Alchemy! Review – Transmuting Gold into Lead

Alchemy! (exclamation! point!) from Mike Kanarek and Aviary Games, is a take-that set-collection game for 2-5 players.  In it, everyone takes on the role of an aspiring alchemy student, competing against their fellows to prove they are worthy of the most victory points, or something.  Whatever.

andrewasmAndrew:  Listen, I’m going to get this out of the way up front – we didn’t like Alchemy! very much at all, despite really, really wanting to.  However, that’s not where this review ends, because there is one central idea here that I think is really worth talking about, so stay with me.  Really.

The bare-bones explanation of the game mechanics are thus: You will draft basic elements into your cauldron, trying to match the requisite symbols on the available potion cards.  If you manage to do so, you can brew up that potion, transforming every element invested in it into a victory point.  Along the way, you will also play cards that will let you kick over the hard work of your opponents, steal from them, and generally make an unlikable nuisance of yourself.  As the selection of potions gets claimed, the game draws to a close, and whomever has the most points wins.

Get together enough Fire, for example, and you can make this not-at-all-brand-named hot sauce
Get together enough Fire, for example, and you can make this not-at-all-brand-named hot sauce

However, the big twist are the potions themselves.  See, each potion has a unique gameplay effect; some let you take extra actions, or draw extra elements, or other advantageous things.  Many of them also cause ruination for your opponents.  But the big twist on top of the big twist is that, to activate the effect of a potion, you have to take a sip, which translates into removing one of the elements you spent to make the thing in the first place.

Effectively, in Alchemy!, your victory points become a currency you can use to power abilities which are unique to you, from a selection which is randomized and that you build for yourself as the game progresses.

andrewasmAndrew:  And I think that concept is Amazing! (exclamation! point!)!  The cost-benefit of burning up a VP in order to make a big play leads to some huge gameplay potential, where we are looking to cleverly chain our potions and actions, creating bigger and bigger reactions with each play!

…Except Alchemy! doesn’t ever deliver that.  It doesn’t even promise it, really.

Rarely are any of the potential actions you can gain from burning up your precious VP worth what you are giving up in exchange.  And since many of the attack potions are just jerkish and provide you with no benefit, using them does nothing more than lower your own score while ruining another player’s efforts.

Funstealers.
Funstealers.

andrewasmAndrew:  The Potion idea is so close to genius, thinking about it makes me a little angry.  Unfortunately, instead of encouraging you to make interesting potions and strategically use up your victory points to make big plays, it leaves you with too few profitable choices and far too many destructive ones.  It could have been brilliant, but instead it comes out luke-warm at best.  It’s the chemical reaction of baking soda and water – that kid’s volcano isn’t winning any science fairs, and neither will Alchemy!.

The game’s one small expansion, Famous Alchemists, Amazing Potions, & Remarkable Places, adds, well, alchemists, potions, and places.  Places provide overarching rules changes that affect everyone at the table.  Alchemists grant variable player powers during setup, and extra potions are extra potions.  Each of these little modules can be used separately or slurried together to form a thick paste that is at least as good, if not better, than the original flavor.  They are all good ideas, but they didn’t quite cure Alchemy! of its core issues.

My frustration over the squandered potential of the Potion mechanic aside, there are other, lesser missteps; both the original and revised rulebooks are unclear and feel incomplete.  The 2-player game is a pale imitation of what the game is supposed to be.  The theme and art are incredibly uneven, being historical and realistic in some places and displaying an odd sense of humor in others (we would have preferred the humor – it gave the game much more personality).

They don't even look like they came from the same game.
These came from the same game, I swear.

And, honestly, it’s just too attacky – we absolutely tend to shy away from aggro gameplay, but everyone in my group has neatly-tucked-away claws which can deploy them at a moment’s notice if that’s what a game requires.  However, the interactions in Alchemy! aren’t just aggressive, they feel somehow petty; a C+ student running through the lab, kicking over Bunsen burners and pouring acid everywhere just because someone else might be getting an A.

Behold Unstable Reaction, avatar of Unfun! Basically, it's a big F&%$ You to the rest of the table.
Behold Unstable Reaction, avatar of Unfun! Basically, it’s a big F&%$ You to the rest of the table.

andrewasmAndrew:  I think that my negative reaction to this game is primarily catalyzed (hah, chemistry) by how close to awesome it sometimes veers.  Had it not shown such promise, I don’t think I would have felt nearly so let down.  And that gives me a ton of hope, at least, for Kanarek’s future ventures.  I am tremendously hopeful that from these seeds will sprout new games that resonate positively with us.

We encourage you to check out Alchemy! for yourselves and decide if it would fit you – for a group that really enjoys a take-that slugfest, it may fit the bill.  But for many reasons, we feel like Alchemy! just didn’t have a winning formula.

Have you played Alchemy!?  Do you like it for reasons we seem to have missed?  Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

(Thanks to Aviary games for providing our copy for review.  Their generosity didn’t influence our opinions.)

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