Tag Archives: board games

Box art of the Alchemists board game

Games I love: Alchemists

I have a bad habit of dismissing games based on the fact that they sound boring, only to go onto try them and love them. This years was particularly bad as I first dismissed Splendor, fell in love with it, was furious when is failed to win the Spiel Des Jahre, which went to Camel Up, a game which I also thought sounded lame before playing it and realising it totally deserved the award. The thing is, until you try games out, you never know which ones you’re going to love and which ones will send you to sleep. And you never have enough time to test them all out, which can be very frustrating.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of Alchemists, another game which didn’t interest me when I first heard about it but which I am happy to report is an excellent addition to my collection. In Alchemists, you play an alchemist working in a medieval university attempting to discover the essential nature of the eight “alchemicals” – ingredients which you can use to make magical potions and poisons.

Box art of the Alchemists board game

At the heart of the game is a concept which will be very familiar to players of logic puzzles and, er, Cluedo. When you test two ingredients together they will either result in producing a “positive” potion, a “negative” poison, or a very tasty soup which does nothing whatsoever. You understand the underlying alchemistry (is that a word? It is now) behind it all and so the more information you have, the more you can narrow down the possibilities about each ingredients’ essential qualities. If you had the time and resources to test all the ingredients, fame and academic prestige would be all yours. But you don’t have the resources, and you have a number of rivals each trying the same thing.

At the heart of the game is a phone app which you use to test the ingredients and a number of other actions. Board games which rely on apps (as opposed to apps which keep score or replace basic functions such as rolling dice) are quite a new thing – as far as I know only Alchemists and the upcoming XCOM board game have taken this step. They’re controversial as there are concerns that it is just a gimmick. While this possibility is not inconceivable, I can say that with Alchemists it adds a new dimension to the game which wouldn’t be possible without the app. The game is in fact playable without the app, but it relies on having one person play a facilitator. It’s clear that the app opens up new possibilities for gameplay, which is why this game feels so fresh. Probably the best thing I can about the app is that it doesn’t get in the way. It’s straightforward to use and allows you to concentrate on the game itself (I suspect having a human facilitator would be far more intrusive).

Screenshot from Alchemists app demonstrating it identifying cardsScreenshot from app showing the reaction from the previous image

The best aspect of this game is the way it parodies academic life. The goal of the game is to finish with the highest academic reputation, but that’s an ephemeral thing. You can concentrate on research, but will quickly find yourself cash strapped. You can sell out and flog your potions to passing adventurers for their own nefarious purposes, but risk your reputation. Most research is done by exploiting students, but if you poison them then they demanding money; you can test potions on yourself for free, but that means you have to suffer all the negative consequences if they turn out to be poison. If you don’t publish enough theses before the two academic conferences in the game take place, you will lose reputation and you can gain reputation by debunking your rivals’ theses. You can spend the game riding the coat-tails of the players doing the real research and do very well for yourself. Both times I’ve played it, I’ve found myself getting extremely caught up in the theme.

Indeed, the way the theme and the game mechanisms mesh – aided by the app of course – is remarkable. While it takes a while explaining the logic behind the alchemicals and there are some basic rules that need explaining, once you get that out of the way it really is a very smooth game to play. Not all the rules need to be learned in round one, which means you can progressively explain them as they come up. For a game with as many moving parts as this one has, that really is something.

Before I get too hung up on the game’s brilliance, I do have a couple of criticisms. The pieces you use to keep track of the results of your various experiments don’t fit into the board they are intended to be inserted into. There’s a knack to wedge them in, but a lot of players seem to really struggle with them. Fortunately, the publishers CGE have announced that they will be replacing these with slightly smaller counters. A bigger issue however are the pads which you are supposed to record your results on. The various symbols on these are quite small have been faded out. I struggle to see them clearly, and my partially sighted wife has a real problem. I plan to mock up my own laminated versions soon.

These production niggles however don’t interfere with what is a really great game which, while having some very familiar mechanics feels remarkably fresh and original. The theme and app make it surprisingly accessible for a game of this length and complexity. If board games with apps are going to be a thing, Alchemists really does point the way forward and give us cause for optimism.

Games I love: Twilight Imperium

I held off from getting into Twilight Imperium for years. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (“TI3”) – I never tried the earlier editions – is by definition a pretty preposterous game. The main thing it is famous for is it’s length. The longest it’s taken me to play the basic game is 14 hours, including setup time. The shortest, this weekend, was 8 – although that doesn’t include me procrastinating the night before setting up as much of the game as possible before the players were due to arrive the next morning.

Straight off the bat, if you don’t like long games this is not the game for you. This is something you want to play if you like the idea of an intense, full day of negotiation and strategising, as much a test of endurance as it is a contest of skill. Most games I’ve played have included a mid-game lull in which all the players are exhausted and bamboozled, unclear about what the hell they’re doing. It’s a mark of the game’s quality that no-one has ever walked out at that point, preferring to stick it out to the bitter end.

So what’s it about? The setting of TI3 is a decayed galactic empire in the far future. A race of four armed aliens, the Lazax, ruled the galaxy for millennia but were eventually overthrown and vanished in a cosmic huff. Each player runs one of the remaining factions as they attempt to realise their own imperialist ambitions and take over. The game involves building up fleets of spaceships, discovering new worlds, warring with rival factions and politicking in the galactic assembly. Everyone has their own secret objectives and a series of public objectives are revealed as the game goes on. Meeting those objectives earns you points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

It looks beautiful. The artwork on the cards and hexes (the game uses a modular board of hexes which is different each game) is beautiful, as are the space ships. It’s huge. Admittedly, we tend to play using the “larger map” option, but our dining room table cannot really accommodate more than four players – last time a friend of mine ended up bringing over a couple of desks to give us somewhere to put stuff on.

Mechanically, the game is interesting. I read an article yesterday in which Scott Nicholson argues that the current boom in tabletop gaming is due to a fusion of European (resource management, economic, somewhat abstract, strategic) and American (thematic, conflict oriented, dice-heavy) styles of games. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before but I think it’s true, and nowhere is it more apparent than in TI3 which blends the two to the nth degree.

On the one hand, it is the ultimate “Ameritrash” game, yet at its heart is a game in which you have to carefully make use of the planets in your empire’s limited resources, and one of the main mechanics is “role allocation” – a mechanic that first came to prominence in the classic Euro game Puerto Rico. As such, you can play the game as a roleplaying game or a strategy game. In reality, most players tend to do a bit of both.

It isn’t a perfect game by any means. The game length is, frankly, because of its flabbiness. Some will find that lack of sleek design a real turn-off. Personally, I don’t mind. What I mind somewhat more is that some of the factions/alien races are significantly weaker than others, and that the system for politics is underwhelming. The latter is something that I am the most disappointed with. A number of games “do politics” better than this one. Warrior Knights and even the Game of Thrones board game has a more interesting system, and I just received my copy of Democracy: Majority Rules which focuses on this aspect, which I will hopefully get round to reviewing soon. Yet what promises to be a really exciting central aspect of TI3 – there are dozens of “politics cards” which you can potentially use in the game, all of which include a proposition the galactic council must vote on which adds new rules or even gives individual players additional points – all too often falls completely flat.

But one of the great things about TI3 is that it is so modular. The base game and especially its two expansions include a whole series of options which you can include or omit. I have to admit that I’m a bit of an all in kind of player, and prefer to include as many as possible. Introducing house rules is not only straightforward but, I get the impression, almost required for any group which plays the game regularly. If you’re going to spend an entire Saturday playing, it only makes sense that you would want to play it “your” way. Because of its modular nature, hacking a new rule is quite straightforward – as will probably be the case with politics the next time we play (I shall certainly be making use of the Democracy: Majority Rules gavel!).

Interestingly, Twilight Imperium itself is responsible for the creation of an empire. It’s designer Christian T. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight Games and its initial success is what gave that company the start it needed. I’m always a little surprised that they haven’t tried making more of its IP than they have. In the early days it had a spin off RPG and a collectable card game, but these days only Rex: Final Days of an Empire, itself a reimplentation of the classic Dune board game, is in print. I would probably buy a Twilight Imperium Living Card Game in a hot second. I suppose Star Wars fills this slot for FFG these days.

This game is not for everyone, but if you like the idea of spending a day – or even a weekend – immersing yourself in a grand space opera, there is no other game that quite delivers in the way TI3 does. You won’t get to play it every week, but every time you do play it will feel special and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Scrabulous and IP Wars

When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn’t mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied “cos i couldn’t be bothered!” Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone.

The thing is, the Wordscraper thing is about the most interesting thing about this whole sorry saga. Cellan-Jones misses the point. Badly. While Scrabulous did indeed cross the line by using the same look as Scrabble and using a name that was far too close to a trademarked property, the fact is you can’t copyright an idea and they have been free to set up an almost identical game.

Intellectual property law is at its murkiest when it comes to games. History is littered with people who sold their ideas to companies before their games made it big, least of all Scrabble-inventor Alfred Butts. How do you make money out of a boardgame when people can replay it countless times? Ironically, the answer that Mattell and Hasbro have come up with is to produce a whole range of merchandise. You can buy the official Scrabble dictionary of course, and a special turntable for your board. You can get the deluxe edition and if you want a really big game why not try Super Scrabble (unbalanced in my view)? In a hurry? Try Scramble. On the move? Try Travel Scrabble. They’ve even produced a pink edition to raise money for breast cancer research. Scrabulous hardly dented that market – if anything it helped it.

The point is, they’ve already realised that the real money to be made is not in the game itself but in creating a range of branded tat for the fans to buy. With that in mind, getting Scrabulous banned looks like a pretty bad business move. It probably won’t cost them much, but it has created a lot of ill will and has been built around getting people to sign up to their own, flash heavy and vastly inferior Facebook app. Meanwhile, the Agarwalla brothers appear to have got away with it. The big guys may have won, but it is a pretty empty victory.

Ultimately, this isn’t how big businesses are going to survive in the global internet marketplace. The Agarwalla’s may have overstepped the mark, but it isn’t hard to stay on the right side of the law. Frankly, if Mattel and Hasbro had any sense, they’d encourage developers to compete to produce the best internet version of the game, offering a license that would allow people to publish the game with their blessing, so long as it included a prominent link back to the official website (admittedly, contractually they may be prevented from doing this even if they wanted do but given how long it took their developers to produce a Facebook app and the poor job they made of it, it looks like we can safely add this to their list of cock ups). Think of the free advertising! Ironically, at a different end of the empire, Hasbro has been experimenting with something very similar. Their Wizards of the Coast publishing arm, which produces Dungeons and Dragons, positively encourages other publishers to use their system (albeit with restrictions, something which has admittedly caused some bad feeling). The result was to take a failing brand and catapult it right back to the top of the industry.

Not only are intellectual property laws becoming increasingly hard to enforce, in many ways they are becoming a serious hindrance to making money, which is what they exist to do in the first place. Properties such as boardgames that were devised in the middle of the 20th century (and superheroes for that matter) are a particularly interesting cultural battleground because to those of us who have grown up with them, they feel like public property. Ultimately, this becomes a question about who owns popular culture. The corporates won’t be allowed to win that battle, whether they want to or not.