Review: Ars Alchimia

Ars Alchimia box artDesigner: Kuro
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Category: Anime, Fantasy
Players: 2-4
Price: $33.87 Amazon
Ars Alchimia is a 2-4 player worker placement title published by Tasty Minstrel Games, and originally published by Manifest Destiny. Kuro, both designer and owner of Manifest Destiny, has published a number of other titles, which have been picked up for U.S. distribution from various publishers, including The Ravens of Thri Sahashri, Rent a Hero, Unicornus Knights, and many more. Manifest Destiny was originally established in 1997 by Kuro in Japan and focuses on mostly small, typically tuck-box games.
Tasty Minstrel Games was established by owner Michael Mendes in 2009, where Michael worked with his close friend, Seth Jaffee, to immediately begin publishing games beginning with Terra Prime. TMG has reprinted a few old favorites such as Colosseum, Amun-Re, At the Gates of Loyang, Belfort, and others. Other popular titles from TMG include Flip City, Orleans, Scoville, Village, Aquasphere, Cthulhu Realms, Eminent Domain, and more.

Ars Alchimia cards and workers on board

Content Guide

Ars Alchimia features alchemical creations of various magic items using a variety of elemental resources. Players can hire a number of characters that will enhance magical powers, with only one female dressed provocatively (an elven character).

Ars Alchimia order cards

Ars Alchimia is a charming worker placement title in a quaint little box. I’ve been told printing restrictions in Japan are the reason for it, but Ars Alchimia packs a lot of pieces and tactics into this unassuming package.
In Ars Alchimia, players take the roles of overseers of alchemical academies. After gathering resources, players take orders from various folks and transmute those elements into items for points. Transmutations take place in one of many magical forges, with some allowing more transformations than others, and some even granting extra points for perfect days at the forge.
Ars Alchimia location card with die

It becomes quickly obvious that victory depends on visiting these locations and gathering resources.

After four years, or rounds, players tally up points from their orders and score additional points for completing sets of orders. Whoever has the most points wins.
Worker placement games are a consistently exciting genre for me to play. Interesting worker placement games do more than simply, “go here, take this action, no one else can go here now”. Yes, blocking actions is a crux of typical worker placement, but the nuance of how players interact is of high importance to me when evaluating the genre.
Argent: The Consortium, for example, allows players to cast spells on one another while placing, or might grant a player a chain of abilities to place up to three workers on a single turn. Ars Alchimia rests in the same vein as Stronghold Games’ Coal Baron or Minion Games’ Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, where action spaces can be revisited on a round by simply placing more workers onto the desired location. Alchimia’s twist on the genre isn’t necessarily innovative, though the game released a year after Coal Baron, but it does add enough nuance to make each game interesting, forcing players to carefully value their workers and decide where they would best be used.
Round by round, players determine turn order by last place in point value. This player takes a turn order card, which not only determines when the player gets to place workers, but also propagates more workers to increase the fold. This makes for exciting rounds where a player can add up to four additional workers, making it much easier to take precedence over specific locations on the board. Determining when to use which numbers of workers is critical to a successful play of Ars Alchimia.
Ars Alchimia location and forges

Locations on the left and forges on the right. These are key to finding and developing resources.

A more popular green resource bearing location might make itself known to the table, which likely means players will quickly stack workers onto it. It might cost four workers to activate the space, but it might be worth it. Or perhaps a player could take a chance with a random location from the location deck. This can be done with the forge deck as well. Chance and luck are typical allies or foes in Ars Alchimia. Because these specific decks are small (only ten cards or so), it does make for easy card counting and probability calculations after just a few games.
And small the game is. Cards are very tiny and fit onto predefined locations on the also miniature game board. Furthermore, players with chubby fingers like myself are destined to knock over the chalky player pawns when reordering workers. After each round, players reset the game state and reshuffle the tiny decks, so there is no escaping the little bits all around the table. Moreso, each card features tiny text in both English and Japanese. This might not be favorable for everyone, as you’ll definitely need to pick up cards to get a closer look with such miniscule font size. The size problems are a bit of an annoyance, but the advantage lies in a fair bit of game in a small box. This makes Ars Alchimia super easy to store and travel with. It’s nice to have a game with a bit of meat be so portable. I’d love to see more examples of this, similar to the Tiny Epic series.
Ars Alchimia tableau

Your personal tableau. Plenty of room for cards and a spot for everything.

While I’m thankful for the extra meat provided by Ars Alchimia, I don’t anticipate it keeping interest in the long run. Players follow a predictable path of gathering resources, gathering orders, hiring one or two assistants, and transmuting orders. Some assistants grant bonuses on gathering resources or add a pip to a die roll (which happens every time one gathers or transmutes). Sure, new cards being shuffled and added to the table each round add some variance, but the repetition remains the same. Some games can handle repetition well, while others just need more action spaces. Ars Alchimia needs a little more meat to be fun over more than just a few plays.
Coal Baron is interesting because players spend a lot of time counting. Players constantly count their worker reserves to analyze how many are needed for each available action space. “How many moves up and down the coal chute do I need to get everything delivered before the end of the round? Will I have enough of the black coal AND enough of the wagons to get first place bonus?” Even in Energy Empire, players must not only mitigate pollution, but try to get the right dice into their arsenals, asking questions like, “Can I take this hit on pollution in order to get more energy tiles to power my buildings? Can I afford to overbid on this brown space AND activate all of my brown buildings with enough energy to activate my yellow buildings on the following turn? Will someone take it before me?”
Ars Alchimia assistant cards

Assistants, which can engine build or give extra bonuses.

In Ars Alchimia, the mental flow is usually, “Can I roll a five or a six?” You roll a four and think, “Darn, now I need to wait for my next turn.” Next turn arrives. You try a random location because you need green resources that aren’t available on the open spaces. You pull a location with only red. Waiting for your next turn, you pull another location, this time it only provides blue and maybe an extra white if you roll a four. You roll a three. Before you know it, your round is over and you are forced to turn resources into elixirs that might grant points if you can roll a six, which you don’t.
I’m not saying Ars Alchimia isn’t fair, just that it’s too inconsistent—and sometimes too random—to be interesting. You don’t engine build, you just hope for the best. You hope for the right order cards to show up, you hope for the right locations to show up, and you hope no one else takes the spots you need before you can get there. Unfortunately, everyone else at the table is hoping for the exact same things. This makes Ars Alchimia more forgiving and a bit more interesting at two players.
Yes, the size of the game makes it good to bring on vacations. That’s because vacations are infrequent and games are best served light and small. I love gaming on vacation, but you really want portability, and that’s the advantage of Ars Alchimia. Geez, why do I keep making this game a vacation game?
Ars Alchimia order card

I really wish I could see visualization of this cleansing water.

The art is cute. The nice girl on the cover art runs from a loud, angry mustached man as she carelessly tosses her ingredients. Each assistant is a charming chibi character with a big smile. Order cards are rather bland, and could benefit from an illustration alongside the title like every other card type in the game. Player pawn colors are either pastel and pretty (my wife loves them) or deeply vibrant. Like the illustrations on the assistants cards, the game is overtly charming, but that’s all it is.
One plus side to the game is how accessible it is. It’s easy enough to get new gamers hyped up for dice rolling, though it might feel too random at some point. Teaching the game is relatively simple. Learning to put more workers down than the last person isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. I think I’d rather bring out Lords of Waterdeep if I want to help someone jump in to worker placement, but if Ars Alchimia was available, I would definitely consider it.
I want to like Ars Alchimia more, but if there is more nuance, I don’t see it. Maybe it’s the end game point spread. It falls into Lanterns: The Harvest Festival category for me. Everyone does the same thing over and over and over and over again until one person wins because they had two more points than everyone else. The journey to get to the end just isn’t enticing enough, and the end certainly doesn’t pay off. The game just ends—like this review.

Ars Alchimia

A review copy of Ars Alchimia was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.

The Bottom Line

Ars Alchimia is an accessible, but ultimately uninteresting worker placement game. Ars is a charming game with miniature components and cute artwork and will end up a portable, yet light, vacation game for me.