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Aldabas Doors of Cartagena Review, a small tableau builder with a big punch

The theme for Aldabas Doors of Cartagena is based on the fact that if you visit Cartagena in Columbia you will find buildings adorned with amazing elaborate door knockers. These knockers once represented the profession and social status of the occupants. 

This is a game based on those doors and knockers. Aldabas is a tableau building card game with surprising depth for its short play length. 

Disclosure: Thanks to Grand Gamers Guild for getting us a review copy of this game. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.

 

What do you get with Aldabas Doors of Cartagena from Grand Gamers Guild?

Aldabas Doors of CartagenaThe box cover for Aldabas (which I will just be referring to as Aldabas going forward) was designed by Nathaniel Levan and Joshua J Mills. It features artwork from Josh Cappel and Juan David Vargas and was published by Grand Gamers Guild after a successful Kickstarter.

The copy of the game I’m reviewing today is the Kickstarter Edition of Aldabas. At the moment, this is the only edition of Aldabas that is available. It is possible that a retail version will have been released by the time you are reading this. 

Aldabas is a tableau building card game that plays with one to four players, with games taking well under an hour. Currently, you can grab Aldabas direct from Grand Gamers Guild for $29.99.

This game is based on the real world city of Cartagena in Columbia where, historically, people adorned their doors with elegant door knockers that represented the profession and social status of the occupants.

For example, you would find lion door knockers on the doors of people who were in the military, or fish door knockers for fishermen, etc. These door knockers are called Aldabas which, of course, is where the game gets its name from.

Aldabas is a tableau building card game where players work to build a three by four city block of door cards from various professions. Each card has an effect when played and also triggers the cards already in play beside it. At the end of the game, players add up their influence for each profession type and the players with the highest, or the second highest, influence for each will score points. The amount of points is based on a variety of different things, which are in turn based on which doors are in that player’s tableau, vault, and hand. There are also points awarded for banking coins and for having the most influence overall.

If you’d like to take a look at what you get in the box for this small but meaty game, I invite you to check out my Aldabas Unboxing Video on YouTube.

The most notable thing, component wise, with Aldabas is the cards. These are some of the thickest cards I’ve ever handled, so thick that they are difficult to shuffle. This is probably a great sign for their long term durability, though I do wish they were a touch thinner.

Some of the components you get with AldabasAlong with the cards, you get four thin card vaults (that also act as a rules reference card), wooden coins (twelve per player) and a punch board with a handful of additional coins, scoring markers and a two part dock/score tracker.

The rule book is clear and includes a lot of examples.

If a retail version of Adlabs is ever published, the coins will likely all be cardboard and the box won’t have the UV coating.

The other Kickstarter exclusive found in the version I have is a small New Professions expansion which includes a two page rule sheet and twenty-seven new cards in three new suits.

Overall I was happy with everything that came in the box except for the vaults. These large thin cards just don’t work very well for what they are intended to do (hide cards and coins underneath), especially with the thick wooden coins. After our first game, I stole some upright vault screens from another game for players to use to hide coins and cards in their vault. (Please note that some of the pictures used in this review use these improvised vaults which do not come with the game). 

 

Aldabas Overview of Play:

A sample hand of five cards in AldabasLet’s start with the base game rules for Aldabas

To set up this game you place the dock in the centre of the table, create a bank of twelve coins per player, shuffle all of the cards and deal everyone a hand of five cards.

Players then pick one of their cards to place face down under their vault to start off their block.

All future card plays will build off of this face down card.

Players can then discard any number of cards from their hands, gaining one coin for each card discarded.

Once everyone is ready, you flip over cards from the central deck until the dock is filled with five cards.

That’s all there is to set up. This is not a game with a long set up time. Though I will note that picking which card to start with isn’t an easy choice, and is even more difficult on your first play when you don’t really know what all these cards do.

We like to keep our vaults on the rules reference side when playing AldabasThere is a large amount of iconography in Aldabas, which isn’t very clear until you see it in play. Thankfully the vault cards have a pretty good reference on the back and I suggest playing with the reference side up for your first few games, if not for all of them.

Each turn in Aldabas, players take two actions chosen from three options. These two actions can both be the same or they can be different options. Note that’s two actions. This is something that we got wrong on our first game and which basically ruined our initial play. Having two actions is important for the game to work properly. 

As far as actions go, there are three to choose from.

 

First off you can take coins. You take two coins from the bank. That’s it.

Next, you can buy a card from the docks. You take the card and pay the cost shown above it. You then slide all cards down the dock to fill the gap and you reveal a new card from the deck which gets placed under the most expensive, three coins, spot on the dock.

The final action available is to play a card from your hand into your tableau.

About to play a door card in AldabasWhen playing into your tableau, cards must be placed to the right or above existing cards in play. You also can’t place two doors of the same colour next to each other. When you play a card you then activate that card’s ability as well as the abilities of the cards to the side and below the one just played.

Each of the different professions in the game does something unique and some professions have cards at different influence levels that each have their own abilities.

Soldiers let you move coins. The low influence soldier lets you place a coin onto a door where it counts as an additional influence during scoring at the end of the game. The high influence soldier lets you move coins into your vault. Coins in your vault are worth points at the end of the game.

Fishers come in three levels. The lowest level fisher lets you draw two cards from the deck, keep one and discard the other. The middle level fisher allows you to steal coins from your rivals, while the high level fisher gives you three coins from the bank.

A hand of three cards from three different professions in AldabasAt the lower level, nobles let you move additional coins when you use your soldiers. The higher influence noble doesn’t do anything when played (though the card will still set off adjacent cards) but instead scores you three points at the end of the game.

There is only one level of clergy and they allow you to bank cards in your vault. Cards banked this way have their powers negated but count towards influence during end game scoring.

Finally, there are the builders which only have one level. Each builder you have in play gives you a discount of one coin when buying doors and also gives you a bonus buy doors action when played.

Learning what these different abilities are and why you would want to do them and how they combo together is the meat of this game and is also the hardest part of learning to play Aldabas.

 

Play continues around the table with each player taking two actions a piece until one of three things happens. Either the door deck runs out, the coin supply runs out, or a player fills their block with a twelfth card. In this case, every player other than the player that triggered the end gets one more turn.

The last round of a game of AldabasOnce the game is over all that is left to do is calculate everyone’s score. This game is a bit of a point salad and thankfully it includes a score track on the back of the dock board for adding everything up. 

Everyone starts by scoring two points for each coin in their vault. Once scored these coins are added in with any unvaulted coins you have (in a pile called your purse). 

Next everyone reveals any cards in their vault, as well as the initial card they put face down at the start of the game. Here’s where things get interesting. 

You now resolve scoring for each profession in turn starting with the Soldiers. For each profession, players will add up the total influence they have in their block and vault combined, including any coins that were placed on cards as influence. 

Then the players with the most and second most influence in each of these suits suit will score points. Each profession scores differently.

A finished block in a game of AldabasSoldiers score based on how many Nobles are in your block. Fishers score you points for any cards left in your hand at the end of the game. Nobles score you points for the coins in your purse. Clergy score you points based on your total influence over all of the cards in your block. Builders score you points based on the other building types in your block. In each case, the player in first will score more points than the player in second. 

For example, the player with the highest influence in Soldiers will score three points per Noble card in their block, whereas the player with the second most Soldiers will only score one per Noble. 

Lastly, the player with the most total influence, counting all cards in their block and vault combined, gets three bonus points. 

A note about vaulted cards: Cards placed into your vault, except for the initial one you place face down at the start of the game, do not count as being part of your block. While vaulted cards count for determining majorities they don’t count when scoring and none of their abilities counts. This was something else we played incorrectly during our initial plays so I wanted to be sure to point it out. 

Once everything is tallied up, the player with the most points wins. 

 

Playing Aldabas Solo:

Aldabas can also be played solo.  When you play solo you play against an AI rival.

You start off by removing a bunch of cards from the deck (which have a “remove from the solo game” symbol on them), playing with just a fifteen card bank. The dock is set up with only four cards instead of five. 

You then start drawing cards from the deck until you get three different Aldabas. These become your rival’s goals. You also draw a card without looking at it and put it under the rival’s vault. The rival starts with two cards in hand, face up so you can see them.

Play begins with you playing as normal, using all of the rules already covered above. At the end of each of your turns, the rival will go. Each turn, the rival drafts a card from the market based on a simple formula and this card gets added to their hand. Once their hand reaches three cards they will start building their block, following a set pattern, one row at a time, ignoring door colour. 

The card powers are modified for the rival with some of them having no effect and others having different effects from normal. I’m not going to go into the details here, just know that they don’t quite work the same as when you play a card in the multi-player version. 

In the end, the rival doesn’t score points. All of their moves exist solely to give you something to compete against during final scoring. The rival is basically an influence engine and when playing solo you only get to score professions where you alone have the most influence. 

Once you have your final score there’s a chart in the rules you reference to see how you did ranging from getting exiled from the city to becoming a beloved patron of Cartagena.  The rulebook also includes some ways to modify these rules to make solo play easier or more difficult.

 

The New Professions Expansion for Aldabas:

The Kickstarter Edition of Aldabas contains a mini-expansion called the New Professions expansion.

This expansion adds in three new card suits, each of which has just one influence level and thus just one new ability.

There are Bankers that let you steal coins from the opponent’s vaults and give end game points for coins on cards.

There are Merchants that give you additional coins when getting coins from the bank and also give end game points based on the door colours in your block.

There are also Doctors that let you swap cards between your hand and your block, or your hand and the dock, and give a set amount of points at game end.

To use one of these new professions you have to swap out one of the original professions from the base game. You remove one set of nine cards, all with the same influence and profession (and the same Aldabas card art), to swap in one set of nine new cards from this expansion.

The big thing this expansion does is to let you adjust the gameplay of Aldabas in significant ways.

For example, if your gaming group doesn’t like take-that elements in their games you can pull out all of the cards that steal coins and replace them with something other than the new Bankers.

 

Our thoughts on Aldabas, who should pick this game up?

Examples of real life Aldabas, door knockers in Cartagena

The first thing I want to call out is the theme of Aldabas. I think the theme of ornate door knockers, which indicate professions and wealth, is fascinating. It also works very well as a theme for card suits. 

More importantly, this game and its theme introduced me to something I didn’t even know existed. After doing the unboxing and reading the rules for this game I found myself googling door knockers of Cartagena and browsing various image galleries and articles all about these wondrous creations.

Check out this interesting blog post from The Travel Geek that dives into what each type of aldabas represents. 

However, while I dig the theme of Aldabas I’m not in love with the card design.

The card design in AldabasOnce you’ve played a few games and have learned what each profession does and how it works, it’s not too bad, but there is a lot of iconography here and its clarity is mixed. Even knowing what the cards do, I still find myself consistently double checking the rules reference on the back of the vault cards.

I also found it strange that the most prominent thing on every card is its colour when really the only reason colour matters is for door placement rules (though this changes with the mini-expansion).

Things just end up not being as clear or as obvious as you’d like, and it makes the learning curve tough. This is probably the biggest barrier to entry for this game.

 

Aldabas is a game that takes a couple of plays to fully grok and that can be a problem in today’s one and done board game culture. 

My next design complaint is the vault.

The vault design in Aldabas

To my mind, the entire vault design is odd. It’s a weird choice to have vaults that are just large thin pieces of cardstock that are meant to cover up your starting door card as well as any coins and cards you later place into your vault.

While it works fine for hiding that starting cards (though I don’t see why you can’t just place that one face down), the set up falls apart once you start trying to put coins underneath it.

This is especially true when we’re using thick wooden coins that can’t help but lift up the vault card. Putting a bunch of cards in your vault does the same thing, lifting things upward. Overall it’s just an awkward system.

What I’ve done to fix this problem is to steal some folded upright card vaults from another game in my collection. We now use those in every game of Aldabas that we play. We also just place that starting block card face down and then build our blocks around that.

We found that this set up works great and is way better than stacking things under the included vault card.

Baffled players trying to figure out Aldabas for the first timeWith the number of different card abilities, various suits, and higher than expected amount of iconography Aldabas is not a simple to learn game.

While there are only three options you can take each turn, the various effects of the cards make the game heavier than it appears. Due to this, I strongly recommend that folks who are new to the game should just play around to find out and goof around for your first play or two.

Because I truly think Aldabas is worth getting through the learning curve. Once you’ve gotten those icons down, learned what the various cards do and remember what each suit is going to score you at game end, you will find a very engaging and rewarding game.

 

Aldabas is one of those games that gets better the more you play it. It’s a game where your initial focus is going to be on simply trying to complete your block, where you just end up getting what you get along the way. After a few plays that focus will shift to shift to card counting, watching what your opponents are doing, bluffing about what’s in your vault, and trying to make sure you have the right amount of influence where you need it.

Once you get a group of players to this level, Aldabas really shines.

My daughter planning her move in a game of AldabasAs for the New Professions expansion, I think it’s awesome and a must have. I honestly hope it’s something that Grand Gamers Guild considers keeping in the game if they do publish a retail version. 

It’s not that I love any of the specific professions in the expansion. I don’t even have a favourite. What I adore is the fact that I can use these new professions with the existing ones to tweak the game to be a better fit for the people I play with.

I game with some people that hate in game player vs player conflict, and when playing with them I can tweak the deck to make sure that there’s no take that cards in there. Another possible tweak is to make the game quicker by adding in all of the cards that get you coins and ways to vault those coins. Doing this makes the coin supply run out quicker and will lead to games where running out of coins triggers the game end instead of full blocks. There are also ways to make the game longer, limit the number of different scoring methods, and more. 

Overall, while Albabas can be overwhelming at first and has a learning curve, it’s well worth the effort to learn. This is a small box card game that gives you the feel of an area majority Euro. It is a game that has become more enjoyable the more we keep playing it. The Kickstarter Edition of Aldabas (currently the only edition available) also features an awesome mini-expansion that is great for fine tuning the game to better fit your personal game group and preferences.

Moe T The Tabletop Bellhop Playing AldabasIf you dig Eurogames with majority based scoring through influence, you really need to check Aldabas out. It packs a lot of punch in under an hour.

If you dig tableau builders with interesting card placement puzzles to solve, or like games where you are trying to play cards to trigger off other cards to best effect, you are going to love the gameplay in Aldabas.

If you are looking for a quick light filler card game, that is not what you are going to find here. Aldabas has surprising depth and rewards game mastery and repeated plays. This isn’t a one and done card game, or one that you want to introduce to your non-gaming friends who like standard card games.

Personally, I’m extremely happy with Aldabas though it was a bit of a journey to get there. My biggest worry is that groups are going to give up on it before they get to the point where it’s the most enjoyable, and that will be a shame. 

 

Lately, we’ve been checking out a lot of games with unique themes, including Aldabas. I would have never predicted there would be a board game about door knockers. Other recent examples can be found in our review of Point Salad, a game about making a salad, and our review of  Venn, a party game where you create Venn diagrams.

What’s a board game theme you never expected to see? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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