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Matus Kotry

CGE 2014

No. of Players:
2 - 4

G@mebox Star



During the days of the SPIEL '14 convention one game had been dominating the Hotlist at Boardgamegeek, and this was no other than Alchemists by Matus Kotry. The game had been announced by CZECH GAMES EDITION - CGE as their "big" new game for the SPIEL '14, and once the rules had been released the game quickly jumped on top of the Hotness list. This had been an interesting development in so far as Matus is a newcomer designer, but on the other hand CGE has a standing record of creating outstanding gamer's games (Dungeon Lords, Tzolkin, Galaxy Trucker) and so it can be understood that people were flocking to the entry in order to find out more about this new game.

Already the story behind Alchemists choses a somewhat unusual angle, because the players actually will run fantasy laboratories in which they are going to brew and test a number of different potions. Eight different kinds of ingredients exist in the game, and whenever two of them are mixed the results may be helpful potions of healing, wisdom or speed, neutral liquids or even horrid poison or potions of paralysis or insanity. At the beginning of the game the outcome of each combination of ingredients is unknown to the players, and during the game they will slowly discover what kinds of potions can be created with the different ingredients.

However, the deduction mechanism behind this goes much deeper than simply throwing two ingredients together and watching the outcome. Before the game starts, each ingredient had been assigned a random molecular composition (called Alchemicals), consisting of a red, a blue and a greed aspect which are either positive or negative. Unknown to the players, it will be the combination of these aspects of two ingredients which will cause the particular outcome of an experiment, but the players actually will be able to take conclusions from this outcome, allowing them to narrow down the possible Alchemicals behind each of the two ingredients which had been used. To assist the players with this task of finding matching Alchemicals, each player has a big Laboratory-screen where he can secretly mark the ingredients which have been used, and this matrix will slowly allow them to conclude which Alchemicals may be behind each ingredient used in the game.

That may sound quite scientific, but in the end it is an interesting, not too cumbersome task of deduction which is actually quite challenging. In order to negate the necessity of a gamemaster, the game actually needs an app which tells the players the outcome of a particular experiment, and so the players need to have at least one mobile phone or a pad-computer onto which this (free) app has been loaded. During play, a player will scan the ingredients he wants to mix with the device's camera, and then the device will reveal the result of the experiment. All this works rather smoothly, and for players without a mobile device there is also a possibility to use a web-based app where the ingredient cards are not scanned but chosen. In addition, the game even includes a "gamemaster"-mode where one player takes the role of an all-knowing entity who will give the results to the other players. This may not be an attractive alternative because usually everybody will want to play, but if the game is going to be taught to newcomers it may actually help if the explaining person is in control of the game.

Talking about the game, all I have done so far is explaining the experimental nature of combining different ingredients, but of course all this has been embedded into an intricate playing mechanism, something which has become the trademark of many CGE games. So, the big gameboard actually shows a city with different locations, and here the players can perform different actions based on a worker placement routine. There are action spaces for gaining and selling ingredients and to buy helpful lab equipment which will allow various benefits, but most important for the players' careers as novice alchemists will be the spaces which allow the brewing and testing of potions - either on a hapless student or as a self-experiment. Of course the testing on a student will be preferred due to the possibility of a negative potion, but each round's student only will cooperate until he has first been exposed to a negative potion. In this case he will not be satisfied by helping scientific progress anymore - now it will cost a coin to get him to try a potion. Sipping a potion yourself is - of course - free, but if it is a negative potion the player's will have to live with the effects. A potion of insanity lets you do some unspeakable acts which will cost you reputation, a potion of paralysis will give you the last position in next round's player order, and poison will cost you an action cube in the following round. But heck - it's all for scientific progress! (and the players hopefully will be able to make some useful notes on the test results back in their laboratory).

Each round the city also will be visited by an adventurer who is looking for specific potions (as listed on his card), and the players also may try to sell potions to him. Of course it is best if a player really knows how to buy one of the potions demanded by the adventurer, but there is always room for improvisation, and so a player can give a restricted guarantee to the adventurer, lowing the sales price but allowing for different kinds of errors in the mixture. If a potions is to be sold this way, the player will once again consult the electronic device, and once again the results of this "experiment" can be noted in order to gain insights on the ingredients' Alchemicals.

When a player is certain to have found the Alchemical which is matching a particular ingredient (or if he is just confident), he can go ahead and publish his theory about the composition of that ingredient. Published theories will bring reputation, and even a grant may be in reach for showing particular scientific enthusiasm. Depending how certain a publishing player is, he will accompany his publication with a face-down seal marker, and these seals will be revealed by the end of the game. Some seals are blanks, just denoting that the player had published a theory on an ingredient, whereas other seals show victory point values which will be scored if the player has chosen the right Alchemical, but they will be deducted if he has been wrong.

Talking about wrong theories, there is of course a possibility to prove a player's false theory right within the game. So, a player who has a better idea can initiate a scientific debate on another player's theory, and once again the outcome of this will be determined by the use of the electronic device. If a theory is debunked this way, all seals will be revealed and their owners will loose reputation, whereas the newcomer immediately will have an option to publish a theory of his own. On the other hand, another player's theory also may be endorsed by players who have come to the same conclusion, but adding a seal to an already existing theory will cost some coins (co-authorship has its price).

This description actually should give a rough impression how the game is running. At its core we will find the deductive challenge to find out the correct Alchemicals for each ingredient, and around this task Martus Kotry has constructed a versatile action mechanism which covers all sides of an alchemist's career. There are many features which have not yet been mentioned like the interesting mechanism to determine player order, the lab equipment which may even help spying on other players, citizen favor cards which may come in quite handy in various situations, and even scientific conferences are included to allow the players to boast about their research. All this contributes to a quite complex game, but the author has included apprentice rules which can be used to make things a bit easier.

Really interesting is the fact that I cannot remember having seen a game which actually offers a combination of an interesting deductive challenge with a good, deep playing mechanism. Here much praise can be attributed to Martus Kotry because he has done a wonderful job to bring the different elements together, and even the electronic device plays an important and useful part because it can be used to randomize each game anew without the help of a gamemaster.

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Copyright & copy; 2015 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany