Ars Alchimia, a worker placement game by Tasty Minstrel Games, sits in a really unique spot in my head. My group and I really like the game, but we all have the same feeling about it, in that we all wish the game components were actually bigger. It's not a complaint per se, because the component sizing in the game doesn't negatively impact gameplay, and it actually works in the game's favor if you are limited on table space, or like to take games on the go with you, it's that the art is so good that it almost feels criminal that it's so condensed on the components. I mean, the board itself looks like it could be a still shot from a Studio Ghibli movie, and the rest of the art, what can be fit onto cards, etc., is really nice, and I'd love to see an embiggened "deluxified" version of the game that had full sized art and cards.
As for the gameplay of Ars Alchimia, while it doesn't blow my socks off it is still really fun, and it takes the ever-popular worker placement mechanic that is so common in modern board gaming and puts its own little spin on it that works really well with the theme of the game. As with most other worker placement games there are numerous different actions that you can take by placing your workers on different spaces around the board. Ars Alchimia's spin on the genre is that each space can be used, even if there are already workers there, as long as you send at least one more of your workers to that space than were already there. Many of the spaces come with a die roll that can also be positively modified by sending more workers than you need, so there is a constant strategic decision every turn where players have to decide where they want to go, how many workers they are willing to send there, and how badly they want to try to succeed at the die roll to gain a bonus, plus the fact that you can send multiple workers can also let you impede your opponents' efforts by making it more expensive for them to take an action after you.
The overall point of the game is to have the most points after four rounds of play, which is accomplished by gathering magical resources, and then combining them at the mysterious Transmutation Forges in order to fulfill various Order cards. You can get bonus points for having a 'perfect day' at the Forge (aka rolling certain numbers on a d6 die), and you also get bonus points based on how many Orders of matching types you have completed at the end of the game. Ars Alchimia also penalizes players for each unfulfilled Order that they still have in their possession at the end of the game, so the game is a constant balancing act of gathering resources, taking up Orders that you can fulfill based on what you've gathered (or vice versa), and filling Orders of as few types as possible in order to maximize your score at the end of the game.
One of the tricky aspects of Order fulfillment is that there are three types of Orders. The basic C Orders can be taken up by anyone, while the more advanced (and more valuable) B orders can only be taken up if you have completed an Academic type order. The most valuable and hardest to fill Order type A Orders can only be taken up once you've fulfilled two Academic Orders, so unless you are going to try to corner the Academic Order market (which is very difficult to do, since everyone wants to fill at least one) you will have to dip into multiple Order types throughout the game. In the game's fourth round everyone can take up any Order type, but by that time people are usually committed to trying to complete sets of one type or another, so it pays to grab and fill Academic orders early.
There are also Assistant cards that players can gain that give them some special power or break the rules of the game in some way. The tradeoff for assistants is that you have to give up a worker each round if you want to keep an Assistant employed, although if you find a particularly powerful Assistant that works well with your play style and strategy then they are often worthwhile.
Between rounds the entire board gets re-structured, and player turns are very quick, so Ars Alchimia hums along at a good clip, and tends to keep players engaged throughout. There isn't anything revolutionary on offer here, but if you are a fan of worker placement games, especially if you like anime style art, then there is a lot to like about this game. Due to the strategic depth being dependent upon the decisions of where to send your workers, and how many workers to send, the game plays best with 3 or 4 players, but it's still a solid game with only two, even if it isn't as interesting.
A note on game length: Ars Alchimia takes place over four rounds, and those four rounds usually take just about an hour to play through. The length feels just about right for the game, but the one downside to the game-rounds is that there isn't really a way to track which round you are in, other than to remember. The gameplay is swift enough that you can usually remember which round you are in, but it would have been nice if the game included some way to physically track which round you are in.
A note on “chrome”: Ars Alchimia is well made and features quality components throughout. The art is incredible, and thanks to that art this is one game that I actually wish had significantly larger components, so that the art could feature more prominently. The small component size is actually a positive if you are space-limited though, or if you like to take games on the go with you when you travel.
The bottom line:
Ars Alchimia is a fun worker placement game with great art in a small package. There isn't anything earth shattering in the game, but the spin on worker placement is a fun one, and there are enough different decisions and strategic paths to keep the game interesting across multiple plays. I personally wish the game had a larger footprint, because I really enjoy the art style, but the small form factor can actually be seen as a positive if you are hurting for table space or like to take games on the go with you.
Get this game if:
You enjoy worker placement games.
You like anime art.
You like games that don't take up much table space and are easily portable, yet still offer depth and strategic options.
Avoid this game if:
You prefer cooperative games.
You dislike worker placement.
The copy of Ars Alchimia used for this review was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.
Ars Alchimia combines a neat worker placement/requirement mechanic with stunning art. The art is so good that I actually wish the game components were all bigger, so that the art was easier to see. As it stands, if you like anime art style, and worker placement games than Ars Alchimia is a really solid game, especially if you don't have much table space to spare.