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Gardens of the Alhambra

Review: The trees have it.

The Gardens of Alhambra is a thinky abstract tile-laying game, unrelated to Queen's successful Alhambra franchise, except by the artwork and name. Players attempt to control the most valuable buildings within the gardens by surrounding them with trees of their own colour while walking a fine line between scoring and vulnerability.

This is a retheme of Queen's Carat that adds Alhambra styled artwork of the gardens and buildings (rather than the stark colour blocks of Carat) and a score-track around the game board. The gameplay is unchanged between the versions.

The game is played on a 6x6 board with places for 36 octagonal tiles that will form a mosaic with the 49 square scoring tiles. Each of the spaces that sits at the intersection of four tiles as well as the matching spaces along the edge of the board and in the corners holds a scoring tile.

Before the game begins, the scoring tiles are randomly placed in each of the spaces for them, and left with the score numbers face up. During the game, players, in turn place a drawn garden tile into one of the empty spaces. Each garden tile has between 1 and 6 trees of each colour (the same number of each) arranged with one colour per side. The order of the coloured sides is also different on different tiles, so red doesn't always share a corner with yellow.

The object of the game is collect the scoring tiles by surrounding them with trees of your own colour. In the simplest case, the player with the largest total number of trees around the scoring tile wins and scores it. In the case of draws, things get much more interesting. Any players with exactly the same number of trees are ignored and the highest remaining number is awarded the points. If three players tie, the points will go to the fourth player, even if they have no trees at all!

An obvious strategy to avoid losing points to ties is to pile as many trees of your own colour around all sides of the the high-scoring tiles. The second scoring rule specifically works against this. Each scoring tile has a value between 1 and 5, but the points awarded for it are multiplied by the number of colours of trees which surround it. The maximum 4x points requires each side of the tile to be taken by a different player.

In order for players to get the the most points from a particular score tile, they must allow other players to place their trees around it, or even place tiles with a few of other player's tree colours around themselves. During this process, other players can take advantage of the opportunities that arise for daring last-minute raids on a scoring tile, by surging out ahead or carefully manipulating the numbers to create ties. They can even continue to surround a tile with already-present colours to reduce the multiplier of points awarded to the winning player.

Once a scoring tile has been complete surrounded, it is flipped to reveal one of the garden buildings and the winning player's points are recorded on the track around the board. Having an up-to-date scoring track around the board is really usefu, as players often have to make choices about which players to give points to with a placement. There are frequent windfalls for the player who is coming last, since in all but completely tied situations, someone will get the points.

When the game is played with less than four, there's also competition to make the best use of the one or two neutral colours, which provide a great way to both harmlessly funnel points away as well as being necessary to increase multipliers.

There is some luck of the draw in the game. Being able to generate helpful ties to give another player (or yourself) the points from a tile often requires you to have a tile with exactly the right number of trees per side. This is somewhat balanced by the opportunities you have for multiple placements. Tiles can be placed anywhere adjacent to an already-laid tiles, so there are usually multiple fronts of attack and several high-value tiles up for grabs so you can choose the battle your current tile can help with most.

The minor component problems with the game is that the tiles fit together a little too well. The scoring tiles that aren't on the edges are actually quite difficult to remove from the board and flip once all four tiles are laid down around them without knocking other tiles on the board askew. The solution we've used is to flip all the completely surrounded scoring tiles before the current placed garden tile is laid.

Once the game is completed, the final board looks quite pleasantly garden-like, with its wending paths among the trees and little buildings. All completely irrelevant to the game, which exists solely on the scoring track by then.

The Gardens of the Alhambra is a relatively dry abstract, entirely about jostling the other players out of their positions so you can gain the most points. The tie breaking and score multiplication are well balanced and the decisions of which opportunities to grasp and which to leave open for your opponents are frequently agonising. A game I'm glad Queen rethemed and re-released.