Bitches Brew – Alchemists review

Alchemists Box

Welcome, dear reader, to the Little Metal Laboratory. This is no place of clean lines and white tiling as far as the eye can see though – instead, we are shrouded in darkness as we really don’t want to see the blood, and the smoke from the explosions often leave the room as black as night. Our lab is a place of alchemical tinkering, and we are bloody awesome at it – especially when you’ve got a game as good as CGE’s Alchemists sat upon our table.

Designed by Matúš Kotry for between two and four players (though a fifth person can be accommodated, more on that later), this was CGE’s big release for Essen 2014 – and it’s definitely big as that box is packed out. With gloriously overproduced lab areas for each aspiring Alchemist, fistfuls of tokens, a couple of boards and a healthy amount of cards, you can see where much of the hefty price point has gone. As always, the art is fantastic too – the team truly know how to put a great looking game together.

But what of the gameplay? Well, this isn’t just about looking to turn lead into gold; Alchemists wants players to do an awful lot more than something as simple as that. Your main task is one of deduction, working out what results combinations of different ingredients will lead to and being amongst the first to publish your findings. Points scored will build your reputation, allowing you to sell potions to passing travellers that can then be invested in magical items, pulling in yet more points at the end of the game. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves… before we become the most respected people in our industry, we need to put the work in. It’s time to get experimenting!

The beautiful board! It's double-sided, so choose the correct side before playing. Rounds start in the bottom right corner, then go clockwise around the board.

The beautiful board! It’s double-sided, so choose the correct side before playing. Rounds start in the bottom right corner, then go clockwise around the board.

Alchemists uses an action point system, with each player using cubes in their colours to mark what they’d like to do during rounds on the larger of the two boards. As each round is played through, players will perform their actions in strict order which is decided at the start of a round – the earlier you choose to go, the fewer bonus items (Ingredients and Favours) you’ll receive. Of course, going earlier means you’ll get first picks on each of the different actions, so it’s the traditional balancing act seen in many Eurogames.

So, what can you do? From the very first round, gathering Ingredients is first on your list, allowing you to pull cards from a face-up selection or going for whatever mystery object sits on the top of the draw deck. After that, you have the opportunity to sell ingredients that you’ve procured, the money from which you can then spend on picking up precious (and often highly useful, rule-bending) artefacts. Ingredient combinations can then either be tested on a helpless student or yourself, the results of which are tracked in your own personal laboratory. Taking the form of a large triangle of circular spaces, you’ll place a token at the space where the two ingredients you mixed cross over – pop your result in the space and you’ll be a little closer to deducing exactly what each ingredient contributes to the mix! All of this is then followed by some clean-up before moving on to the next round.

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It’s probably easier to show off how the lab looks, so here we go. The game’s eight ingredients are lined up along the bottom, and whatever result you get from the app should be placed in the crossover spot. You then mark off your deductions on the sheets that are included in the box. (Thanks to Mathias Heilmann for the photo)

At the start of round two, new options are opened up; the previously mentioned travellers appear, seeking potions that will need to be mixed fresh (read: spend a combination of two cards to get gold). You also get the opportunity to publish theories on what you believe each ingredient adds to a mix as well as debunk the concepts laid out by others, and it’s these two action that will (hopefully) pull in the big reputation boosts at the end of the game – assuming you’re correct in your publications, of course. How the ingredients’ results are defined is random every time you play, but thankfully we are people of science, so we get to use our smartphones!

Yes, the fingers of technology have crept onto the tabletop in a legitimate way once more. Players can use the free Alchemists app (available on both iOS and Android) to tap on the action they wish to use, then take a snap of the two ingredients they’re combining. Depending on what action you’re performing – either Sell Potion, Debunk Theory, Test on Student or Drink Potion – a different symbol will appear onscreen to give you your result. It’s an innovative way of introducing technology into gaming, and though it’s recommended that people use the Smartphone Solution System (© Michael, 2014) it’s far from intrusive. You only need one device for all players, though people can use their own by inputting a four-letter code before play begins, ensuring everyone gets the same results – a relatively simple thing, but it just made things work so smoothly around the table. Should no-one have an iPhone or whatever on them, you can rope in a fifth person who calculates results for the players using an included piece of convoluted cardboard stuffed with tokens that I assume 99.9% of Alchemists’ owners will never use, ever.

Over the course of six rounds the game plays out with everyone initially trying to work out the effects of each ingredient, then swiftly moves onto the ‘everyone racing to publish and debunk theories’ side of things around halfway through the game. On the final round, a new action appears to replace the testing and drinking potions spots; here you get to prove your mastery of the science by stating what potion type you’ll create, then actually do it by once again spending the ingredients. Success pulls in more reputation points while failure means losing them, along with the realisation that you’ve probably screwed up the very last part of the game – the big reveal.

All the publishing done throughout the game will see players dropping tokens on the eight ingredients. While these are placed face down, they do show the player colour, so you can keep track of who is working on what; however, once things are wrapping up, these are all flipped to reveal just how committed the players were to their findings. If you’re totally sure, you can put a token down to score you five points, while a little less conviction can still net you three. There are also tokens that will score nothing, but they’re useful to throw the other Alchemists off your tracks – we’re nothing if not sneaky as we skulk around our labs. Once the smoke clears, the highest scorer is declared the winner… and that’s the whole thing.

Alchemists, frankly, is my up there amongst my favourite games of the year – definitely top three, and depending on how my mood takes me, often the number one. It’s beautiful, challenging, meaty, nasty, deduction-filled, glorious Game of the Year worthy brilliance. The whole package is quality, from the traditional over-produced touch of CGE to the awesome gameplay by Matus Kotry that has been tightened to within an inch of its life, and every time I sit at my table to play Alchemists it never fails to impress. New players are impressed by the accessibility; it takes only two rounds into your first game to know exactly what to do. Experienced players understand that the game has depth, but never feel that they’re in trouble with the admittedly tricky way things work in Alchemists. Add in the lovely, seamless way that the smartphone app integrates with the game and there’s no wonder it’s won so many fans since hitting Essen 2014 with a bang. Just like what happens when you combine that Raven Feather with a little Mandrake Root…

Alchemists was designed by Matúš Kotry and was published by CGE in 2014. Between two and four can play with games taking around 90-120 minutes. One thing to note: the first printing of the game had result tokens that were ever so slightly too large for the tracking boards, but CGE asked all owners to get in touch with them so smaller replacements could be sent out. These arrived nice and promptly and the game is now pretty much as perfectly produced as it could be. Nice work, CGE! Now, go get yourself a copy!

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