ALHAMBRA (Queen, 2-6 players, about 60 minutes; about $30)
The designs of Dirk Henn are no strangers to the readers of GAMERS ALLIANCE REPORT. We did a feature on Showmanager (way back in the Winter 1999 issue) and, more recently, Wallenstein (Fall 2002 GA REPORT). Now, the designer returns to an older design, revamping it and elevating it to a higher level of play, in Alhambra.
Alhambra is Henn's reincarnation of Stimmt So!, a stylized share-trading game he designed years ago. Although the basic mechanism of the game remains the same, the theme is given a Middle Eastern flavor and a new concept: the construction of the marketplace called Alhambra. It's this "something extra" that makes this game something special.
Within its deep box, you will find building tiles (and a bag to hold them), 6 starting tiles, a deck of cards representing the four currencies of the game, tile reserve boards, a currency board for placement of building tiles and a score board.
The currency deck contains four "suits" in values ranging from 1 up to 9. To begin, the deck is shuffled and players are dealt, Las Vegas blackjack style, cards totalling 20 (or more) creating their "starting hands". Now the remainder of the deck is seeded with two scoring cards. (This is done by dividing the deck into 5 approximately equal stacks of cards and shuffling in the scoring cards in stacks 2 and 4.) Four cards are then flipped to form a community pool of currency cards available to all. Each player gets a starting tile (from which other tiles will "grow"). The remaining tiles are placed in the accompanying bag with four randomly drawn and placed on the four spaces on the currency board. The player who holds the fewest currency cards (and, if a tie, the one with the lower total) goes first.
Players have two basic choices each turn. They may take a currency card from the community pool. (They may take more than one card if the total of cards taken is less than or equal to 5.) Alternatively, they may purchase a building tile.
A player with matching color currency greater than the number value on the building tile (which may be anything from 2 to 13) may exchange the card (or cards) and claim that tile. He may then place it and expand his marketplace (Alhambra) OR he may place the tile in reserve for later use. Should a player buy a tile with currency matching the tile's value EXACTLY, he gets another turn and may buy another tile or take currency. (If he can buy a second tile by an exact amount, he keeps on going!)
The building of Alhambra is what separates this game from its predecessor as tile placement is the key to scoring.
Tiles come in different colors (blue, red, white, green, brown and purple). The starting tile is wide open without walls. Tiles added to the starting tile must match the borders. For example, open edges must abut open edges; walls must abut walls. In addition, any tile played must leave a path that can be traced back to the starting tile without crossing a wall or going off a tile.
When the two scoring cards appear, players earn points based on how many of each color tile they have. (In the first round, only players with the most of a color score. In the second round, points are earned by the players with the most and second most.) When no tiles remain in the bag so that it is not possible to refill the currency board, the final round is triggered. At that point, any remaining tiles are claimed by the player(s) with the most money in each of the currencies where tiles are still available. In the final round, points are given to players first, second and third in each color. Ties are rounded down. Points are also scored for walls. The longest continuous wall (that is, each side of a tile with a wall that connects to each other, NOT counting branches) scores one point per side.
The player amassing the highest point total wins!
Alhambra is not brain surgery but it does offer interesting choices. Sometimes, you are able to buy a tile but cannot place it. You can either refrain from the purchase (picking up a currency card or two for later play) or buy it anyway and place it in reserve, either for later use for yourself or to prevent this tile from being bought and used by an opponent. (The downside to this is that placing a tile in reserve - or swapping one tile in your Alhambra with one in reserve - counts as an action.) Which colors you purchase can also be a factor. Do you buy a purple tile to keep your opponent from having the most or do you buy another color to ensure that your plurality stays safe? Another important consideration is that building walls to score points also encloses your Alhambra! You can't build on the "outside" of a wall! Awareness of this should dictate how you place your tiles and acts to balance play as you simply can't buy tiles wildly. If you do, you'll find yourself closed off from proper placement (and scoring opportunities) with a load of tiles in reserve! (Tiles in reserve do NOT score!) And because exact purchase of tiles give you an extra turn, the lower valued currency cards, making exact totals easier to achieve, take on greater importance adding yet another balancing factor to play.
Although the game is supposedly good for 2 to 6 players, we've found that four is the optimal number. With four, down time is lessened and the jockeying for position in colored tiles is at just the right level of intensity. The biggest flaw in the game is in the color scheme. As printed on the currency board, the orange and brown colors are virtually identical. Fortunately, the color on the cards themselves are more easily discernable and both the cards and board use icons (although the icons are VERY small) which minimize the problem. Be aware as is typical with Queen products, English rules are NOT provided. Fortunately, a translation is available on the net (www.boardgamegeek.com).
Alhambra is an excellent game that combines the "share buying" strategy of Stimmt So! with the tile laying mechanism that has proven so popular with games like German Game of the Year Carcassonne (Summer 2001 GA REPORT). The combination works exceedingly well making Alhambra worthy of an honored place on your gaming shelf. Highly recommended. - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy
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