Alchemy is a hallmark of a lot of video game sidequest activities, and I was both amused and intrigued by the thought of a board game based around it.
The general setup is great and makes a lot of sense thematically: players gather materials, learn recipes (“orders”), and perform alchemy (all represented by different cards on the board). There are also cards representing assistants that can be hired to provide specific bonuses.
The key mechanics are worker placement and resource management. Collection and spending the proper resources to complete orders is the main way to collect victory points, which of course determine the winner at game end.
Taking actions is where the worker placement comes in. Players deploy workers to the board spaces associated with the card they want to claim/use. A significant amount of strategy revolves around this deployment. At least one more worker must be placed than those currently on the space (the previous workers are then moved to a general area for the rest of the round). So popular spaces become more and more “expensive” as the round goes on.
The second aspect to deciding how many workers to play involves bonus die rolls when taking certain actions. Playing extra workers increase the chances of collecting bonuses, but will also make that space require even more workers to use again in the future. It’s a really great aspect: players always get a set benefit for using the card regardless, but can mitigate the luck for bonuses if they choose.
There are other interesting elements that add depth, including players who go later in turn order getting more workers, elixirs which count as any resource when completing orders, etc. I found it all came together really well and provided interesting, meaningful choices during the game.
Ars Alchimedia has very nice looking components and attractive art, but admittedly it could have been “spruced up” a bit. It’s clearly reflective of Japanese design and original production in the economy of space everything has. There is an incredible amount of information and functionality compressed down into a general board and a bunch of different card types.
While impressive, this also makes things a bit overwhelming on the cards sometimes and leads to very small and occasionally hard to read type, particularly since TMG made the odd decision to leave the original Japanese text in addition to the translations. While the Japanese student in me likes this, from a gameplay perspective it’s unneeded and distracting. My opponent (who is not colorblind) also had some trouble telling the small colored boxed apart on the cards, which could have been easily addressed by using the symbols for each resources shown on the player’s tracking cards.
This is a hefty game cleverly packed into a small box, and as such while I generally really like the design and artistic style there are some minor resulting inconveniences.
The overall balance seemed good, with harder to get materials and orders being involved in higher scoring. Although there is luck involved in the available options on the board at any given time and some are strictly better than others. However there is a mitigating mechanism for turn order, so I think it all fits nicely and fairly.
I really enjoyed my first experience with Ars Alchimia and am excited to play it again sometime, try it with more players, etc.