Board Game Review: Alchemists – Fantastic and Innovative

I’m not usually a theme guy, but Alchemists tickles me. Each player is an alchemist trying to divine the secrets of various ingredients. But, no mere crackpots, the players are scholars earning reputation by being the first to publish theories – and debunking the false theories of their rivals.

The Basics. First, let’s talk alchemicals. The game has eight alchemicals that are used to make potions. Each alchemical has three circles (one each of blue, red, and green) and each circle is either small or large and has either a plus or a minus. Potions come in six varieties red+, red-, blue+, blue-, green+, and green-.

When two alchemicals come together, you can tell what potion they will make. First, you look at each color independently. Whichever color has the same symbol (both reds are a minus, or both greens a plus) will create a potion of that type as long as one of the circles is small and one large. Each alchemical also has one neutralizer that creates water (or toad soup) when mixed.

Eight alchemicals capable of making six potions (and water)

Meanwhile, Alchemists comes with a smartphone/tablet/web app that is required for play. The app randomly and secretly assigns each alchemical to one of eight ingredients. The ingredients are things like Mandrake Root and Scorpion. Then, when players mix two ingredients together and it makes a red- potion, they can begin to deduce which alchemical belongs to which ingredient.

Hmm. What happens if I mix Toadstool with Moonflower…

The rest of the game, though, is worker placement (or action selection, depending on your definition). Players select their turn order on a wake-up track. Those higher on the track will get to act first. But later positions can grant immediate favors and ingredients to the players who select them.

Players get a number of action cubes depending on the number of players. Then, starting with the last player on the wake-up track, they will put all of their cubes down on the various actions. The player who woke up first gets to place his cubes last (after seeing where everyone else has gone). And he still gets to take each action first.

Some actions are simple, like gathering ingredients or buying artifacts. Testing potions is the heart of the game. You throw two ingredients into the app and it’ll tell you what happens. You can test on a student (who starts enthusiastic and drinks for free until he drinks something negative – then must be paid to drink further potions), or drink it yourself – but negative potions can hurt you.

Five of the six adventurers appear in each game

Players can also sell potions to adventurers. Each adventurer wants specific potions. For example, the berserker wants a blue- (insanity), red+ (health), and green+ (speed). Players can sell to the adventurers and offer a guarantee as to the potion’s quality. Everything from “I guarantee this to be the absolute correct potion you’re looking for,” to “I guarantee that I made this.”

All the while, players can also publish theories. A separate theory board keeps track of theories where players can assign one of the alchemicals to one of the ingredients. Doing so gains reputation and players mark it with a face down seal. They can mark it with a point seal – worth points at the end of the game. Or a hedge seal. A hedge prevents them from losing reputation if debunked.

Debunking is the other side of the sword. If you believe another player’s theory (or even your own) is incorrect, you can debunk it. You put your information into the app and it will tell you whether you are correct or not. Debunking works slightly differently on the Apprentice (easy) version than the Master (normal) version.

At the end of six rounds, the players tally up points gained from reputation, artifacts, theories, and gold. The player with the most points wins.

For sure this is the alchemical associated with Mandrake Root

The Feel. A triumph! Alchemists blends humor, puzzles, deduction, worker placement, planning, strategy, bluffing, and everything else good about gaming into one fantastically thematic and delightful title. Alchemists is awesome.

One thing cannot be said clearly enough, though. Alchemists is not a deduction game. No, Alchemists is a worker placement game with a significant deduction element. There is so much more going on than just figuring out the ingredients. This is no Clue or Sleuth. So that won’t get you to victory. But you need to enjoy deduction or you won’t like what is a major component of the game.

On second thought, I was never all that sure about the green aspect of Mandrake Root…

With that out of the way, Alchemists succeeds on virtually every level. First off, the use of the app is inspired. It doesn’t feel hokey or gimmicky. Instead, what the app brilliantly does is create a game that would otherwise not be playable. If the ingredients were statically assigned, then the game would be fun once. After you figured them out, the whole game would flop.

But the app instead allows the game to work by randomly assigning alchemicals to ingredients at the start of every game. Thus, no amount of memorization will help you decipher which alchemicals belong to which ingredients. In this way, the app allows the game to innovate beyond what is possible in most board games.

But the deduction piece, while awesome, is just one piece of a greater whole. The meat of the game is about taking actions and earning reputation. And that bears repeating. The game is about getting reputation points – not about merely deducing the correct alchemical/ingredient pairings. Players will need to publish theories in order to get reputation – and often publish before knowing everything. That’s where the seals come in.

There’s a whole big world out there beyond your ivory tower

It’s not difficult to get an ingredient paired down to one of two alchemicals. If one combination gets you a red- and another a blue+, well, you know those two aspects. What you don’t know is the symbol on green. So when you publish, you can use a green seal (as opposed to a point seal) to hedge on green. If you are later debunked on green, you reveal the seal and do not lose reputation.

The way the wake-up track works is unique as well. Other games have a similar method of establishing turn order. But only Alchemists gives the first player the opportunity to see where his opponents go and the ability to take each action first. This is not only helpful for the first player, but can put a lot of uncertainty into the game for later players. After all, not every player can sell to adventurers, and there may not be enough artifacts to go around. So by placing on one of those spots, I have to hope the first player doesn’t also play there and go before me.

Plus, Alchemists is not exactly a short game. So adding in this mechanic actually decreases AP and play time. The last person to play cubes is generally not impacted by the other players’ placement.

Do some favors for the townsfolk and they’ll help you out

Put it all together and Alchemists is a blast to play. The action selection/worker placement element is solid and forces very tough choices – especially for those later in turn order who must select their spots before anyone else. The theme is not only well integrated into all mechanics of the game, but is a delight. It both lampoons the seriousness of academia while treading on fantastical subject matter.

Alchemists can also be a bit of a brain burner. Often, you can learn a great deal by combining what you know with what your opponents are doing. Plus, when your opponents debunk theories, the result will provide yet more information for your analysis. Sometimes at the start of a round, a player will say, “Hold on, I need to think.” And a minute or two passes as they try to parse the data from their experiments.

The game also plays two to four players. Four players is a very tight game with each player having only four action cubes to use. As a result, players must be very focused and there is little room for error. At three, players have five cubes and a little less competition in most areas, so there is some breathing room. Two players is a little loosey goosey and not my preferred method of play. But both three and four are amazing if slightly different experiences.

Artifacts are quite powerful. Either use them to full effect, or take neglected actions while everyone else competes for them.

Components: 4.5 of 5. The pieces are fabulous. The game comes with mini-euro cards which help cut down on the table space required. Everything is made appropriately, though the double-sided board could stand to be thicker. It’s comparable to other games CGE has produced. The one negative is the “cauldron” that each player gets. It is supposed to hold your cards when mixing them together, but the little shelf has to be just so or a card might slide out in full view of your opponents.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Strategy is key to success. Will you buy artifacts and exploit them? Try to publish early and often? Or publish only when you are sure of an alchemical? There is a faint whiff of luck for the players’ first combination of ingredients. A player who gets water, instead of a potion, may be at a slight disadvantage in the early game. But water actually provides fantastic information when combined with other discoveries. So, by the second or third turn, that player has usually caught up or more.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Alchemists is wonderfully innovative. Not only in the way that the app allows for gameplay, but even in how the wake-up track impacts the action selection in the game. It’s exciting, refreshing, and a joy to play. It’s probably on the medium/heavy side of euro games, but never feels like a slog.

Replayability: 5 of 5. I never get sick of playing Alchemists. The app makes the game functional. But functionality would be no good if the game wasn’t fun. It is. The available artifacts change from game to game, the deduction aspect is a new challenge each time, and the action/selection provides interesting interaction for a euro. All things that have me returning repeatedly.

Spite: 2 of 5. Spite is low in Alchemists and there are no direct attacks or “take that” cards. Instead, spite is limited to grabbing an action before someone else can take it. Buying up an artifact that an opponent wanted, or selling the blue+ potion that the adventurer wanted before your opponent can.

This is what fun looks like

Overall: 5 of 5. I am enamored with Alchemists. Strong theme, good euro interaction, deduction, and strategy; it’s a wonderful title. I’ve played a half dozen times and still my group clamors to play it again. And for good reason. The game is one of the most fun euro style games currently on the market. If you haven’t played yet, make a point of doing so.

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