By Tony Maggio
Hello! Welcome to the first episode of Mare Nostrum, a blog all about board games and our favorite region of the world! In this blog, I hope to expand your personal horizons about gaming culture as well as Mediterranean culture. What’s that you say? You’ve only heard of Scrabble and Monopoly and didn’t know that board games were a booming industry? Fear not, my friend. I will (hopefully) introduce you to a whole new world. Yes, board games have been a part of pop culture for a long time, i.e. Monopoly, Scrabble, Yahtzee, etc. Basically, anything that you played as a child was a classic board game and pre-boom. Ever since about the 90s, developers have been pushing out increasingly different and fun board games. You’ve probably heard of “The Settlers of Catan” or “Ticket to Ride.” These are popular ‘gateway’ games into the vast library of modern gaming. In these posts, I will be choosing different games that you have probably never heard of and giving you the 411. One of the cooler factors in this blog is that I will only be choosing games that are based in or on something in the Mediterranean region.
But Tony, what in the heck is up with a name like Mare Nostrum?
I’m glad you asked, reader. Quite literally, Mare Nostrum translates as a name the Romans gave to the Mediterranean Sea. In additions to that, Mare Nostrum is the name of a board game created in 2003. For now, that’s all I am going to say on that topic, as I plan to cover that game in a future installment.
So what can you expect in an episode? As I said, I’ll be choosing a different game each time. Then, I will give a description on what the game is about and how it is played. I will also talk about any historical or cultural significance the game has to the Mediterranean region. Usually, I will try to fit in a play through as well and talk about my experiences whilst playing. (If you want to be featured in a future episode of Mare Nostrum, ask me for an upcoming game date and you too could get in on a play through.) Now, let’s get on to the first game!
Located west of the Spanish city of Granada lies a beautiful palace and fortress called the Alhambra. It was built in 889 AD as an Islamic palace. Situated on a strategic and beautiful mountaintop, the Alhambra has been described as “a pearl set in emeralds.” As time went on, the castle was fortified and became a military fortress. More and more parts were added, increasing the beauty and complexity of the palace. For a short period, it fell into disarray and deterioration due to wars, royal greed, and a lack of caring to upkeep it. However, in the 19th century, the Alhambra was recognized for its importance and the process of restoration was begun.
The game Alhambra was created in 2003 by Dirk Henn. In this game, players assume control over their own Alhambras and attempt to make theirs the best in the country. Each player starts with the historic Lion Fountain as the center of their complex. On your turn, you can do one of three actions: take money, buy a building to add to your Alhambra, or redesign the layout of your current Alhambra. Three times during the game, scoring will take place. During those times, the player(s) who have the most of each building type will score points. More components makes your Alhambra more beautiful, after all. Additional points are rewarded for the longest continuous wall around your Alhambra. This signifies the fortifications given to the wall. After the tiles run out, the game ends and whoever has the most points wins.
Let’s look at the game.
Depicted above is the marketplace. Here, you can take some money from the four cards at the top, or pay for one of the building tiles on the mat. You have to keep in mind the type of currency used, meaning that only blue money can buy the building on the blue spot. The amount required is listed on the tile itself. If you are frugal with your money and spend exactly what it costs, you get an extra turn! When taking money, you can only take one card at a time (unless they add up to at least 5, meaning you could take a 2 and a 3, but not a 6 and a 9).
Here is what your own Alhambra may look like.
When you buy a building, you have to follow rules for placement, mostly corresponding to the walls. Walls must touch walls and clear land must touch clear land. If you don’t want to or don’t have room to immediately place your newly acquired tile, you can put it on reserve, like I did with my pavilion. At two mid-game points, the game is scored, as well as at the end.
Players with the majority of a building type get points. For example, in the above picture, I have three Arcades, my opponent has one, and the special non-player (a new rule for 2-player games) has two. I win the majority and receive a designated amount of points. This is done for each building type. Then, the longest continual wall is counted and scored for length. My longest one is on the bottom left, scoring me six points.
And that’s the game in a nutshell; you try and collect same building types and strategically place them in order to make your own beautiful Alhambra!
Historically, the currency is pretty interesting. Each color represents a different civilization and type of currency they used. This does contain some speculation, but to me, they seem pretty accurate.
The green card represents the Dirham. Originating in the drachma, the dirham was minted mostly for the Byzantine Empire and Moorish Spain, where the Alhambra is located. Next, the blue currency is the Dinar, coming from the Roman denarius. Although, it was later minted in the Arabic lands, which the artwork suggests. Orange represents the Dukat. The dukat is notable for being a specific currency for Italian artisans. It was distributed all around Middle-Age Europe. Finally, the yellow one is the Florin or Guilder. Because of hints on the card’s artwork, the currency quite possibly is from the Dijon region of France, originally Roman. So what’s the significance? Well, all these different denominations of money could represent the fact that artisans and craftsman came from these four regions to build the Alhambra, making it a cross-cultural, or global project.
There are six different building types (in addition to the starting Lion Fountain tile): pavilions, arcades, seraglio, chambers, gardens, and towers. Most of these are self-explanatory, but I’ll talk about the Seraglios and Arcades. The arcades can simply be translated into mezzanines, so that one is easy. The seraglio is a different story. A Seraglio is either woman’s harem or a Sultan’s palace. Since there is no Sultan, this means that the seraglios depicted here are harems. Some people also like to translate the tiles as manors, if they wish to keep bad stuff away.
I had the wonderful opportunity to play Alhambra on Tuesday. Normally, it is a 3 to 4-player game, but it can be played with two by using a special non-player stand-in. There were only two of us, so we decided to do this and continue to play. In our first attempt, we ignored a special rule to remove some of the money. In essence, this would have kept the game’s economy in check due to the decreased number of players taking money. When we played, we soon discovered that we would run out of tiles before we even reached the second scoring point of three. So, we decided to start over, this time using the missed rule. What followed was a quite enjoyable game! I had a great time strategizing which tiles to buy and when to buy them. A fantastic rule that I loved to abuse was the take another turn rule if you paid the exact amount. Several times, I took three turns in a row, allowing me to take the tiles in needed. In the end, the score came down to 130 – 113 with myself cinching the victory.
If you want a simple to learn, fun to play game with more complexity than a roll-and-move game like Monopoly, I highly recommend picking up Alhambra. If that does convince you, maybe the fact that it won the “Spiel des Jahres” or “Game of the Year” in 2003. I guess you could say it’s a Pulitzer of board games.
Thank you so much for sticking with me for this first installment of Mare Nostrum. I had a ton of fun writing it and hope to produce many, many more articles.
Have a question? Have a game you want me to consider? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!