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Subject: Think like an Alchemist rss

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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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"So what's the game about?"
"You play an alchemist creating potions."
"Cool, what do I need to create a potion?"
"You decide which ingredients to use."
"Er... OK, what do I get from creating a potion?"
"You decide how many victory points you get."
"Right. Did you bring any other games?"

Are dialogues like this to blame for the low rating of Alchemist? Perhaps, because just like the real alchemists had no recipes to follow, there is no scripted gameplay that the players of Alchemist can follow. Yet, the entire game is a well-oiled machine where ingredients seamlessly flow between players and potions while everybody desperately tries to extract as many victory points as possible. But let's start from the beginning.

Alchemist is a sadly underrated game by the relatively unknown designer Carlo A. Rossi. It's likely to fall out of the top 2000 at BGG soon together with games like Star Munchkin. Yet Alchemist was awarded a Spiel des Jahres recommendation in 2007. So why don't people like it?

Reading comments about Alchemist, some gamers praise the solid and interesting mechanisms while even more claim that it's broken (did they play it right?), free of meaningful decisions (except that the players decide everything?) and too long (45 minutes?). Yet of the many games I brought to a game weekend recently, this was the game that everybody wanted to play over and over again. Alchemist is really that good and addictive. It's my sincere hope that this humble review will tell why and help finding new fans to this unknown gem.

The rules are very simple. There are five different ingredient colors that can be used to create up to ten potions. Each potion generates exactly two ingredients of pre-determined colors but it's up to the player creating the potion to determine the number and colors of ingredients to use and how much victory points to get for creating it. The catch is that while you only get the victory points once, each other player can copy your recipe by using the similar ingredients over and over again.

Ingredients used in this way are dicarded with the exception of one that is given to the creator of the potion. This will gradually decrease the number of available ingredients and once three or more colors are depleted, the game ends.

As an extra challenge, each player has a secret color and the more the ingredients of your color that have been used in the game, the greater is your end game bonus.

Alchemist mid-game. Most potions have been created and the players try to find the optimal copying order. By jumping between the 6 potion and 10 potion and getting occasional blue ingredients when my own recipe was copied, I eventually claimed the victory.

This gameplay creates many interesting decisions.

1. Should you create a "cheap" potion that the other players will want to copy over and over again so that you get more ingredients?
2. Should you create an "expensive" potion to deny the other players the victory points from copying it?
3. Should you use your secret color as ingoing ingredient, so that it's more likely to be discarded, or as outgoing ingredient, so that it's more likely to be used by the other players?
4. Which of the other players' potions should you copy and in which order to ensure that you always have the ingredients you need?
5. Which secret colors do the other players have and how do you ensure that they stay in the game?
6. When is the right time to deplete a color and end the game?

The game board with its ten potions may seem limited but the huge number of possible ingredient combinations creates a unique "ingredient economy" in each game. Some games may see cheap potions that reward copying players while other games may see expensive potions that reward creating players. Certain colors may be abundant while others may be scarce.

Understanding the current game's balance is crucial to play for victory but gaining this understanding before the game comes to an end is very difficult. Gamers may feel that they are too dependent on other players' choices to form a strategy but personally I like this high degree of interaction. Perhaps Alchemist in this respect is similar to games like Container (a game I really want to play but that's hard to find), where the game conditions are completely in the hands of the players.

In my own sessions, I have been very successful in getting my secret color out of the game but there is no single strategy that can achieve this, only careful observation of how colors flow through the game and adapting your strategy to that.

A completed game of Alchemist also invites to retrospective discussions. The board is open to everybody and everybody can follow how the players have mixed their potions. Why did you value your potion like that? How did you manage to constantly get the ingredients you needed? Was that your secret color all the time? Alchemist leaves no player unengaged.

The only thing I can find to criticize is the weird choice of colors: yellow cubes are used for orange ingredients and orange cubes for red ingredients. Get used to it and get on with it.

Others may also find the game too abstract and the theme pasted on and I agree that I never feel like I'm mixing troll eyes and bird legs. However, I really enjoy pushing in cubes of some colors and getting out cubes of other colors while planning which ones I need the next few turns and which ones I want out of the game. I may not feel like an Alchemist but I certainly think like an Alchemist!

This review was also published at The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews by Gamers for Gamers.
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