Review: Alchemists

Alchemist’s is a deduction game from Czech Games Editions, which utilizes Smart phone technology and worker placement mechanisms, where player’s take on the roles of want-to-be Alchemists to become renowned for their abilities at mixing ingredients to form various potions, testing them, selling them, and writing theories about the mystical arts.

Alchemists is for 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and older and takes approximately 120 minutes to play.

Alchemists Box Cover

Robin’s Preconceptions.

  1. The game uses an app. But is the app superfluous, just a gimmick, or does the app work with the game to provide a different experience. The fear is that the app is an unnecessary gimmick.
  1. There seems to be a lot happening on the board, not just this idea of a logic puzzle about deducing the alchemy of the ingredients, but also a Euro-game. I hope this game has a good balance of both.
  1. The rulebook is a hefty 20 pages of text and examples. I wonder how easy this game will be to teach, and what level of gaming competency players will need. The box states 13+ and a 2 hour gameplay. Is the game overly complex, and as someone who likes shorter games, will it outstay its welcome?

Steve’s Preconceptions.

  1. I love deduction games such as logic puzzles. This seems to take that general concept and slather it with theme and game play. I think I already love this game.
  1. It’s about alchemy, which might be even more exciting than mixing real elements in a game like Compounded. I’ve always wanted to invent ‘purest green’.
  1. I really like the integration of the app. This looks like a great component and although other app/board game hybrids are coming on to the market, the only one I have played is One Night Werewolf.
Alchemists Player Board and Smart Phone App. Source: Board Game Geek
Alchemists Player Board and Smart Phone App. Source: Board Game Geek

Steve asks Robin.

Steve: The game looks weighty and you half-jokingly said ‘we should have played Kanban’ halfway through. Now we’ve completed our first game, playing with a 12yo, was enough of the game understandable to make for an entertaining experience?

Robin: Well, I’m now writing this having played it more than just the one time mentioned in the question. I have to say that this is definitely a game where you can’t decide if it is something for you after just one play.

By the end of the second game, I THINK I was able to say that I had finally worked out how to deduce how the cards combine to make the elements. The reason I write “think”, is that I made an error during my calculations, and I still haven’t worked out where I went wrong. Additionally, during the early rounds of the second play, I was still having to double-check what I needed to cross off the results pad when a certain potion was revealed by the app, more on what that means later.

The game is definitely a mix of two types of game. And the mix works very, very well because the integration of these two elements has been done so seamlessly. On the one hand, you are placing cubes on a board (assigning workers to tasks) as in a regular Euro-style game, this is one part of the puzzle; optimizing the positioning of your workers in order to get the best possible return on those actions at the right time. On the other hand, the ingredient cards, the potions that you make, and the use of the app, are the second part of the game, and these work to add a “logic puzzle” element to the game. This is the core of the game, and what makes it a standout, unique game. This is the part that you HAVE to understand, and that you have to enjoy, in order for this game to be for you. If you don’t get this, then give up and go home. This was the part that myself (everyone?) has initial trouble understanding. It is so integral to the game that before you even start reading how to setup the game the rules booklet talks you through a couple of examples.

Once you get this, the game will become a lot easier for you to play, it becomes a game of deduction- and once you can deduce the ingredients, you can optimize your worker cubes even further and gain even more points in order to help you master your way to victory. This is done during the game, by writing papers, or proving and disproving other player’s documentation about how the various elements combine to create spells. You are basically writing spell books. Additionally, in the final round, if you have worked yourself to enough of the solution of how the mixing of ingredients works, you can show off your “magical alchemical skills” and gain even more reputation. Mixing spells as you see fit to the amazement of the crowds.

In retrospect the game isn’t as heavy as I initially believed. It is however a balance of optimizing your worker placement and your powers of deduction. To that end Alchemists has a pretty steep learning curve.

What I noticed with my son (the above mentioned 12 year old) was that he quickly picked up the concept of how to deduce what the ingredients contained, although I think that he had a hard time making the final alchemical deductions. It seems that just a few ingredient tests will get you down to one of two choices for each ingredient. However eliminating the final option is a lot harder to do (not just for him). The area where he appeared to have an issue, was knowing when to optimize his workers in order to gain those all too important points (the “euro” element of the game). For example in the last game we played, he totally missed out on writing or debunking any journals about the ingredients. That said he only ended in last place by 2 reputation (victory points).

Steve: How big an issue is making a mistake early on in the deduction process? I have made errors in Mystery at the Abbey, for example, where rushing to avoid downtime for other players has led me to apply logic quickly and thus incorrectly, and therefore the game is effectively over as a competition.

Robin: Understandably, the biggest concern people may have about this game is this: What happens if I make a mistake early on? I could answer smart here, and say that really and truly if you understand how the game works, then you shouldn’t be making any mistakes. But then I’d have to eat my own words, having made a mistake during the last game play.

Gah! It’s annoying, you have to base all of your conclusions and the majority of the actions you take later in the game upon the fact that you have deduced the correct ingredients and potion elements.

Whilst making a mistake is annoying, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is game over (in the above mentioned game, I actually ended up winning, despite having made a mistake). There are enough possibilities for scoring points, such as becoming a joint scribe on another persons paper, or debunking someone else’s paper, or showing off the skills (exhibit potion) you have in certain other ingredient/potion mixings. Making a mistake, unless you make a complete pigs-ear of it, shouldn’t be the bee-all and end-all of the game. However, it will be up to the individual to further cipher what they know is confirmed as correct, and what they know for sure is not, before they can use these actions to their benefit.

Steve: I’ve said how much I like the app-integration in this game. Your thoughts? Is there any concern about the future of board games and how far they could become app-dependent? Is there a line to be drawn?

Robin: In answer to the earlier question, I made a point by saying that to me the “logic puzzle” element is what makes this game. That is only partly true. Whilst the logic puzzle is the element that attracted me to the game itself, what many people see first is the fact that the game uses Smart phone technology. And it uses it in a very well integrated manner.

It should be noted that it is possible to play the game without a phone, or via the manual input selection on a computer/website. The role of the app/computer can be run by a games master (GM), however it isn’t a particularly enjoyable task for them, as they have no bearing on the game itself (unlike a GM in a roleplaying game).

The trouble with board games adjusting to using technology to enhance game play is that there is the risk that it will simply been seen as a gimmick. Already we see the question, “Is it a board game that uses an app, or a computer game that uses a board?”

Many board game-to-computer game transitions work well, because they remove the element that bores many people, the calculations.

It is safe to say that Alchemists is a board game that uses an app. And it uses it very well indeed. As mentioned, the role of the app, could be taken by a GM, and in doing so, the app itself serves its sole function, as a gimmick. However where the app excels is that it not only solves the basic calculations, but it allows for replayability of the game, in the multitude of variations that it can calculate at the blink of an eye. On top of that, the app generates a unique code for each game instance, so that if more than one person at the table has a smart phone, they can “load” the same game setup, and use their phone simultaneously, which is brilliant, because let’s face it, most of us don’t really want to be passing our mobiles around the table willy-nilly.

So what exactly is it that the app does? As already stated, the primary function of the app is to set up the game. That is, it assigns an alchemical to each ingredient.

Then it allows the player to test potions (the combinations of any two ingredients), either by scanning the ingredients cards and recognizing the images, or by manual input – which let’s face it isn’t half as cool, and generating the outcome for you to then show the rest of the table.

So you can use the potions you create by Testing them on a Student (one of the actions).

You can also test the potion by Drinking the Potion yourself (another action).

Both of these use a similar interface, only the presentation of the result is slightly different (for example failed tests on students costing one extra gold this is shown on screen).

You can Sell A Potion (action) this time, you select the potion you are trying to generate, and again scan your ingredients. The app will then tell you how successful your blending of ingredients was in relation to the desired result (on a 4 step scale).

You can use the app to Debunk A Theory by selecting the aspect (green, red, blue) and testing against one ingredient, to see the resulting positive or negative result of that aspect.

Finally, in the last round, you can Exhibit a Potion (action). This works in a similar way to the Sell A Potion action, you first select the desired result, and then mix your ingredients. This time the result shows you the blended potion, and its effects.

All of these are a variation on the same theme, but the fact that the app works so seamlessly, and you actually see the results of mixing two ingredients, is such a cool addition to the game. Thank goodness for this app, because the gameplay would suffer for its absence.

Alchemists Ingredients Cards
Alchemists Ingredients Cards Source: Board Game Geek

Robin asks Steve.

Robin: With the logical deduction element of the game, you are supposed to play an alchemist mixing various ingredients together, trying to work out what would happen. Did you feel that the app added to this part of the game, or did the app feel gimmicky, and would the game have been enjoyable if it had been GM’d?

Steve: After two plays I would say straight off that I really enjoy the deduction element of the game. It has frustrated me at times but the need to deduce solutions quicker led me to try an entirely different strategy in the second game. It is good that you can learn from mistakes/missed opportunities in this way and play entirely differently based on those experiences. The app doesn’t feel gimmicky as it plays such an important part in disseminating just enough hidden information at the right moments. Plus it is used more often during the game than I was expecting, since there are four actions in the regular turns that utilize the app.

I enjoy GMing games but I’m not sure there is much in this one for a GM. I realize that it gives an option for players not possessing the necessary digital devices so it seems a good call to include the option – but I have reservations about wanting to play that way.

Robin: Did the game gel together for you, or did it feel as if you were playing a game of two parts, and if so were these two parts a necessary evil of creating a logic puzzle for gamers?

Steve: An interesting point! I don’t think I noticed I was really playing two games while the game was in progress, but on reading this question you are completely right. There is the first part of solving the logic puzzle coupled with the worker placement element. The second stage of the game is then to prove and debunk theories based on what you think you have deduced. This establishes an almost entirely new third aspect that needs to be juggled and prioritized at certain points for best effect. Throw in the final round ‘exhibition’ and this cycles you back to utilizing previous deductions. Let’s just say it is a game of many parts but they gelled together well for me to make an entertaining game. Of course, keeping one eye on your what actions you are taking, formulating future plans and ensuring your brain never lets up with the logic puzzle sitting in front of you is somewhat frazzling at times. I have to say I made simple mistakes, such as testing the same pair of ingredients twice because my mind was on the next round. This might not curry favor with all players!

Robin: Do you think that this game will have a long lasting replay-ability factor? 

Steve: I think I will continue to enjoy playing. I’ve lost fairly heavily twice so I’ve yet to find the balance of actions. While I feel there are still things to learn about a game then I like to continue to play. There’s also an enormous sense of fun with the app and the artwork and testing potions on yourself that will keep me eager to play for a while. I have a couple of reservations about replay-ability over the longer term. Firstly, once you’ve settled on a strategy for minimizing the time it takes to deduce the solution, then the game may grow stale if there is little challenge in this aspect. I’m not at that point yet but I expect the logic puzzle at the heart of the game uses a simple algorithm that while different each time could be cracked with a solid method. I’m not sure I would ever take the game seriously enough to try and break it like that, though, so hopefully it continues to feel fun and exciting each time. My second reservation is that in the second game I managed to find the solution about mid-game and was frustrated by the end that I’d got 100% correct deductions but still lost the game by several points. I wonder how many times I would be enthusiastic to ‘try, try again’ if that kept happening. It may be because of my own shortcomings rather than the fault of the game, of course!

Summary.

Robin: For me, Alchemists is a must have game. It’s a great example of integrated smart phone technology. Without the board game being drowned out by the app play.
The worker placement is light, but fits well with the concept of the game. There are plenty of options and choices where you will be left wanting to go in one direction but at the same time be tugged in another.
Many games that I enjoy involve trying to work out the solution to a puzzle, and this game involves my favorite, the logic puzzle. This really satisfies my inner detective, and therefore has a huge appeal for me.
I understand that this won’t be for everyone, but for me, it itches that scratch perfectly.

Steve: The logic puzzle aspect of the game shines through strongly and I feel it is never outshone by the app. There is plenty of engaging theme and a multitude of actions to be taken, keeping each player involved and able to keep their chosen strategy functioning. The alchemy is front and centre in the game and I suspect every player will be mixing and testing something every turn, which is the most fun part for me.
This game definitely weighs heavily in favour of those players who can think deductively and act decisively. I was surprised how well our 12-year-old opponent handled the many aspects but there is a lot here to keep in your head. It won’t suit all gaming groups but I think there is plenty to engage most gamer types for at least a couple of sessions.

Robin’s Recommendations.

  • Anyone who thinks the idea of mixing ingredients together to make spells and potions, the concept of testing the resulting spells on unsuspecting students, yourself, or trying to flog them off to unsuspecting adventurers will enjoy this game immensely.
  • Anyone who thinks the idea of app technology in board games is a fad, that will be around for nothing but a fleeting moment, but wants an example of how a game can simply but effectively implement technology into a board game. Check out Alchemists.
  • If you love logic puzzles, and using your “little grey cells” to make deductions, and have always wanted to do this in a competitive way, look no further. This is your logic puzzle on a board.

Steve’s Recommendations.

  • Alchemists is to be played with like-minded gamers who enjoy logic puzzles as well as a solid board game. Players who don’t ‘get’ the logic puzzle will not enjoy this game.
  • For gamers who are open to the gradual integration of digital devices into traditional board games will like how well this has been woven into the game.
  • This game will appeal to fans of light-hearted fantasy settings. For adherents of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, this is the closest thing to taking magic lessons at Unseen University.

Links.

Publisher Game Page
Board Game Geek

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