Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 60mins
Play Time (Goof): 60mins
Producer/s: Tasty Minstrel Games, Manifest Destiny,
As I continue down this ever evolving path as a tabletop gamer, I find my tastes in games somewhat changing. Not so much on the mechanics side of gaming, although always on the lookout for a cool new spin on mechanics I really enjoy. But moreso in terms of theming. When I was but a wee gamer (as in young, not someone who played with urine – that’s just gross) if something didn’t have a cool dragon or a wicked spaceship then I was totally not down with the happenings *crosses arms in cool guy pose* but as my interests further develop and change, I find myself looking for different themes. I want to see cool ideas come to life, throw myself in the world of something different. In a way, I think I’ve found the games I want to play when I need my dragon or spaceship fixes. When I want to throw myself into a familiar world I have plenty to choose from. But when I want something unique, I have to look further abroad than the swords and laser pistols.
And such a search has led me to alchemy manufacturing.
Ars Alchimia is an interesting little game. And when I say little, I mean you will have absolutely no trouble fitting it on pretty much any coffee table.
I was introduced to worker placement back in my early University days. Specifically Lords of Waterdeep. I enjoyed the intricacies of the mechanic – how much turn order mattered, optimising which actions you took, when to go for your target or when to enhance your position in other ways. I love the vying for different areas which to be honest can get pretty heated and nasty when you need one last spot and someone takes it from you. And don’t even get me started on Argent: The Consortium – the fun but brutal game which lets you decimate your friends. What I noticed these games all have in common is the fight for a specific placement. If you place your worker where I wanted to I either have to work to get there first next time, or hurl a fireball at your face (in the game. I know I said it gets “heated” but it was a metaphor. What’s wrong with you?)
Ars Alchimia does something different with worker placement I hadn’t seen before. It takes the idea of resource allocation and adds a lot of push your luck elements to it. Someone takes your space? You can allocate additional workers to take the same action as well. Anything you place over the minimum requirement both adds to a roll you make for additional resources, and drains the resources of others looking to go there. If the extra resource roll gives you one last thing you need you have to ask yourself if placing additional workers here and risking the roll is more beneficial than using a higher number of workers than someone else in another place (a bit of a convoluted explanation but I think we got there in the end). Or maybe you take your chance with a random location and see what you get. There’s so many opportunities for exciting luck pushing with some elegant luck mitigation. And the designer has done well with the balance so a single bit of bad luck doesn’t out you for the rest of the game (unless you make a REEEEEAALLY dumb move. But I feel like at such a point it’d be more on you than the game.)
Where it sounds like Ars is all about getting a bit lucky, it’s actually not. Going to locations guarantees you majority of the goods. The luck is for a little bit extra which can make the difference in the long run. So you never feel like you wasted a turn.
I love the way completing recipes works in Ars Alchimia. When you take an action to mix at one of the forges, you might have a couple spare resources left over from your travels. These don’t go to waste. Rather than keep them for a future recipe (which you may want to do and is totally valid), you could use spare transmutation symbols to make Elixirs using one of each of two different resources. Elixirs are worth a single point a piece at the end of the game or can be used in place of any one resource. Sometimes they’re needed for recipes themselves. I just really like this level of decision making. Seemingly simple yet with important ramifications as the game continues.
I recently took a Glance at Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle and mentioned I was a bit frustrated with the market clogging up. In worker placement games, you run a similar risk to deckbuilders. If no one wants what’s out, you’ve artificially created a smaller board because people are only going to take certain options. And when you’ve only got four rounds before the game is over as in Ars, having a mechanic to wipe the board and put out all new stuff keeps things feeling fresh and open. Plus if you want something you’d better grab it now!
My original concern with the board wipe at the end of each round was it killing the momentum of the game and inflating the play time. To my surprise this just doesn’t happen. I think the simple symbology, the straightforward powers on the assistants, and the easy to learn mechanics of Ars Alchimia mean a quick glance around the board from round two or three of your first game and you understand what your choices are.
While I haven’t had it happen yet, the ability to only purchase higher recipes (the primary point scoring goals in the game) if you have completed at least one or two academic recipes first could potentially screw someone out of the game. For something so well balanced and fascinating, this feels like a poor design choice to me. If you want people not to just jump in for the big recipes then either make it a certain number of lower recipes to buy a bigger one, or have a separate location for Academia recipes only and make them worth less points or not count towards set collection. While they haven’t been fully locked out, I’ve had players frustrated (even on our very first game) they couldn’t get an academic card in a specific round. In a game which generally avoids this exact frustration in favour of clever resource management it seems a bit silly to put it back in.
Pros: +Interesting Worker Placement, +Push Your Luck, +Good Balance, +Interesting Decision Making, +Board Wipe Mechanic
Cons: – -Academic Recipes
Okay so shout out here to Tasty Minstrel Games for making me do my homework. On the back of each of the cards is a snake eating its own tail. It’s a bizarre icon which I mentioned fascinated me to Charlotte.
“Oh it’s Ouroboros or something. It’s a Greek thing”
This got me hooked. I had to know more! Thankfully Professor Google and Dr Wikipedia had me covered. And honestly well done on capturing this iconography in the theming of Ars Alchimia. I’m not going to go full research article here (although Wiki and I go way back to my University days) but essentially this symbol has been used since Ancient Egyptian times and was widely used in alchemical texts to symbolise the cycle of birth and death, and something constantly recreating itself. Look, don’t quote me in any research papers here. Have a look around at the information yourself. But as far as board game art goes, I feel this was worthy of applause.
It’s interesting to me how much the alchemy part of the Ars Alchimia theme seems to blend away into the background (despite the awesome snake thingy) but the business running theme is right at the forefront. I think largely because the mechanics really lend themselves to a Euro game mentality of optimising your turn, but with a bit of a flair for risk and probability pushing. It’s a blend I really enjoy. When you really think about it, this is pretty much how it would be to live in the world of Ars. If alchemy was just a day to day thing you manufactured, the business side of things would become more important and in the forefront (admittedly, I kinda got this game because I wanted the alchemy to pop a bit more).
Deciding when to go first, and when to utilise going later in the turn feels very much like spending extra time on job interviews and getting more staff. Other companies might be more target focused, getting to something quickly. But your extra workers will hopefully pay off in the long run.
I love the fact assistants require a worker to be placed on them in subsequent rounds. Not only does it make for some minor decision making about whether to use resources there, but in terms of theme you can imagine a middle management employee starting to work for a company, and only agreeing to stay if they get some more resources to complete their work. The artwork on these cards are all unique, which means there are characters I really enjoy seeing and forming little stories about.
Pros: ++Artwork is all unique and creates a world, +Themed Iconography, +Business Running
Cons: – -Alchemy takes a back seat
The artwork is stunning in Ars Alchimia. It’s a real Studio Ghibli meets Chibi type feel. It feels like love and care went into this dainty little game. And you can’t help but take a moment every now and then to appreciate the simplicity yet beauty of every inch (and there’s not a lot of inches really… I’ve mentioned the game is tiny yeah?). And I love the Japanese writing on it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s absolutely for me.
The board in Ars Alchimia is absolutely stunning. If you take a moment to really look at it you notice how much it adds to the feeling of living and working in this fantasy town.
I make a pretty big deal about card backs in games when they’re awful. So when they’re done right I feel it’s worthy of a mention. Every card in Ars fits with the symbology of the game, it all feels connected. And the different colours for the cards mean you can readily tell what deck is which.
I know the fact some decks go on the board is so you can go to those spaces and other decks don’t go on the board because they’re not used in the same way. I just find the little difference here somewhat annoying. I wont deduct it points because I think a solid argument could be made for the clarity of those decks being spaces you can go to as well outweighs my slight OCD, but it irks me. I’ve written this paragraph twice and deleted it before deciding it had to go in. It just rubs me the wrong way.
I feel like a bit of a prick for my next point, but I feel so strongly about how it effects my enjoyment of Ars Alchimia I’d be remiss not to discuss it.
Look, maybe this is a bit presumptuous but given the population of Japan and the fact so many people live in smaller apartments and households, I can imagine table space is a precious commodity. It makes sense for components to be smaller in order to make gaming in those situations more viable. And I presume this is why games which come out of Japan seemingly come in smaller boxes with smaller components (well it’s been my experience so far). The problem I have is the artwork of locations, the wonderfully unique and interesting characters – they don’t have the impact they deserve to. They give way to the iconography or the placement of the pieces. When the game was exported out of countries with a high population density, they really should have increased the component size.
The same can be said for the player boards. For a game which every inch of space seems to have been scientifically designed to maximise playing in as little amount of space as possible – why on Alchimia is so much space taken up by the word “extra”? A space which only gets used every few games by probably one person. Just tell the person they have an extra recipe slot! And give me more space so I stop knocking the bloody cubes everywhere. Seriously, I get the concept behind the player boards here. But they don’t work. They’re a painful nightmare. If alchemy was really a thing I would transmute these damn things into something more useful. Even a resource pool of cubes or tokens would have been easier. Arrrgh..
Pros: ++Artwork is stunning, +Excellent Board, +Card Backs
Cons: – -Game Physical Size
Ars Alchmia is a great game. Truth be told, my only real complaint about it in the review above is I wish there was more of it (in physical size, the play length etc is actually really good). Well okay… there were a couple of other things. But you read the review right? I don’t need to go over them? Did you skip straight to the conclusion???
I give Ars Alchimia:
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go take another look around online at the snake thingy.
I got my copy through Tabletop Wonderland
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