SdJ Re-Reviews #25: Alhambra

  • Designer:  Dirk Henn
  • Publisher:  Queen Games (Among Others)
  • Players:  2 – 6
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  45 – 60 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 10


Alhambra: From Al Capone to the Spiel des Jahres…

Alhambra’s earliest predecessor was Al Capone, a gangster-themed game released by db-Spiele, an independent publishing company run by Dirk Henn and his wife, Barbara Weber Henn, out of their living room.  Dirk designed the game, and Barbara did the illustrations.  They assembled the games by hand and would sell them out of backpacks at Essen.  The company reportedly took orders for games until 2009.

In 1998 Al Capone was re-released as $timmt $o! by Queen Games, but it didn’t sell especially well.  At the encouragement of Rajive Gupta, president and CEO of Queen Games, Henn began working on a new game using some of the mechanics of Al Capone and $timmt $o!.  In this new game, players would not only be collecting cards, they would also be building a structure.  

The game that would become Alhambra was originally set in a town from the middle ages.  Queen agreed to pick up the game after seeing the prototype, but both Henn and the publisher weren’t completely satisfied with the theme, and the parties hadn’t finalized the name.  

Henn and a friend were playing the prototype one night, when around midnight, after a glass of red wine, the friend said the game reminded him a bit of the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Spain.  Henn subsequently phoned Queen and asked about using the name “Alhambra,” which Henn thought sounded beautiful in German.  The publisher called him back after a few minutes and said they liked it.  They then started working on the graphics.  

Queen released the game in 2003, and it immediately received critical acclaim.  The SdJ jury praised the game’s accessibility, admiring how the game’s tactical nature could appeal to both young and old.  Alhambra placed second in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year, coming in behind Reiner Knizia’s Amun Re.

Dirk Henn was already a familiar face in the German gaming scene by the time he won the Spiel des Jahres.  For an excellent overview of his career, I recommend Joe Huber’s German Game Authors Revisited series.  Though he has only won the SdJ once, Henn has been recognized by the SdJ jury on several occasions, receiving a nomination in 1997 (Show Manager) and recommendations in 2000 (Metro), 2002 (Atlantic Star), 2005 (The Gardens of the Alhambra), and 2006 (Timbuktu).  

I got the chance to interview Henn at this year’s Essen, and I asked him what it was like to win the Spiel des Jahres.  He said it was “unbelievable,” telling me that “when you start inventing games, it is one of the dreams you have.”  At the ceremony, a light flashed around the room until it finally lit up Alhambra, and that is how Henn knew he had won.  

Alhambra — which was later renamed Der Palast von Alhambra — has seen numerous expansions and spinoffs over the years.  The base game — and most of the expansions — are still in print today.  To date the base game has sold about two million copies and been released in more than 20 languages.  There is an iOS Version.  

Alhambra: The Card Game was released in 2010, and that game is basically a re-theming of Al Capone and $timmt $o!, bringing the game’s iterations full circle.  

The Gameplay: Card/tile drafting… plus set collection… plus tile placement…

The following walkthrough is for the version of the game with three or more players.  All pictures are from the 10th Anniversary German edition, which includes wooden starting pieces, a nice game board, and different artwork.

In Alhambra, the best master builders of Europe and Arabia want to demonstrate their skill.  Skill is shown by victory points, and the builder with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Each builder takes a starting tile, which shows a fountain.  Each player also places their score marker on the scoreboard and takes a tile reserve board.  Lastly each player takes their money: they draw cards from the money pile until they have 20 or more units.
Alhambra Board

To finish setup, the 54 tiles are put into the bag.  The money is split into five stacks, and the two scoring cards are put in the second and fourth stacks.  

The player with the fewest cards starts.  On a player’s turn, he has three choices:

  1. Take some money.  A player may take any money card, or several money cards if they do not add up to more than 5.
  2. Buy and place a building tile.  They buyer must pay at least as much money as the tile costs.  No change is given, so it is important to manage monetary denominations.  If you pay exactly the correct amount, you get another turn, taking one of these three options again.  (Note, however, that the market isn’t refreshed until the end of your turn.)  When buying tiles, you can place them in the Alhambra immediately or put them on your reserve board.
  3. Redesign the Alhambra.  This involves three options: putting a tile from your reserve onto your Alhambra, putting a tile from the Alhambra on your reserve, or exchanging a tile in the Alhambra with one in the reserve.  If the last option is used, the tile placed must go in the same spot as the one removed.  

Several rules govern the placement of tiles:

  • All roofs must point the same direction.
  • Each tile must adjoin another tile, and adjoining sides must be the same.  (For example, walls must adjoin walls, and sides without walls must adjoin other sides without walls.)
  • You must be able to reach each new building tile “on foot” from the starting tile without crossing a wall and without going off the tiles.
  • You must not leave any “spaces” (i.e. an empty area surrounded on all sides by building tiles).

Alhambra Tiles

There are three scoring rounds in the game: the first two are determined by drawing a scoring card, the last is triggered by the end game mechanism.  Scoring depends on who has the most of each type of tile, as shown in the picture below.  Additionally, points are scored for the longest continuous wall in the Alhambra, one point for each side of a tile with a connected wall segment on it.  No points are scored for “internal walls.”

Player Aid

The game ends when at the end of a player’s turn there are not enough building tiles left in the bag to bring the total up to four again.  The player with the highest score at the end wins.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I like Alhambra, and indeed it was one of the games that drew me into the hobby.  Though there are several mechanics in the game — card/tile drafting, set collection, hand management, and tile placement — they are seamlessly integrated, and the game is approachable for both new and experienced players alike.  I don’t get Alhambra to the table as often as I’d like, but I do enjoy the plays I do get.  

Alhambra is, at its core, a tile placement game with “majorities” scoring.  Most of the points in my games have come from the scoring cards (i.e. not the walls), so monitoring what your opponents have (and not overbuilding) is key.  That’s not to say that the points for the wall can be ignored: clever tile placement along the way is rewarded, and I don’t think I’ve seen a player win without also having built an impressive wall.  To ultimately win, you need to both grab a few majorities and have a well-built Alhambra.  

The game is easy to learn, and new players seem to grasp it with relative ease.  You have to closely monitor new players with tile placement — they’ll inevitably want to violate the “on foot” or wall placement rules — but they pick up the actual gameplay after a couple of rounds.  I can usually explain the rules in less than five minutes, and though there is depth here, new players seem to get the basic strategies by the time the first scoring rolls around.  (That said, I think new players often overlook the value of occasionally “redesigning” their Alhambra.  Although I have had a couple of players spend too much time doing it as well.)

Alhambra’s biggest downfall is that it isn’t that interactive.  In larger groups, I’ve found myself bored between turns.  Additionally, the randomness of the game seems to increase with more players (in part because you can’t plan for taking tiles or money on subsequent turns).  For that reason, I like the game best with three players.  I’ve never tried the two-player variant (you use a dummy character), but I’ve heard good things.  

The components of the original game are beautiful.  Queen always seems to publish beautiful games, and Alhambra has some of their better art.  The 10th Anniversary edition is especially well-produced, particularly the player board.  On the iOS front, the app can be a bit clunky, and it looks a bit dated, but I’ve always found the AI to be a decent opponent, so in the end, I do recommend giving iOS Alhambra a try.  

Would Alhambra win the Spiel des Jahres again today?  This is one of the winners for which I find that a difficult question.  Back in 2003, Alhambra was renowned for seamlessly integrating several mechanisms to create a great German-style game.  The game still has that going for it today, and it is hard to imagine the hobby being what it is without Alhambra’s influence.  But if Alhambra were released in 2015, I think it’d face incredibly tough competition, and it might even be a bit heavy for the SdJ.  I think it’d have a shot, but I don’t know that it would coast to victory.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (3 plays) – being a follow up to Stimmt So, which I’d enjoyed, it was natural that I tried Alhambra.  But – for me, it broke what made Stimmt So enjoyable.  In Stimmt So, it is easy to see what your position is; in Alhambra, the requirement to build the city wall makes it difficult, and much more time consuming, to do so.  If the wall added anything of interest, I might forgive that, but for me it definitely did not.  Some of the other changes – such as collecting multiple cash, up to a total of 5 – are reasonable changes, but can be easily fit into Stimmt So.

One of the biggest put-offs a game can have for me is when it tries to be something more than it should be.  And for me, that’s exactly what Alhambra does – it takes a nice, simple, fast-playing system, and adds needless complications.  When I originally played the game, I was neutral on it – but a recent play has convinced me to just stick to Stimmt So in the future.  It might not be a favorite of mine, but for me it’s easily the right implementation of this system.

Greg S:  I have always enjoyed Alhambra, but only with 4 or fewer players.  While it can accommodate six players, it gets far too chaotic with that number.  I enjoy the challenge of having to assemble the correct currencies in order to purchase desired tiles, even though much of this is luck-based.  I enjoy the competition to gain majorities in various types of building features, which adds considerable tension to the proceedings.  While not one of my top-rated games, I still always enjoy playing it.

Mark Jackson: Joe is correct – Alhambra takes a really enjoyable stock market game (Stimmt So!) and adds a wall building game that interferes with the original design.

In Stimmt So!, I can make a decision to buy a stock to force a tie between other players (even if it won’t directly benefit me) without penalty. In Alhambra, if I buy a tile that I can’t use (or interferes with my wall building), I am “laying on the grenade” for other players in the game.

Additionally, it makes a fast-moving game slower and less interesting. It is not for me – while Stimmt So! has been in my top 100 games list since 2005.

Larry:  I’m on the opposite side of the fence than Joe and Mark.  To me, Stimmt So is strongly dominated by luck (mostly due to who’s lucky enough to be able to take extra actions by making exact change).  This seems less of an issue in Alhambra.  In addition, there are some extra refinements in the later game that make things fairer.  And finally, the wall-building adds the extra dimension that the game needs to make it be more interesting.

That said, I’m not a huge fan of the SdJ winner.  I don’t mind playing it every now and then (preferably with 3 players, with 4 being the absolute maximum), usually with folks who want something lighter.  But I’d also be fine if I’d never played it again.  If I really want to indulge in a Henn design, I’m much happier going with Showmanager, which unlike Alhambra, plays great with 6.

Patrick Brennan: Your enjoyment might lessen with more than 3 players (more downtime between turns, more players to have to tally their building counts for). Personally I think it’s an improvement over Stimmt So – the differing tile characteristics provide a bit more to think about in the tile selection, and the artwork & ambience is classier. But on your turn you’re either going to be presented with good money/tiles, or you’re not, and your game can turn accordingly. Pretty good though in a light niche.

Dan Blum: I wasn’t too excited by Alhambra when it was first released, but it’s grown on me somewhat over the years. My non-hardcode-gaming friends like it so we play it fairly often (and more recently also have been playing Granada, which is an interesting elaboration of the game).

I do have two complaints about the game. One is that the base game is not great with more than four players, as mentioned by others. The other is that while it was certainly not the first game to have expansions, I believe it was the first to have lots of little expansions which are meant to be mixed and matched, which is a trend that I really dislike. There is simply no way that all possible combinations of expansions can be tested so there is no guarantee that any particular combination people decide to play with will work well. The fact that each little piece has to stand on its own also means that the rules are necessarily scattered and nothing really integrates well.

Admittedly, I do own a few of the expansion sets for the game because there are a few bits which I think work well (the viziers, diamonds, exchange cards, and gates, primarily), but I would still much prefer to have had those released together as a unit rather than scattered across multiple mini-expansion sets.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  
  • I like it.  Chris W., Greg S., Patrick B., Dan Blum
  • Neutral.  Craig V., Larry,  Matt C.
  • Not for me… Joe H., Mark Jackson
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1 Response to SdJ Re-Reviews #25: Alhambra

  1. Happy to see the continuation of SdJ Re-Reviews! Keep it up! Can’t wait to see Niagara, Keltis, Dixit and Zooloretto articles!

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