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Weird Science – Potion Explosion Review

As I listened to various gaming blogs over the summer (yup, that’s how I spent my holidays!) the name of a certain game kept being mentioned, normally in the same sentence as “fun”.  That game was Potion Explosion, and I gladly grabbed the opportunity to play it when it finally came up for review.  After all, who could possibly resist the idea of a game that comes not only with a huge bag of marbles, but also a large build-it-yourself marble dispenser?  This all seemed like bright and colourful fun, perfect for filling a gap in the collection when the idea of being a Renaissance glass blower in Florence is somehow less appealing than being a young wizard.

Wizards?  Sounds familiar!

Oh, right – a young wizard.  Excuse me while I nod off for a bit…  Well, it may not be quite as ubiquitous as Cthulhu, which is everywhere at the moment, but wizardry and mages are in nearly every corner of your friendly local and online game stores, from the deep and intense to the light and frothy.  Thankfully, though, Potion Explosion does something slightly different, and manages to do it with wit and humour as well.

Potion Explosion Board Game

Humour from the moment you look at the box.

That much is apparent from the moment you look at the box, which is colourful and cartoony, while the components are of really great quality.  Despite Potion Explosion being a game which should easily appeal to children you might have to get them to leave the room while their mummies and daddies construct and then play with the marble dispenser.  Once built this dispenser is a thing of beauty, but the building process itself can involve a decent dose of pushing, shoving and maybe some grown-up words for good measure.  It is worth it for the finished result, though, and like me you’ll probably sit there for a while just popping marbles in, watching them roll out, popping them back in… I think you get the picture.  The various other components are good quality stuff, with a big pile of potions, and there is also a handy diagram of how to store everything in the box once everything has been assembled and punched.  CMON have also thoughtfully supplied some spare marbles in case some of yours roll away or your house elf makes off with some of them.

Potion Explosion Board Game

The dispenser – with marbles!!!

Rules?  Fun and frothy!

The rule book is a joy from start to finish – brief, to the point, full of illustrations, humour and witticisms that will appeal to children and make adults chuckle as well.  Nods to Potter (Harry not Brian) are everywhere, with titles in faux Latin and a helpful wizard (Albertus Humblescore) to guide you through your first steps.  Flavour text is sharp and to the point, and it all goes to make a rule book that – rarest of things – draws you in and makes you want to read it.  The marbles are not marbles, you see, they are things like Fairy Dandruff and Dragon Smoke (“from sustainable sources…formed into one of the 20 red marbles in this box and left to cool down”), and the potions have names such as Filter Of Lavamancing (“not a surgical strike type of thing, but undeniably powerful”).  Potion Explosion is clearly intended to be fun, and it reminds me of the kind of wit you find in the rules for Dungeon Petz, even though this is much the simpler game, and it all helps to draw players into the experience and bring the theme to life.

Potion Explosion Board Game

Faux Latin in the rules is a nice touch – so far, so Potter.

So why the potions?  Why the explosions?

In Potion Explosion you and your fellow players are young wizards facing the final exams of the Potions class, and you need to collect the ingredients needed to put your concoctions together, striving to make potions that are more valuable than those of your fellow students…and this is where all those lovely marbles come in.  There are eight types of potions supplied in the game box, but only six are used in any game, so while each session of Potion Explosion offers something slightly different, you more or less know what you are going to get.  Only the Elixir Of Blind Love allows you to interfere with another player’s marbles (stop giggling at the back!), so you could always choose to leave it out when playing with younger children or more sensitive and vengeful adults – otherwise interaction happens only over the dispenser.

How to mix the potion?  Crash those marbles!

The potions are completed by collecting and assembling the appropriate marbles from the dispenser, but the trick in collecting marbles is that if you manage to get two of the same colour to collide they will “explode”, and you get to collect both of them and any marbles of the same colour that are connected to them.  It is very Candy Crush (so I’m told), but it makes for some massive combos where players can end up with a huge handful of marbles.  Once collected, these go onto the matching coloured spaces on your potions and you can place leftover marbles onto your flask for later, while any marbles that will not fit go back into the dispenser at the end of your turn.  You can also ask the Professor for help, which allows you to take any single marble, but there is a two point penalty doing this, and no explosions are triggered.

Potion Explosion Board Game

It’s all about completing these potions.

When a potion is complete it is worth points, but also comes with a one-off ability that may be used at any time.  Complete three potions of a kind, or any five different types of potion and you also get to collect a four-point bonus tile.  These are limited in number, based on the player count, and also act as the trigger for the end of the game, as when the last one is taken play continues until everybody has had an equal number of turns.  The final scoring is the total value of completed potions, plus bonus tiles, minus points forfeited for asking for help from the Professor.

Family fun?  Or flimsy fluff?

Potion Explosion seems to be aimed firmly at the family market, and hits the target pretty much in the middle.  There is enough space for players to craft clever moves and pull off combos if they want to, but it can also be played at a lighter level, as a quick and worthy alternative to the more snoozeworthy traditional offerings out there.  I had thought that the marbles would all roll away merrily during a game, but they sit well in the holes on the potions and, seven plays in, we have yet to lose one.  The potions themselves, while beautifully designed, are admittedly a pain to shuffle, but once the game is set up it ticks along at a decent pace, and for all their tricksiness to set up the potions look great.

Well, to be a little more precise the pace of the game is decent as long as you are not playing with somebody who thinks long and hard about the ramifications of every single move.  Our first games of Potion Explosion were light and quick, but the more we explored it the more it became like some bizarre and highly colourful version of chess, as two grandmasters slugged it out, chins resting on hands, before finally going for some complex and intricate move, designed to sidestep their opponent and lure them into a mistake.  As players’ knowledge of Potion Explosion increases it becomes clear that the key to doing well is to match up abilities to potions and marbles in a way that allows you to pull off some massive turns, but this can make for some long waits at higher player counts.

Potion Explosion Board Game

Link the potions’ abilities to pull off huge combos!

Which potion to pick?  The obvious one!

What we found much less involving was that choosing a new potion to brew from the selection available quickly became a question of simply picking the one worth the most points, and I found this aspect of the game to be a slight disappointment.  You just know that you will probably be able to complete it sooner or later, and any associated bonus becomes just that – a bonus – but I was hoping for a more nuanced range of variables to consider when picking out what to brew next.

Potion Explosion Board Game

Tokens are thematic and easy to use.

Regarding the hidden depth, though, I must admit that this was not something I had expected after our first plays, that a game presumably aimed as a light filler could offer up such an intense (and colourful!) two-player experience.  My initial impression was of a game that would be worthy of a visit to the table every couple of months or so, but I am glad to say that I have found more to it than meets the eye and, while delightful and frothy with a group of young players, it becomes something else when played head to head with an experienced gamer and is tasty enough bait to lure in a new gamer as well.

Does it have the sweet smell of success?  I think so!

Potion Explosion Board Game

Somehow it all fits back into the box – just!

Many people, though, will prefer something else for their wizardry, and those games are already out there, of course, so Potion Explosion needs to be considered mainly as a light filler.  It reminds me in many ways of Parfum, in which players gather ingredients to make and then sell perfumes, but where Parfum is merely about making and selling (and frustratingly light) it is the ability to use your creations in Potion Explosion that sets it at least a notch or two higher than Queen Games‘ fragrant offering, especially as it at least matches the level of component quality we have come to expect from Queen.  Crucially, an expansion for Potion Explosion has already been announced for 2017 that includes a fifth ingredient and new types of potions, so my concerns about the limited variability in the base box look like they should be alleviated by the new material.  Often I can tell how much I like a game by how interested I am in an expansion, and here it is a definite case of Potion Explosion 1 – Parfum 0.

Worth your money?  Or just a pile of coloured balls?

I would be pretty happy to recommend Potion Explosion to those looking for a light famliy filler with the possibility of offering something more gritty but for one factor.  Thanks to all the top quality components and the marbles this game is very much on the expensive side for what it offers, and there are other games out there that do something similar, sometimes better, but promise to do so at a much lower initial expense.  Other games at Potion Explosion’s price point tend to offer significantly more in terms of long-term gameplay, or at least a box full of broken plastic miniatures, so this is a big barrier to those looking to play the game…but you do get those lovely marbles and the dispenser.

There’s no denying, though, that Potion Explosion is colourful and fun, and that in the right mood you could say that you more or less get what you pay for.  For light gamers it is a great experience as it is, while for those who like to think a little more deeply once the little ones have gone to bed it is a pretty handy two player game as well, more engrossing than you might think.  It has been well received by everybody I have played it with, and the marks given have gravitated to a narrow range, but, for all the fun it offers, it is difficult to ignore that Potion Explosion is expensive and that you will probably want the expansion as well when it comes out.  My other half awarded it a solid 8, and it is something she will suggest and play, which makes it a success in our house.  Even ignoring the price, the lack of genuine variability in the base box means that I give it a 7 out of 10, but it is an entertaining game, and worth trying, especially if you can magically persuade a rich and kindly wizard to invest in it on your behalf.

4.5 (90%) 2 votes
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.