Alchemists, also known as The Other Board Game With A Smartphone App, is all about chemistry. Y’know, sort of. Strictly speaking, it’s about alchemy, and I’m sure any self-respecting chemist could speak some stern words about how they’re different, even if those words amounted to so much whiffle and puff to the rest of us.
However, Alchemists is about chemistry in the sense that you take some ingredients, set up an experiment to combine them, get your results, and then still not have much of an idea what’s going on. At least not yet. It’s a game where you’ll complete a long-awaited mixture — say, mandrake root and red scorpions combine to make paralysis potions — then quietly jot down a note and chew on the back of your pencil for a bit, wondering how the hell you’re going to publish a paper about that underwhelming factoid, let alone make a fortune or get famous from it.
Welcome to academia.
At first glance Alchemists looks like just one more worker placement game. Each morning sees its alchemists jockeying for position at the laboratory: do you stop to help out some townsfolk in exchange for favors, gather ingredients for the day’s experiments, or just sprint off to work for an early start? From there, you allocate your time, maybe picking herbs in the forest, selling spurious potions to adventurers, visiting the artifact shop to peruse the latest alchemical gear, or just feeding potions to students to figure out what on earth those different combinations of herbs and animal parts make. You can even decide to chug your mixtures yourself if you lack the cash to pay students who have gone disgruntled from being fed one too many insanity potions. With any luck, you won’t end up paralyzed in bed or running around town without pants.
Whether the risk of baring your bottom is worth it is a matter of debate. Nothing is so important to a serious alchemist as their reputation. A well-regarded professional, for example, can guarantee their potions and earn more money from discerning adventurers who don’t want to end up poisoned at the precise moment they reach for a potion of wisdom. On the other hand, fame brings the possibility of decline, every embarrassment or failed mixture transformed into utter scandal — whereas if you’re a bit crap, nobody kicks up a fuss when you sell a sorceress some bland frog stew instead of a vial of healing.
It’s a colorful setting, full of humorously drawn characters, silly actions, and lots of room to laugh at your own mistakes. Starting the day broke and selling a worthless potion to a rogue for lots of cash is fun; losing no reputation for your deception because the town already thinks you’re a windbag is even better. Being first to test potions on that day’s student volunteer and intentionally poisoning him, just to make him start charging for his services and thereby throwing off your competition — well, that’s priceless.
Colorful though it may be, it still might look like just one more worker placement game. The thing is, however, all this worker placement stuff is just the familiar drapery surrounding the actual meat of the game: the deduction.
Alchemists has the single most elaborate player screens I’ve ever seen. It comes with the usual rules reminders and hiding place for your resources, but the centerpiece is an interactive grid for holding the results of your experiments. If a crow feather and toad mix to create a healing potion, you get to tap a little token into the intersecting slot of those two ingredients to permanently record that fact. Then you can mark, on a separate sheet, what element you think those ingredients might be made of, penciling in your speculations and suspicions while you’re at it.
This is the crux of the game and also where that aforementioned smartphone app comes in. Two ingredient cards are placed into your cauldron, scanned with the app, and voila, the result appears. Because the ingredients are randomized each game, it never loses its replay value, and if each player has their own phone, the app lets you sync your games with a four-letter code. It’s an easy system, and one that makes the game work like a charm.
Which is a relief, because everything revolves around those experiments. While there are a number of ways to improve your reputation, whether gathering artifacts for your office or just having lots of cash at the end of the game, the main way to prove yourself the best alchemist in town is by publishing theories about the elemental bases (or “alchemicals”) behind various ingredients. These elements are expressed as simple molecules with three nodes, and while it takes a little while to see the logic behind the system, it’s clear enough once you’ve seen a couple examples.
Not that it’s always certain which ingredient pairs with which molecule. Quite the opposite, in fact, with each successful mixture only dropping a clue about one of the molecule’s three nodes (a little bit like this). Repeated experiments are a must, though the game is careful to never provide enough time for true certainty. Instead, every alchemist is engaged in a rush to publish their theories. Only the first published theory on each ingredient earns any immediate reputation, and periodic academic conferences award those who have published and diminish those who haven’t done so enough. Sometimes guesswork is your best friend, and it’s even an option to write a sub-clause into your theory that you might be wrong about one of the molecules. Why? Because just as it’s possible to publish a falsehood, it’s possible to debunk someone else’s theory, losing them a sizable chunk of their renown unless they hedged their speculation. Problem is, an uncertain publication isn’t worth as many points as an absolutely guarantee at the end of the game, making the otherwise-bland theory board one of the most exciting parts of the game.
Alchemists demands a lot of its players. It requires you to constantly juggle multiple interlocking demands, from favors, money, and ingredients to the action-limited needs of experimentation, acquisition of artifacts, sales to adventurers, and publication. For example, you might be riding high from a spate of experiments, fully certain you know the elements behind three ingredients, only to remember that you need cash on hand to publish all those theories — and having spent so much time force-feeding potions to students, you haven’t had time to sell any at the market or transmute spare ingredients into gold. With so many things to consider, so many deductions to make and so much observation and mental energy spent, it’s one of those rare games that when my group has finished playing, I feel tired.
That’s hardly a bad thing. It sets Alchemists apart as one of the smartest games I’ve played this year. However, it also means this isn’t a game for everyone, or even for its specific audience all the time.
But when I’m rested, in a generally pleasant mood, and ready to put on my thinking cap? Under those conditions, Alchemists is spectacular.