Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alchemists

Plays: 4Px1.

Alchemists is one of the hottest games at the 2014 Essen game fair, so it feels redundant to be describing what the game is like, since many others have already written about it. I'm tempted to skip the overview and jump straight to my thoughts, but that feels incomplete. So hopefully this doesn't bore you.

The Game

Alchemists is classified as a deduction game. You are professors of alchemy at a university in a fantasy world, and you are competing to discover the alchemical properties of eight ingredients. You perform experiments, and from the results of these experiments, you try to deduce what the alchemical components are. Let's start with a lesson on basic alchemy.

Every ingredient has three alchemical components, red, green and blue. A component is either large or small. It is either positive or negative. To determine what kind of potion you produce when mixing two ingredients, you need to find the component with a matching sign, where it is large in one ingredient but small in the other. All four pairs of ingredients above will produce the negative blue potion - the insanity potion.

Everyone starts the game knowing nothing about any of the eight ingredients. The alchemical components of the ingredients are randomised every game. The game is played over six rounds, and it uses a worker placement mechanism for players to select and execute actions. You forage for ingredients at the forest, you make potions to test on students, you test them on yourself, you try to sell them to visiting adventurers, you publish theories, you debunk theories, you transmute ingredients into gold coins. Testing potions, selling them to adventurers, and debunking theories are actions which will give you information. You need a smartphone app for these. Mixing potions require spending two ingredients from your hand. Your opponents won't see what you are mixing, but you have to announce what potion is produced. Debunking a theory does not consume any ingredient. You challenge a component of a specific colour of a specific published theory, and the app will tell you whether the sign of that component is indeed wrong.

Behind the player screen. The triangular area with many round holes is your experiment results grid. I have placed a negative red marker at the intersection of mushroom and fern, which means mixing these two ingredients produces poison.

This piece of paper with an 8x8 grid is for you to take notes. I have put crosses next to the combinations which I know are impossible, based on the information I know so far.

The smartphone app uses your phone camera to detect the two ingredients you are trying to mix. Press "Confirm" and the result will be displayed.

This is a small player board which you put in front of your player screen. You put tokens here to remind others of the types of potions you have produced. The box on the left is for your grants. Whenever you get a grant, put it here. Each grant is worth 2VP at game end.

There are several ways to score points, and most of them are related to publishing and debunking theories. You gain reputation each time you publish (reputation points are converted to victory points during final scoring). Every round, the alchemists with the most theories gain reputation. During conferences, you gain or lose reputation depending on how much publishing you've done. At game end, the app announces the alchemical properties of all ingredients. For each correct theory, you gain points. For each wrong theory, you lose points. This final revelation makes up a significant chunk of overall scores. There is one special type of theory, which I call the caveat theory. When you publish this type of theory, you secretly put a caveat in the appendix saying that you're actually unsure about one of the three components. If the theory is later found to be wrong only for that specific component, you don't lose face because hey you had stated a caveat albeit in small print. However if the theory is later found to be correct afterall, you don't gain points either. There is value in publishing such caveat theories because: you do gain reputation up front, you may gain more reputation every round if you are most-published, you may win grants from the university, and of course, you look good at conferences. Another thing to consider is such caveat theories may help to mislead your opponents.

This is the theory board. There are eight ingredients for which you can publish theories, or endorse others' theories. When you publish a new theory, you place your seal (face-down so that your opponents won't know whether you're doing a normal theory or a caveat theory) next to an ingredient, and you place an alchemical components tile next to it, claiming that the ingredient has this specific combination. In this photo, Ivan (yellow) has published a theory on red scorpion and I (green) have published one on Korean ginseng.

One other important way to score points is the artifacts, which you need to pay cold hard cash for. Only a subset of artifacts are in play in each game. They are powerful and are usually very much worth fighting for. Money is usually tight. You can transmute ingredients into gold coins, but that's an inefficient use of actions. If you publish enough theories to win grants, that's some extra cash for you, but there's much time and effort required too. I think the best approach is to sell potions to wandering adventurers. A different adventurer comes to town every round and each adventurer wants to buy different types of potions. You need to compete for turn order specifically to sell potions to the adventurers. If you know how to make the potions the adventurers want, selling potions can be a lucrative business. If you don't, you can claim that you do and then use them as guinea pigs. You can gain new information this way, just that your customer may not pay you if give them ox-tail soup instead of the elixir of wisdom they asked for.

This section of the board is where adventurers come to buy potions. When you sell a potion, you need to provide a guarantee certificate. A high guarantee like "full satisfaction or your money back" allows you to earn as much as $4. At the other extreme you can go for "there's definitely something in the flask". Even that's worth $1. The adventurer will try your potion first (yes, even the insanity potion - maybe he tries it on his cat) before deciding whether to pay you. He pays only if the product meets or exceeds the guarantee level.

A rather dodgy guy - all he wants are poisons.

After the last round ends, all alchemical properties of all eight ingredients are revealed for the final scoring. The highest scorer wins.

The Play

I did a 4-player game, the highest player count, with Ivan, KC and Ainul. Ivan was the only one who had played before, but I had read the rules beforehand.

I played in a conservative, prim and proper manner. I kept to information that I am 100% certain of, and didn't dare to rely on the various other small hints or partial information I could gather throughout the game, e.g. who had been collecting which ingredients, who had managed to produce which potions. I guess it was partly because I was still learning the ropes so too much information would have overwhelmed me. After I get more familiar with the game system, it should be easier for me to deduce more useful information from these other tit bits of data surfacing throughout the game. I was always short of money, and because of that I often tested potions on myself, as opposed to getting my students to do it for their love of science. Every round (i.e. every semester) there is a new eager student happy to test potions for the professors, but once he gets a bad experience tasting some nasty poison, he will charge a $1 fee for the service rendered. I couldn't really afford that, and I didn't want to gamble on whether my other colleagues would be producing good or harmless potions, so I had to get my hands (well, mouth) dirty. Unfortunately, the ingredients I chose to research turned out to produce mostly poisons, which mean I poisoned myself quite many times. Sometimes I half paralysed myself (I became last in turn order for the next round). Sometimes I gave myself diarrhea (one fewer action cube next round). It was not pretty, but it was all for science!

I didn't manage to sell potions to adventurers. Not even once. The early visitors wanted to buy medication and boosters, but I could only make poisons. I was being Honest Abe so I hadn't thought about selling them snake oil and experimenting on them. Anyhow it is risky and also difficult to make money when you are uncertain what you're cooking.

Ainul and Ivan were much more successful in the potions business, and they had plenty of cash. They bought many artifacts, which were an important source of victory points.

This was the only artifact I managed to buy. The VP value is in the top right corner. This printing press allowed me to publish theories for free, since I didn't need to commission a printing house.

Ivan and I published more papers, which allowed us to increase our reputations. KC made a misstep somewhere along his chain of deductions, which was disastrous for him. In Alchemists one wrong step can trigger a chain reaction, screwing up whole swaths of calculations. Once when he tried to sell a potion, his customer found that the content was something completely different from what was advertised and guaranteed. KC not only didn't make a dime from the transaction, he was also publicly humiliated right in the middle of Petaling Street (he lost reputation). That was painful.

The board is busy and looks intimidating, but once you go through the rules, you will find that it is practical and all those icons are handy reminders.

That table with the four beakers is the turn order table. At the start of a round everyone takes turns placing his beaker on a spot and claiming the rewards shown next to it. The positions of the beakers then determine turn order for the round.

The Thoughts

Alchemists has all the trademarks of Czech Games Edition games. It is designed by first-time-published designer Matus Kotry, but if I hadn't known that, you could have easily convinced me that it was designed by Vlaada Chvatil. The game reminds me of Vlaada Chvatil's games like Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz. They have a unique hook, and the various game mechanisms are built around this core idea. None of the mechanisms are groundbreaking. They are not christened fancy names like deck-building or bag-building or worker placement. The mechanisms support the central ideas, and this makes the games consistent and immersive.

There is one thing in Alchemists that bugs me. In the early game when I didn't yet know the alchemical components of any ingredient fully, I was already under pressure to publish theories. Conferences were coming, and I needed grant money, and I didn't want to lose out in the reputation race among published professors. So I published caveat theories. By doing this I mitigated the risk of getting one of the components wrong, and I could still achieve most of the things I needed to achieve. In the game I played, two of my early caveat theories turned out to be correct. However, since they were caveat theories, I would not score points for them at game end. There was no way I could replace them with normal theories. They were correct and nobody could debunk them. I realised that whenever I decided to go with caveat theories, I was taking a risk that if I turned out to be right, I would be sacrificing the opportunity to score points at game end. This was the price to pay to publish early while reducing risk. You can't have everything. Of course I could have tried my luck and just published normal theories, but that would really be gambling. Well, unless I could make use of other hints picked up from other players' actions, and turn it from a 50-50 gamble to an educated guess.

I think if I play more, I will get better at collecting, sorting out and making use of information revealed from other players' actions. In my first game, I dared not rely on such information much since there was much uncertainty. Even if someone had been collecting lots of toads, and had made a green potion, I could not be absolutely certain he did use the toads for that green potion. My gut feel is that in this game you need to learn to make use of indirect and incomplete information. This is not a simple, clean and clear-cut deduction game.

I can't say for sure whether Alchemists is a game that can be played on a regular basis. It is unique and unusual. My guess is you probably wouldn't play this week in and week out for long. However I think it is very suitable as a game to put in a regular rotation, taken out to play once in a while. It is very different from most games so it will always be refreshing to revisit. You won't have a problem of "naaah, it's a bit samey".

The right panel on the inside of the player screen is a summary of how you score points at game end.

I have done six experiments, thus six tokens.

This was the theory board at game end. Only five of eight ingredients had theories published.

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