It’s rare to see a board game that doubles as an effective piece of satire, but Alchemists manages to lampoon academic research and publishing, while providing intricate and interesting gameplay. Watch:
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Alchemists, a worker placement logical deduction game for 2-4 players. As usual, the Rules Gremlin is here to let us know when things get a little confusing. So! Let me show you how to play!Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Alchemists, a worker placement logical deduction game for 2-4 players. As usual, the Rules Gremlin is here to let us know when things get a little confusing. So! Let me show you how to play!
In Alchemists, you and your friends play academic wizards trying to determine the secret building blocks of various potion ingredients, and then publishing theories on your research for money and fame. You’ll experiment by combining ingredients in your cauldron and then, using a free app, discover which potion you’ve made by drinking it yourself, or feeding it to a hapless intern. Tracking your results plays out like a logic puzzle. Once you think you know the molecule that underlies an ingredient, you can publish a theory on it. As in real life, you don’t necessarily have to be right. And if you go on a hunch, your opponents might successfully debunk your theory!
Key to playing Alchemists is understanding the game’s logical underpinning. There are 8 ingredients in the game. Each one of these ingredients corresponds to a different magical molecule, which the game calls “alchemicals.” Which alchemical corresponds to which ingredient is randomized at the beginning of the game, when you fire up the app. Your main goal is to figure out these relationships, and exploit that knowledge for your own gain.
An alchemical is made of three circles A circle can be red, green, or blue. It can be big or small. And it can be positive or negative.
When two ingredients are combined, if each underlying alchemical has a circle with a matching sign, a matching colour, and a different size, those two ingredients will make a certain potion. A big and little red positive circle combination makes a Healing potion. A big and little green positive combo makes a speed potion. A big and little blue positive combo makes a wisdom potion.
The same types of combinations with negative symbols make potions with the opposite effects: poison, paralysis, and insanity.
When you combine two ingredients, you scan those cards using the app, and it tells you what kind of potion they make. You don’t know the corresponding alchemicals yet, but now you have a hint.
So let’s say that a toad and a feather make a Healing potion. You find those two ingredients in your secret notebook, and place a Healing token where they intersect. You know that neither of the two underlying alchemicals for the toad or the feather can have a red minus circle, because that combination wouldn’t give you a Healing potion. So you can cross out all the alchemicals with red minus circles beneath both of these ingredients. A big part of the game is making deductions like these to narrow down which alchemicals fit which ingredients.
Each ingredient also has one exact opposite; when two opposites are combined, they make a neutral potion. So an alchemical match-up like this one, where none of the circles would make anything viable, produces a neutral potion.
If your phone’s camera is wonky, you can punch in the ingredients by hand. There’s also a web app if you don’t have a phone. Each new game session generates a code, so everyone at the table can download the app, punch in the game code, and get the same results when they scan their ingredients. And if you are Amish, you can elect a gamemaster to oversee this board where the randomization can be done manually, and you can hand your cards over to the gamemaster and which results they produce. But whichever sucker is in charge of that board doesn’t get to play, because all the answers are right there. Still, it’s nice to know that that Alchemists is technically playable after the zombie apocalypse.
With that groundwork laid, here’s how you actually play Alchemists!
The game is played in 6 rounds. The first step is choosing player order. Beginning with the starting player and going clockwise, you determine how early you’re willing to get out of bed, by placing your coloured flask on one of these spaces. The later you wake up, the sweeter the perk you get: 1 ingredient card, 1 favor card and 1 ingredient card, 3 ingredient cards, and so on. These cards are all drawn from their face-down decks. If you wake up mega-early, you have to pay a coin to buy yourself breakfast. Each of these spaces can accommodate only 1 player.
The space at the very bottom of the track is for wizards who have been paralyzed by drinking a bum potion. We’ll talk about that later, once our faces thaw out.
In the first round, only these areas are accessible. Depending on the player count, you’ll have between 4-6 cubes to you can place, but in the first round, you only get to use 3 of them. The extras get stacked down here until round 2.
Once everyone has chosen a spot on the turn order track and collected their goodies, play begins in reverse turn order. The player who woke up the latest goes first, paradoxically. This is because the late-rising player is only declaring his actions – and letting the other players know what he intends to do. During this step, if you’ve slept in the longest, you play all of your cubes to the different action spaces in one go, on the lowest rung. Then the next-sleepiest player places his or her cubes one row up, and so on. When everyone is finished declaring their actions, the first actions get resolved from top to bottom. So the player who wakes up the earliest sees what everyone else is going to do, reacts accordingly, and has his or her preferred actions take effect first when everything gets resolved.
If a row has multiple boxes, you can play cubes to declare multiple actions. If the boxes are connected, you have to play two cubes together to take that action. So here, the first action costs one cube, and the second action costs two cubes. In a 2-player game, the spaces marked with a “3” aren’t used.
After everyone has placed their cubes, actions are resolved like this: the top row, first action, happens first. Then the next row with cubes in it, first action. Then the following row, first action. Then the first row, second action, then the second action in this row. So top to bottom, in columns.
The areas around the academy resolve in a specific order, so: this one first, then this one, then this one, all around the arc of the school, and ending with the Drinking a Potion space. Remember that in the first round, these spaces are unavailable.
If you foraged by playing one or more of your cubes here, you can either take a face-up ingredient card, or draw one face-down from the deck. These cards don’t get replenished until the next round, so it’s first come, first served. If there are no face-up cards left, you have to try your luck with the deck. When all of the foraging actions have been taken, discard any remaining face-up ingredients.
Taking one or more transmutation actions lets you discard an ingredient card face-down in exchange for 1 gold.
If you took an action here, you can pay gold to buy one of the face-up Artifact cards by paying the cost in the top-left corner of the card. Cards with immediate effects take effect uh… immediately, and other cards give you powers that last the whole game long. In either case, you play these cards out in front of you. Most are worth points at the end of the game. Like the ingredient cards, Artifact cards are not replenished, but new ones get dealt out later in the game.
These spaces let you combine two ingredient cards in your cauldron to make a potion.
Put the cards on the little ledge, and then depending on where you placed your cubes, drink the potion yourself, or feed it to a student. Tap the correct option in the app, scan the cards, and discard the ingredients. Then show the other players the result you got. Take a matching token and put it on your secret player board, and draw any logical conclusions you can in your notebook. You also have to place a token on your public board so that everyone knows the differe nt potions you’ve made.
If the potion the student drank is positive, it’s all good. If it’s negative, then each wizard who tests a potion on a student after you has to pay 1 gold to the bank. That’s pretty funny, right?
If you chose to drink the potion yourself, the experiment is free, but you could suffer the effects of a negative potion:
If you drink an insanity potion, you lose 1 reputation point.
If you drink poison, your cube goes into this quarantine space, and you’ll have 1 less cube to use in the next round.
If you drink a paralysis potion, you move your flask to the very last space on the turn order track. It’s hard to get out of bed when you can’t feel your legs, so you’re waking up dead last next round. If multiple players get paralyzed, they wake up in the order in which they were paralyzed. At the end of each round, the starting player token gets passed clockwise. It skips over anyone who’s paralyzed. If everyone is paralyzed, it gets passed to the player who would have been next, despite the paralysis.
At the beginning of Round 2, everyone can claim their extra action cubes. The more complicated action spaces are now available. Here’s what’s up.
From Round 2 onward, a new adventurer shows up here, wanting to buy some potions. This is a way for you to both test out some ingredients and make some money on the side. It costs 2 cubes to sell a potion to an adventurer. The bottom of the tile shows which potions the adventurer wants to buy. This meathead wants a Healing potion, a Speed potion, or an Insanity potion. (Heh – notice that he’s not interested in a Wisdom potion.)
When it comes time to resolve this potion-selling area, there is a whole bluffing mini-game to re-order everyone’s cubes that i’ll explain in a moment. Hang tight, and we’ll loop back to it shortly.
When it’s your turn to sell a potion, you take one of your two cubes, and place it under the potion you intend to sell. This blocks that potion off from your opponents, and they can’t sell that potion in this round. The game board is double-sided; in a 3-player game, playing a cube on either of the first two potions blocks off both for the other players. In a 2-player game, the “3” spaces aren’t used, which means only one player can sell a potion. That doesn’t mean that only one player can place their cubes in this area though. The number of potions that can be sold is always player count minus one, so your cubes might go to waste. Alchemists is a cutthroat game!
Now is a good time to mention that if it’s ever your turn to perform an action, and you get completely hosed like this, you can decline your action by throwing your cubes into this space on the board. At the end of the round, you draw one Favor card for every two cubes you had to abandon. One abandoned cube gets you… a-nothing!
So one cube indicates which potion you’re trying to sell. The other cube goes on this guarantee of quality list. If you guarantee you’ll make the exact potion – same colour, same sign – that you pledged to make, you can charge 4 coins for it. If you think you can make a potion with the right sign, but you’re fuzzy on the colour, you choose this option. If you think you can make a neutral potion, or a potion where the sign doesn’t come out the opposite of what the adventurer’s expecting, you choose this guarantee for 2 coins. If you’re a guaranteed peddler of unmitigated garbage, you can always count on getting one coin for your concoction. A super-important and easy-to-miss point is that these spaces aren’t exclusive: multiple players can offer the same guarantee.
As with drinking a potion, you set up the ingredients in your cauldron, and select “Sell Potion.” Then you tell the app which potion you pledged to make. The app won’t tell you which exact potion you made, but it will tell you which guarantee you met. You discard the ingredients and show the results from the app to your opponents. If the result from the app is as good or better than the guarantee you made on the board, you sell the potion for the coins listed next to your guarantee. If you pooched it, and the result is worse than your guarantee, you don’t get any money for your potion. And if your result is a no smoking symbol or a cruddy black bottle, you lose 1 point of reputation.
But the results you get can also help you whittle down the logic puzzle in your notebook. If you got the null symbol, then you know those two ingredients neutralize each other. Neutralizing pairs of alchemicals are separated by dark and light colour banding in your notebook. If you tried to make a Health potion and you got this symbol, you know you got the plus sign correct, but the colour is wrong, so you made either a green Speed or a blue Wisdom potion. You can put a multi-coloured token like this one in your notebook to remember the result. You also know that your ingredients didn’t neutralize each other, so you can cross those alchemicals out. If you got this symbol, you know you mixed a negative potion, but it could be any colour. Use a white negative token to remember that. You don’t have to put these tokens out on your public board like you did when you were experimenting.
Now, this potion selling process is obviously high stakes, especially when one player might be left high and dry by being last on the list. That’s why i mentioned there was this extra mini-game to re-order the cubes before the actions get resolved. Here’s how it works.
If multiple players want to sell a potion, then before anything happens here, everyone gets a chance to offer the adventurer a discount by choosing a card from their personal discount deck. The players each pick a discount, and everyone reveals their cards at the same time. The cubes are then re-ordered by whoever offered the deepest discount with the most happy faces on the card. If players are tied for happy faces, you maintain the original order between those players.
This discount affects your guarantee, though. You can’t guarantee a potion at a level where the discount would take the potion price to zero or below. So if you offer a discount of 3 coins, your only choice is to guarantee your potion at the 4-coin level!
If selling a potion wasn’t complicated enough, there’s one more mechanic to keep in mind. This track, where you gain and lose reputation, is divided into zones: blue, green, and red. If your flask is in the green zone, you get 1 extra smiley face added to your bid. In the blue zone, you get 1 extra smiley face on your bid, and you get paid 1 extra coin for any potion you sell. In the red zone, you have to charge 1 less gold for your potion, because word gets around that your potions are hot garbage. This means that if you’re in the red zone, you can’t offer a 3 coin discount, because no guarantee will take your potion price above zero.
There’s also (pause for significance) a rubber-banding effect that happens in these zones. Whenever you lose reputation when your flask begins in the green zone, you lose an extra point of reputation. This is because people expected better of you! When you lose reputation when your flask is sitting in the blue zone, you lose an additional two points. But every time you lose reputation in the red zone, you lose one point less.
Okay! Are we finished learning how to sell a potion? Phew! That was tough. (to gremlin) How you doing? Good? Okay, buckle up. On to the most complex space on the board: Publishing a Theory.
PUBLISH A THEORY
When you place cubes on these spaces, you can either publish a theory you have about which ingredient represents which alchemical symbol, or you can agree with someone else’s theory that has already been published.
It costs 1 gold to publish a theory. Take an alchemical symbol and place it on a particular ingredient’s book. You can only publish a theory for an ingredient that doesn’t already have a theory published. Then you put one of your coloured seals on the book to put your name on the theory. You immediately get 1 point of reputation. Note that your theory doesn’t actually have to be correct. That’s where hedging comes into play.
On the other side of your seal is a secret bet indicating how confident you are in your own theory. At the end of the game, all will be revealed, and you’ll find out which ingredients correctly map onto which alchemical symbols. Your gold and silver starred seals get you 5 or 3 points at the end of the game, but only if they’re on a theory that is correct. The unstarred seals aren’t worth any points, but they do protect you against a wild guess in case someone tries to debunk your theory. We’ll see how that works in a moment. For now, if you’re unsure about the sign of a certain colour in the alchemical – whether it’s positive or negative – place a seal with that colour on the book.
If you want to ride another player’s coattails, you can endorse a theory. You pay 1 gold to the bank, and 1 gold to the player whose theory you’re endorsing, and then you put one of your seals on that ingredient’s book. You don’t earn any reputation for doing this, and you can’t endorse your own theories. But if you use a starred seal, the endorsement could be worth some points to you at the end of the game if the theory proves correct. Why even bother using an unstarred seal to endorse if it doesn’t get you any points? Well, endorsements also count towards earning you the Top Alchemist Award, which we’ll look at shortly. You can also win grants!
If you publish or endorse theories on two of the ingredients listed on one of these grant tiles, you take the tile, place it face-down on your public board, and take 2 coins from the bank. The tile will be worth 2 points to you at the end of the game. For your second grant and beyond, you have to publish or endorse theories for three of the ingredients on one of the available grant tiles. Grant tiles are first come, first served.
It’s entirely possible that one of your opponents is full of baloney, and has published a bogus theory. If you have better information, you can debunk theories by playing your cubes here. If you successfully debunk a theory, you get 2 reputation points.
Alchemists has Master and Apprentice variants. You can change modes by toggling a switch in the app. Debunking is slightly more complicated in the Master variant. Here’s how it works in Apprentice mode:
Select “Debunk Theory” from the app and put the phone out in the middle of the table. You can only select an ingredient that has a theory published. You’re trying to prove that the sign on one of the colours on the theory token is wrong. Tap the colour you’re disproving, and select “Confirm.”
The app will reveal the proper sign for that colour in that ingredient’s alchemical. If it matches the theory’s token, you messed up! You lose 1 point of reputation. You’ve also just provided information to your opponents that they might not already have.
If the sign is the opposite of what’s on the token for that colour, you’ve successfully debunked the theory! You get 2 reputation points. You kick the theory token off the book like it stopped paying rent. You flip over all the seals on the theory to expose the sloppy scholarship. Anyone who used a starred seal loses 5 points of reputation! Anyone who used an unstarred seal with a colour that doesn’t match the one you disproved loses 5 reputation points too! If the seal matches the colour you just disproved, that player is safe from repercussions. All of the seals get booted off the book and can’t be reused for the rest of the game. Note that players don’t lose any grants they earned after their bogus theories are exposed. If you successfully debunk a theory, and you have a cube on the Publish Theory space, then you can skip the queue and immediately publish a new theory, as long as that new theory is either about the ingredient you just debunked a theory on, or your new theory uses the alchemical token you just debunked. You can’t re-publish the exact same theory that you just debunked if you’re publishing immediately, but nothing’s stopping you from publishing a bogus theory that you – and everyone at the table – already knows is false, at a later point in the game. We’ll see why you might want to do that in just a moment.
You can even debunk your own theory. If you successfully debunk it, you get 2 points, but if you didn’t hedge your bet correctly, you lose 5 points, for a net loss of 3 rep. You lose the three points off your current reputation track score, instead of going up 2 and then losing 5. It seems like a picky point, but it matters because of the way those modifiers on the three scoring zones work.
In the Master debunking variant, you have to ask the app whether the ingredient in question plus another ingredient will make a certain potion. You don’t have to spend any ingredient cards to do this.
Let’s say someone posted this theory of feathers. And let’s say you suspect that the blue aspect of feathers is actually negative, not positive, because you know that if you combine a feather with a toad, you get an Insanity potion. So in the app, you punch in feather + toad, and then the Insanity symbol. Then you tell the table that you intend to show that the blue aspect of the published theory is wrong. And you push the “Confirm” button.
The app will either confirm or deny that feather plus toad equals insanity. If you failed to debunk the theory, you lose 2 points, as before. If you’re right, then all the consequences from the Apprentice variant happen as usual.
It’s possible that your demonstration disproves TWO published theories. Let’s say that before you can debunk the bogus feather theory, some goober publishes the theory that toad’s alchemical has a negative blue aspect. Your demonstration disproves both theories, so you debunk them both at once, get rid of the tokens, flip all the seals, and hand out consequences. Some players may stand to lose 10 points of reputation with a move like this!
In some cases, you can show that two theories can’t possibly coexist. If this was the theory of mushrooms and this was the theory of fiddleheads, and you asked the app if these two ingredients make a Strength potion, and the app says “yes,” then something’s not right: these theories can’t both be correct, because one of these two green circles would have to be small, and the other one large. You still get two points for debunking, but you don’t flip over all the seals and kick out the theories, because it’s not clear which of these two theories is wrong. But you do put conflict tokens on those theories. These theories no longer count towards earning players any grants, or towards the top alchemist award, which we’ll talk about soon. If a theory with a conflict token is fully debunked later on, both conflict tokens get removed, and the once-conflicted theory is treated normally again, even though it may still be wrong. If you demonstrate a conflict that has already been demonstrated, you lose 1 reputation point. Nobody has time for your plagiarism.
At the end of every round, whoever has the most published theories and endorsements gets the Top Alchemist award, which is worth 1 point. Theories in conflict don’t count towards this award. All tied players get 1 point. Note that it still doesn’t matter if these theories are correct or not! You just rack up points every round anyway. It’s almost as if the system encourages you to publish bogus scientific theories. Hmm!
The unused cubes in this space get returned to their players. Every two unused cubes earn 1 Favor card. A single cube gets nothing.
Cubes that wound up in the hospital after their owners drank poison get moved to the unused cubes space, where they can be retrieved at the end of next round.
Move a new adventurer tile onto the board. At the beginning of rounds 3 and 5, you’ll uncover a Conference tile. Put it in this space on the board. The conferences happen after the Drink Potion actions are resolved. Players who meet the conference requirements gain points, and players who don’t, lose points. The conference tiles are double-sided – use one side for the Apprentice variant, and the other side for the Master variant.
The conference tiles also make you cycle the artifact cards. At the first conference, scrap the artifacts and replace them with the level-2 cards, and likewise, knock out the cards and replace them with the level-3 artifacts during the second conference.
Trash all the face-up ingredients and deal 5 new ones. Shuffle the deck if you run out of cards. Take the flasks off the order spaces, except any that are paralyzed. The starting player token gets passed clockwise, skipping over any paralyzed players.
In the final round, the Drink Potion/Test on Student space is covered up by this Exhibition board. The board is double-sided to accommodate different player counts. Select “Final Round” on the app.
The Exhibition gives you the chance to show off your potion-making skills, and to get rid of your leftover ingredients cards. When it’s your turn, move a cube beneath the potion you intend to make. Put the ingredients in your cauldron, tap “Exhibit Potion” in the app, tell the judges which potion you’re attempting to make, and scan your cards. You lose a reputation point if you fail to make that exact potion, and you have to put your cube down here. If you succeed, you gain a point of reputation, and you put your cube beneath that potion. This limits the options for the other players. If you succeed, but you’re not the first exhibitor, your cube goes in here and you don’t get any points, but you do get the chance to pick up some points for mixing the opposite potion. If you spend cubes and ingredient cards to demonstrate both the positive and negative versions of a certain colour, whether or not you’re first to do so, you prove that you’ve mastered that colour, and you gain 2 reputation points.
Like the other spaces, the exhibition is optional. Once the exhibition is over, finish out the round by awarding the Top alchemist prize and taking care of the unused cubes as usual.
At the end of the final round, the reputation points you’ve earned turn into victory points. This is to prevent the different zone reputation biases from swinging your score up and down as you count up the final points – the zones are no longer in effect. Tally up the points from your artifact cards and your grant tiles. Unused Favor cards are worth 2 gold pieces each. You can buy extra points for 3 gold apiece. Keep your leftover gold in case you need to break a tie.
Then tap the “Show Answers” button on the app for the Big Reveal. The app will show you, once and for all, which alchemical corresponds to which ingredient. Flip the seals on the theories one by one. For every correct theory, the players score the points on their seals. Coloured seals used to hedge bets don’t earn any points. If a theory is wrong, players who used starred seals lose 4 points. An unstarred seal that’s improperly hedged loses the player 4 points as well, but a properly heged seal doesn’t cost the player any points. To determine whether a seal is properly hedged or not, compare the wrong theory against the correct theory. If two or more circles are the wrong symbol, none of the seals are properly hedged. If only one of the circles has the wrong sign, and that circle matches the seal, the seal is properly hedged. If it doesn’t match, it’s not properly hedged. Remember that hedging your bet with a seal means that you were unsure about a single colour. Ignore any conflict tokens when scoring.
The player with the most victory points wins. Leftover coins break ties. If coins are tied, the game is tied! Guess you’ll have to play again.
To set up the game, flip the board to the proper side based on player count. Shuffle the adventurer tiles, and put one back in the box at random CHUCK A TILE. Slip the first conference tile in under the second adventurer, and the second conference tile above the bottom adventurer. The conferences are double-sided, depending on whether you’re playing the Apprentice or Master variant.
Split the artifact deck into levels i, ii, and iii, and shuffle each stack. Deal 3 cards face-up from each deck. The cards in the ii and iii stacks can’t be bought until those conferences come up, but everyone can see what’s on the horizon so they can plan out their strategy accordingly.
Result tokens go here, money goes here, and 5 ingredients get dealt to the board. Put the ingredients deck here.
Each player takes a public board with 2 coins, and 6, 5, or 4 cubes for a 2, 3, or 4 player game. You get 3 cubes in the first round, and pile the leftovers on the adventurer tiles for round 2 and beyond.
Take your deck of bid cards and your seals, and keep them secret. Draw 2 Favor cards, keep 1, and discard the other. Draw 3 ingredients from the deck for the Apprentice variant, and 2 ingredients for the Master variant. Assemble your cauldron, and tear off a fresh notebook sheet to go at the bottom of your deduction board.
Put the grants on the theory board, and place your flasks on space 10 of the reputation track. The starting player token goes to whoever was most recently in a lab.
Press the “Start New Game” button on the app. This will randomize the ingredients and alchemicals for your game. Write down the code from the app in case your dog eats your phone, or you want to queue up the same configuration on multiple devices.
There’s a lot more in Alchemists to explore, beyond what this video has covered. You can check out all of the artifacts and their powers, or the perks that the different Favor cards give you. The manual shows you different techniques for making logical deductions beyond what I’ve covered. But this video is definitely enough to help you fake it til you make it in the world of magical academic publishing! Now you’re ready to play Alchemists!
At 14:27 in the section about bidding for potion customers, YouTube viewer Little BlueCubes pointed out a bunch of stuff i neglected to mention! Your standing on the reputation track can add happy faces to your bid to discount your potion and sell to a customer first. If you’re in the blue or green zones, you get a bonus happy face. And in the blue zone, you can charge an extra gold coin for any guarantee you offer to a customer.
In the same callout box in the rulebook (which i completely ignored because i have this bizarre blindspot to rulebook callout boxes) it mentions that any time you lose reputation (the red thumbs-down symbol) and you’re in the green zone, you lose 1 extra reputation point. If you’re in the blue zone, you lose two extra reputation points whenever your reputation goes down. That’s not a per-point ding – if you lose 3 reputation while you’re in the green zone, you lose 3 + 1.
If your reputation’s already in the gutter and you’re in the red zone, you lose one less reputation point any time you lose reputation. So if you lose 3 rep in the red zone, you actually only lose 2. But you have to charge 1 less gold for any guarantee you offer to a customer. You can’t ever go below 1 reputation point.
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