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Preview: Apotheca

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[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]

Dealing with black magic, mysterious arts and secret spells has always been a risky profession.  So of course you want to be a part of it.  Well this is your day!  The Apothecaries, a secret society of potion concocting luminaries, have organized a contest in a search for new blood.  But is it in search of fresh inspiration?  Or to lure unwitting disciples into their game of dark machinations?

How It Plays

In Apotheca players are apprentices learning the tricks of the trade and trying to create complex potions to satisfy their masters.  These teachers offer their own powerful secrets to aid you during your task.  The first player to impress three of these maestros is allowed to join the secret society.

Players create these concoctions by matching three potions of the same color in a row on the market board.  This 4×4 market is seeded with six random potions to begin the game, three of which are revealed.  Apprentices also receive one master apothecary who may grant you a special ability.  However, they also take your potions once matched and after they’re satisfied, they’re not as inclined to help.  Ingrates!  Luckily, there are other apothecaries standing by whose assistance you can enlist, too – only under the same terms, though.

On your turn you must perform two of four possible actions.  You cannot repeat an action in the same turn.  You can reveal a facedown potion card upon which you gain a gem of the bottle’s color (red, blue, or yellow).  If there are less than three facedown potions in the market, you may add cards until there are exactly three in that condition.  You get to look at any card you place in this way and the backs have little arrows on them.  Place the potion so that the arrow points towards you, reminding everyone who placed it.  You’re the only player who may subsequently look at that card until it’s finally revealed.

The other two actions involve apothecaries.  You may spend two gems of the appropriate color to draft one of the masters in the appropriately named Apothecary Alley.  If you don’t like the three available, you can instead expend one gem of each color to take the top one from the deck.  Finally, you can enlist the help of one or more of your apothecaries.  These grant nifty little abilities that let you mess with the board and move bottles around like a whirling dervish.  Hopefully in some sort of orderly fashion so that you can line up a match.

After making or revealing a match of three corresponding potions, you may claim them.  If you’re really clever, you can engineer and claim a special match like a cross, a ‘T,’ or four in a row. In that case you earn a bonus gem.  Any kind of set immediately goes to one of your active apothecaries, who will no longer grant you his/her special ability.  The first player to create three matches wins and is allowed to join the mysterious order.  Who knows what’s in store for you then…?

It's not quite Candy Crush, but three in a row makes a match!
It’s not quite Candy Crush, but three in a row makes a match!

The Right Recipe?

Apotheca hits the table running right in stride with most elements one expects of abstract designs.  First, the theme is there, but not essential to play.  It’s actually a nice cardboard implementation of a match-3 type of game.  Therefore it will feel familiar to many people, even casual gamers.  And since it’s simple to play, but has puzzling depth, it will prove a sturdy bridge between new and experienced gamers.  We’re talking gateway game territory, here.  That said, the artwork is astounding and really animates what little theme there is.  It’s gorgeous to look at and the apothecaries are superbly illustrated.

Beyond that, Apotheca is a smart puzzle game that requires forward thinking and a sort of turn-by-turn process in order to set you up for the payoff – lining up a match of three.  This structure is no stranger to abstracts – and is crucial to the good ones.  The half hidden, half known information makes it even more interesting as it involves a little deduction and bluffing.  Not a ton, but enough to spice things up.

I'll be taking that potion, if you please!
I’ll be taking that potion, if you please!

The mechanic that really brings the heat is the apothecaries’ variable powers.  Those are what shake Apotheca out of the monotonous routine indicative of most abstracts.  To put it clearly, they’re the heart of the game.  The beauty is that while they certainly inject a bit of turmoil, they’re not crazy and completely disruptive.  On the whole, there is a general balance over the course of several moves.  On one turn, you might enlist the help of an apothecary at just the right moment to engineer a match.  Later an opponent might do the same thing, but mess up your hard work in the process.  Of course, the player who can take advantage of the shifting market and use their apothecaries most efficiently will leave their opponents in a cloud of smoke.

The special matches are an interesting challenge.  Unless you just happen upon one, you’re going to need to manipulate the board to get it set up.  The longer it takes, the more difficult it is to complete and you just might tip someone off as to your mischief.  Especially because part of the potion in progress will be visible.  So it’s a double-edge sword.  It’s pretty cool and rewarding when you pull it off.  Or you may kick yourself after an opponent takes it right out from your nose, when you could have just grabbed the three in a row in the first place!

What lies beneath? The arrows point to only he who can peak!
What lies beneath? The arrows point to only he who can peak!

Apotheca is an appealing and accessible design with beautiful artwork and an interesting concoction of deduction, puzzle-solving and variable powers. It’s light and familiar enough for almost anyone, but with a dose of challenge to satisfy a more strategic hunger.  It also plays fast and moves quickly.  If you’re looking for an ideal remedy to bridge the gap between casual and serious gamer, this just might be your potion.

Apotheca is currently concocting support on Kickstarter.  If you’d like to mix it up with this game, head over now to the campaign page.  You can get your own copy of this puzzling potion maker for $35 ($5 off the MSRP), which includes any stretch goals the campaign reaches plus shipping to the US, Canada and the UK.  Hurry now before it disappears!

 

 

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

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