Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chemical Reaction

In the board game Alchemists, players take on the role of potion makers and academics. They compete against each other to discover the magical properties of different potion ingredients, and race to publish their findings. It's an interesting and flavorful setting, and it's supported by an intriguing sales pitch of mechanics. It's a deduction game crossed with a worker placement game! It has a clever smartphone app to adjudicate the players' deduction process! But in my opinion, Alchemists is a suspect brew of ingredients that don't really go together.

The two core game styles that this game combines are too much at odds with each other. A good worker placement game puts the players in a race they cannot win. There are more things you want to do in a single round than you actually can do. You have more plans for rounds to come than there are actually rounds left in the game. You have to make tradeoffs, and you have to weigh those tradeoffs against your best guesses about what your opponents will do. On the other hand, a deduction game isn't about managing the journey, it's about the destination. There's an answer out there. Opponents have limited ways to thwart your investigation (if, indeed, any at all). All the tools to find the solution are at your disposal.

Alchemists exposes all the friction between these two systems. It's a worker placement game in which turn order matters. A lot. In fact, the placement of your opponent's workers can cut off your attempts to "solve the mystery" of the ingredients. In a pure worker placement game, that might be a fun part of the challenge. In a game of deduction, I found it frustrating.

The game lasts just six rounds, which I also found annoying. Most deduction games last until the mystery is solved. (Mystery Express is another example of a limited-turns deduction game, and the fact that some games end without anyone completely solving the murder is part of my reticence about it.) Alchemists is deliberately engineered to always end without any player complete solving the "mystery" of what the eight ingredients all do. Again, in a worker placement game, not getting to do all you want to is part of the fun. But to play a game of deduction where the puzzle is deliberately unsolvable? Maddening.

If six rounds played out as breezily as it sounds, I might still find it in myself to enjoy Alchemists. But in its actual pace, it reminds me of a quite different game: Dungeon Lords. You place workers just six times in that game too... but the game still takes an hour-and-a-half (or even two hours, with some players). Alchemists is the same; a round takes around 15-20 minutes to play out. But where you can spend your down time planning in a game like Dungeon Lords, in Alchemists, I just found myself stewing in my own frustrated inability to fully investigate the puzzle.

What it really comes down to is this. Alchemists isn't actually a deduction game -- at least, not to the degree that it could satisfy a lover of such games like myself. It's really just a worker placement game, with an unconventional "risk" to be mitigated. Judging from the rave reviews on Board Game Geek, this is satisfying a lot of players. Me, I think it's neither fish nor fowl, in a most unsatisfying way.

I've only played Alchemists a couple of times, and I'll acknowledge that it hasn't yet reached a point where I'd actually refuse to play it. But I do feel like there are better choices. If I want to play a deduction game, I'll push for the far superior (and faster) Sleuth or Code 777. If I want a worker placement game, I have countless choices, even within the subgenre of "a limited number of rounds." (I love Dungeon Lords.) I'd give Alchemists a D+. It's simply not two things that taste great together. It's a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.

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