. They may not, but the more expensive / rarer buildings score highly – even having one or two of a certain type could be enough to net you some points at the end of the game. There’s also the issue of walls; some tiles have a black border on one, two or three sides. Every aspect of your palace must be accessible from your starting tile (everyone gets a fountain to begin with) so walls must be strategically placed – they also net you one bonus point per scoring round for every section, particularly useful at the games end, so watch out for your opponents! You can, of course, have more than one wall, but only the longest counts towards your score. Any tiles that would be blocked off from the rest of your palace can be put on your reserve board and used later, but that’ll take up your turn – making the correct decisions at the right time in Alhambra is everything.
So, three actions – get money, buy a tile or swap. That is the basis for the whole game, and while it may come across as a simple one, there are actually many layers of depth to be found in Alhambra. Do you buy an expensive tile to hamper an opponent, even though it might be of no use to you? Do you spend a turn swapping a pair of tiles to open up an area of your palace while others grab high scoring buildings? Do you hold on to money towards the end of the game hoping you’ll get lucky, because whoever has the highest amount of each currency gets to take the tile from the yard for free?
Queen Games have put a lot of effort into the game’s production – all elements are high quality, and you get a lot in the box for your money. I’ve owned my copy for nearly five years and despite regularly visiting the table, it’s in excellent condition. I kind of think they’ve overmilked the cash-cow a little with the release of five expansions, a dice game variation, a forthcoming card game and spin-off title (The Gardens of Alhambra), but would heartily recommend you get a copy of the original. If the theme irks you, you can always wait for the reskinned version that’s due later this year, seeing players building in New York instead! While it perhaps involves a little more thought than your average gateway game, Alhambra is still one I’d happily introduce newer players to. A little more of a challenge, I’d see it more as a bridging step between something like Carcassonne and a more complex Eurogame.
Alhambra is produced by Queen Games, designed by Dirk Henn and was first released in 2003. It also claimed that year’s Spiel des Jahres prize. It is available here in the UK through all your friendly local game stores and online for around £20.