I suspect that in the board gaming hobby there are more people who find beauty in maths than in the general populace. You don't have to be John Nash to see mathematical patterns in nature but, like the Fibonacci sequence, once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. I remember when I first played Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast) and, beneath those DnDeeples (no, really), there was a constant flow of numbers as the lifeblood of the experience. Century: Spice Road (Plan B Games) did not even bother with the pretence of theme; the cubes add up to the Victory Point cards almost exactly. But, the maths wasn't the first thing I noticed about Animalchemists...
Well, to be honest the first was the (for me) almost unpronounceable name. No, what really stands out is the art. It is stunning. Anastas Ermolina has done an astounding job of presenting this game and, while the box art itself is dulled by its sturdy plastic material, the card art is the best I have seen for some time. Even the art on the discarded Potion cards and the used side of the Character cards is different, and just as entrancing. Odd that the folded rule sheet does not have the same panache, but it serves its purpose well. So, when I started playing Animalchemists, I was a little distracted; after a couple of rounds, though, I saw the canvas.
The (beautiful) cards are: five Characters with matching single-use powers; 40 Ingredient cards - eight of each, reshuffled when needed; 20 Potion cards - four of each, not refilled; and 16 Spell cards, all unique, including Time Stop which, when acquired, ends the game. On your turn, you carry out one of three actions: take two Ingredients, make a Potion by spending two Ingredients, or craft a Spell by spending one to two Potions. You can also use your power or any number of spells. Everything scores points at the end: Ingredients 1, Potions 3, Spells 5 to 15 depending on components: highest score wins.
Belied by the aforementioned sumptuous - and did I mention spot-UV finished? - art, the game is very math-y and mechanical; fortunately, much like the games mentioned above, there is enough game to avoid accusations of style over substance. Working backwards, the Spells need components of limited Potions and the Potions need specific Ingredients which come out five at a time, so players have to both plan ahead and adapt on the fly. Bearing in mind what has previously been discarded, drafted and crafted also helps. Spells have one-off effects that are mostly beneficial, but a few mess with or steal from other players; nothing egregious. With Ingredients kept in hand and unused Potions on display, timing of acquisitions is key, much like making best use of your Character's one-off Ingredient grab.
There will likely be less control in Animalchemists at the maximum player count of five; at two, some Spells will be less effective, so overvalued; three or four feels like the sweet spot. With such a metronomic heart, games are going to be fairly similar experiences, but for a small-box filler it does its job well and the winner will be the one who plays one beat ahead of the rest.
CardLords (the publishers) and Jon Cohn (the designer) have created a game that is welcoming enough mechanically to back up its immensely engaging appearance. Detractors of games where the inner workings are on show may be somewhat justified in saying that there is no artifice beneath the art but, for a play or three, that doesn't much matter.
(Review by David Fox)