As should be expected of a company headed by the great board game auteur Vlaada Chvátil, Czech Games Editions does not make simple games, but games that will turn even the most seasoned of players’ minds inside out. Vlaada has been on a mission to make a game in every genre imaginable at the highest level of complexity. Anyone who is up for a unique challenge should definitely check out (should that be Czech out?) Alchemists, the debut game of Matúš Kotry for the much loved publisher, and he seems to have learnt from the master well. Alchemists has obvious echoes of Vlaada’s trademark humour (not least in the hilarious rulebook) and depth, as well as a penchant for logic puzzles.
In this instance CGE takes on the deduction genre, one normally utilised for light, party games from Cluedo to Resistance, and drags it kicking and screaming through a raft of mechanics and logic problems. Seeing Alchemists set up is like seeing one of the chaotic laboratories of the insane alchemists the game depicts; shelves filled with weird ingredients and complicated sequences of bubbling flasks, alembics and bunsen burners producing strangely coloured liquids. It’s time to take a deep breath and start experimenting.
The most impressive aspect of the game, and its core really, is your secret mixing chart (or ‘notebook’), a robustly structured cardboard pyramid of possibilities, which begins the game enigmatically empty – almost screaming for knowledge to be applied to it. The object of the game is to determine the essence of eight classic alchemical ingredients (raven feathers, frogs, mandrake roots etc…), which will be made up of three coloured circles (like a simplified chemical structural formula) each of which can be a plus or a minus, big or small. The game is accompanied by an app, which, unlike many recent games to have employed such technology, is genuinely fundamental to the game. It essentially randomly matches each ingredient with one of the eight available formulae, making each game different and ensuring each player starts off with zero knowledge.
So how do you figure out what’s what? Well, like any great scientist, you mix stuff together, drink it and see what happens. Each combination of ingredients will produce either a poison or a potion depending on which pair of circles match (a small circle mixes with a large circle of the same colour and symbol), and what you mix will give you some information about your ingredient, allowing you to narrow down which formula it relates too, as well as potentially sending you to hospital. To avoid such medical bills you must fully utilise eager research students, as every self respecting philosopher of the natural sciences with full tenure knows. Each round you can test your potentially toxic soup on an eager student, but once they are poisoned they have to be paid for future tests because, as the manual delightfully describes, their “zeal for science is considerably diminished.” Yes, that’s why there is a picture of a student desperately clambering out of the window as a crazed professor mixes his potion in the foreground on the front of the box!
Each round you can test your potentially toxic soup on an eager student, but once they are poisoned they have to be paid for future tests because, as the manual delightfully describes, their “zeal for science is considerably diminished.”
Once you feel that you’ve homed in on the true essence of the mandrake root (you can keep track of everything by plugging symbols into your notebook) you can publish a theory, which is basically a secret bet you place on an ingredient after you claim it to be one of the eight formulae. Other players who disagree with you can debunk your theory and potentially ruin your reputation. Also hazardous to your academic career is selling untested potions to adventurers who may be a little put out to discover they’ve been sold a vial of frog soup instead of that potion of speed.
What the game does brilliantly, besides turning your brain inside out, of course, is offer a playful critique of academia. This is a world, not so different to our own, where research students are mercilessly exploited by the senior staff, scholars are cajoled into publishing any old tripe just to meet departmental quotas (a fairly accurate picture of modern academia’s ‘publish or perish’ mentality) and interaction with the world outside the ivory towers of the academy is volatile at best (and normally ends with something exploding).
The app works wonderfully. To mix a potion (something you’ll need to do when testing on yourself or a student, or selling to an adventurer) you place two ingredient cards on your cauldron (another cleverly thematic use of components) and scan it with your device which tells you what you’ve mixed. This quirky use of QR scanning tech gives a real sense that you’re conducting an experiment. To the developers’ credit they have included a solution for playing the game without the app, but since it essentially requires an additional player to act as games master (who doesn’t get to actually play) it’s not recommended.
This is an insanely clever and original game that not only innovates on the deduction genre but constitutes a breakthrough use of technology as part of a board game, not merely as a glorified timer or a gimmick (it also gets extra points by not feeling tempted to use the Harry Potter theme, as appropriate as that might have been). There’s a hell of a lot going on here (I haven’t even mentioned the worker placement aspect of the game which sees players competing for resources), and you might well feel like you need to be a member of Mensa to fully appreciate it, but if you’re looking for a new mental challenge, or you’re the kind of person who enjoys nailing sudokus, something the deduction element is strangely akin to, then this is one to try.