A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Return of the packomaniac: Alchemist

Alchemist by Carlo A. Rossi is the very first board game I bought for myself after finding the board game players at the university. Previously I only owned two board games: chess (which actually came in a box of four traditional games, of which only chess and checkers have ever been played, I think) and Around the World in 80 Days, which I have played only a few times since buying it sometime in the beginning of the 21st century. That was mostly due to having no one to play board games with at the time - might have thought about that before buying it and used the money on a console game or something - and partly to the fact that the game itself wasn't too interesting even when I finally got to play it. Alchemist then again was a genius purchase on my part, if I do say so myself. I got it on a reasonable discount, which was probably the only reason I was even buying games at that time. The choice of buying this game over all the rest available in the local friendly neighbourhood gaming store was based solely on the beautiful picture the box sports on its front, as seen in the photograph below:

As tokenomania goes, Alchemist does not have much of contents to speak of: there's the board (which is pretty), the rules booklet, the ingredients cubes in five different colours and their respective cardboard cards, the black Oracle bag used for the random selection of ingredients during the game, five cardboard screens, then some additional wooden tokens for the players to keep track of themselves and their scores on the board, as well as small cardboard pieces with mystical numbers on them, signifying scores. Packing the game is a real breeze, as there's plenty of extra room in the box.

The premise of the game is that of a contest between 2-5 schools of alchemy. Each school has send one of their students (i.e. the players) to take part in the contest. Each school has their own special ingredient, so in the beginning of the game, each player receives an ingredient card, which signifies their school's special ingredient. The players' job is to brew potions and accrue points, using the available ingredients, all the while trying to secretly promote the use of the ingredient depicted in their own card - at the end of the game players receive bonus points if their ingredient has been used a lot during the game. In a five player game, for instance, the player whose ingredient has been used the most gains 12 extra points, the next one three less, and so on, so these final points can decide the winner if the scores stay even enough during play.

The five ingredients are depicted by coloured cubes: orange is for troll eyes, grey for crow feet, yellow for spiders, blue for mushrooms and green for dragon's blood. With fewer players, all the five ingredients are still used, but a set amount of them are removed from play, so the game doesn't drag on for too long. The cubes present a few problems: counting them is a pain, and you need to count them even if all of them are used, as a set amount is put into a visible reserve near the edge of the board and the remainder (if none are removed) is put into the Oracle bag for a random selection reserve. Another problem is with the colours orange and yellow, which are always confusing everyone. Also, I myself like to sort out the cubes at the end of a game, so that a new game can be begun efficiently - and that always takes some time, even if all players are the kind who actually stay to help you to put the game away after the game. The cardboard screens are also somewhat flimsy and prone to fall over and reveal all of your secrets, while being quite small and prone to reveal all of your secrets, anyway.

The board, as has been mentioned before, is really pretty and by far the best thing about this whole game. It has a scoring track encircling it, along with some nice artistic touches around the edges (pun intended). The actual game is played in the ten cauldrons depicted in the middle. 

First of all, each cauldron has three squares above them: two of these depict the ingredients a player gains when she brews a potion in this cauldron - in this case one grey and one blue. These ingredients are also one that may NOT be used in this particular cauldron to brew a potion, so one can only use up to three different colours per cauldron. The empty square between the ingredient pictures is for the score of the potion; when a player brews a potion she is also required to choose a score for it from one to ten and place the score on the empty square. The rule of the thumb is that you choose a high score for a difficult potion and a low score for an easy potion, but in reality there are no real restrictions. 

Into the cauldron go the ingredients, for which there are five spots - a player may use one or all of them, whichever they prefer. In the rules there is a rule which forbids one from using more than two of the same ingredient, but successful games have been played where this rule has been completely ignored without ruining the mechanics of the game. Into the round space the player needs to put one of her round, coloured tokens, which are also used to track the scores on the edge of the board. The colour of the token signifies for the rest of the game who has made this particular potion.

When a potion or a few have been brewed, the real game begins. As mentioned, there are only ten cauldrons on the board, and once each of them has been filled, they cannot be altered for the rest of the game. The game then proceeds into the copy-paste mode, where each player must needs copy a potion made by a rival (you may not copy your own potions), receiving the reward ingredients and the scores from them as if having created them by themselves, but each time they need to set the ingredients they use for the potion aside, paying one ingredient of their own choice to the original brewer of the potions as tax. So the beauty of this game is, that if you create the highest scoring potion, you can only score that amount of points once, whereas the other players can score them multiple times during the game; if you make an easy potion people are more likely to copy it, hence gaining you tax ingredients a plenty; or you can influence the use of your school's ingredient by the type of potions you brew for the others to copy. As the points range only from one to ten each round, most often the players stay quite close to each other on the score track, but a few successful high-scoring potions can put you in a respectable lead too.

Each player picks out their starting ingredients randomly, so sometimes one may end up with pretty useless colours; or if one keeps copying high-cost potions but receiving no tax, one may run out of ingredients altogether. That's why you can also pick ingredients behind  your screen during the game: you can pick one ingredient from the visible reserves (so that everyone sees what you're getting) or you may take two random ingredients from the Oracle bag, so long as there are ingredients still left in the bag. Taxing gives you one ingredient per copied potion, and you always receive the two reward ingredients from brewing or copying a potion, too, so if all goes well, you might not need to use turns to pick ingredients at all.

All in all, I'm very fond of this game and I play it still quite often, despite it being among the oldest games I own. It is simple to teach to new players, people grasp the idea behind it quickly, yet there is challenge even for familiar players, as there are many things one should (or could) take into account during play. The amount of players is 2-5, of which four or five is best, I think. The game doesn't last for too long either, especially if people don't plan their strategy overly much, but concentrate on playing the game. I myself like to plan ahead a couple turns, maybe, if I can. But even the best plans can be overturned by some surprise tax returns, so there's always room for improvisation too.

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