14 January 2015

Alchemists boardgame review

The year has just begun but I already think I've found "game of the year" candidate. While taking a trip to the hobby store for me to purchase "the Witcher: Adventure game" my girlfriend picked up "Alchemists".

Alchemists is released by CGE (Czech Games Edition) which is the publisher of another favorite of mine (and Caroline's favorite game) "DungeonLords". The artwork style and colors are similar to that game as well, so are a few other mechanics such as worker placement/resource gathering.

The game has each player take on the role of an alchemist trying to gather the most reputation at the university, outdoing his scholarly colleagues by unlocking the secret alchemical formula that make up the 8 different ingredients in the game and then publish their findings to earn scholarly acknowledgement. Just like Dungeon Lords this game plays 2-4 players, however you don't use "AI players" to fill up the seats if you play below the maximum number of players. Having played the game some 12 times since we bought it (a week ago!) I can say that it works very well for 2 players.

The game spans 6 turns, and the player with the most reputation points towards the end is the winner. Each turn players place small "work cubes" on the board in locations where they want to do their actions. The turn order is decided by the players themselves as they place "turn order tokens" on a track. The further down on the track you place your turn order token the more "freebee" resources you will receive, however that will at the same time punish you since player higher up on the track will be able to place their work cubes on the board before you.

Each location on the board has a limited number of spaces for work cubes, and furthermore, players placing first also act first - which is often a huge advantage as you may cherry pick resources in the forest or be the first one to sell potions to adventurers, buy items or test new concoctions on your students!

The game sequence and locations on the board are played in this very order:

1 Placing turn order token on the turn order track to determine who will be placing cubes on the board first, and then you pick up any "freebee" resources.

2 The first player places ALL his cubes on any locations of his/her desire. Then the second player places all of his/her cubes and so on - starting with ....

The FOREST where you gather resources. 5 ingredients are placed face up at the start of each turn, you can also pick random ingredients from the ingredient deck if you don't want to pick any of the face up ones or if there are none left to pick. Ingredients are mixed with one another in order to deduct their alchemical formula so that you can publish theories on the subject and earn reputation. You will need 2 ingredients at any time when you are mixing potions and deducting the result.

The SAGE allows you to transmute 1 ingredient to 1 gold coin.

The SELL POTION TO ADVENTURER location allows up to 3 players to sell one of three potions each to a random adventurer. Adventurers have their favorite potions and the better you can comply to their demands the more gold they will pay you. You need to offer them a guarantee before you sell a potion, and this ranges from "Exact match" to "Something in a bottle". This location is great for early game testing of potions if you don't mind the risk of getting paid less and potential loss of reputation.

The MERCHANT location allows players to buy a rare artifact, these provide end game reputation bonuses as well as in-game bonus effects that are very valuable.

The DEBUNK THEORY location allows a player to debunk a published theory of an opposing player if you can prove that the published theory is wrong. A successful debunking gives you reputation and the debunked player loses reputation. You can also "counter publish" your own correct theory ahead of the other players located in the PUBLISH THEORY location should your debunking be valid.

The PUBLISH THEORY location is where players go if they know, or if they think they know, or if they just want to make everyone else think that they know, the correct formula for one ingredient of their choice. Publishing theories provide you with a reputation boost for the publishing alone as well as points for a correct theory at the end of the game. However should your theory be wrong then you will lose reputation at the end of the game! Players who placed work cubes in this location can also endorse a theory, no need to know the correct answer - but if you endorse something that end up being wrong then you lose reputation at the end of the game. Also, publishing theories about ingredients that belong to the same "group" will earn you a grant from the university for your dedication. This earns you additional reputation points at the end of the game as well as some gold.

TEST POTION ON STUDENT is what it sounds like, you mix ingredients and try the effects on a student. If the result is positive or neutral nothing more happens. Should a negative potion be mixed however then the student demands money to continue drinking your concotions and has to be paid 1 gold coin per potion thereafter.

Finally there is the DRINK POTION space. Running out of options, or money, you may end up having to drink your own concoctions and find out the effects yourself. If they are negative you can be punished by losing reputation (for running naked through the streets after drinking an insanity potion or becoming paralyzed and have to place work cubes last in the next turn.
Now this in itself may not sound super exciting, but the game has a very nice and clean deduction mechanic which uses random attributes for ingredients by having players use an app (free for Android/iOS/PC )that randomizes everything at the start of each new game. The use of the app is wonderfully well integrated with the gameplay and only one device is needed for all players to use. What you do is that you have your "deduction" triangle and a "deduction sheet", these show all possible mixes and matches that you can make with all 8 ingredients.

You then pick 2 ingredients in secret, mix them, show the result to the other players so everyone can see what result you got, and then fill in the result on your deduction sheet and triangle. For instance if you would mix a Frog and a Root you may end up with a Red + potion. You would put a Red + token on your deduction triangle, and cross over all Red - spaces on your deduction sheet since you would know that neither ingredient has a dominant Red - attribute.  Should both ingredients be the perfect opposite of each other you put a neutral token in your deduction triangle. This will allow you to figure out what the attribute of both ingredients is down the road.

After a few experiments using the same ingredient crossed with a couple of others you will be able to tell the exact makeup of, for instance, the Frog. Being certain of the attribute you should be quick to publish a theory of it, since someone else may guess that the Frog is a different mix of attributes and then you will first have to debunk a theory before publishing your own.

This may all sound a bit confusing and truth to be told Alchemists is just as complicated to learn in one go as Dungeon Lords ever was. This is a game where all players need to know everything before you begin to make it a fair competition. But once you know how the deduction system of the game works it is a very fast paced and fun game that flows incredibly well.

The more you play the better you get on deduction, and you may start playing advanced guessing games to outpublish your opponents, take full advantage of the publications of opposing players to cross-reference with your own deduction sheet and theories in progress etc.

Having played 12 or so games Caroline commented on wanting to have "one more step". That she felt that mixing and deducting potion attributes felt like the first stepping stone and that she would have wanted maybe one additional thing to do with the information you get out of it. And while I can agree
somewhat with that thought I also believe that the game is written in this particular way to allow players to get a full grip of the deduction mechanic. Once you know exactly how it works, then it will be a test of wits where you try to outpublish and outguess your opponents at a much earlier stage and faster pace that you would in your early games when you wanted to be absolutely sure you had everything right before publishing theories. 

At any rate, this is seriously a very good game - a bonus is that it does not take many minutes to setup and you can play a 2 player game in roughly 1 hour once you get the hang of it and a few games under your belt.

Shortcomings of the game is the need for the app, though as I said it is free and available for all operative systems/devices. There is actually an attribute randomizer triangle that can be used to preset everything manually, but this requires one additional non-player to keep track of the ingredient attributes and in all respects act as a "human version" of the app whenever people are mixing ingredients.

Alchemists has quickly become one of my favorite games, and certainly the one game that has seen most playthroughs in the past year despite only being in my collection for about a week!

The score: Alchemists a logic driven game where the victory/defeat is more based upon your own skills
I say 9/10
Caroline says 8/10

(and as a bonus our score for Dungeon Lords)
Dungeon Lords a game that revolves more around planning your actions, but where victory/defeat has a larger percentage of "chance" to it during the core action planning sequence.
I say 8/10
Caroline says 8,5/10


  1. Oh my! A game of scientific research & publishing (well, close enough)! I have been looking for something like this (and scribbling some ideas) for a while. The mix of boardgame and digital app is also interesting.

    1. There are some good youtube videos of this game if you are interested to see how it works, if you are on the fence whether or not to buy it :-)


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