Teaching Time: 15 mins
Playing Time: 45-60 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Alhambra was the 2003 winner of the Spiel Des Jahres, a tile laying, palace building game of resource management. Sort of a jamming together of Carcassonne and Azul with some Euro sauce slathered on top. It’s the sort of thing that some people love, that I can personally take or leave, and that those close to me can’t stand.
Gameplay is a little obtuse to wrap your head around. Tiles are played into sections of a marketplace and players are provided with coin cards. The sections of the marketplace represent workers from one or another foreign land offering to build the structure on the tile that has been placed within that section for you, but they will only work for their native currency, represented by the colour coding of the marketplace to your coin cards. Having figured out what you can actually pay for and bought a tile you can lay it into your palace complex, ensuring that the outside wall of the palace is maintained by a series of rules. Three times during gameplay there will be an inspection of your palace during which locations will score based on who has the most of various types of places, and how long your wall is also matters, whoever has the most points at the end wins.
There are bits of Alhambra that seem designed to annoy, the locations are colour coded, with some of those colours matching the currency cards, which is just infuriating to new players. The colour coding of the locations is meaningless except to easily group them when counting up for scoring, so the result of far more regular confusion hardly seems like pay-back, especially when there are other colours in the world to choose from. Scoring comes three times in the game at semi-random times, there’s not a great reason for this (the owner of the Palace just does that, and for some reason telling him that the place is clearly a building site and a work in progress doesn’t stop him from getting his undies in a twist if its not already in the ratios that he requires) except that its accepted Euro practice. This seems to be the justification for a lot of what happens in Alhambra, and that the mechanics require it to stop players from building in chunks. The thing is that there’s not really an advantage to building in chunks, except that the marketplace is random and being allowed to build what you can when you can would make life a little easier, meaning that the staggered scoring is a slightly arbitrary manner of creating tension and difficulty. The maintenance of the palace wall also feels like one of those arbitrary Euro rules dropped on top of a game (‘Shall we complete the palace, then build the wall around it chief’ ‘No, tell you what, let’s build the wall in random snatches around each bit that we build then hope that we manage to match it all up later. Pretty sure that’s how walls work.’).
As an overall experience then the game has a lot of cogs spinning, its almost totally multi-player solo and you’ll be mostly competing with the vagaries of the deck and the market place along with your own semi-blind decisions to maximize scoring, with the other player offering little other than a target marker. Which is exactly what some players are looking for, there are a lot of moving parts and when things go well plonking the bits into your little palace can be nicely satisfying. There’s not much in the way of engine building, you’ll be doing on the last turn pretty much what you were doing on the first turn. Tactics boil down to buying in a manner that keeps your options as open as possible while out-shopping your opponents.
Which all begs the question as to why it won the Spiel Des Jahres. It doesn’t look amazing on the tabletop, its not very gateway, and there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about its mechanics. It’s after Catan and El Grande, so its not even like its representing a sort of vague euro idea as a category in the awards. The nominees were a decent bunch too, Clans, which was recently re-released as Fae and Die Dracheninsel, a quite interesting partially semi-co-op which would at least have been representing a sub category (namely, semi-co-op) that isn’t much seen in the awards. Some people get annoyed when Just One, Villa Paletti or Call My Bluff win, but I can see more consistent and intelligent reasons for any of those, in context of the awards themselves, over Alhambra. I think in truth, the main reason that Alhambra won was that Villa Paletti won, and moreso that Villa Paletti won over Puerto Rico. Alhambra is a safe Euro game pair of hands, there was no way it was going to get the backlash that Villa Paletti did, so it won.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad or flawed game, or that it doesn’t have legions of fans, its still being re-printed with expansions being made for it 18 years or so after its release, which is a lot more than anyone can say about Villa Paletti. Its also not to say that those fans are wrong or that its support is unusual. Alhambra is a good, solid, Euroey Euro game, when the SDJ committee picked a safe pair of hands, they did so damn well. But it doesn’t do anything anyone hasn’t seen before, its certainly in the top half of SDJs in terms of one that you’d still buy and play, but it doesn’t feel like its in the top half of SDJs that deserved to win the award. Buy it if you have an endless appetite for Euros, or if you want to get another SDJ, you won’t go far wrong, but if you don’t buy or ever play it, you’ll not really miss much.