Somehow the board game Alhambra has slipped through the cracks here on the dish, which I’ll blame on our move into the new house in the middle of last month. I’m hoping that now that we’re in (albeit far from unpacked) I’ll get back to more frequent posting here.
Alhambra won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2003 and looks like it should be a great game – players purchase castle tiles from a central “market” and try to earn points while building their own Alhambra-style castle. But the randomness factor is way too high for my tastes, particularly in the way it can leave one player in the dust from the outset if the cards/tiles don’t line up for him.
That central market has four tiles in it, drawn randomly from a bag as needed. Tiles come in six colors representing different types of rooms or building structures (like Towers or Gardens), each carrying a different potential point value, and with walls on anywhere from zero to four sides. You may place a tile only in a way that would allow a person to “walk” into that tile from your existing castle without having to hop a wall. There are three scoring rounds, coming roughly at the one-third and two-thirds marks as well as at game-end; each time, points are awarded to the player with the most tiles of each particular type, with smaller point gains available in the later scoring rounds for players with the second- or third-most tiles of each type.
The hitch, and it’s a big one, is how players acquire money to buy the tiles. The conceit is very clever: The masons you hire to build your Alhambra come from different countries and insist that you pay them in their own currency. The central market has four squares of different colors, and the currency required to buy a tile from the market is determined by the color on which that tile happens to sit. But you acquire currency from a separate currency market: Four cards, randomly drawn, that sit out for players to take in lieu of buying a tile. A player may take any single card from the currency market, or take any number of cards whose values add up to five or less. So the tiles you’re able to buy over the course of the game will depend on what color and value of currency cards are available to you when your turns come up.
On his turn, a player may buy a tile, take currency, or make a very small modification to his castle. The currency takes on added weight because of the rule that allows a player to take an extra turn if he buys a tile with exact change. (If you overpay, you’re out of luck – you don’t get the difference back.) The result is that there’s very little strategizing possible around tile purchase and placement; it’s all about your currency options, and while there is some turn-to-turn strategy there, in a four-player game the central market changes so much each time around that the value of good currency decision-making is severely curtailed.
My wife disagrees with me on Alhambra; she’s not bothered by a high randomness factor and places more value on visuals and production value. We have played the two-player variant, where you assign some tiles to a hypothetical third player, “Dirk,” and the game actually works a little better than it does with four people because the central market changes less between turns. But on the whole, I can’t see buying this game over other tile-based games like Carcassonne, which folds its randomness more seamlessly into gameplay in a way that actually enhances the value of good decision-making.
Again, I’m hoping that’s the last long layoff on this blog for a while, and I apologize for neglecting it. I’m almost through with An American Tragedy and am planning a long music post for some time in early April, as well as reviews of some of the Dominion expansions we’ve acquired over the last few months. In the meantime, check out my post on UCLA star Gerrit Cole and listen for me on the Baseball Today podcast three times this week starting on Tuesday.