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Preview: Alchemy

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Double, double, toil and trouble!  It’s not just a phrase for Shakespearean witches, but it adequately describes the thankless life of an alchemist’s apprentice.  The master is choosing his successor.  Instead of doing interviews and taking references, he’s picking the old-fashioned way – a test.  Oh, but you’re not the only candidate!  Can you beat your competitors to the best potions?  Maybe even use your mixtures for a boost, or to mess with others?  You’ll need every advantage to get your fire to burn and your cauldron bubble.

[Ed. note: This is a paid preview of a non-final, non-production Kickstarter prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product may feature some variation in game play and extensive changes in art and components.  Head on over to the Kickstarter page if you want back this game.]

How It Plays

In Alchemy, apprentices collect elements (fire, air, earth, and water) in order to create potions.  These potions are worth points at the end of the game, but you may also imbibe from one or more during play to use its magic.  However, before you go overboard on the happy juice and end up in Potionholic’s Anonymous, keep in mind that each sip reduces that potion’s value.

Alchemy is primarily a card game, comprised of three decks.  Components cards are simple compounds, like silver, cinnabar, or aqua vitae.  The name doesn’t matter as much as the two elements listed on them.  The Potions deck includes a number of brews that you can concoct with the elements you’ll be collecting.  There are two versions of each potion – a basic (which requires 3 elements) and advanced (needing 4).  The largest deck is the Alchemy deck consisting of action cards and equipment cards.  These give you various abilities, opportunities to bend the rules, and/or allow you to mess with your lab partners.

The game begins with 4 components (face up) and a number of potions equal to twice the player count (face down) in the center of play.  Potions are revealed two-at-a-time by players during the first round.  Each student also receives 3 Alchemy cards.

Alchemy prototype setup
3-player game set-up.

On your turn, you may perform several actions, five of which must be done in a strict order.  First reveal enough Component cards so that you have four to choose from.  Next, draw two Alchemy cards.  Then you may transmute once by picking and discarding one of the components and adding its two element tokens to your “cauldron.”  After that, you may “pour” one element from your cauldron into your “vile.”  The vile is where you mix elements to match the requirements listed on potions.  Finally, if you have more than 4 Alchemy cards, you must discard down to that hand limit.

I say, “Finally,” but in reality there is more you can do in between the actions listed above – a lot more; which explains while alchemists always looked so old with frazzled hair!  The stress of toying with nature must be tremendous.

Alchemy prototype cards.
The everyday tools of the apprentice alchemist’s trade.

Anytime the blend in your vial matches a potion’s recipe exactly, you can create it.  Simply take the potion card, add the element tokens to it and place it in front of you.  If you discover that your vial’s compound won’t create any potions, you may empty it.  All of it.  Sure, that will set you back, but it might be necessary if an opponent beats you to something, messes up the contents of your vial, or if you’re just a bad apprentice.

You can also use one action card and one equipment card.  Action cards are used once and then discarded.  These might let you transmute additional components, pour extra elements, bend the rules a little in your favor, or generally mess with other players.  You can dump a vial, switch up elements in play, and make someone lose a turn.  Equipment cards serve much the same purpose, but you can play one in front of you to use in later rounds.  However, you can only have once piece of equipment at a time, so make sure any new paraphernalia is really worth it!

Alchemy prototype cauldron and vial.
Pouring elements from your cauldron to your vial.

Finally – no, really this time – you can engage in a little personal R&D and take a swig from one of your completed potions.  You might want to make sure the master isn’t looking, but it just might be worth the risk.  Potions provide a variety of different powers that are similar in function and design to Alchemy cards, yet decidedly unique – and tremendously potent!  To drink from a concoction and activate its ability, discard one of its elements.

When all starting potions are completed, the contest ends.  Each one you’ve created is worth the number of elements remaining on it.  Therefore, basic potions are worth 3 points, while advanced brews gain 4 points, less the number of times you treated it like a pocket flask.  The player with the most points, assuming he/she isn’t intoxicated or incapacitated, becomes the next master alchemist*!

*Beard not included.
Alchemy prototype close up of completed potion
Yes, they went there…

Successful Experiment or Laboratory Explosion?

I would have liked science and chemistry way more if I went to high school in the 13th century.  It was all so mysterious and magical.  Working in secret laboratories, transmuting elements, sporting epic beards – and all without having to wear goggles!  So while interesting and enticing, Alchemy’s theme is still not unheard of in the hobby, so how does it measure up to other designs when tossed into the mixture?

Alchemy fits well for both casual and experienced gamers.  There is a slight learning curve, but actions are fairly straight-forward and make sense, so newcomers won’t be overwhelmed.  On the other hand, there are lots of things to do, which provides plenty of choices that hobbyists will appreciate.  The set collection aspect is familiar enough to make casual players comfortable.  However, the concept of mixed sets to fulfill varying degrees of recipes is distinct enough to hold more long-term interest.

Alchemy prototype available potions.
Pick your poison…

Variability is one of the design’s strong suits.  The different types of Alchemy cards and the choice to use your potions let you create some nifty combinations to nab extra ingredients or mix them faster than your opponents.  One round may not offer the components you need, but you may have a “forage” card to re-draw all four component cards.  Another round, you may wish you had an extra pour action in order to beat the next apprentices to a particular potion.  In that case, you may have access to a “pour” card to get that extra pour – or perhaps a piece of equipment that will accomplish the same thing.  These abilities are well-integrated to give players some control over player induced chaos.  Yet they’re not over-powered so that one individual races ridiculously ahead.

Of course, some of that balance is forced by player interaction – which is afforded by the very same action cards, equipment, and potions.  Spite can be copious.  Some are just plain mean, like spilling an opponent’s vial.  Others are less vicious, such as one that allows all other players either to transmute or pour, but not both, on their next turn.  Then there are some that, if played at the right moment, will not only hurt your opponents but could help you, at the same time – such as switching all of one kind of element in play for another type.  Throw in potion abilities that let you drink your competitors’ concoctions, prevent them from drinking their own, and much more, and you see the varied strategic and mischievous ways to waft toxic fumes throughout the laboratory.

Alchemy prototype action cards.
Some truly spiteful actions!

The potion-drinking mechanic is particularly interesting.  Not only is it funny and creative, but it’s actually strategic.  In a game with plenty of choices, this is perhaps the biggest decision.  Do you keep the points or go for the special benefit?  At first, we were hesitant at drinking our potions for fear of losing points at the end of the game.  It’s still tight and tense with some moderate interaction, but it felt mostly like a race.  As we experimented with the giggle juice at strategically opportune times, it really enhanced that interaction and allowed us to manage both our cauldrons and hands in resourceful ways.

The potions themselves are a mixed lot.  Some are quite powerful, while others look less attractive – at least for their powers.  The use of basic and advanced versions is a good design choice.  In any given game there will be an assortment of low and high values.  However, a lower value potion may have a more powerful benefit.  Coupled with that range of abilities, this amalgam really encourages players to contest the better options, but they can decide whether that be for point value or unique ability.  Furthermore, since only 8-9 potions, at most, are used in a game, the design offers a good amount of replayability.

Alchemy prototype defense action cards.
Defend yourself!

Alchemy is a fun and accessible title that runs under an hour.  The set collection aspect is familiar, yet has some distinction to be fresh.  The various actions, equipment, and potions provide a good deal of impactful, yet not complex, decision-making.  It feels light, but can play more like a middle-weight design.  And you can add an amount of interaction that you or your group are comfortable with – though be warned if you do play spitefully, there is a heavy dose of it.  All in all, Alchemy is an ideal game for that often awkward mixture of casual and hobby gamers, and so may be worth your efforts to brew up.

Alchemy has already funded and, in fact, has reached its 4th stretch goal and almost twice its overall goal!  It will continue on Kickstarter through March 3.  If you want to get in on the action, head on over to the campaign page to pick up your copy.  You can get the basic game with all of the stretch goal rewards for a $25.00 contribution (MSRP of $30).  Hurry before the offer blows up.  But take my advice – make sure to read the nutrition labels before drinking any concoctions!

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

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