Publisher: Queen Games
Year Published: 2003
Number of Players: 2 to 6
Play Time: 60 minutes
Set-up Time: About 10 minutes
Ages: 8 and up
Table Size: Medium or Large Table (depends on number of players)
Released by German publisher Queen Games, Alhambra is a fun, family-friendly game of building and strategy. The theme is simple: your task is to build the best Alhambra — a “palace, fortress, and small city” — in ancient Spain. Workers have come from far and wide to help you build, but insist on being paid in their native currency. Thus, Alhambra is a game of both resource management and city planning, though it doesn’t let itself get too bogged down by these principles and the game remains simple despite its complex strategic possibilities.
At the start of the game, players receive a hand of money consisting of bills in denominations between 1 and 9, and each with its own color — yellow, green, blue, and orange. Players are dealt money from the draw pile until they have at least 21 dollars of any color type. Each color represents a different currency, which becomes important when playing the game.
A small board with four colors corresponding to the four colors of money is placed at the center of the table, and four building tiles are drawn at random and placed face up on the color segments of the board. Each of these tiles represents a building that is up for sale, and each building has a numeric value printed in one corner ranging from 2 to 13. The numeric value represents how much it will cost a player to purchase that building, and the colored segment it is placed on shows the color of currency required to buy the building. For example, a Tower that costs 11 dollars and is placed on a yellow segment requires 11 yellow dollars to purchase.
Finally, a set of four different bills are placed face-up underneath the game board. These bills are randomly drawn from the deck of money and are available for players to pick up on their turn. Once a player picks up one of the bills (a blue 5, for example) it is replaced with another bill drawn from the money pile. Players may pick up two bills at a time as long as their total is 5 or less, which is handy when it comes time to decide whether or not it’s worth spending your turn to pick up bills with smaller denominations.
Each player’s turn generally consists of only one action, and there are only a few actions to choose from per turn. Players may either pick up money from the options available (see above), purchase a game tile, or rearrange a tile in their Alhambra (more on that later). If a player purchases a tile with exact change (for example, buying a green 8 with exactly 8 green dollars) the player gets to immediately take another action. Otherwise, his turn ends and play passes to the next player.
At the end of a player’s turn, he must place all of his purchased tiles on his Alhambra according to a specific set of guidelines. The Alhambra starts with a center piece and new tiles must be attached adjacent to another piece on the board (not diagonal, for example). Also, each tile has a certain number of walls around its edges, between 0 and 3 walls, and the Alhambra must be built in such a way that there is a continuous line of travel between the center piece and the new tile. For example, one cannot place a tile with a left-hand wall if the wall would block movement in to that tile.
Players may spend actions to move a tile from their ALhambra to their “reserve board” and then another action later to put the piece back in to their Alhambra at a different location. This is useful for rearranging an Alhambra that gets out of control, but it does take some of yoru very valuable actions to complete.
Each of the different building tiles is also color-coded, but with several additional colors such as brown, purple, and white. These colors are important when it comes to the scoring phases of the game, since points are scored based on the number of matched colored tiles that one has in his Alhambra during each of the three scoring phases.
Two of the three scoring phases take place when a special card is drawn out of the money deck at random, and the final scoring phase takes place after all building tiles have been purchased. Players earn victory points if they control the largest number of tiles of a single color, and ties award points to both players. During phase 2, players with the 1st and 2nd most number of tiles earn points (with players who have the 2nd most gaining fewer points than the first) and during the 3rd and final scoring phase players with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd greatest number of a particular color earn points. Victory points are also awarded to each player based on the greatest contiguous wall in their Alhambra. For example, a player who has an unbroken wall that is 8 tiles long will score 8 points. Only the longest wall of any given Alhambra is counted.
Naturally, the winner is the person who has achieved the greatest number of victory points by the end of the game.
When you boil it all down, Alhambra doesn’t really have a lot of rules to keep track of, which means the game can continue flowing smoothly all the time. Even beginners will have little difficulty understanding the mechanics and getting their Alhambra started, which means the game is easy to introduce to friends and family. Its color-coded and number-based system helps the game to cross language boundaries and is simple for players of any age to understand.
There are dozens of different strategies one can employ to build the best Alhambra. Do you focus on trying to buy up all of the Towers to pick up a ton of points from one source, or do you try to diversify and hope to leverage your building design to have a giant wall surrounding your entire complex? You want to buy that Blue 7 right now with your 10 blue dollars, but do you try to wait until next round when you can make the exact change instead, which would give you an extra action? What if someone buys that building before then?
Despite its simplicity, there is enough variety to the game that even expert strategists can have fun and feel challenged. It is possible for someone to simply buy whatever is available to them when they have the appropriate funds and still come out on top, but with some careful planning, some ability to read your opponents, and a little bit of luck, the advantage goes to the person who plays the smartest and takes calculated risks.
Alhambra is an excellent game suitable for players of a variety of ages and skill levels. This game should be in every family’s collection.
A Note About Expansions: There are several expansions available for Alhambra that can change gameplay in a large variety of ways. I have not had a chance to fully test the expansions, but many of them are worthwhile additions to the game, especialy if you buy them as part of the Alhambra Big Box collection (which includes the base game and all expansions). Some of these expansions do change the game’s complexity and accessibility in drastic ways though, so if you have any doubts you may want to stick with the Alhambra base game.
Alhambra is a great family board game that is suitable for nearly any audience. With that being said, there are a few concerns in regards to accessibility that may need to be considered.
In-game Text: The only in-game text you will encounter are the numbers printed on money and game tiles. The numbers on the bills are large and easy to read, but the tiles have smaller numbers which may be difficult to read for people with some vision loss. These numbers are only necessary when determining what to buy however, so once someone describes which purchase options are available to you, you can make a decision and not have to worry about it again. Because these numbers are printed on cardboard, it would be quite difficult to add Braille to them without damaging or significantly altering the game pieces. It would be possible to put Braille on the money cards to indicate the color and denomination of currency, however.
Multiple Colors: Alhambra uses a lot of color-coding techniques to make the game simple to play for people who speak any language. However, this may make it difficult for people who are color blind, blind, or visually impaired. The money cards can be brailled with a letter to denote which color a particular card is, but the build tiles pose a more difficult problem. It may be possible to use a Braille labeler to add notes to the tiles instead of depending on sighted persons to identify them, but the pieces are small so that bears some consideration.
Tile Placement Rules: One of the concerns with placing tiles in your Alhambra is that the walls of a tile are depicted simply by dark black borders along one ore more sides of the building tiles. Some tactile glue can be applied to game pieces to depict which sides have walls, but this may reduce tile real estate for adding Braille labels to the pieces. If forced to choose between the two options, it is more important to note the tile’s walls than it is to note the tile’s colors.
Fine Manipulation: Game pieces consist of tiles and cards, both of which can be difficult to manage for people with motor skill or visual impairments. Money cards can be managed easier with a card holder (like the ones found at the Low Vision Store, http://www.thelowvisioncenter.com/setof4caho.html ) but tiles are trickier. They can be more easily managed using a tile tray like the ones used in Scrabble, but placement in your play area requires a bit of work. Since each play area is simply a set of individual tiles aligned adjacent to each other, like Dominoes, they are easily bumped and shifted away from their intended location. It is also important to be able to align walls and keep them lined up straight with each other. This may get easier with time, practice, and patience, but may otherwise make it quite difficult for players with poor motor skills or severe visual impairments and total blindness.