Alchemists is a 2014 Czech Games Edition (CGE) release that helped usher in the Laser Age of the Future™ as one of the first major titles to offer a free downloadable companion app. On top of that, the game itself isn’t too shabby, either.
Matúš Kotry, winner of Dice Tower’s “Best New Designer” award, brings us the medium-heavy deduction game that I never knew I’d always been waiting for. Seating 2-4 players and lasting 120 minutes per game, this one isn’t exactly a game for every occasion, but it’s a game that I find fits a unique niche on my shelf.
The big question: does it deserve a place on your shelf? Let’s see if I can talk you into it.
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
In Alchemists, each player is—can you guess it?—an alchemist. Alchemy is an uncharted science, its properties brand new each game thanks to the companion app, and the alchemists are working to master this science. However, as Nikola Tesla would tell you, mastery of the science isn’t quite enough. In what I imagine to be a close estimation of actual academia, knowing and winning are quite different. Victory points aren’t earned by what you’ve figured out, they’re earned through the theories you’ve published (sometimes even if they’re wrong), and by being the most reputable scholar overall at the end of the game.
To understand Alchemists, one must first understand alchemy. This is the biggest deterrent to new players, as there’s quite a lot to grasp before you can effectively begin the game.
There are eight different magical ingredients. Eight. Each ingredient has a unique alchemical signature, which is randomly determined by the app at the beginning of each game. Each alchemical signature assigns a polarity (positive or negative) to each of three colors (red, blue, and green). For example, the black feather ingredient might have an alchemical signature of positive red, positive blue, and negative green.
Experimenting throughout the game reveals limited information about the ingredients’ alchemical signatures. When you combine two ingredients, it will yield a potion with a single color and a single polarity. For example, a black feather plus a yellow claw might create a positive blue potion.
So what does that tell us?
Both of the combined ingredients must have the alchemical symbol represented by the potion.. Therefore, in our example where we’ve made a positive blue potion, we know that the black feather and the yellow claw each have “positive blue” as one of their alchemicals—though we don’t know the rest. What we can do from there is eliminate each alchemical combination for those ingredients that involves a negative blue sign. Through repetition and process of elimination, we can narrow down our certainty of each ingredient’s nature—even absolutely deducing some.
If the Rain Man is currently reading this, having kept up quite easily, he may have just seen a hole in that spread. For each alchemical signature, won’t there be a signature completely opposite? For example, (+)red, (-)blue, (+)green would be opposite to (-)red, (+)blue, (-)green. What happens when you mix two ingredients like that?
You get a neutral potion. In fact, for each ingredient, there is an opposite that neutralizes it. If we mix that potion, what does that tell us? Usually nothing right at first…but if you figure out what one of those ingredients’ alchemical signatures is, you’ll know for certain exactly what the other’s is.
If your brain is literally on fire right now, then do not be alarmed. This only indicates that you are just like everyone else. There’s actually a bit more to learn about alchemy, like why ingredients make the potions that they do, but let’s just leave the rest to the rulebook. Your job is to figure out all that you can about the nature of these ingredients, publish what you can, and be the best there ever was.
On top of the deductive platform, Alchemists is also a worker placement game. The game is played over a series of turns, and final scoring commences at the end of the sixth.
At the beginning of each turn, a new player becomes the first player, and in sequence they place a marker on the turn order tracker. Electing to go earlier in the turn will afford initiative, but going later has the benefit of bonus ingredients and favor cards—helpful townsfolk with one-shot effects to aide you in your quest for knowledge.
After the turn sequence has been determined, the new first player places all of his or her workers among the eight possible spaces. While there’s enough room for everyone on each space, the earlier birds have first pick over the worms, and it can be a bit awkward to take an action later.
The eight spaces vary in their benefits. Certain spaces are quite simple, like the first space, which allows a player to gather one ingredient card from the lineup. The second is also simple, allowing a player to “transmute” one ingredient for one gold—a surprisingly-difficult-to-obtain currency used for a wide variety of things. Another allows a player to purchase an artifact for gold, which offers an ongoing benefit throughout the game.
There are two spaces that allow experimenting with potions—one that lets you test on a student that starts to charge gold after he’s had any negative potion, and one that lets you use yourself as a guinea pig for free and suffer the consequences of any negative potions you drink. Additionally, each turn a new adventurer will be passing through town, willing to purchase potions. Although there’s a devilishly-complicated and overly-heavy process for this, the basic takeaway is that you can sell potions off…provided you can guarantee they meet the client’s needs.
Making potions to sell and experimenting are executed similarly. You discard two ingredient cards face down from your hand, then secretly plug them in to the app. You then reveal the result to all players, so they know which potion you’re able to make, but not what ingredients were used. In the case of experiments, this will usually be followed by frantic pen-marks on your deduction grid.
The final two action spaces I’ll talk about are the two big ones—publish a theory, and debunk a theory. To publish a theory, you go over to an entirely separate game board, and arbitrarily match an ingredient with an alchemical signature chit. For example, you might declare that the brown toad ingredient has an alchemical signature of (+)red, (+)blue, (+)green. Publishing a theory immediately grants one victory point, regardless of whether it’s wrong or right, and having the most overall theories published actually grants recurring victory points at the end of each round.
Once you’ve published, you secretly select a seal to place on that publication. A seal wagering victory points—in denominations of 3 and 5—will either grant that many victory points at the end of the game, or subtract 4 points if you’re wrong. It’s also possible to hedge your bet through the special “?” seals. For example, if you know for a fact that the brown toad is (+)red and (+) blue, but you don’t know what green’s polarity is yet, your green “?” seal will let you off the hook for losing those points in case your published guess is not correct.
Furthermore, if another player has already published a theory about an ingredient, you are welcome to pay that player one gold and endorse his theory. An endorsement pays out victory points the same way an original theory does.
If you think—or know—that a published theory is wrong, you can also use an action to debunk a theory. The master variant has more complicated methods of performing this that won’t actually reveal any factual information, but the apprentice (read: normal people) variant’s app will instruct you to select the ingredient you’re debunking, then pick the color that you believe is incorrect. It will reveal the correct alchemical for that color, and that theory will be wiped off the board—if it’s incorrect, of course. Whoever wins the debunking steals some victory points from the other guy, and a properly executed debunk will allow the debunker to immediately publish without spending an action.
There are a few other ways to accumulate victory points—by showing off that you know how to make a variety of potions at the expo in the last round, or by being the first to have published theories about certain patterns of ingredients—but this is the overall core of the game. The player with the most points is the winner!
When Alchemists comes out, it creates this bubble around it, encapsulating its own little world. This world is governed by rules, and each player is on a journey to discern the nature of these rules as best they can. For what is essentially a pen-and-paper deduction game, Alchemists achieves a surprising level of immersion and creates a flavorful experience.
Alchemists stands out from some other games in its genre through the perfect setting—crazy, weird, silly science. There’s no doubt about it, the game is a bit chaotic. If you’re approaching the game intending to buckle down and get some definitive information, you’re going to fall behind very quickly. The option to publish with imperfect information creates this excellent tension, turning what could be an exact science into a race that can get a bit haphazard at times. Information is fiercely hidden, schemes are hatched, and players take whatever steps they can to get ahead in the big picture. This artificial atmosphere, I feel, is one of Alchemists greatest assets.
That said, it definitely has its rough patches as well. For me, the games I’d consider having the highest fun factor are invariably fun for every invested player, start to finish. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with Alchemists.
If you deeply enjoy the deductive scholastic atmosphere I mentioned above, and if your game group is interested in a cerebral experience, then Alchemists will be a fun time. However, with the game’s steep learning curve and overall weight, it’s not uncommon for one or more players to just outright not grasp the game, no matter how smart they are.
Falling behind in Alchemists just isn’t fun, whether it’s because you made a few bad choices or because you couldn’t find the information you needed. Everyone else is publishing theories and gaining victory points, and then suddenly you’re the only jerk in the 5th round that’s still experimenting to figure out what the heck that purple toadstool’s red polarity is supposed to be. Being in last place feels like you’re wearing the dunce cap.
If you can stomach the time investment, Alchemists actually manages to fill that time up fairly well. The game requires quite a lot of logical thinking and planning, so the fairly light amount of downtime always has its uses. The game maintains its tension across the entirety of every session, and drag factor is minimal.
While the game’s length does seem a bit excessive—especially consider the teaching and setup—I’ve never found Alchemists to be a waste of any of the time I’ve spent on it.
While everything makes sense in the big picture, this game just has a lot of things going on, each of which requires a new chapter of explanation. Most deductive games focus on the deduction, trimming everything else down in weight so that the primary focus of the game is figuring out what needs to be figured out. In Alchemists, CGE delivers a game that trims little to nothing, and they boldly say unto us, “Deal with it.”
As a result, teaching the game can be like delivering a lecture on organic chemistry. The explanation starts with the synopsis, and then transitions with, “but to understand how to get all these victory points, the first thing you need to understand is the nature of alchemy itself.” That’s about the point where everyone’s eyes start to glaze over.
No matter how excellent you are, new players will have issues with the steep learning curve. My advice is to keep it simple, focusing more on the worker placement aspect, and let them learn what they can as they go. At some point, probably after the third round, they’ll have a moment of grand epiphany, when everything comes together for them and they suddenly know all things. Waiting for that moment to happen is the only surefire way I know of to teach the game. While it’s a lot to ask, considering the two hour investment, it may be best for new players to just consider the first game a bust and file away information for game two.
The core of Alchemists is a worker placement game, and games in that style typically have their own subtle interactions. However, the format of the worker placement element here actually removes a fair amount of that interaction. Rather than take turns placing workers in spaces, each player assigns all of his workers at once (in order of turn sequence). While that interaction is a bit sorely missed, I can certainly appreciate the fact that the designer may have wanted to trim on the game’s length. Even without it, the turn sequence bidding and worker assignment does retain an amount of interactive strategy that’s far from negligible.
The real interaction comes in by watching everyone else like a hawk. You’re not going to go lighting anyone’s lab on fire, or command your students to duke it out in the hallway. The interaction is passive, but it can also afford a great deal of information. You’ll be able to figure out which theories you can endorse right away, or which you may want to consider debunking. While ingredients are kept in secret, it’s possible to remember them as they’re taken from the row, and even get free information at times once you see what potion that player sells or experiments with that turn.
If you’re not all about counting cards like MIT students at a casino, the other subtle form of interaction is through the race itself. The race to publish and dig up information is very real. This tension holds up very well throughout the game—unless you fall far behind—and pushes players to make deductive leaps that might not be entirely advisable. How far will you stretch your information? You might find that the answer to that question changes drastically based on what your opponents are doing.
While Alchemists isn’t exactly the poster child for meaningful interaction, I feel like it at least has the chops to capture everyone’s interest.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
While there quite a lot of ways to get victory points in Alchemists, they’re all picked up along the way by doing the same things: getting ingredients, experimenting, publishing theories, and being efficient. A significant portion of the worker placement side of the game is just going through the motions. There are certainly more than enough meaningful choices to be made aside from that, but it’s safe to say that half of your choices each turn make themselves.
The other half, however, are acceptably deep. Debunking, appropriately hedging and betting with your seals, and determining how aggressive you want to be with your publications can all require finesse and good planning to execute properly. Planning artifact purchases and knowing when to sell potions can grant an edge over the competition.
Additionally, as I’d mentioned before, simply watching can have great strategic value. It’s possible—though somewhat difficult—to mine information from your opponents’ actions. In a game where information is key, this tactical observation can provide a significant advantage.
Overall, Alchemists feels a bit underwhelming, strategically speaking, but offers enough in this respect to keep things interesting.
Starting the game, players know nothing about alchemy. They mix potions blindly, getting what information they can to start deducing. Luck comes in when you work hard for information, only to come across something that doesn’t help you at all.
For example, if my first potion is a (+) red potion, I know I can eliminate any signatures with a negative red alchemical in each of the ingredients used to make that potion. I just crossed four possibilities off of each of two ingredients. If I use one of those ingredients in another potion, and that one comes up as a (-) blue, then the only thing I don’t know a
bout that one ingredient is its green alchemical. I could actually safely publish a hedged theory, or take a 50/50 shot and wager some victory points.
Meanwhile, getting a neutral potion early, or making the same potion matching one ingredient with each of two others tends to dampen your progress. Granted, at some point during the game, everyone will conduct an experiment that doesn’t provide any meaningful information. It just stinks when it happens early.
Don’t get me wrong—this mechanism is good, and works as intended. In science, sometimes your research isn’t as fruitful. This works thematically, and it’s acceptable in gameplay.
But I like it when bad luck is meaningful. I want my bad luck to come in the shape of a risk gone wrong, or being crushed in battle, or a dynamic die roll. When I just happen to have picked out the wrong two ingredients, there’s no value to that moment. You just roll your eyes and hope for better luck next time.
In fact, the only imbalance I’ve noticed is in what’s brought to the table before the game even starts. It feels quite unusual to say this about a board game, but people with scientific minds actually tend to do better in gameplay. Additionally, meticulous record keepers tend to avoid errors on the deductive worksheets that could spell disaster down the road.
But isn’t that exactly the kind of imbalance we want in our games?
In a two player game, the race is still on, but it’s not quite as intense. Players might not feel the same pressure to hurry and publish theories—although aggressive publication is still just as rewarding—but there’s less chance that the theory you’ve been working on will be published first by your opponent. Additionally, the bonus victory points that come from collecting certain sets of publications (for example, the first person to publish any two theories among three specific ingredients scores an extra two points) are somewhat less contended.
Alchemists compensates for varying numbers of players by changing the number of workers they have available each turn to assign to action spaces. In two player games, you’ll each get to assign six workers; with four players, only four workers each. This scaling preserves game balance, and slightly mitigates the extended play time of a four player game.
I have not found any specific number of players that I felt was in any way lacking in the game experience compared to the other numbers. However, in a world where great two-player games are always welcome, Alchemists certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
While some of the components are delightfully illustrated, many others seem bland in contrast. The ingredient cards simply show the ingredient on a textured background matching its color. The theory board looks like a slab of wood with some functional elements on top. The townsfolk on the favor cards are unremarkable.
Some amount of design space here may have gone into the app, which was very well done. It offered a very simple interface, performed admirably, and looked good doing it. It even plays nice little sound effects when you mix potions.
Alchemists did very well in about half of its visual design, but I felt like it really missed the train on the other half.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: there are a lot of pieces in Alchemists. The box weighs 5.2 pounds (2.35kg)—about three times the weight of your average Monopoly, and falling right at the low end weight of a healthy newborn human being. The components include a full-sized game board, another slightly-smaller game board, a pad of paper deduction sheets, several full sheets of chipboard, and then several diabolical machines that must be assembled by each player and fashioned into a privacy/reference screen. Without a doubt, each of these components is made quite well.
The workers placed are just tiny, semi-transparent cubes matching player colors. They seemed a bit small, and a bit cheap, but they performed acceptably. These were actually the only components I found to be at all lacking.
My only issue with the components is that there were just so many of them…but more on that in the Value section!
I’m a bit of a slow study when it comes to rulebooks. I’ve never been terribly good with reading comprehension, but I dove in anyways. It took me a while to fully understand the game; however, considering its weight and overall complexity, it went very smoothly.
While I was reading the rulebook, a friendly passerby offered to explain some of the game to us. He seemed like a decent enough guy—well-spoken, friendly, easy to understand—but after he left, I just went right back to the rulebook. It was a rare occasion where I found the rulebook itself easier to comprehend than an experienced gamer teaching me.
Have no illusions, the rulebook is meaty. Clocking in at 15,284 words, it’s not exactly light reading. However, it manages to get the point across—which is no feeble accomplishment given the scope of the game.
Each player is an alchemist—a senior scholar at an academy—and throughout the game they will vie for reputation, knowledge, and prestige. The winner will be the alchemist who has published the most and best theories, deduced the most information about the nature of alchemy, and performed the most admirably after the expo at the end of the sixth and final round.
This backstory is fine—even good, if you’re into academia. Where Alchemists really shines is in creating a rich thematic experience by beautifully matching its flavor and mechanics. This immersion sets Alchemists apart from other deductive games, to a degree that sets it apart even from many other thematic games.
A single turn represents a day in the game. You wake up in the morning, start by gathering some ingredients, then maybe you transmute one into gold. You sell a potion to an adventurer passing through town, and you’re able to guarantee it will meet her needs because of what you’ve already learned about alchemy. Around lunch, you decide to take to the podium and debunk what your neighbor had published yesterday about the alchemical nature of the red scorpion, correctly citing that its green alchemical should be negative rather than positive. A brief experiment disproves your mortified colleague, and with all the hype you have an opportunity to publish a theory of your own about the red scorpion. Impressed by your display, another respected alchemist publishes a paper formally endorsing your theory about the red scorpion, and you collect a small sum for the rights. Your fiercest rival then publishes a theory about the green vine, stealing away the spotlight, and earning him an even greater reputation just as you were starting to catch up. Determined to catch up, you head straight back to the lab. You trot out the ingredients you collected that morning, and decide to mix a brown toad together with a black feather. The only other way to find out what a potion does is to pay a student…but who has time for that? You knock it back yourself. Alas, it’s a negative red potion—poison—and you’ll likely have to spend some time in the hospital. However, now that you know the black feather cannot have a positive red alchemical, you know enough about it to publish again tomorrow. Will it be enough?
When a game can play out with that strong of a narrative while maintaining mechanical integrity, its thematic implementation earns my highest regard.
One very minor thing that bugged me about the theme is that positive potions have no effect when you drink them. Negative potions, when you test them on yourself, have negative effects—like losing a worker the next turn, losing reputation, or being moved to the end of the turn sequence. In fact those potions even have names: poison, madness, and paralysis respectively. The positive potions have names as well—healing, speed, and wisdom—but drinking them has no benefit. I imagine this was trimmed from the final release, likely for balancing, but it did feel wrong to me.
That said, it did nothing to hurt my excellent opinion of Alchemist’s thematic value. Full marks here.
Is it a game you can play over and over? Are there expansions available for the game, and if so, are they necessary? Does the amount of the content in the box justify the price?
A master variant offers a way to play the game that adds a bit more depth and difficulty, for those of you who are suicidal enough to want more rules and more challenges in filling out your worksheets. While I haven’t personally played this variant, I imagine it can only help the game’s replay value.
Alchemists’ decision matrix isn’t exactly what I’d call narrow, but it isn’t wider than the average gamer’s scope of understanding. This can lead to habitual play that can hurt replay value in the long run, especially for serial players, and I can see it getting old fast after multiple sessions in a week.
That said, I don’t think that this game is afflicted by a lack of replay value. All things considered, while its replayability doesn’t exactly stand out as anything remarkable, it still manages to be acceptable in this area. Alchemists should be treated just like any other game you own that takes two hours. Just put it into your playgroup’s rotation. By the time it comes back around at long last, you’ll be more than ready to play it again.
CGE did post a photo over the summer depicting their guys playtesting a prototype expansion for Alchemists. However, they provided no further details. Fans have speculated on what elements they thought they saw in the photo, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.
However, as a self-styled quasi-journalist, I can’t be satisfied for half of the truth. The people of the world need a Barbara Walters that asks the hard-hitting questions. If you purchase this game, you might have the same questions I’ve thought of. The first of which is, “how on earth could this game possibly need so many components?” Followed by, “What would this game have cost me if we just trimmed some of the chaff?”
I don’t know if I have any specific answers for you, but the questions certainly beg to be asked. I’d honestly say that, with better interface design, at least a tenth—but possibly as much as a quarter—of the components could have been left out of the box, and therefore off of the price tag. While this might only end up saving you $5, that’s still not really a negligible amount.
However, for the purposes of conjecture, let us set aside our petty squabbles, and accept the game’s body without cruel judgement. Let us instead gaze into its very heart. The bottom line is, Alchemists is a medium-heavyweight game that offers deeply strategic and thematic value across two hours of play. Components aside, the experience that Alchemists provides at the game table is well-worth its price. I’ve happily paid more for lesser experiences, and I can probably count on my fingers the number of games I know of that offer the same game value at a lesser price.
Alchemists is a meaty, chewy, and devilishly-complicated blend of intense deduction and medium-weight worker placement. Let’s be honest: it’s not for everybody. Allow me to tell you why not.
There’s a lot going on in this box, and that may scare a lot of people off. The game is not easy to teach or learn, it requires more than a little setup, and it takes around two hours to finish a round once you eventually start. For these reasons, the game might not hit the table terribly often. Additionally, some of the multitudinous components may be excessive, and not everyone will have fun with the game.
However, this game is exactly what it should be. It’s an unapologetically heavy deduction game, and it’s fantastic at what it does. If this doesn’t intimidate you, Alchemists is absolutely worth a spot on your shelf.
Alchemists creates a rich, thematic experience. Players dive into their roles in the game, and spend 120 minutes together in that world, competing in an arena of academia. Players labor on their own to best understand the mysteries of alchemy through experimentation, all the while trying to keep up and win the race to publish the first and best theories and dismantle their rivals’. This race to discovery is tense, fun, and excellently balanced.
Furthermore, I would venture to say that Alchemists may actually fill a unique spot on a game shelf, by merit of the strategic and thematic depth it brings to its genre. The pen-and-paper deduction grid is transposed into a theater of quirky science, and the result is a game unlike any other I’ve played or heard of.
The bottom line is this: If you can stomach Alchemists, you may just end up falling in love with it.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You can see yourself playing a two hour game at game night
- You enjoy immersive, thematic games
- You always wished deduction games would come with a bit more material to chew on
- You can accurately describe any of your top ten favorite games with the word “cerebral”
- You like medium-heavy competitive games, but don’t absolutely need direct ways to interfere with your opponents
- You enjoyed science class
- You are a high school chemistry teacher, you have exactly 2-4 students, and you’re trying to think of a creative way to award some extra credit
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You’re not thrilled by the thought of a deduction game
- You dislike not having a way to directly interact with your opponents
- Two hours at the table just won’t fit into your schedule
- Your attention drifts when people are explaining a new game to you
- You need your medium-heavy games to have multiple viable routes to victory
- You’re devoid of organizational skills
- The guy with the app forgot to charge his iPhone before game night
About the Author
Mike is the founder and a senior analyst at his web service, Coalition Game Studios. The Coalition works to provide tabletop designers and small studios with professional playtesting and quality assurance. Apart from that, he is a paramedic and pro-circuit gamer, has an 8-pound dog named Ser Gregor Clegane, and he has been to all six continents that aren't covered with ice all year.