Alchemy is the ancient quest to turn lead into gold and in Chaos & Alchemy that is exactly your goal, although really what you’re trying to do is amass 10 points before your opponents. To do this you’ll have to build a lab of ancient alchemical artefacts and equipment, each of which will not only give you points but also grant special abilities. The main thrust of the game though is experimentation, the method for gaining the actions required to draw cards and play them.
The number of actions available to you is based on rolling a small pool of dice and comparing against the bright shiny fortune dice. Each dice that rolls equal or above fortune dice gains you an action, for each one below you have failed an experiment and must discard a card. The clever element of the game is manipulating the fortune dice to meet your needs. Doubles cause the fortune dice to be re-rolled but you get to choose whether you do this before or after you’ve applied the results to your dice pool. This on its own leads to some careful thinking, if the fortune dice is high then you’ll get more actions if you reroll it and get a lower number, but this will also aid the next player. However, you may wish to reroll chaos after you’ve applied your actions, hoping to roll high and limit your opponent’s actions.
Various cards and alchemical equipment can also manipulate the fortune dice forcing it to move up, down or be re-rolled. Cards also have a myriad of effects such as stealing cards from other players, destroying cards, giving you extra dice and slowly powering up to create more and more points and the playing of these cards is where the chaos happens.
Anything and I mean anything, can happen; cards get destroyed, cards get moved around, the fortune dice rises and falls. It’s impossible to plan your next turn as you have absolutely no idea what state the game will be in by the time it gets back to you. It is quite literally chaos. Your turn has to be as good as it possibly can be and the only point in holding something back is either you don’t have the actions to play it or it’s far too big of a target to let other players take it down. It’s a game where you are in control for only the briefest moments and waiting for your next turn involves watching your carefully laid out laboratory being torn to shreds.
It makes the game incredibly swingy. A player can be miles in the lead at the end of their turn only to be in last place when it comes round to them again. It’s a game where you can appear to be in last place and then pull out a game winning turn. Your enjoyment of Chaos & Alchemy is going to be entirely reliant on how you view this kind of result.
It’s also a game that relies on some familiarity of the cards. There are a lot of effects that can be in play at any one time and trying to look across the table to discern what’s in play can create an awful lot of analysis paralysis for what is essentially a quick and simple game. As your familiarity of the cards increases this slowing down of game lessens to the point where you can play a four player game in 15 to 20 minutes.
The real negative is that a player can play an absolutely massive combination of cards in a single turn, going from last place to winner without other players having any chance to counteract it. It often leads to an anticlimactic finish on an otherwise fun game, unless of course you’re the player who managed the point swinging combination and then you’re as happy as an alchemist who’s just turned lead into gold.
Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Chaos & Alchemy it is actually pretty fun; a game that on paper sounds like utter mayhem and shouldn’t work comes together quite nicely. It revels in chaos and backstabbery but never feels too mean about it. Manipulating the central dice is a really cool feature and is a clever implementation the old “aid myself or hinder my opponent” choice and being able to play out a massive combo of cards is really gratifying. Your enjoyment of Chaos & Alchemy is going to depend on your stance of order versus chaos, those who like to be fully in control of their games should stay well away but if your revel in bedlum and pandemonium then Chaos & Alchemy is the Ronseal of gaming, it does exactly what is say on the tin.
This review is based on a full retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.