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SPIEL '17 Preview: Herbalism, or Guess for Success

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4 has six games and one expansion on its SPIEL '17 release calendar, and after the success of Hanamikoji in 2016, which I previewed on BGG News, I'll be looking closely at all of them. No, Hanamikoji was not original to EmperorS4, having first been published in Japan in 2013, but when a publisher releases something you love, you pay attention to their other choices in the hope that something else measures up.

One of EmperorS4's new releases in 2017 is Herbalism, a 3-4 player game by Eros Lin and Liu Xiao, and the only two things this game has in common with Hanamikoji is the box size and the requirement that you be supremely clever with your choices, but maybe that will be enough for you.

The gameplay is set thousands of years ago in China during the birth of herb-based medicine. As an aspiring pharmacist, you have been tasked with figuring out which herbs are required to cure sick individuals in the countryside. Strangely, though, you are competing with others to determine which herbs these are, and you all want to be secretive with the herbs you hold, lest that information help someone else more than you. I'm not sure who would be so cruel as to withhold aid that could be shared with others, but without that competitive edge, you wouldn't have much of a game, so let's roll with it.

The herbs comprise a deck of fourteen cards, and at the start of each round, two cards at random will be tucked away while each player receives a hand of 3-4 cards depending on the player count. You can take notes on these cards if you want, but no player has in the two games that I've played and I don't think notes would have aided our deduction. Of course, I might just be a terrible note-taker and deduction-maker...

You want to guess the two hidden cards, and to do this, you will receive information or cards from other players, sometimes at the cost of a card of your own. Whatever these two hidden cards are, they will match one of the seven medicine cards shown below. Note that the center card represents cards that are the same color, whatever that color happens to be. (Each color has pips underneath it to remind you how many cards of each color are in the deck.)

On a turn, a player takes one of the available actions, and these actions can differ in each game or even from round to round (if you ignore the rule about keeping the same actions throughout the entire game). The rules suggest a few different combinations of actions, with the top two in the image below being recommended for your first game:

Appealing: Place your colored marker on one of the seven medicine cards shown above, then choose a player; this player must give you all the cards they have in hand of one of the two colors on that medicine card.
Curing: Place your colored marker on one of the seven medicine cards shown above to indicate which color combination you think is on the two hidden cards. Each other player in turn can pass, follow you (by placing their "follow" marker on the same card), or provide their own answer (by placing their marker on an unoccupied medicine card). Everyone who has placed their marker then looks at the hidden cards. If everyone is incorrect, they each lose 1 point, then the game continues; if someone is correct, they receive 3 points and anyone who followed them scores 1 point while all incorrect guesses are punished.

The other actions you can use, all of which involve you first placing your marker on a medicine card and choosing an opponent, are (from left to right in the bottom row):

Inquiring: Give the opponent a face-down card matching one of the two colors on the medicine card; they look at this card, then state how many cards they hold of the other color on the medicine card.
Feeding: Give the opponent a face-down card matching one of the two colors on the medicine card; they look at this card, then give you all the cards they hold of the other color.
Brewing: If possible, the opponent must give you one card of each color on the medicine card; if they have only one color, then they give you only one card.

The central medicine card that depicts all colors has special rules for each of the actions. When curing, if you choose this medicine card, then you win as long as the two hidden cards are the same color; when brewing, the opponent must give you two cards of the same color, with them choosing the color.

If a player guesses incorrectly when curing, they take no further actions in the round, but they can still be chosen as the target for other players' actions. If only one player remains in the round due to everyone else being terrible curers, then this last player must attempt a cure on their turn. Hope they were paying attention to all of the failures!

I've played Herbalism twice on a review copy from EmperorS4, once each with three and four players, with each game lasting about five rounds. In both games, we started with appealing and curing in the first round, then something else and curing in the second round, and so on. Some of the actions are similar, but the differences do matter. With appealing in play, the cards start clumping in players' hands because someone with a blue card who's passed one more will have to pass both blue cards together; with inquiring or feeding, you can split pairs or triples to ideally divide information among your fellow players.

One thing we haven't tried yet are the prediction tokens included in Herbalism as a variant. After taking a non-curing action, a player can claim a colored prediction token that doesn't match the color of a token they already have. For each token, if this color is among the hidden cards, the player scores 1 point, regardless of what they guessed or followed; if not, they lose 1 point for this token. This system is another way for a player to share information with their opponents while (possibly) profiting from doing so.

As you might expect, the three-player game gives you more control than the four-player game because you're more frequently deciding which action is being done (once you have multiple non-curing actions) and who the target of this action is. That said, you can certainly learn information from the actions of others, and one player in my 4p experience excelled at this; at the end of a round, he would explain how he put together info gained from three other players' actions to determine what he wanted to guess as a cure.

The thing is, however, that he would often guess when he was confident of only one of the hidden cards, with a 50% chance of the other card being correct. As with many other deduction games — such as Sherlock 13, which I previewed in October 2016 — the conflict between being right and being first pulls you in opposite directions. How sure do you want to be before guessing, especially since being first gets you three times as many points as being right, but only in the wake of someone else? With four players, sometimes you just want to for it since someone among the other three players will likely guess before you do. In practice, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing since many incorrect cures were proposed, but that itch to be first still remains. Thankfully you have herbs on hand to treat that itch...
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