Alhambra – a surprising Spiel De Jahres winner

When you are walking through your friendly local game store, perusing games that you might wish to purchase, what do you look for?  One of the things that I have looked for is awards.  Awards to me are very telling, largely based upon who is giving them.  I’ve seen some games with awards proclaimed on the box, just to realize upon reading that they gave the award to themselves!  How crazy is that!?  If you have to do that to sell your game, I think I’ll pass!  However, there is one award that I give a lot of credence to: the Spiel De Jahres.  This is the German “Game of the Year” award, and it’s a really sought after thing in the gaming community.   You see, so many wonderful games are coming out of Germany, that it seems pretty proper that their game of the year award is the award to receive.  So when I see that a game has one this extremely prestigious award, I sit up and take notice.   Alhambra is the Spiel De Jahres winner for 2003, but for this reason, I was extremely surprised when my feelings on the game were lacked a lot of luster.

Alhambra is a tile laying and set collecting game.  On your turn you can do one of three possible actions:  take money, buy a tile, or rearrange your alhambra (which according to wikipedia is a palace and fortress complex).  The money comes in four possible denominations, each denomination can buy one of four possible tiles that are on the board.  If you can buy the tile with exact change, you can immediately take another action.  In this way, you are rewarded for taking small bills when you take money.

Taking money is done via an alley of possible options, similar to the train cars in Ticket to Ride.  Four possible money cards are flipped over to show different denominations of the four possible kinds of tender.  Taking small cards, like 1’s and 2’s, will help you make exact change, but of course it doesn’t give you much money to work with very fast.  Taking large denominations is handy for buying expensive tiles quick, but the likelihood of you being able to make exact change is extremely small.

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So why didn’t this game strike me very much?  The game just wasn’t very compelling, which shocked me given the award it had achieved.  In each of the games I played, I was just happy for it to be over by the time we got there, because I was bored.  I didn’t feel particularly challenged.  The game was very much about luck of the draw.  Because often players were fighting over the same tile.  So if it flipped going into your turn, you were golden.  If it flipped earlier, the likelihood that it would still be there was extremely small.  This also meant that you couldn’t plan much in advance.  So the game really becomes “doing the best with what you are given”, if you are given good things, you’ll do well.  If you are given things that are less good than your opponents, you won’t do nearly as well.

I admit that I did something going into this review that normally I would have a near religious opposition to:  I read some other reviews.  I had to know, why in the world did this win the Spiel De Jahres?!  Surely someone else had some insight that would be favorable to this game, and sure enough I did:  this is a good “gateway” game.

To members outside of the gaming community, you may only be familiar with the term in reference to drugs, and here that analogy holds true as well.  A gateway game is one that gets non-gamers to game, and sucks you in, making you want to play more board games.  Gateway games are usually very compelling, but have pretty simple rules.  Settlers of Catan was my gateway game, others have named Ticket to Ride as theirs.  Apparently, this game is a great gateway game, which I could see.  The game has very simple decisions to make.  The rules never get particularly complicated, and are built upon mechanics that non-gamers are often familiar with such as set collecting.  When seen in that light, this game does shine a bit more.

I do have one major complaint with the components of the game: the colors.  You see, their are four different types of money (blue, green, orange, and yellow).  And there are several different colors of buildings (blue, green, yellow, brown, purple, etc).  Everyone has the same problem.  Yellow money does not buy the yellow tile, yellow money buys whatever tile is on the yellow buy spot on the board, regardless of that tiles color.  However, the amount of money required to purchase that tile is written on the tile in the color of the tile.  So you can look at a green tile that costs 6 and is on the yellow buy space.  It requires yellow money to buy it, but all your brain can think is GREEN!  This seems like one of those facebook quizzes where you are suppose to try to say the color written, not what color it’s written in.  Our brains just are meant to do that.  So what did this cause?  Slow turns where people thought they figured out what they wanted to do, only to find that they had to rethink their whole turn, because they were trying to buy something in the wrong color!  Madness! Would it have been so hard to make the money in colors that were simply not present on the tiles?

So for gamers who enjoy meaty mechanics, I’m not sure that you’ll have the good time that the award usually means.  However, if you are looking for something to play with your grandma/mother-in-law/younger cousin, then go for it.  This might be a fun fit for them, and it’s certainly better than playing another game of scrabble with Aunt Martha.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 at 6:36 pm and is filed under Board Game Reviews, Resource Management Games . Editing for this post was performed by Molly Ellis . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


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