Those of you who have been following the blog lately will have seen that I posted a list of the ten games I was most looking forward to out of Essen.
Following what sounds like an extremely exciting and eventful trip to Essen, Nigel has very kindly sent me some fantastic titles to play and review.
For the first of my post-Essen reviews I’m going to look at a title that I was really excited about! In fact, I was so interested in this game that it came in at number one on my list of titles to watch out for!
I am, of course, talking about the fascinating title – Alchemists – published by Czech Games Edition (CGE) and designed by Matúš Kotry.
CGE are famous for their amazing range of published titles including Galaxy Trucker, Dungeon Lords, Space Alert, Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar and Through the Ages: A Story of Civilisation. This years big release, Alchemists, seems to have been every bit as successful as their previous releases, if not more so.
Selling out at Essen within just two days, you can’t imagine how happy I am that Nigel managed to grab some copies and let me have one for this review! CGE are currently reprinting the game but until they’re ready, copies of Alchemist are few and far between.
What’s in the box??? An Alchemists Toolkit!!!
One of the first things you’ll notice, when you get your hands on Alchemists, is the weight of the beautifully designed package. For a title that comes in a Ticket to Ride size box, it’s got a shed load of bits in it and has some beautiful artwork, in fact, every component in the game has a certain beauty to it!
There’s a main board where players choose actions that they’ll be taking during the planning and taking actions stages of a round.
There’s the theory or publications board where you’ll be publishing theories about different ingredients.
There’s a personal board for each Alchemist, where you keep your gold.
Then there’s your personal laboratories! The big, impressive, labs with a large mixing cauldron and your very own personal research area!
Are You a Digital Alchemist??? Or a Dungeon Master???
One of the interesting elements of Alchemists is the use of smartphones to augment the game. Taking advantage of the ever-pervasive technology in our pockets, Alchemists joins the recently released Golem Arcana and the soon to be released XCOM: The Board Game as part of a growing number of digital/table-top hybrid games.
However, all you technophobes out there need not worry! If you get hold of a copy of Alchemists you don’t have to use the technology-based enhancements! The game comes with a games-master board that lets a human player set up the game and provide the other players with all of the information that the digital application automates.
What’s the downside to this GM approach? Well, for a start it’s fiddly compared to the free app that CGE provide. In comparison, it seems to add more time to the game that you just don’t need at all. It also means that one player has very little to do during the game and misses out on the far more interesting and fun elements of play. I really recommend using the app to get the most out of your copy of Alchemists.
Alchemists Deal in Alchemy!!! Not Technological Witchcraft!!!
I’ve heard several people comment that they don’t want to pass their phones around to other players… Well they don’t have to… It’s just an option…
You can also use the free app on multiple devices! One player starts a new game in the app and receives a code that they give to the other players. These players then use their own devices and their own copies of the app to enter the code and join the same game as the other players!
When I say join the game, what I mean is – connect to the hidden information that all players in that game are trying to uncover! The app keeps the information hidden from players and only divulges certain elements based on the different experiments they perform during the game!
Uncovering information??? What Sort of Game is Alchemists???
Usually, this far into a blog post, I would have explained what the game involves, but with Alchemists, there’s just so much to cover! The aim of the game is to become the Alchemist with the best reputation. To do this, you need to earn reputation points. To earn these points, you need to publish theories!
Primarily – Alchemists is a deduction game. There’s a number of ingredients, each ingredient corresponds to a unique alchemist’s chemical, or Alchemical, that itself is made up of three elements, one red, one blue and one green.
Players mix two of these ingredients together to make a potion. This is where the app comes into play! You can take the two ingredients you want to mix, place them on your cauldron and use the scan feature in the app to scan the ingredients into it. When the ingredients have been scanned the app asks you to confirm the mix and tells you what type of potion you made.
My phone is old and slow, plus the lighting in the games room is poor, so unfortunately I struggled with the scan feature. But not to worry! The guys at CGE have thought of everything and you can manually select the ingredients in the app.
The mixing process is done in private and only the player who mixed the ingredients knows what went into the potion. However, all players get to see what kind of potion you made.
The different types of potion are:
- White (Neutralized)
- Red Positive
- Red Negative
- Blue Positive
- Blue Negative
- Green Positive
- Green Negative
The deduction elements of the game might be a little complex for first time gamers, however the rulebook does a good job of explaining, and walking you through, the fundamentals!
I won’t go into any great detail here, but a simple example of how you might eliminate an alchemical from the list of possible alchemicals an ingredient represents is if you were to create a green positive potion.
A green positive potion tells you that both of the alchemicals that you mixed, had a green positive element. Which in turn, means that you can eliminate any Alchemical with a green negative element as a possibility for both ingredients.
An Alchemist Never Forgets!!! Can You Keep Good Records!!!
The following image shows the grid that each player has hidden behind their lab screen. This is where they record the results of their experiments. You use these results to deduce which of the ingredients represents which of the Alchemicals. As a player uncovers different clues they record their thoughts and suspicions on a handy printed grid just like the one you see at the bottom of the photo.
Essentially, each column represents an ingredient, and each row represents and alchemical. When you work out that a particular ingredient isn’t a particular alchemical, you cross it out where the column and row intersect. The neutral potions can also be used to further your deductions but that’s far more advanced than I’m going to go into in this review.
Not Just a Pretty Face!!! Alchemists Live for Action!!!
Secondary to the deduction element of the game, there’s an action or worker placement element. At the start of each round the Alchemists determine play order and then proceed to use their action cubes to claim different actions from the main board. The available actions are:
- Forage for ingredients – This lets you take a number of ingredients equal to the number of actions cubes you assign to the action space, up to three.
- Transmute ingredients – for one action cube you can discard one ingredient and take a gold coin. If you want to do it for a second time in a single turn, you pay a further two action cubes to discard another ingredient and take second coin.
- Sell potions to adventurers – There’s always an adventurer looking for a potion. Each turn has a different adventurer who wants different potions. You can use your ingredients to mix potions and make money. You can even offer quality guarantees, for example you might guarantee that the potion is exactly what they have asked for which, if you deliver, the adventurer will pay you well for. Alternatively you can offer lower levels of guarantee, each of which earning you less money if you manage to deliver to that standard.
- Purchase an Artefact – You can use your precious gold to buy a number of artefacts from the local vendor. These provide certain game advantages and or reputation points so they might be worth grabbing as the game progresses!
- Debunk theories – As I said earlier, you’ll earn reputation points by publishing theories. However your theories might not be right. The debunk theories action lets you challenge a theory that someone has previously published and if you successfully debunk it you will gain reputation points.
- Publish theories – This action costs you gold but it lets you publish a theory on which you apply your personal seal of approval. The seals you apply are secret and score you points at the end of the game if your theory was correct and you used a point scoring seal. Other seals hedge your bets against failure, you have to choose wisely when you apply these! You should also note that other players can use this action to support existing theories. To do this they apply their own personal seals to the theory. At the end of the game the different seals are revealed and reputation points are scored based on successful research and publication.
- Test a potion on a student – This is one of the actions that let you mix potions. If you take this action and mix a negative potion, the student becomes more cautious and will only let you test your crazy concoctions on him if you also give him gold.
- Drink a potion yourself – Sometimes you won’t be able to afford to test on a student, and testing on yourself will never cost you gold. However, if you create a negative potion when you test on yourself then you receive a penalty such as being the last person on the player order track for the next turn, losing a reputation point, or ending up in hospital and losing an action cube for the next turn.
- Exhibit your potions – This action is only available in the final round and replaces the test and drink potion actions. This is your chance to mix specific potions for your peers and let them heap praise and reputation points on your successes. You don’t have to take part in the exhibition, but there’s reputation points up for grabs so why wouldn’t you?
As you can probably tell, there’s quite a lot going on in this game, especially on the action selection side of things. I’d even forgive you for thinking that I’d made a mistake by suggesting that the action selection is secondary to the deduction element of the game! However, I stand by that belief!
Deduction is the heart and soul of this game! The big points are earned by publishing theories that prove to be correct. You can only arrive at those theories by experimenting and deducing the true nature of the ingredients. Without this fun logic-puzzle element to the game, Alchemists would be nothing more than yet another, albeit pretty, action selection game.
Alchemists of the World Unite!!! It’s Judgement Day!!!
So, I’ve talked about the game and what kind of things you can get up to while you play. However, there’s a bunch more things in there that I just haven’t had time to explain:
- Advanced deduction elements
- A set of cards that grant you favours
- Alchemist conferences that occur every few rounds
- Grants for publishing theories
- Rules that provide different difficulty gameplay
It’s all there in the rulebook, and it all adds to the magic of the game. If you do decide to grab a copy then you’ll see exactly how each of these elements boosts and enhances it!
So, hopefully, I’ve given you enough information to make a decision as to whether this is a game that appeals to you. But now it’s time to tell you what I think of it!
First off, I’ve been watching this one for a long time and was obviously quite enthusiastic about playing it. Now, after my disappointment with Dead of Winter I was concerned that Alchemists was going to be hyped up in my mind and wouldn’t live up to my expectations.
However, after playing the game, I think it’s safe to say that I am very pleased with it and believe it to be one of the most entertaining games to come out of Essen. Simply put, it deserved the first place position on my watch list!
Here’s a list of the Pro’s and Con’s that I have for the game:
- Fantastic looking components
- Interesting and beautiful artwork
- Great mix of euro and deduction mechanics that I’d not seen together before
- Clever use of technology to augment the game
- Well-written rulebook
- The board on which you keep track of the potions you mix is not as good as it first seems. You build the screen at the start of the game and you have to put a token for each potion into a round hole in the board as the game progresses. Unfortunately the tokens don’t fit in the holes properly, so you end up balancing them in as best you can. During the game I was constantly worried that I might knock them out of the board and forget what research I’d already done. So, I chose to remove the rack from the main screen and simply lay it down behind the screen. Problem solved!
- If you’re a technophobe and don’t want to use the app, then I think the GM will likely become slightly bored.
In Conclusion… Alchemists Gets Two of Tom’s Thumbs Up
As far as deduction games go, this has shot to the top for me. Previously, I would have said it was Letters from Whitechapel, but to be honest I’d currently rather play Alchemists! Only time will tell if this will remain true, but for now I’m quite happy experimenting on students and debunking theories rather than chasing a psychopath through the street of London!
I love the theme that drives Alchemists and really enjoyed just looking at some of the artwork. The premise put me in mind of Rincewind and the Wizards found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. There’s enough theme to keep you entertained time and again and, assuming you can get your head round the concept of mixing the different Alchemicals you should get on with it just fine.
The thing that impressed me the most about Alchemists was the clever mix of euro and deduction game mechanics and how they complimented the theme. You can’t do well on the euro side without doing well in the deduction side and vice versa. There’s simply a very nice balance to this and you have to get it just right to ensure you don’t publish your reputation-building theories too late!
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post, if you’re even remotely intrigued by what I’ve explained here then I recommend you give the game a try, and if you have any comments or questions then please leave them in the comments section below.
Check back again soon for my next post in which I’ll be discussing another great Essen game!
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Driven Instructional Designer by day, board game fanatic by night! Tom has a long background in eLearning design and is a strong believer that story and narrative are crucial to creating excellent learning and gaming experiences. A passionate blogger, game reviewer and play tester, he enjoys spending his time playing games of all genres.