Friday, December 29, 2017

Alhambra, quietly great

Ah, Alhambra.

While I was already exploring and playing designer games by the time I got to Alhambra, I have still been playing it for many years. It combines a couple of layers of simples decisions (What tiles do I buy and where can I place them are the fundamental ones) and I don’t think I’d turn down an offer to play. And I’ve yet to actually play with any of the expansions :D

The thumbnail sketch is that you are in charge of the restoration of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Each player is building their own palace. You have to buy the tiles, which have a set price, but they are randomly placed in the market which determines which of the four currencies is needed to buy it. You can choose to buy tiles, draw money cards or do some limited rearranging of your tiles. Three tiles during the game, you score points based on having the majority of tile types, as well as the length of your largest outer wall.

As you can imagine (and probably know full well since I bet most of the people reading this have played even more Alhambra than me), I’ve glossed over a lot, like placement restrictions or the value of paying with exact change. But the basic idea is everyone is building their own castle and buying the tiles to do it.

Alhambra won the Spiel des Jahres in 2003 and I’m pretty sure it has never been out of print. It has had numerous expansions and spinoffs. It’s one of Dirk Jenn’s biggest successes, although my friends who are fans of Shogun would threaten me with bodily harm if I said it was his greatest :D And Shogun is pretty awesome.

You would think that Alhambra would be one of the cornerstones of family-weight gaming like Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico. And, in reality, I’m pretty sure it is. And yet, I never seem to hear it come up in discussions about family gaming.

My two theories on that are that I’m just not hearing the right discussions and Carcassonne. Frankly, apart from being tile laying games, I don’t see any real resemblance. But Carcassonne casts one big shadow. 

And, like I said, the differences are huge. Everyone has their own tableau in Alhambra, unlike the shared one in Carcassonne. You flat out buy the tiles, making money management a huge deal and meaning you know just what tiles you’re getting. The tiles have an orientation, adding a layer of difficulty in placement. And the scoring is also directly compositing for majorities.

I really love Carcassonne and think it has earned its place of being successful enough that it’s hip to diss it but, man, Alhambra is also a great game with a lot going for it.

Again, I’m not saying that Alhambra deserves to be a cornerstone of family-weight games. I’m pretty sure it already is. In an industry full of flash-in-the-pan, gone-the-next-year games, it has kept on going. At the end of the day, dollars do mean something and Alhambra is doing okay.

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