It’s Publish or Perish in the Tabletop World of Alchemists

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It’s not enough to simply discover the mysteries of key ingredients and discern their alchemical makeup. No, for true prestige, a professor of alchemy such as yourself must be first to publish their theories – or debunk the false theories of your rivals. Science papers will fly as Harry Potter meets the cold hard truth of academia in this game of resource management and deduction.

In Alchemists, the players are placed in a wonderful setting of ivory tower professors racing to discover the true nature of ingredients and publish their conclusions. The players can also make use of magical artifacts and even get help from the townsfolk by doing simple favors for them. And, of course, they can turn any ingredient into gold. What alchemist can’t?

But beyond the light-hearted theme that pokes fun at publish-or-perish academia, there is an incredible, vibrant, and complex game. However, the theme might make you expect something a little lighter and sillier. Instead, players find an engaging, rewarding, but heavy gaming system. The players can gather ingredients, turn them into potions and drink them to see the results – or entice a student to drink them and record their behavior.

During play, the turn order depends on how early you want to get into your laboratory. You can get in early to be the first to perform your various tests. But if you get in later (and go later in turn order), you can pick up additional ingredients or even help out a few townsfolk who will then owe you a favor. And those favors can be huge if used at the right time. This is a fantastic way to avoid mere rotational play and ensure that if you want to be first, you have to give up other opportunities.

Each round, players have several actions to choose from. But wrapped within this action selection style game is a beautiful core of deduction. Maybe you find that scorpion and toad mix into a poison potion. What does that tell you about their true nature? And if toad and fern then mix into a speed potion, what do you now know? Enough to publish a theory on the true nature of toad?

And the publications are a key part of the experience. The game pushes you to publish even before you might be absolutely sure. Not only are you rewarded with reputation for publishing, but twice during the game there is a Conference where your publications are reviewed. If you haven’t published enough, you’ll lose reputation. Of course, if you are later debunked, you’ll lose reputation there as well. To combat that, players can also hedge their publication on one color (each alchemical has three colors to select from). This is done secretly, but if it turns out you were wrong about that color, you won’t lose any reputation. “Well, yes, my theory may have been marginally incorrect. But I clearly stated in the fine print I was never sure about the green aspect of this ingredient.”

This deduction element is intriguing and blends well with the theme and mechanics. Yet, this isn’t the kind of game that you just play once and then know the correct combinations forever after. Instead, you download a free app (or navigate to a web version). That app then randomizes the ingredients for a given game. You tell it what two ingredients you mix, and it will tell you the potion produced. This innovative element ensures that the game is fully replayable and obviates the need for a game master. Even so, the box includes a board for a game master. So when the zombie apocalypse occurs and cell phones no longer function, you’ll still be able to enjoy this game.

Alchemists is an amazing experience. The deduction aspect of it can be a little difficult to wrap your head around. But once it clicks, you can learn all sorts of valuable information from any test. But it is not about mere deduction. Sure that’s an important element, but you have to play the rest of the game to gain reputation. That means purchasing the right artifacts, hedging your publications when necessary, and even selling potions to adventurers – even when you’re not exactly sure you’re giving them what they asked for. You’ve got to maximize your opportunities elsewhere while still making time to earn prestige. At the end of the game, it’s reputation that matters, not knowledge of the truth. With Alchemists, you’ll be mentally stimulated for two hours straight. But you may need a short nap after.

Alchemists was one of my favorite acquisition from last year. What was the last great board game you picked up?

Feature Image Credit: Czech Games

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