Sunday, March 6, 2011


Nine weeks in and I falter for the first time. I could neither find time to play Alexandros with anyone, nor could I muster the enthusiasm to cram the rules into my increasingly-limited memory buffer for one play. Luckily having left myself a back-door solution to keep me moving forward (see Week 1), I pressed forward to an easier game to bring to table: Alhambra.

This game won the coveted Spiel des Jahres in 2003. For those peeking in, this is the boardgame equivalent of the Palme d’Or or the Oscar. And, like those awards, the winner is often second-guessed by those who feel the award would have been better bestowed elsewhere. In this case, other games published in 2003 which potentially could have won−and didn’t included:

In any case, Alhambra has spawned several expansions and variants−so obviously the publisher feels it’s a dependable franchise in terms of sales. Most of them introduce new kinds of tiles, and I’ve never been tempted to buy any of them, except for one: Alhambra: The Dice Game (about which more below). They even put out a Big Box with all the expansions together in one box--quite the Hanukah present, methinks.

The Real Thing
Escher's sketch
The actual Alhambra is in Granada, and was a huge influence on one of my absolute favourite artists, M. C. Escher, who visited it in 1922 and definitely inspired him to explore tessellations of the plane−and where would math teacher (and textbook covers) be without that?

Dirk Henn--and Alhambra box sets
Perhaps Dirk Henn (the designer) was inspired by the splendid architecture and decided to design a game around it. More likely, however, he began with some questions and used those to design the game, deciding to use the Alhambra as the graphic theme−which is carried off quite beautifully, by the way.
In this case, I think Dirk began by asking himself questions like:
  • What would happen in a tile-laying game if players each picked tiles to construct individual worlds?
  • What if more than one tile was available to be chosen at a time?
  • What if players had to purchase tiles using different currencies?
  • What if some tiles were inherently more valuable than others, and players had to compete to own the most of each kind?
Possible inspiration?
I have no idea if this was how it happened. These questions certainly differentiate Alhambra from previous tile-laying games, the most successful of which was Carcassonne, which had come out in 2000, and could have well been a jumping-off point in Dirk’s design process.

Once again, Interesting Questions by the designer lead to Interesting Decisions for players.

There is even a very satisfying (to me) 2-player variant which uses a “ghostly” 3rd player who both players have to compete against. In a fit of self-glorification, the rules call this player Dirk.

As for the Alhambra Dice Game, at some point someone (maybe even Dirk himself) must have asked the question “What if Alhambra had dice instead of cards?” Diced versions of games have been all the rage lately−and hence moneymakers. Hasbro has put out dice versions of Monopoly, Risk, and Sorry. Fans have created popular dice versions of complex games like Agricola and Dune for those who want a speedier fix. Even ‘gateway games’ like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride have released official dice versions. Most of these dice versions use some version of the Yahtzee formula where on your turn you toss your dice, keep some of them as they are, and toss the rest until (a) you run out of throws, or (b) achieve some kind of result (good or bad).

Considering the things that make Alhambra unique are the tiles and cards, tossing them out of the design in favour of dice seems like a bad idea. If you throw away too much of what makes a game special, you risk eviscerating it or alienating your fan base. In this case I think they did a pretty good job of preserving some of the flavour of the original game. In particular, they included a variant which allows you to incorporate the tiles from the original game, so you actually get two games in one. This way, if you’re looking for a change from ‘vanilla’ Alhambra, you can spice it up with dice.

If spicy vanilla is what you’re looking for, that is...


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