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Review: Apotheca: The Secret Potion Society

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Breaking into the apothecary scene isn’t as easy as 1-2-3.  You’d think assembling and mixing concoctions would be no more difficult than lining up various potions.  Surely there’s even a recipe?!  But alas, there’s still so much that is mysterious about the business.  And when rival students keep upending the market with magical spells, you’d give your right pestle just to brew up a little order.

How to Play

In Apotheca players are apprentices trying to impress master apothecaries at the market’s testing grounds.  Using a Match-3 style mechanism – albeit sans cascading explosions – and action selection, your goal is to arrange three or more same-colored potion tiles in a linear or special pattern.  You can enlist the help of legendary tradecrafters to employ special abilities that aid your concoctions – or mess with your opponents!  Complete three matches to win the game and earn your mortar and pestle.  We previewed the game during its Kickstarter campaign so you can reference that article for the game’s specific rules.

The published product also includes team and solo rules.  The Master of the Market variant pits one player against one or more opponents.  The core action selection remains the same.  The Master has access to all three cards in Apothecary Alley.  However, she must pay to use any of their special abilities – and other players pay her when buying those apothecaries.  Meanwhile she cannot earn gems through special arrangements.  The Master also has a token of each potion color and for an action can play one.  That decrees that she can only create a match of that color while the other players may not claim any, until a new decree is proclaimed.  The Master wins by creating one potion of each of the three colors.  The apprentice team wins by collecting a total of three concoctions between them.

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Potion Crush or Bevialed?

The Match-3 element is starting to pop up in the hobby over the past year.  And not surprisingly.  It’s a popular style of mobile app games, proven for their simplicity and quick play.  It was only a matter of time before the concept found its way to cardboard.  Apotheca may not dazzle you with collapsing bursts of falling jewels or candy, but it evokes the idea with players seeding the market and employing special powers to swap and shuffle tiles all about the board.

Therein lays Apotheca’s primary appeal.  This is not a deep design, but rather one that new gamers or casual ones should receive well.  But also one that will bridge to more veteran players within the hobby.  Lining up three similar tiles for a match is as intuitive a concept to grasp as it is a simple measure to achieve.  In fact, it’s so simple that that alone is not compelling enough to hold interest for very long.  That’s where the apothecary cards come to play.  It’s an element that both experience levels will appreciate.  Casual players can grok the familiar Match-3 component with its more manipulative environment, yet still easy to understand rules.  Hardcore gamers will welcome the added strategy in a gateway game for which the genre may not always offer.

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Still, the basic rules can feel a bit repetitive.  With four total actions and resolving a couple per turn, you’re doing a lot of the same thing every round.  Even the apothecary powers, while interesting and rewarding to work in your advantage, are only available to you a few at a time, depending on how many you’ve purchased and how many matches you’ve already made.  And restocking will be an obvious choice in specific circumstances when you need more tiles out to work with.  So there is a constant seed, reveal and move routine.  However, on the whole it’s not terribly detracting, because average games are pretty quick.

Now one primary reason that games are so quick reveals another minor issue.  The special matches are really difficult to create and generally you’ll luck into one if you’re able to pull it off.  For the most part, you’re going to tip off other players when trying to coyly manipulate the market – even when secretly knowing some of the face-down tiles upon restocking.  Clued into your plans, opponents can easily start flipping potions before you’re ready, leaving them to snatch up a quick three-in-a-row.  Or force your hand early to keep another from stealing your work.  As a result, most play tends toward quickly lining up matched trios, deincentivizing the challenge of orchestrating more elaborate sets for those bonus gems.

Admittedly those two hang-ups won’t pose serious problems for casual gamers.  So as a gateway game, Apotheca still serves.  But it won’t really appeal to experienced gamers.  For that demographic, it’s the team variant that offers something new and worthwhile – even if still not complexly deep.  With each side employing variable abilities and slightly different end goals, the Master of the Market version emphasizes vying against opponents.  The basic game is not necessarily solitary, but you still feel as if you’re playing primarily the board.  The master’s potion decrees impact play quite directly – as opposed to just hopefully throwing off other players by swapping around tiles.

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Speaking of, there is subtle – and maybe sometimes not-so-subtle – interaction in Apotheca that will probably meet with varying reaction depending on gamer level.  There are no direct attacks and you cannot lose points.  However, you can use your apothecaries’ powers to mess up another’s plans by rearranging things.  Whether you’re aware of those plans, have correctly deduced them or lucked into the affair is another matter.  And if your progress is the work that is undone, it makes no difference.  Watching another wreck your carefully assembled sets can be frustrating.  New and casual gamers will likely loathe it more than veteran players, who might even enjoy the bit of mischief to flesh out the design.

The finished product turned out top-notch.  Everything is sturdy and easy to understand with fantastic artwork.  The tiles are large and thick.  The market (game board) is a perfect size and accommodating.  The cards are tarot-sized with beautifully vibrant illustrations and user-friendly graphic design cleanly denoting their powers.  The gems are great to handle in transactions.  The rule book is also well-organized and written.  A quarter of it tells the story of each apothecary, which is fun to read even if gameplay is largely abstract in practice.  The only hiccup with the components is the apothecary stations – strips that are meant to connect together and mark the cost in colored gems of the master beneath.  They don’t fit snuggly and are constantly bumped out of line – but they’re also not necessary, so it’s not a major issue.

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As one of the first in a batch of Match-3 style games to hit the market, Apotheca certainly feels fresh.  It adequately ports the popular mobile gaming element to cardboard, even if it doesn’t include falling and exploding chain reactions.  Instead, players move the icons about the board with interesting special powers and random stocking.  The result is an intuitive game that that will draw non-gamers, yet adds variety and simple strategy to amuse more experienced players.  And for hobby veterans, the one-against-all team variant is definitely unique.  Simple and quick, this match-making title just might prove a good match for you and your casual gaming friends and family.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Renegade Game Studios for providing a review copy of Apotheca: The Secret Potion Society.

Match 2 out of 3

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Gateway game with additional nuanced variant
Match-3 element is familiar and intuitive
Plays fast and quick overall
Outstanding components and vibrant artwork

Cons:

Not a ton of depth for veteran gamers
Overly difficult to create special matches
MSRP a little steep for what it is

7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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