Remember the hidden code peg game Mastermind? Originally published in 1971, it was made available in so many different versions and formats that, at one point, it was even more ubiquitous than Monopoly. In Mastermind, one player selected a hidden code of four different coloured pegs and the other had to try to deduce the code (colours and position) through a series of triangulated guesses to which the code setter would respond with black and white pegs that indicated a right colour in the right place or a right colour in the wrong place.
In some respects, EmperorS4's Herbalism is a distant descendent of Mastermind. Designed by Lu Xiao and Eros Lin, and with delightful artwork by Stephen Tsai, Herbalism is ostensibly themed around Chinese herbal medicine. The theme has a certain charm but it is only a thin veneer. This, like Mastermind, is a deduction game involving colours. There are 14 'ingredient cards': 5 blue, 4 green, 3 yellow and 2 red. The cards are shuffled and two are removed and placed face down beneath a 'cure' card. The other 12 cards are dealt out to the players (the game is played with either three or four).
A tableau of medicine market cards is set out. With the exception of a special doubles card, these each display two colours. On a player's turn, they place their pharmacist token out on one of these cards and their action token on one of the action cards. The active player gives to another player a card corresponding to one of the two colours indicated by their pharmacist token. Depending on the action chosen, that player will either state how many cards they have of the other colour on the medicine market card or they will hand cards of that other colour over to the active player. Of course, the player(s) not involved in this interaction do not know which of the two colours was handed over nor which colour their reply relates to. It doesn't matter what cards you end up with in your hand, what each player is trying to do is work out from all the responses what two cards are underneath the cure card.
That is essentially the game, though the action cards allow for some slightly more complicated interactions and there is provision for players to make early predictions and, in effect, to bet on whether or not the person making a guess has got it right. You can vary play by using different mixes of action cards.
Unlike Mastermind, everyone in Herbalism is on an even footing. There's no code setter: all the players are trying to piece together the 'cure' from the information they know at first hand (their own cards and the answers given directly to them) and the imperfect information gleaned or calculated from other players' answers. Given that there are only four colours and the players have between them only 12 cards, you might think it all too easy to work out which two cards are underneath the cure, but it usually isn't quite as easy as it seems. The fact that there are different quantities of each colour contributes to the strategy of play. If, for example, you happen to be dealt two red cards, you'll instantly know for sure that neither of the cure cards are red. You'll of course want as far as possible to avoid sharing that information with the other players.
Herbalism plays quickly and it's the sort of game which you'll want to play across several rounds (there are scoring tokens to facilitate this). This English version of the rules recommends players use pencil and paper to keep track of the answers players have given. Perhaps this advice is repeated too in the Mandarin and Cantonese rulebooks that are included in the box but we suspect that the designers really think the option of writing down responses is only for wimps; the sort of people who use a pencil and eraser when completing a crossword or a sudoku. :-) Serious players will surely want to take the challenge of holding the information in their heads.