Board Game Review: The King’s Golem – Possibly the Best Expansion Ever


Alchemists was my Game of the Year for 2015 and remains one of my absolute favorite titles. I love the incorporation of deduction into an action selection game and how everything about it just works. Great systems, great theme, fun times. So I was eagerly awaiting the expansion – The King’s Golem. The expansion adds four modules, most of which can be mixed and matched to taste. Is this an experiment worthy of publication?

The Basics. King’s Golem comes with four modular expansions that can (mostly) be swapped in or out independently. Two of them provide interesting variety and can be added even when teaching new players. Two, though, are for people with several games under their belt and looking for greater challenges.

The first module is Startup Funding. In the base game, everyone started with the same stuff: a few ingredients, a favor, and a coin. No longer. Now, everyone gets four Startup Funding cards at the beginning of the game. You pick two of them to be your starting resources. In addition to ingredients, favors, and coins, they can also include artifacts, library books, and reputation – both negative and positive. This can help inform your strategy right from the get go.

Why yes, I would like a favor and an increase in reputation

Why yes, I would like two favors and an increase in reputation

The second module is Busy Days. In the base game, you used the same wake-up track for the entire game. That idea is out the window. King’s Golem comes with several new wake-up tracks. Each round, you put a new one on the board. You also show the next round’s board so that players can plan a little bit ahead. This really changes up the rewards from round to round and can make for harder choices.

The Royal Encyclopedia is one that you’ll want to add only after several plays of the base game. It adds an entirely new way to publish your theories. No longer limited to stuffy academic journals, you can now print to the encyclopedia. Publishing in the Encyclopedia means identifying an aspect (either red, blue, or green) and then choosing four ingredients to identify their signs in that color. You can choose all four pluses or minuses, or two of each. The catch is that you can hedge, at most, one ingredient.

Finally, is the Golem Project module. The King has asked that you animate a golem with your alchemy. But what animates it? When you feed it an ingredient, its chest might glow or its ears steam. In truth, each reacts independently to a particular color and size. Once you determine that, you can figure out which two ingredients can be fed to the golem to animate it. And that’s worth points.

There are a lot of new options. A lot.

There are a lot of new options. A lot.

The Feel. Wowza. There have been good, even great expansions in the past. But this may just be the best expansion I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It introduces some elements that even new players can enjoy, others that expand the breadth of the playing experience without adding depth, and the golem which adds a new, deep deduction element. And it does all this, while remaining true to the core principles of the base game and managing to feel right in line with what came before.

Startup Funding and Busy Days are both nice additions to the game. I like that Startup Funding allows you to pursue your strategy right from the get-go. Maybe you decide that you are going to buy up a lot of artifacts. Well, getting extra gold right at the start could definitely give you a leg up. Or perhaps you want to test and publish. Starting with four or more ingredients is no joke.

Yes, you'll need to publish more in the expansion

Yes, you’ll need to publish more in the expansion

Busy Days, meanwhile, helps to change up the incentives each round. In the base game, sometimes players would get comfortable in certain spots on the wake-up track. And the only choices were favor cards and ingredients. Now, the new tracks might give coins or other benefits. The best spots might even cost you reputation to take or perhaps an action cube for the round. It does a good job of shaking up the turn order and causing you to make a new, interesting decision every round.

The Royal Encyclopedia is definitely for players who’ve played a few games and are comfortable with the basics. While it doesn’t fundamentally alter what came before, it provides greater opportunities to use your knowledge. And also to piggy-back off of other players.

Publishing about one aspect can be a little tricky. After all, I can usually publish about a single ingredient (with a correct hedge) after just two tests. But for an Encyclopedia, you need to correctly publish about three ingredients at minimum. This means, you typically don’t see publications here until about the mid game. But it also means that other players can get a lot of information from a publication. After all, the publishing player is confident in three out of four ingredients. That might be just the push you need to solve a nagging question and complete your grid.

"Hmm. Let's see what the Encyclopedia says about Green"

“Hmm. Let’s see what the Encyclopedia says about Green”

But the King’s Golem is where the real meat of the expansion is. It adds a whole ‘nother layer of deduction and is definitely meant for experienced players. You have to figure out what the golem is reacting to – both in color and size. That can be challenging – especially if you don’t know all that much about the alchemical nature of the ingredients. The golem, then, must be used in conjunction with your normal deduction. Without that additional information, the golem info you gain is practically worthless.

And it isn’t just a straight deduction game. You can also send reports to the King about what the golem is reacting to. But you have to be careful. Although you can hedge a bit, you really only get one shot at telling the king what’s happening. Get it right, and it’s significant points. Get it wrong, and it’s an even more significant loss. Since there is no debunking and those reports are secret, there’s no reason to put out the wrong info.

The King's interest can wax and wane

The King’s interest can wax and wane

But the Golem is more than just another way to deduce. It also gives more information. For example, if two elements react the same way, then you know that combined, they would produce water. That’s helpful. Or, if you figure out that the golem reacts to a large red aspect, then if another ingredient reacts the same way, you know it also has that aspect – allowing you to cross off more alchemicals. The interplay between testing potions and the golem is intriguing.

While I wouldn’t say the deduction is significantly easier, the expansion does provide you with more sources of information. So it isn’t uncommon for the whole board to be correct by game end. Ultimately, everyone figures it all out. But the expansion provides so many new actions and opportunities, that you find yourself stretched as you try to take advantage of it all. It’s a great way to ramp up the pressure even while allowing more ways to gain knowledge of the ingredients.

The new deduction grid is serious business

The new deduction grid is serious business

Components: 4 of 5. The expansion is the same quality as the base game. Cards have the same backs, boards are the same thickness, and everything is appropriate. There is one minor printing error where green seals on the back are yellow on the front (and vice versa). But the error was caught early enough to print a bunch of stickers so that players can remedy it right out of the box. A great solution.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. If anything, this is enhanced over the base game. The luck element remains about the same. Ingredients and favors are still distributed in the same way – and you never know what that first test or two will provide. But now, you have more options for getting information. The golem and the library can both help you deuce with less risk to yourself. And a proper combination of tests is the key to victory.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. I love the way King’s Golem comes together. The library is a great action that can mark off half of the alchemicals on an ingredient. But it often does so in a way that makes it difficult to properly hedge. The deduction of the golem is a great addition and one that feels right in line with what came before. The new publication is a great new challenge that opens opportunities to the players.

Replayability: 5 of 5. Alchemists was already heavily replayable. The game was simply solid and enjoyable. But King’s Golem ratchets this up to unbelievable heights. Sure, the Startup Funding and Busy Days add variety to each play. But it’s the Encyclopedia and Golem modules that really expand the decision space and give you more opportunities for clever and interesting play.

Spite: 1.5 of 5. Spite remains low in Alchemists. In fact, the only area added by the expansion is the golem action. When you take it, you also get one of a limited number of seals. So, sometimes the first player will take that action, even if it isn’t strictly necessary, just to deprive later players of a seal. Still, it’s a minor issue and doesn’t lead to hurt feelings.

Keeping track of your golem progress

Keeping track of your golem progress

Overall: 5 of 5. True, I adore the base game. But the expansion is absolutely fantastic. One of the great attributes is that it not only enlarges the breadth and depth of the game, but does so in a way that feels true to the original. This doesn’t turn Alchemists into a whole new animal, but merely takes the existing creature and gives it new bionic parts so that it can have superhero adventures. If you like Alchemists, then this is a must have expansion.

(A special thanks to CGE for providing a review copy of The King’s Golem)

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