Monday, 28 September 2015

Boardgame session: 27Sept2015

Val and Chris hosted this boardgame session and we decided to play ‘Alchemists’, a new game for both Elaine and myself. This is a ‘heavy’ game that took us over 3 hours to complete (i.e. the whole session)!

The game is basically about deduction, with an overlay of worker placement, and is from the same stable as Dungeon Petz. Therefore the graphics and rules contain a high level of humour, and have a high production standard with regard to components etc. Essentially players are alchemists producing potions from a wide range (8) of ingredients used in paired combinations to generate different effects in the recipient (customers, student or yourself). By observing and recording these effects the player can begin to deduce the active elements within each ingredient and publish their theory about each of these ingredients. Victory is awarded to the player with the highest reputation at the end of the game. The underlying combinations are determined randomly using an App which can be downloaded on to players smart phones, tablets etc. The use of this App is brilliant (and I am a bit of a technophobe!) and is easy to use. There is a manual mechanism supplied in the game but this would necessitate one person to act as a game master, who will merely secretly instruct each player on the potion result each time they make a trial. This would be an onerous task that I cannot imagine anyone taking on voluntarily, so an App is the perfect solution! The worker-placement part of the game forces players to decide on their turn actions; do they wish to gather more ingredients; make money by selling either ingredients or potions; buy useful artefacts; trial new potion combos on customers, students or themselves; or publish, or debunk, theories. There is a bidding mechanism to determine player order which is important. Reputation/victory points are gained and lost during game play, but the real determinate of victory comes at the end when reputation points are gained and lost after revelation (by the App) of the true elements that comprise each ingredient. These are compared with the deduced, published theories proposed or supported by each of the players, and reputation points are awarded or lost depending on the accuracy of their predictions.

So, how did we get on? I won the game which was surprising given the level of bafflement I experienced in the first few turns of the game, so how I achieved victory remains a bit of a puzzle. I think the purchase of artefacts helped me, and I did (somehow) make a good number of accurate theory predictions/endorsements. Both Elaine and I found the first turns bewildering, but slowly light began to dawn about what we were hoping to deduce and how to go about making our deductions and theories. I am still not fully clear on what the ‘null’ potion result tells a player, but I know it must give some important information. Half-way through the game I suddenly realised that selling to a customer did not just gain money, but also provided data on the potion effect similar to testing on yourself or a student. I still don’t know how the ‘debunking’ of existing theories works, only Chris carried out this action and apparently he did it incorrectly by failing to test his debunking theory on the App. I’m also not entirely sure about the ‘hedging your bets’ mechanism when publishing a theory, although I do appreciate that it protects you (to a degree) from the reputation loss if the theory turns out to be incorrect. The gaining of ‘grants/victory points’ for publication of related theories was again a bit of a mystery to me, but Chris awarded them as and when they were needed.

I think this is a game you can only learn by playing and it certainly makes your brain hurt trying to logically work out the random ingredient elements from the results of your potion combo trials. I applaud Chris on his efforts to explain the rules to a pair of newbies. For such a complex game this is not a task I would relish (in fact, this is the same reason why I have yet to introduce the game Merchants and Marauders to our gaming friends). Elaine and I began to see the logic and the mechanics lying behind the game only by the halfway mark, and I don’t think either of us fully understood exactly what we were doing even at the end! This game needs to be played a few times before a player can gain a better understanding, although the underlying logic required to make sensible deductions is fairly easy to grasp. I feel like I need a period of quiet reflection and thought to properly digest the rules and outcomes. I am sure as a player I should have acquired more information from the actions/results of the other players than I did, and that I could/should have been able to utilise this data to block/hinder others and maximise my worker placement decisions. My major criticism of the components is the vital player board; on at least two occasions players knocked this vital piece causing the inserted potion result tokens to fall out. Replacing these tokens correctly is virtually impossible and without this information a player will struggle. I think this problem caused Val to incorrectly mix a potion to sell to a customer and lost her reputation points and money (the look of disbelief on her face when the App told her she was wrong was worth seeing!). I’m sure that using your deduction record sheet you could correctly reconstruct the disturbed player board but this would be very time consuming and annoying. I think a better design solution would have been to have this component flat on the table, possibly as a folio document holder, with the player record sheet on the covering/hiding fly-sheet.

To conclude, this is great deduction game, well produced, that certainly tests a player’s logical analytical powers. It does make your brain ache! It is not a short game and I think even with experienced players you should expect to spend at least a couple of hours on each game, so for a gaming session this game will take up the whole time available. It is strangely enjoyable (not as enjoyable as Dungeon Petz) even though you feel mentally drained (and may have a headache) at the end. I hope we get to play more games of Alchemists, but because of its length it will not be played often.

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