Alhambra : build a spectacular Spanish palace

The year 1278 a magnificent building project was started in the Spanish city of Grenada. The Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar ordered a small fortress, mostly in ruin, to be expanded and made into a fortified palace complex – The Alhambra. Now it’s your turn to do the same. In this award-winning game you have to remember to pay your craftsmen in their preferred currency and make sure that all areas of the palace complex is accessible by foot. If you do this, your might end up with the most impressive Alhambra


The Basics

alhambra-box
Alhambra 
is a good gateway game that combines card drafting, hand management, tile laying, and set collection without getting complicated. You have to take money cards from the four cards on the table (choose carefully!), use these to buy tiles, and place the tiles in your own Alhambra. Of course there are specific ways to go about this, but they’re all very easy to understand. There will also be three scoring rounds throughout the game, but first let’s look at the four different actions that you can choose from:

  • Take money:  the money cards come in four different colours/currencies, and you have two choices when it comes to selecting money. Either you take one card of your choice from the four that are face up, or several cards with a total value of 5 or less.
  • Buy tiles: there are four tiles to choose from on the board, one for each type of currency. The number on the tile is what it costs to buy with the currency it is placed on. If you pay the exact amount you will get another chance to either buy a tile or grab money. If you pay with the exact amount again, you get another draw and so on. The tiles won’t be replaced until you are done shopping though so you can buy a maximum of four tiles + take money (or redesign) once – if you are lucky that is. If you have to pay more than the tile costs your turn is over.
alhambra-market
The market (without tiles) and examples of each currency.
alhambra-purchase
The player has bought the garden tile placed on orange (Ducat) spot in the market, using exact change. They then decide to buy the arcades from the blue section, but overpay and their turn is therefor over. They can now place the two tiles in their Alhambra.
  • Place tiles: once you have finished buying tiles you can place them in your Alhambra. Every player starts with a tile featuring the famous Fountain of Lions and you build out from that. Each tile has to be connected to another, and you have to be able to get between the tiles by foot, without climbing a wall or walking on the table (has to be on the tiles!). Walls can’t be placed next to an open palace area, but have to be either on the edge or against another wall. You are not allowed to create “holes” either (empty spaces completely surrounded by other tiles). If you’re curious the different buildings that can be part of your complex are Pavilions (blue), Seraglios (red), Arcades (brown), Chambers (white), Gardens (green), and Towers (purple).
  • Redesign: if a tile you have bought cannot be legally placed in your Alhambra you can place it in your reserve. These tiles do not count when scoring. As an action you can choose to take a tile from your reserve and place it, or take a tile from your Alhambra and place it in the reserve. You also have the choice of swapping tiles between the two, but then the tile from the reserve has to go in the exact same spot as the one in your Alhambra. Of course, even if the tile you bought can be placed in your Alhambra you might not want to, and you can put that in storage as well.
alhambra-building
Building the alhambra. The player has bought a tricky three-walled Arcade tile, but also found the perfect spot to place it! Walls will be facing walls, but it’s still possible to walk from the Garden to the new Arcade without any kind of parkour skills.

 

At the start of the game each player gets money cards of a value of 20 or higher (depending on the last card drawn). The player with the least amount of cards after this is the starting player. During your turn you can choose one of the actions outlined above. If you choose to buy a tile and pay with exact change, you can take another action. Once your turn is over the building market and line of money cards are replenished. If the money deck runs out towards the end of the game, you just reshuffle the discard pile of payments and you’re good to go.

alhambra-setup
The game setup, with one player represented at the bottom with their starting fountain tile and reserve.

 

A third of the way down in the money deck there is a scoring card. When this comes up it is time to score the current state of everyone’s Alhambra. The player with the most buildings of each colour will get points for that colour, as outlined on the scoring card. Having most blue buildings (Pavilions) is worth the least, and most purple buildings (Towers) is worth the most. Of course you can have the majority in both Pavilions and Towers, and/or anything else. If it’s a tie the players divide the points, rounded down. At this time points are also awarded for the longest continuous outside wall of your Alhambra. Each player receives one point per wall segment (so 1-3 points per tile that’s part of the wall, depending on how the Alhambra is built). So even if you didn’t have majority in anything you will still receive points – granted you actually built something with a wall! Two thirds down there is a second scoring card at which point the same thing happens. However, now the top two players for each palace building category will get points. Remember that the tiles in your reserve never count during scoring. So it is a good strategy to go for high value buildings, but also keep an eye on your opponents and make sure you can actually expand your Alhambra on your upcoming turns.

alhambra-scorecards
Scoring, with the two score cards that are placed in the money deck. To the right is the Reserve, with a table for all three scoring rounds at the top and space for tile storage at the bottom. On the Reserve card you can also see how many tiles there are of each type by looking at the left-most column. There are 7 blue and 11 purple for example.

When the building market can’t be replenished up to the full four tiles, the endgame is triggered. Whoever has the most money left of each currency will receive the tile that is left on that spot (even if they can’t actually afford it) and can place it in their Alhambra. If there is a tie no one gets the tile. Once this is done a last scoring takes place. This time three players get points per building type. Whoever is first on the scoring track after that is the winner. Simple!


The game scales down to two players, but in a way I’m not sure what I think of. The rules suggests adding a dummy player named Dirk (after the designer). He would start the game with six random tiles which are then used to score during the first scoring phase. Yes, this means that Dirk can be in the lead (and he often is when I play). He then receives six additional tiles. At the second scoring the same thing happens but since the tiles might be running out he will receive a third, rounded down. My problem is that Dirk is almost too good. I tried playing a two-player game without him though, and our Alhambras became very big and the scoring wasn’t as fierce as one might like. A version I like better is to give Dirk four tiles each time instead of six, which ended up creating a nice dynamic two-and-a-half player game where Dirk did get a decent amount of points and also had to share points with one of us real players (effectively halving the points we would otherwise receive). It is also suggested that in a two-player game you remove one card of each value from each currency, making the deck smaller and more evenly distributed between the two players. We forgot to do this once and ended up with no blue cards for several rounds. So this is definitely an modification that I recommend for two players.

The quality of the components for this game is great, and the box itself is pretty neat and sturdy as one would expect from a Queen game (even if I would appreciate another divider so the money deck doesn’t spread everywhere). The tiles are nice and thick with a good print on both sides, and the cards are of good card stock as well. The bag that holds the tiles is a bit thin though, that is the only component that I’m a bit disappointed in. I have seen Alhambra being played on a full board that holds both the building market, the money, and scoring. However, my version is scaled down a bit giving you only a specific scoring board, and a small board for the building market. I don’t know if the bigger board is part of for example the Big Box or if it’s simply an older version of the game. While it would be nice to have a full nice looking board, I also appreciate the versatility that comes with the smaller pieces. I should also add that the rule book is very well written, with clear instructions and example pictures. So even if you have no idea what to do when you open the box for the first time, you will quickly be brought up to speed.

The game is suitable for people who are colourblind as the money cards both have a different design and a clear symbol to set them apart. My game is the Scandinavian edition, and as it mixes four languages they have opted to not actually name the different structures on the tiles. I have seen both English and German editions where the tiles are marked with their respective names. I do prefer this version where they are just differentiated by design and number of diamond symbols in a row. It makes for a much cleaner looking Alhambra. Worth to note is that there are older English versions of the game with different names for the structures. The red seraglio used to be a manor, and the brown arcades used to be mezzanines. It’s still the exact same game, just slightly different terminology.

alhambra-score
The scoreboard during a three player game (or 2 + Dirk).

There are several expansions to Alhambra. I have sadly not played any of them so I cannot pass judgement. But they will add tiles, money, and other aspects to spice up the game. If you end up really enjoying this game I would definitely suggest checking some of them out.

Overall Alhambra is a great game. It’s well thought through and can both be played quite casually (especially with younger players) as well as rather aggressively if you decide to go for the same tiles and try to trip each other up. I think the scoring is nicely balanced with the three different scoring phases, meaning that even if you’re a bit unlucky in the beginning you can absolutely make a come back. It’s a very nice looking game deserving of the “modern classic” title. Alhambra is definitely a suitable gateway game that can get beginners interested in a slightly more “complex” gameplay with several different elements, while still being a game that seasoned gamers can really enjoy. So add Alhambra to your game collection today – you won’t regret it!

THE SPECS

  • Title: Alhambra
  • Designer: Dirk Henn
  • Publisher: Queen Games
  • Players: 2-6
  • Time: 45-60 min
  • Type: tile laying, hand management, set collection
  • Size: medium-large
  • Release year: 2003

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