#72 – Dominion: Alchemy [Expansion]

alchemy-cover

There are strange things going on in your basement laboratories. They keep calling up for more barrels of quicksilver, or bits of your hair. Well it’s all in the name of progress. They’re looking for a way to turn lead into gold, or at least into something better than lead. That lead had just been too good of a bargain to pass up, you didn’t think, where will I put all this lead, what am I going to do with this lead anyway. Well that will all be sorted out. They’re also looking for a universal solvent. If they manage that one, you will take whatever they use to hold it in and build a castle out of it. A castle that can’t be dissolved. Now that’s progress.

Base price: $30. Normally available for ~$20.
2-4 players.
Play time: ~45-60 minutes.
BGG Link
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)

I said I’d get around to this eventually, and here we are. Just Adventures, Empires, and the Update Packs left to go before we’re all out of Dominion (or until the inevitable Seaside Second Edition or something infuriating).

Anyways. Dominion Alchemy is one of the earlier Dominion expansions, and generally seen as one of the more polarizing, so I wanted to wait until I had played it a bit more (and reviewed more Dominion, to be honest) before I wrote up my thoughts. Fittingly, some see it as lead — dead weight that burdens your deck and slows your game down, and others see it as gold — highly-powerful Action cards that can accelerate an engine or crush your opponents. Which one will it be for you?

Contents

Setup

As with all the Dominions, let’s see what Alchemy adds, card-wise:

alchemy-cards

Before you set aside the base cards, it’s worth nothing that Alchemy adds a new one: Potions, a type of Treasure that specifically generates a Potion rather than money:

Potions are a different kind of cost, so cards with a potion symbol on them don’t just cost the coin symbol, they cost the coin symbol and a potion. This affects how some cards work, so keep that in mind.

Anyways, set aside the base cards (CopperSilverGold, Potion, EstateDuchyProvince, Curse), and then set them up:

  • For 2 players:
    • Use 8 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use 10 Curse cards.
  • For 3 players:
    • Use all 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use 20 Curse cards.
  • For 4 Players:
    • Use 12 Estate, Duchy, Province, and any other Victory (green) cards.
    • Use all 30 Curse cards.

Using your randomizer cards, choose 10:

randomizers

Set these 10 up to form the Supply:

Supply.jpg

Now, as always (well, excluding Dark Ages), give each player three Estates and seven Coppers. Have them shuffle those ten cards and draw five for their initial hand. Once your play area looks like this, you’re ready to start:

setup

Gameplay

If you don’t know what a deckbuilder is, please see my Dominion or Dominion: Intrigue reviews for a brief (for me, at least) explanation. Alchemy is a small expansion that adds new things, yes, like that Potion, but it’s much smaller and less earth-shattering than, say, Dark Ages, especially since no new cards currently use Potions (probably due to the mixed response).

Consistent across every iteration of Dominion, your turn has two phases: the Action Phase and the Buy Phase. During the Action Phase, you can play one Action card. During the Buy Phase, you can reveal and play Treasure Cards and then buy one card from the Supply (the Kingdom cards + Treasure cards + Victory cards + Curses, if you really feel like that’s the best move [for this set, it might be better to just buy Coppers?]), provided you can pay its cost (bottom-left number).

All cards have a title (top), a cost (bottom-left), and their type or types (bottom-center), but their effects are different, otherwise the game would probably be fairly dry. Generally, Action cards will have some effects (in addition to extra text, if necessary):

  • +X Card[s]: Draw X extra cards into your hand.
  • +X Action[s]: You may play X additional Action cards during the current Action Phase.
  • +X Buy[s]: You may buy X additional cards during your Buy Phase, provided you have the money to pay for all the cards you buy.
  • +X Coin[s]: You have X additional money to spend during your Buy Phase. Some cards will give you a Coin Token, which is essentially a persistent version of this, since Coin Tokens don’t disappear between turns.

If you have no +Action cards, you only get to play one Action card before your Action Phase ends. Action cards that lack a +Action are generally referred to as terminal Actions, and you generally will see a reasonable number of those in every set (and there are some in Alchemy, yes).

After the Action Phase comes your Buy Phase, in which you play Treasure cards to accumulate money, and then spend that money on cards from the Supply. Treasure cards can be Potion (value … Potion?), Copper (value 1), Silver (value 2), or Gold (value 3), and you should also count +Coins you got during the Action Phase. Unless you got +Buys in the Action Phase, you can only buy one card. If you want to buy a card with a Potion in the cost but have no Potion Treasures in play, you cannot buy it, as you might guess.

Now, the Clean-Up Phase. As mentioned previously, discard every card (actions, treasures, etc.) in front of you from play and discard any cards left in your hand, and then the next player takes their turn and so on / so forth until the game ends. That said, I tend to leave out Possession, if played, so nobody forgets (since it lets you take your opponent’s next turn as a bonus turn for you). But how does the game end?

GAME END

There are two possible ways to end Dominion:

  • The Province pile is exhausted (there are no more Province cards).
  • Any three piles in the Supply are exhausted.

Note that the second case includes Coppers, Silvers, Golds, Potions, Curses, Duchies, and Estates, as well as the normal Kingdom cards. Now, count how many Victory points you have among your cards, and whoever has the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

As usual:

  • You use different numbers of Victory, and Curse cards.
  • There are additional turns that are taken between your turn, and you get fewer of a specific Kingdom card on average since they don’t (generally) scale with player count and you might be competing with multiple players to get them.

Alchemy doesn’t have any particular cards (except for Familiar, since it gives Curses) that will hurt with higher player counts, but generally the cards involve things like counting the cards in your deck or searching your deck or revealing four cards or chaining actions, so I’d say this set is more likely than your average expansion to really slow the game down with more players, especially if they’re slower. I just played a three-player game against myself and it still took longer than usual. Be warned — I’d play this with two, but I’d probably shy away from an Alchemy-heavy game with four people, especially if Golem or Philosopher’s Stone are in play. More on that in Pros, Mehs, and Cons.

Strategy

This is always the hardest part for me to write. There are just so many cards! Please assume this is a non-exhaustive list of strategies, and check the DominionStrategy wiki for more.

  • Possession. Possession is a weird card, since it lets you steal another player’s turn and make all their decisions for them. Even in Alchemy alone it can be frustrating; since this set is focused on Actions, you’ll see a lot more engines than usual. This usually means that players are fine-tuning their decks to get a Province or Colony on their turn, so you taking their engine over can really mess them up. It also means that where cards allow you to put cards back on your deck, you can just choose not to and discard helpful cards for them. Wow, such a friend! See, the place where this gets ugly is if you play cards like Masquerade from Intrigue or Ambassador from Seaside. Sure, Possession prevents you trashing their cards permanently, but it says nothing about you willingly giving them away to other players. You monster. As a friend, I’d recommend to avoid this card. It also has the longest FAQ of any card available, just due to the sheer volume of weird overlaps. Use at your own risk.
  • Apothecary actually makes buying Coppers viable? You can use Apothecaries to skim your deck your Coppers and Potions, which actually makes them pretty useful. In one game I was abusing them to get 8 Copper every turn and buy a Province, and it was going pretty well.
  • Herbalist + Alchemist is a useful combo. If you have a Potion in play, you can put Alchemist back on top of your deck, and then Herbalist lets you put that Potion back on top of your deck as well. Great way to guarantee a fairly regular Alchemist play, especially considering it’s a pretty good card.
  • If you’re looking to build an engine, Scrying Pool is your friend. If all you have are Action cards, Scrying Pool will draw every card in your deck. Yep. So, consider that. There are reasons not to do that (for instance, if you only have terminal actions, Golem’s a bit more your friend, there, since you can play two rather than just one), but you can’t argue that’s not somewhat compelling.
  • Apprentice is great, but even better if you’re Possessing someone. I “trashed” their Province with Apprentice to draw 8 cards, which was pretty great? Generally, it’s a solid trasher (turns an Estate into +2 Cards), but it’s a lot more fun to use when you’re not worried about actually losing the card.
  • Be careful with Golem. Golem forces you to play two Action cards from your deck; note that they can be “Trash a card from your hand” cards, so keep that in mind before you play. You should have a pretty good idea of what you’re expecting to see so that you don’t end up with terrible actions at unhelpful times.
  • Generally, when playing not completely Alchemy, I recommend buying one Potion per card with a Potion cost. Keeps your options open. I wouldn’t buy more than, like, five, though. Maybe cap at three? It’s not an exact science.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • Strong cards. Scrying Pool, Golem, Possession, Familiar; none of these are cards to be trifled with. There’s just a high cost to using these.
  • If you like chaining action cards, this is the set for you. This set is all about Action cards, even down to Vineyard (a Victory card that gives you points for Action cards).
  • I like the theme a lot, actually. Both the sort of flavor theme (alchemy is cool!) and the Action card-focus are both really neat. I think it’s a cool set, I just have a few issues with it.

Mehs

  • I can’t see many times that you’d play Transmute. It just seems … pretty bad. Mabye not base game Woodcutter bad, but … not really for me.
  • Potions are useless outside of Alchemy. I think that’s in part due to the mixed reception, but while other expansions have picked Coin Tokens back up or done stuff with Duration cards or added Event cards (more on that with Adventures), Potions have just kind of sat on the shelf and not gotten used, so it makes this set harder to play with. You don’t want just one Potion-cost card in your Supply, because then you have to go through all the motions of buying a Potion to get it. That said, it’s often worth it, since the Action cards are pretty powerful?

Cons

  • This expansion aggressively slows down games with certain cards. The biggest offenders are Possession (adds another turn every time it’s played), Philosopher’s Stone (count every card in your deck and discard), Golem (find two non-Golem Action cards by revealing the top card of your deck, play both), and Scrying Pool (draw cards until you draw a non-Action card). I played a three-player game that almost took two hours due to a combination of some of those cards and analysis paralysis, so I’m pretty opposed to playing with more than one or two Alchemy cards in any given game of Dominion.
  • Possession’s just kinda confusing and maybe a bit mean? I’m not the biggest fan, but like I mentioned earlier, it’s got one of the longest FAQs out there because there are a ton of weird eccentricities / card interactions. I’ve probably gotten one of them wrong just from writing about it. I’d put Possession at “more trouble than it’s worth”, and it’s super expensive!

Overall: 6.25 / 10

in-progress

Overall, I think it’s a fine expansion. I bumped it up from a 6 because there are times I like having a card or two from Alchemy in my other Dominion games, but generally they have Potion costs so I try to avoid them. It’s kind of a bummer that Alchemy gets the short end of the stick, but I understand why — it has a lot of cards with a weird cost that never gets used in subsequent sets and the cards themselves tend to slow down the game, making it a bit less fun for me (since I prefer shorter games to longer instances of the same game). If it were up to me, I’d probably just play some other expansion, but I don’t think this is a bad one. I think I’d probably like it more if a later expansion brought back Potions — it would give me a reason to play it more as well as give me more opportunities to see how those cards synergize with other sets. As it stands, though, while it’s definitely not a bad expansion, the added slowness to the game definitely doesn’t make me want to play it in particular.

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