I think it took me 2 games to wrap my head around Alchemists, but now that I think I’ve got some basic strategies down, I can say I’ve developed a deep respect for it.
I’m really not a big fan of deduction games, so I can’t really say I enjoy the game all that immensely, but I respect it. It is quite a brilliant little system.
You see, the major flaw of most deduction games – your Clue or Sleuth for instance – is that you go about gathering information until you can make a guess about whatever it is you’re deducing. Then you look at the answer, and if you’re right, you win, and if you’re wrong, you lose.
The system is totally binary. There are no points – no grey area. It’s all black an white. Ultimately someone is going to make a guess, and the outcome of the game is based on that guess. It becomes sort of a crap shoot. Maybe you don’t have complete information, but you’ve got about a 50% chance of being right with your guess. And if you wait until you’re 100%, someone else will win in the mean time.
The outcome of the game comes down to essentially a coin flip. Heads you win. Tails you lose.
That sort of business is never fun for me.
What Alchemists has brilliantly done, however, is take the logic of the deduction game and create a system around it that allows for grey areas. You can make a guess about what’s going on and it’s not the end of the game. In fact, guesses happen early and often and are highly encouraged by the game.
Everyone’s going around making wild guesses, supporting and debunking other people’s guesses and it’s all part of the well-crafted system of the game.
Where this truly gets interesting, though, is in the information that other people will give you. Based on what ingredients they pick up, what potions they make, and, most importantly, what guesses they make and support, you can get a heck of a lot of information from other players, which is totally necessary due to the short amount of time you have to figure things out.
It’s incredibly cool, but Alchemists doesn’t fully rise above its deduction roots. While the victory point system does allow for some wiggle room in terms of wrong guesses and hedging your bets, if someone is right with all their guesses and bet strongly on all of them, they are still likely going to win against someone who was randomly wrong on a guess or two.
With so many ingredients to place guesses on, you would hope that the probabilities would balance themselves out over the course of the game, but that’s not really the case, and the 10-point swing that can occur with a right answer versus a wrong answer can still feel like an entire game’s worth of points. Sure, a guess doesn’t end the game like with Alchemists‘ predecessors. People can still go about their business, placing workers and making guesses of their own. But a single guess can still easily decide the outcome of a game, which still just feels a little too swingy and random for my tastes.
But then again, I don’t really like deduction games, so that could just be me. The bottom line is that Alchemists is by and far my favorite deduction game, and I respect what it has done for the genre.
I’ve talked before about the integration of spatial reasoning into other heavier types of board games, and I think the integration of deduction mechanics into something similar is equally if not more inspired. It’s amazing what people can come up with combining mechanics that you would never think to combine. I’m very interested in what else is on the horizon. I think Alchemists speaks greatly to the evolution of board gaming, and not just because of smart phone app integration.