What makes Alchemists from Czech Games Edition great? Smartphones and high school math.
The game casts each player as an alchemist competing to earn the most academic respect by investigating the nature of eight ingredients and publishing their theories.
How it works
Three of the eight actions available to players let them mix potions by combining two ingredient cards. The algorithm to determine potion result is deceptively simple. Each ingredient has red, blue and green properties. Each property can be positive or negative and big or small. Any two ingredients produce a potion according to the color that has the same polarity (positive vs. negative) and opposite size (big vs. small).
Here’s what it looks like:
Each ingredient also has an exact opposite, which will produce a useless soup. That looks like this:
The game begins when each ingredient takes on one of the eight properties. Players clearly can’t handle this process themselves. This is where the smartphone app comes in.
When players mix a potion, they snap a picture of the cards. The app tells them which of seven kinds of potions the mixture makes. The box also includes materials necessary for a non-playing person to perform this function, but there’s no reason to use it. Ever.
Each time players mix two ingredients, they get a clue. If two ingredients produce a positive green potion, then neither can have a negative green aspect. The player can cross out half of the possibilities on their guide sheet.
But Wait, There’s More
Alchemists might be playable if this were the entirety of the game, but designer Matus Kotry elevates the strategy to another level. As players begin to understand different ingredients’ natures, they can — and must — do more. Like real academics, players face pressure to publish — sometimes before they’re certain of their findings.
As an action, any player can assign one of the eight “alchemicals” (collections of three properties) to an ingredient. This gives them reputation points and the possibility of earning more reputation points. But it also allows other players to debunk their theory.
When one player debunks another player’s theory (or when it’s revealed to be wrong at the end of the game), the publishing player loses reputation unless they hedged against the incorrect aspect at the time of publication. Here, again, the app stands in for a player using simple logic.
Players can also sell potions to visiting adventurers, and, in the last round, demonstrate their mastery to the public.
When players master the “apprentice” version of the game, they can upgrade to the “master” version, which makes the starting conditions more difficult and also adds options for debunking theories.
Great, but Imperfect
For all its good, Alchemists has some flaws. The game includes artifacts players can buy to gain small bonuses, and some of these artifacts are too powerful. The Magic Mortar and Periscope border on game-breaking if players buy them on the first turn.
And the app, for all of its benefits, introduces an interesting complication: it can crash. When it does, players have to scrap their entire game unless they happen to remember the unique four-digit code assigned to their game.
But those are minor complaints that are both fixable by players (remove the over-powered artifacts, write the code at the beginning of the game). Overall, Alchmists stands as a towering success — not just as a board game, but as a standard-bearer for the new generation of app-enabled board games.