Another week, another game off of Kickstarter. This one actually arrived only a month ago, so we’ve been playing it a bit (and that 30m playtime [usually less] helps a lot with getting it to the table). This is a bit far from my usual, as it’s a fairly abstract strategy game (think like Chess or Checkers), but it was tough to turn down the art and the theme, so here we are.
In Apotheca, you and other players are new potion makers making secret potions. You can hire apothecaries to help (for a price), but once they’re satisfied with the potion you make them they’ll leave you (as they do, I suppose) and you’ll have to make new friends if you want to succeed. Can you become a potion master? Or will your haphazard attempts to mix and swap ingredients blow up in your face?
First, lay out the board. It’s a big board. You’ll also want to shuffle the tiles and flip four face-up in the corners. Finally, choose which player goes first, and add two more tiles face-down (with their arrows pointing towards the second player) such that there’s a complete diagonal line of four potions from one corner to the other (since the board’s symmetrical, it doesn’t really matter which line, as far as I know), with the outer two face-up and the inner two face-down, like so:
Next, you’ll want to set up Apothecary Alley. You should have a bunch of sort of … mantles? I’m not really sure what to call them, but one should have two red gems on it, one has two yellow gems on it, one has two blue gems on it, and one has one of each. Put them in an ordering (I prefer the one below) and shuffle the Apothecary deck (the deck of cards). Give each player an Apothecary (they should reveal them, and it’d be helpful if they read the card aloud to all the other players), and then place the deck in the three-spot and flip a card face-up into each of the two-spots, like so:
At one point in time I tried sorting the gems, but it’s easier (and honestly kind of looks cool) this way, so just dump the gems out such that everyone (or at least someone) can reach them. If your table space looks like this, you’re ready to begin:
So every turn (with the incredibly important exception of the first player, who only takes one action on their first turn), you can take any distinct two of the following actions (as in, no repeating the same action twice):
- Reveal a face-down potion. Gain a gem of that color.
- Restock the potions. If there are fewer than three face-down potions on the board, take one potion from the potion stack, look at it, and place it face-down somewhere on the board with its arrow facing you. Repeat this step until there are three face-down potions on the board. (TAKE ONE POTION AT A TIME.) Note that if the board becomes full at any point, then Market Overload occurs. Flip the top card of the potion stack and remove all potions of that color from the board. Shuffle the revealed potion and all removed potions back into the stack, then continue with the Restock step.
- Hire an Apothecary. Pay gems to hire an Apothecary from Apothecary Alley. You can pay two yellow, red, or blue gems to get that card, or one yellow, one red, and one blue gem to get any card in the Alley (or draw a new one from the deck). Refill Apothecary Alley once you’ve taken the card.
- Use an Apothecary’s power. Follow the instructions on the card. You can use each Apothecary you’ve hired’s ability as a separate action on your turn.
Note that if you cannot perform the action, it doesn’t count as you taking the action. That’s kind of important, so remember it. If at any point on your turn you match three potions in a row (orthogonally, not diagonally), you remove those three from the board as a match. Then:
- If you have an uncovered Apothecary, choose one and place the stack of potions on that Apothecary. They are considered satisfied and have left. You can no longer use their ability for the rest of the game, so plan accordingly.
- If you have no uncovered Apothecaries, shuffle the potions into the potion deck and take a gem of those potions’ color.
If you trigger more than one match (preposterously), just resolve them one at a time in whatever order you’d like.
There are also four special matches:
I call them the Four-Line, the T, the Cross, and the L (and I’m going to assume you can figure out which is which). If you get any of those, take a gem of that color in addition to the normal benefits of getting a match. That being said, honestly, unless you’re playing really well, the other player is playing really poorly, or you get really lucky, I wouldn’t expect that to happen all that often.
Play continues until any one player has satisfied three Apothecaries, in which case they win. As you might imagine, it’s impossible to tie, so no tiebreaker! Hooray.
There’s also an additional variant called Master of the Market, in which other players take on one player in a 1 v. many game style that I haven’t seen since, like, Betrayal at House on the Hill, the ill-advised Bioterorist role in Pandemic: On the Brink, or that psychotic friend who keeps suggesting that we play Adversarial Hanabi. Unfortunately, I haven’t tried it, but it looks cool and adds replay value to the game, so there’s that.
Player Count Differences
There are actually pretty significant differences, so I’ll outline them each in turn.
1 Player (Solo):
So this is the solo game variant. In this, start by putting the four face-up potions in the corners, giving yourself an Apothecary, and setting up Apothecary Alley. Then add six additional face-down potions (not facing you, unfortunately) in a checkerboard pattern on the board. After that, add 16 more potions in two 2×4 sets on either side of the board, giving you a setup that looks like this:
Here are the gameplay changes:
- You cannot restock. Sucks.
- You may repeat the same action twice. If you can’t do any action, your turn ends early.
- Hiring costs 3 gems, rather than two. You also can no longer buy with one of each color. You can only buy with 3 yellows, 3 blues, or 3 reds.
- After every turn, take a potion from the two 2×4 areas outside the board, look at it, and add it to its corresponding spot on the board with its arrow facing you. This means if you take a potion from the left side, second column, first row, it should go on the second column and first row of the board. If you can’t do this, game over.
When you make a match, the following happens:
- Do not remove the match from the board. Instead, stack the match onto any one of the matched potion’s spaces and treat that stack like a normal potion of that color.
- If you have any Apothecaries, flip one face over to mark it satisfied. If you satisfied one, gain 1 point for each face-up potion in the market in that match’s color (counting the stack as one potion, as you might guess). If you didn’t satisfy an Apothecary, gain a gem of the match’s color.
Game ends when you can’t place another potion. If there aren’t any potions left in the 2x4s outside of the board, you get an extra 5 points! If you manage to get a high score, share it in the comments. I think my highest is 24?
This is the normal player count. See Gameplay.
This one’s a bit weird. Give the third player the “Extra Action” token. As a reward for the dubious honor of going third, they can spend the “Extra Action” token exactly one time to take an additional action of their choice (including repeating an action that they’ve already taken).
Personally, I don’t recommend playing with three. I think it ends up being a kingmaker situation in which one player cannot win, but they can definitely choose which player gets to win. Or, at least, that’s been my experience the few times I’ve played with three. There’s just always one player that gets too far behind to actually be in the running, and it creates a situation where the player who benefits most is usually the player whose turn is immediately after the least experienced player.
This is kind of awesome. You are partnered on a team with the player sitting diagonally from you (or across from you, depending on how you sit) such that the teams are A B A B. Unfortunately, you can’t share gems or see each other’s face-down potions. For an added challenge, try disallowing table talk so that you can’t advise your partner on what to do on their turn.
This is a pretty fun variant, though I think the game is strongest at 2.
This is a pretty highly strategic game, but with just enough bluffing that you can try and play some amazing mind games with your opponent. In fact, I highly recommend mind games. That being said, there are definitely some things you should do to try and maximize your success:
- If possible, it’s useful to have more than one Apothecary at any given time. This means that not only can you use two different abilities (thereby giving you more options by which to make matches), but you also significantly expand the space of possible moves that you can make, making it pretty difficult for your opponent to predict you in advance.
- Be mindful of the order in which you take actions. If there are two blue potions adjacent to each other and one face-down potion on the board, it may be more prudent to Restock and hope you draw a blue potion that you can then Reveal for the match, rather than Revealing the face-down potion on the board and then hoping you can Restock a better option. Plus, if you Restock and get nothing useful, you can use an Apothecary ability to make it harder for your opponent to get a match.
- Getting a match without any Apothecaries is generally not great, unless you’re trying to prevent your opponent getting that match on their turn. Since you need satisfied Apothecaries to win the game, you should try and … do that. Plus, there are easier ways to get gems.
- The Apothecaries are HIGHLY situational, so try to think about which one will suit the current board configuration best. Some let you swap potions, some let you move potions, and one lets you effectively tilt the board and slide all the potions in that direction. They’re erratic and a bit crazy, but somewhat consistently balanced. There are, however, a few Apothecaries that I would say are significantly better than others in most cases. Generally, I favor Apothecaries that let you move rather than let you swap, as it’s rare for the board to become filled up enough (at least, in the games I’ve played) that swapping becomes significantly better than moving.
- Speaking of which, be mindful of which Apothecaries your opponent has. There are very easy ways to lose this game, and one of the best is setting your opponent up for a free (or easy) match on their turn because you didn’t realize what their Apothecary did. You should read out what your Apothecary’s ability is when you hire them (it’s polite), and you should always let your opponent check your Apothecaries (and vice-versa) so you can keep their available moves in mind, if that’s your thing. If you’re ever confused about some Apothecaries (especially the Kickstarter-exclusive ones), check out the FAQ!
- Don’t try for the Special Matches. If you get them, that’s great, but they’re kind of a waste of time to actually attempt to get on their own. I think they serve more as a deterrent, personally.
- If you can bluff your opponent, go for it, but don’t try to if you can’t. If you’re playing a potion face-down that could be revealed for a free match, make sure you have the poker face to match. You don’t have to play this as a bluffing game, but it can make it more entertaining if that’s your thing.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The mind games are usually hilarious. Usually it consists of me (or my opponent) playing two potion that could be matches when revealed, and then the other player basically reenacts the entire monologue of The Princess Bride’s Vizzini during their battle of wits. There are other fun ways to do that, but it’s a pretty great thing to just yell “SO CLEARLY, I CANNOT REVEAL THE POTION IN FRONT OF YOU!” It’s kind of entertaining.
- Easy game to explain and learn, but difficult game to master. I still cannot consistently beat my housemate unless they make a mistake, honestly. That being said, I can teach a new player this game in about 10m. The Apothecary cards help a lot with that, since they include diagrams of a few possible moves with that ability.
- Generally, fantastic art and components. I’d just like to highlight how amazing both are really fast:
The gems are amazing; each type is a different shape and has a nice texture to it, and the Apothecaries are all unique with a variety of abilities and amazing art. I’m a REALLY huge fan of it. I have some specific issues in the Mehs section.
- Plays pretty quickly. Generally speaking, if both players are trying to move quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t, which, see below.
- Actually a board game that came with a board! I don’t have a ton of those, and I think this is the first Kickstarter game that I’ve gotten that’s had one. It’s kind of awesome.
- High replay value. For such a simple concept, the variability of the Apothecaries and the board layout make this a game that you can play over and over again (though I think we played it 6 or 7 times in one day once, which is over my limit for pretty much any game save the Lost Legacy series. Plus, it has an entirely new game type that I haven’t tried, which is hopefully also fun.
- The stickers on the board seem unnecessary and create glare when light is on the board. It looks like they were added for some kind of texture effect, but the glare is really irritating. They’re also kind of glossy whereas the rest of the board is not, so it’s weirdly incongruous.
- Speaking of the board, the quadrant colors are pretty subtle. It’s a bit difficult to tell the green quadrant from the yellow quadrant, and we weren’t sure if it was a red quadrant or an orange quadrant at first. A bit more vivid coloring would have gone a long way.
- The cards are hard to pick up, for some reason. I’m not sure if we just suck at it or if the cards are too thin or thick or something, but we cannot seem to pick them up off the table, and the last few people who have tried have damaged the cards a bit. It’s a bit of a bummer.
- The Apothecary Alley pieces don’t fit together that well. It’s a bit of a pain when trying to get Apothecary Alley set up, but that’s really just a nitpick.
- I think a tier list for Apothecaries could emerge pretty rapidly. I find that, generally, the board doesn’t fill up that much, that often, so I feel like Apothecaries that can swap potions aren’t quite as useful as Apothecaries that can just move potions (generally). This means that there are times you will likely get a potion that is, for the given board configuration, generally just objectively better or worse than your opponent’s Apothecary. This can be frustrating for some players, but it’s fixed somewhat by just getting additional Apothecaries so that you just have more options.
- This is a tough game to play with people who get serious Analysis Paralysis. This is one of the worst games for those people that I’ve seen in some time. If you can talk them through it, that’s one thing, but if not, some will literally try to map out every possible move you can make (and if you have more than one Apothecary, that’s a lot of possible moves [not to mention that there’s a luck element to it if you’re restocking]). As you can imagine, you’ll be sitting for a while. While that might be an issue with abstract strategy games in general, I’m considering picking up a chess timer.
- Like I said, not a huge fan of the three-player version. I wouldn’t say that’s their fault, though, tbh; I think three is a difficult number to balance for, and I dislike a lot of games at three (Carcassonne, Roll for the Galaxy, Spyfall, etc.). If you disagree, I’d love for someone to change my mind.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
This game is a lot of fun! I think we’ve already put in … 20 plays in the month since I got it? That’s pretty frequently, and it’s deserving of it. Usually new players are down to play it at least two or three times — once to learn it and once because “well, now that I get it, I wanna try again”, which is always a great endorsement of a game. It helps that the art is super slick and the components are really nice, but it’s solid gameplay and replay value that keep me coming back for more Apotheca. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Maybe an expansion?