Nobody likes to lose. While there are different levels of competitiveness, deep down, nobody really wants to be the last one on the scoring track. But sometimes it’s inevitable, especially when you’re playing a new game for the first time against people with a lot more experience under their belts. And even more so when it’s a game that has a hell of a lot going on. Times like those, I just resign myself to the fact that I am not going to do well, I am definitely not going to win, and I am simply there to learn the game so that the next time, without the excuse of inexperience, I don’t embarrass myself. So while I’ll try to do the best I can, it’s more about the learning experience than the winning. Which is how I approached my game last night.
Alchemists — At first glance, Alchemists is a worker placement game. You first select your turn order, which isn’t as simple as it sounds; not only are there different rewards for each possible position, but your workers are placed going from the last player to the first, while actions are taken from first to last. Then, you place your workers in different areas of a magical academy to take different actions. You can gather ingredients, sell those ingredients, make potions with those ingredients to sell to traveling vendors, and purchase artifacts that help you throughout the game and that are worth points at the end.
But it’s the last four available actions that give Alchemists its twist. Because at the start of the game, you have no idea what any of these ingredients actually make. To find out, you’ve got to experiment, either on a string of eager but unsuspecting students, or, if you’re feeling risky, on yourself. And like any good academic, it’s publish or perish, because you have to put forth your theory as to what formula a particular ingredient represents in order to score points. You can dispute someone’s thesis, hurting them if you’re right or yourself if you’re wrong. This goes on for four turns until the bigwigs of the school show up. Then it’s put up or shut up, as you have to demonstrate your mastery of potions to score even more points before the game ends.
Sounds like a lot to keep track of, right? I mean, how are you supposed to remember how all these ingredients interact? Well, there’s an app for that. Seriously. Alchemists uses an app that not only creates a unique combination of ingredients every game, but that actually does the mixing for you. You use the app to scan two ingredient cards, and it tells you instantly what you’ve made. You then use this information on a hidden chart you have to help you craft your theories. For instance, if I mix a mandrake root with a feather, I might get a positive red potion. I therefore know there’s no way a root or a feather can make anything with a negative red symbol on it. So I can eliminate those results on my chart, and know not to publish any theory for those ingredients that contains a negative red symbol. And since the other players don’t see your ingredients, just your results, nobody knows what anyone else does until the end of the game, when the app reveals the hidden formulas and everyone finds out if their published theories were correct.
It’d be easy to dismiss Alchemists as nothing more than the gimmick of an app slapped on to a worker placement game, but it really does play a lot more cleverly than that. Beyond the decision-making present in any worker placement game, there’s the logic puzzle of trying to glean information from your experiments, and from what the other players publish. The worker placement aspect guarantees plenty of player interaction, and the relative brevity of the game — only five turns, although they can take some time to go through — keeps things from getting bogged down. The app also makes it so that you can’t solve the game. Every play will be different, and there’s an advanced version that adds even more complexity to the formula making, adding a bunch of replay value.
Naturally, with all of that going on, and it being my first play, I was a little overwhelmed. I didn’t pay as much attention to the publishing aspect as I should have (although the one theory I put forth turned out to be right, so I wasn’t a total idiot), and I made a play for an artifact that, while helpful that particular turn, may not have been in my best long-term interests. But that’s what a first game is all about: making mistakes, getting a feel for things, learning what to do next time around.
Besides, I managed to finish next-to-last. That’s damn near a victory.