3-6 (2 player variant available)
Best with 3+
Dirk Henn (The Rose King, Shogun, Wallenstein)
Queen Games (Treasure Hunter, Kingdom Builder, Escape: The Curse of the Temple)
Hand Management, Tile Placement, Set Collection
Alhambra won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2003, which put the game on my radar when I first got into gaming. I bought it without knowing anything about it or having played it before, and I honestly believe it to be one of the more underrated Game of the Year winners because of one particular mechanism.
Players will earn points over three scoring rounds, two of which will occur roughly in the first and second thirds of the game. Players earn points by purchasing tiles of a color set and having the most of that set; future rounds will award points for second and third place. Additionally, tiles must be able to be placed in your city and this may not always be possible because geographic constraints must be met continuously. Some tiles will have walls and players will earn points each round for the longest contiguous wall. Tiles are purchased by paying its cost of currency of one of four colors, and a bonus turn is given when exact change is used. Because of this, higher value cards are not always the most valuable.
Alhambra ends when all but three tiles are purchased, with a quick auction afterward. The game takes 45-60 minutes depending on player count, but the turns are quick so higher player counts do not make much of a difference, as the tile count is the same. Scoring is quick and straightforward regardless of player count. This is on the longer side of gateway games, but still definitively under an hour unless someone exhibits extreme analysis paralysis.
Only the individual hands of players are private, and it’s possible with perfect memory to know their hand perpetually. Scoring is determined primarily by the sets, which are public knowledge. Also, the distribution of tiles is made available via a player aid, along with their scoring values. There is no compelling hidden information in Alhambra.
The strategy of Alhambra is obvious: purchase with exact change as often as possible and build carefully, maximizing your walls when making sure you can place a tile you purchase. Inevitably, someone will purchase a tile with no exact change that provides no value to them, but it may inhibit another player. Alhambra is won and lost in the execution of the main strategies, but is straightforward enough to give new players a reasonable chance at winning. In my experience, however, particularly with large player counts, one player will score uncompetitively, even if they are experienced.
The chance to purchase a tile for exact change and take a mega-turn adds a lot of excitement to the game. You are constantly hoping that the tile you want will remain in play when your turn resumes. The scoring phases are mostly predictable but you cannot be certain when they will happen based on how many cards are drawn. Critics of the game consider it to be dry because of the theme, but I am personally not bothered by this.
Unlike most Spiel Des Jahres winners, Alhambra has not crossed over to the mass market stores. It does have a strong Amazon presence, however, and I’ve seen it on sale for as low as $13.50 (normally in the $25 range, which is still great value). At 13.50 with great six player support, I almost bought a second copy myself as it would have made a great gift.
There are three rules to Alhambra turns: take cards, purchase a tile and remodel an Alhambra. I rarely see remodeling occur, so it does not add a lot of obtuseness to explaining Alhambra. Inevitably, one player (usually me) will mistake the tile color for the currency color, but it happens and is easily corrected. There is little setup involved – merely establishing the supply pile and initial hand - and the setup does not change much based on player configuration. Most of the explanation will be involved in explaining tile placement which requires attention to detail and using the rulebook’s examples.