Posted by: shatteredblog | June 1, 2011

Game Review: Theophrastus


In the days before modern science there were many practitioners of an art called Alchemy, the mixing of base substances to make potions and philters of wondrous effect. Apprentices to the art vied for the chance to study with the masters, and no master was more skilled than one Theophrastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus. The board game Theophrastus is a 2002 release by Mayfair Games, and this is my review.

Theophrastus sets the game in the midst of a test given by the master alchemist to a group of aspiring alchemists, the players. The game works well with 2-5 people playing, and the time it takes to play is variable by allowing for more or less experiments before the final scoring. The game is broken into rounds in which Theophrastus gives an experiment, represented by a card with flavor text and a recipe of reagents and then the players take turns playing cards to their own experiments attempting to duplicate the master’s work.

Reagents are represented by cards, and fall into three categories: Metals, Elements and Essentials. A given experiment such as the Erotic Philtre above will call for varying numbers of each of these. An experiment can also call for a specific reagent, in which case it is printed on the card; or it can exclude a reagent by listing it on the card after a NOT label. The other reagents in Theophrastus’ experiment are added by the players, who take turns playing a card face down to his card.

In addition to playing for the master, players work on their own duplicate experiment attempting to come as close to the materials used by Theophrastus as possible. Each player is dealt a hand of five cards, and then has three action points to spend taking actions to advance their own work or hinder that of others. These actions include drawing extra cards, playing a card to their own experiment face up or face down, playing a special reagent such as a Lodestone that can replace another of the same type that is face up in another players experiment, or playing a Philosopher’s Stone which can allow you to reveal opponents reagents, discredit (discard) them, steal a card from their hand or replace a face up reagent with any from your hand that is the same type. You also have the choice of spending all three points to look at a card that is face down without revealing it, or playing an additional card to Theophrastus’ experiment instead of advancing your own.

Points are scored based on how close you came to the master’s formula once his card is completed. If you match the reagent exactly then you score the points listed on the reagent card. Having a reagent of the same type but not the same as Theophrastus scores one point per reagent, unless it was excluded and then is worthless. The basic game is three rounds of increasing difficulty and then the final scoring at the end.

This is a game that my little gaming group has really enjoyed recently. It is well balanced for three people and plays quickly. One complaint we’ve had is the cards themselves, the square shape makes them difficult to shuffle normally and typically they must be mixed by hand slowly between rounds. In my opinion three experiments feels a little short, as with three people they can be done in as little as 45 minutes. I’m sure others would disagree and be happy with the game’s length. All in all, it is an excellent strategy game that scales well to 5 people and comes highly recommended. Check it out on Board Game Geek under Theophrastus and consider picking up a copy!

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