Sunday, June 16, 2013

Alhambra Review

Alhambra was released in 2003 by Queen Games and was designed by Dirk Henn.  It's a tile laying/set collection game, and one of the most often mentioned gateway games.  I discovered the game shortly after getting into board games.  A very sweet middle aged woman who worked at a local gaming store recommended it.  She said she played it nearly every week with her husband and another couple.  She especially recommended the Big Box.

Alhambra sat on my wish list for a while before I followed up on her suggestion.  I played it a few times, and didn't really see what the big deal was.  I had tunnel vision at the time towards bigger and "better" games.  Alhambra even almost got traded away numerous times.  But I kept it, and decided to revisit it from time to time.  I'm actually glad I did, and here is my review.

Rule Summary


Alhambra begins with the deck of money cards being shuffled, and all the building tiles being dumped in a bag, and the building market being set out.  Players then randomly receive money cards until they add up to at least 20.  Finally, 4 building tiles are pulled out of the bag and placed on the building market.  Then 4 money cards are placed next to the building market to form the money market.  Players also receive a starting tile with a fountain on it, and a reserve board.  The last step is for the scoring round cards to be inserted into the money card deck.  They end up roughly 1/3rd of the way through, and 2/3rds of the way through.

Alhambra set up and ready to play.

The player with the least starting money takes the first turn.  On a player's turn, they may take one of three actions.  They may take money from the supply.  They may buy a building tile.  Lastly, players may redesign their city.  At the end of a players turn, they add all the tiles they bought to their city or their reserve board.  Then the building market and money market is refilled.

Money comes in one of four colors.  When players choose to take money, they may take any card they wish.  Usually just one card, but if several cards add up to 5 or less, they may take them all.

The tiles in the building market will require different types of money to purchase.  The spaces on the building market say which type of money they need.  Buildings also have the amount they require printed on them.  When players choose to purchase a building, if they pay exact change, they get to take another action.

In this example, the building in the upper left cost 7 yellow
money.  Players could also take the 7 orange card, or the
other 3, because they add up to 5 or less.
When players choose to remodel their city, they have three choices.  They may either remove a tile from the city, add a tile in their reserve to the city, or swap a tile in their city with a tile from their reserve.  This happens before any tiles they purchased are added to the city.

Adding tiles to your city follows a few rules.  All the tiles have an orientation, and must be facing the correct way.  Walls must be adjacent to other walls.  You must not leave a hole in your city either.  Then lastly, everywhere in your city must be walkable.  This means you cannot have a wall splitting your city in two.  You are allowed to have internal walls, just not internal walls that isolate parts of your city.  If you purchased a tile you cannot legally place, you can put it on your reserve board.  Then you can use remodel later, to try to fit it in.

When a scoring card appears, play is paused, and a scoring round immediately takes place.  There is also a final scoring round at the end of the game after the bag of tiles is emptied.  There are 6 types of buildings.  During a scoring round, the player with the most of each building type scores points.  In the first round only first place scores anything.  In the second round there are second place points.  In the third and final round, there are third place points.  Players will also score points for the longest external wall around their city.  After the 3rd scoring round, the player with the most points is the winner.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?


Alhambra is one of the most oft suggested gateway games.  Having only three simple actions makes it supremely accessible.  Well, two simple actions and one slightly nuanced action.  But the rules to the game can be explained quite easily and quickly.  Plus who doesn't love collecting cards and placing tiles?  Alhambra revolves around a simple core rule set, and doesn't try anything flashy.  It's not the latest "Cool mechanic X plus trendy mechanic Y!"  It doesn't challenge players to learn the multiple games worth of mechanics.

What could have been done better?


As I said, there are two simple actions, and one marginally complex action.  The order of operations when it comes to remodeling has consistently thrown off new players, plus a few experienced players.  Nobody can ever keep straight if you place the tiles you just bought before or after your remodel.  Players tend to want it to be whichever suits them more at the time.  I think all that is really needed in this regard is a simple reminder on the reserve board.  Something like "Tiles bought are placed after all actions."  The reserve board is even a somewhat relevant place for that reminder, since purchased tiles may end up there after all.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?


Alhambra clearly set out to be a gateway game.  It definitely accomplished that goal.  Players can sit down, and have a great time taking money, buying tiles and slowly growing their city.  New players usually do quite well against experienced players.  Largely because this isn't really a game that rewards skill all that much.

There are things you can do, as an experienced player, to give yourself a leg up.  You can keep count of the tiles in an effort to buy no more in a category than you have to.  You can watch the draw pile, and guess at when a scoring round is coming up.  Plus there are some hand management tricks you can do, keeping a flexible array of currency in your hand.  And lets not forget proper city planning, to keep your choices open, and maximize the wall score.  But these advantages are not overwhelming, nor insurmountable.  In fact, you will likely find that they don't gain you nearly as much as you'd think.

How much does experience matter?


The nods towards players looking to leverage experience are subtle.  The biggest nod is that the reserve board has a reference of precisely how many of each building are in the game.  This does a lot to facilitate tile counting and strategizing around that information.  This gives experienced players that advantage they crave during a session.  An experienced player may also watch what money the other players at the table take into their hand.  For example, if there is a building that cost 8 blue money, and a person just took an 8 blue card, odds are you know what their next move is going to be.  You may choose to buy it out from under them, or take more blue money for a shot at what comes out next.

Probably the area where experience pays off the most is proper city planning.  Being able to find the right mix of an enclosed city and an open city.  You want your city enclosed so that you get a large bonus off it's walls.  But you also want some of it open in order to have flexibility in buying and placing tiles.  My play group thinks I've found a winning strategy in always building a crescent shaped city.  But personally I think that's yet to be proven.  It's also easily copied.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?


Alhambra seems to yank your emotions back and forth.  During your turn you will feel fantastic.  You are buying tiles with exact change, which always feels great.  You are getting free actions, and growing your city, and maybe you even take money at the end.  That was a great turn!  It just felt good.

Then between those great turns, it's the nerve wracking experience of hoping people don't buy the tiles you want!  Every turn you'll hope they just take money.  But not that money!  You needed that!  You'll be frustrated again and again as you save up money for the perfect tile, and then someone else will grab it right out from under you.

But eventually, you get another great turn in, and you are back on top of the world.  Every player usually gets to experience that at least once every game.  That one impressive turn they'll remember about Alhambra.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?


Alhambra can have some awkward lulls.  Players will occasionally get stumped, seeing a bunch of mediocre choices, unsure which to take.  I've even had someone ask me if they could pass!  This is especially unfortunate in a game like Alhambra because it needs to be played quickly.  It's not the sort of game that benefits from a lot of deliberation.  The decisions just aren't that interesting, and the downtime is rather obnoxious since you can't really plan your turn in advance too well.

Sometimes this culminates in a Mexican standoff.  Frequently in Alhambra, you end up with a situation where there is a tile nobody wants.  Usually some junky low scoring building that costs only 3.  You'd think with it only costing 3, someone would take it just because.  But the ironic thing is, lower cost tiles are some of the hardest to pay exact change for.  1 or 2 currency cards are also some of the most coveted, since they give you incredible flexibility.  Plus nobody wants to pay over and throw away a whole turn on a tile they don't even want!

So the tile stays there.  In addition to this, nobody takes that type of money either.  So the unwanted type of money begins accumulating too.  Then it happens.  You hit a clump in the money deck of nothing but that type of money!  Turn after turn people sigh and take a type of money they don't need, for a building they don't want.  Everyone is waiting for someone else to buy the thing, so that they can pounce on the next building that comes out.  But nobody wants to give anyone else that opportunity.

A textbook mexican standoff.  Nothing much to do here.
Sometimes the stalemate is broken by the money market becoming more diverse again.  Sometimes someone gets fed up of the game not moving quickly enough.  They take one for the team, buying that worthless tile.  Sometimes someone finally gets exact change and buys it figuring at least they get to take money again anyways.

I thought about several ways to fix this problem.  Some way to cycle the board?  Some way to track which tiles have been out for too long?  But no matter what I thought of, I couldn't get around one obvious fact.  This is a simple game, and almost any attempt to fix this problem would over complicate matters.  Plus, it's a relatively minor issue, all things considered.  Maybe you even enjoy Mexican standoffs like this in your games.  But I felt it was worth mentioning.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?


It's very difficult for me to say whether Alhambra is strategic, tactical or neither.  My gut reaction is that it's mostly neither.

There are some tactics in focusing on one or two building types, buying buildings out from under people, and trying to get as many extra actions as possible.  But not so much that you can reasonably expect to do those things more than anyone else.  They just sort of happen on their own almost.

That's a good wall, but now he
can't build anything!
There is also a mix of tactics and strategy with respect to your hand management.  You can work really hard to keep a diverse mix of money types and values, and try to be ready for any tile that comes out.  But it's impossible to cover all the options, or even most of them.  More often than not you'll still miss out on that tile you needed because someone just happened to be sitting on the right amount for it half the game.  In fact, in a 4 player game I'd even say that's likely.

There is some strategy in proper city layouts, and timing some inexact purchases to give yourself a boost before a scoring round.  But the tiles that are available are all you have to work with, and you often can't afford to be too picky.  So the game renders it quite difficult to adhere to any city layout and everyone's city eventually devolves into chaos anyways.

What I want to say is that Alhambra has the illusion of tactics and strategy.  An astute gamer will realize there is room for min-maxing, card counting and working the odds.  However it's mechanics reduce the rewards for attempting to play seriously to a pittance.  Which is just what you want in a gateway game.  But serious gamers could find it boring, as it enforces a very low skill ceiling.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?


The dilemmas in Alhambra are relatively straight forward.  You generally want to buy with exact change if you can.  There are exceptions of course.  Sometimes you will desperately need a tile to keep an advantage. Or maybe it's the only building that fits your city layout.  Or maybe you have a hunch that a scoring round is coming up.  But those moments seem few and far between.

About two or three turns out of every game I'll sweat whether I should overpay for a tile now, before an opponent does.  But that is about it usually.  Most turns just go on autopilot.  Either because one choice jumps out as being obviously the best, or no choice does.  It's a game relatively free of dilemmas.

I know Alhambra is a gateway game.  But that doesn't mean the decisions need to be that simple.  Too often in Alhambra I hear players say "Might as well do this I guess".  Other good gateway games don't do that.  I rarely see players flippantly take their turns in Carcassonne or Battle Line.

What could have improved the dilemmas?


This is where the expansions come in.  Since I got the big box, I had an enormous toolkit to play with.  There are loads of expansion modules, which add countless twists to the base game.  Generally you pick a few modules to play with each game.  I would not recommend trying all of them at once.  I don't think it's even possible.  Every module cleverly breaks assumptions you may have built up about the game, and changes how you value the building market and money markets.



For example, the Workers Huts.  You can just choose to take one as an action.  Then you place it in your city, and it counts as extra buildings, depending on its color and the buildings adjacent to it.  Suddenly your tile counting no longer helps as much as you thought.  Suddenly you aren't just taking money until you can run the board with your free actions.  Those worker huts seriously disrupt things.

Another great example is the Vizier's Favor.  It lets you interrupt the normal flow of play, and purchase a tile for exact change when it's not your turn.  Suddenly you can no longer count on any tile sticking around until your next turn.  You may be encouraged to pay over for something as soon as you can.  Alternatively, you may be able to snatch up a tile right before your opponent goes if you have the right denominations to jump on it.

The problem with all this is, I am loathe to recommend a game if it requires expansions.  I hate it.  The base game should be fun without expansions.  It should offer interesting dilemmas right out of the box.  I'm not sure Alhambra does that.  At least it doesn't for me.

Physical component design and limitations?


The components in my copy of Alhambra are top notch.  The tiles and cards are sturdy and durable.  It even came with bags to draw tiles out of!  That is something many games choose to skimp on.  It caters to my color blindness by giving each color of money a unique symbol.  The buildings as well, while similar in color, are well labelled and have a distinct look.  I especially appreciate the reference material on the reserve boards, as I've already noted.  It's extremely useful having the building counts, and the scoring information to refer to.

The Big Box I got had a fantastic insert with ample room for everything.  It even has a guide on the inside of the lid detailing how to store all the parts.  The insert even has ample room for cards that are sleeved.  Although I did have to make some modifications to mine since I used Fantasy Flight Games' sleeves, which tend to be extra thick.  But I imagine any other brand of sleeve would not have caused those issues.

Long term prospects?


Alhambra is a game I enjoy, but which I find slightly boring.  It's a pleasant way to spend an hour or so with friends.  But you'll probably need some music playing or something interesting to talk about.  On it's own, it's just not that interesting to me.

The game is definitely kicked up a notch by the expansions.  They give the game some more interesting decisions, and much needed variety.  I almost always play with at least one of the expansion modules.  Thanks to the expansions, Alhambra sees my table a few times each year.  It's a nice, light, relatively non-confrontational European style game we can all enjoy.

If I hadn't gotten the Big Box, I sincerely doubt I would have invested more money into the expansions of a boring game.  As luck would have, the Big Box was specifically recommended to me, so I suppose everything worked out.  As of this writing, the Big Box appears to be coming back in stock places, as it was just reprinted.  It also appears to be the best way to get the expansions, since many are out of print.  Unfortunately, this places buyers in an uncomfortable position.  They can invest $40 into just the base game and not like it, or invest significantly more in the Big Box...and maybe still not like it, although it is better.  Personally I'd recommend the Big Box if you choose to get Alhambra at all.

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