A bit easier than real alchemy, but only if you learn the language.
Res Arcana is one of my favourite games of 2019. Based around a fantasy take on the medieval science of alchemy, it sees you gathering base elements to buy better equipment and artefacts and converting those materials into other elements, including the elusive gold.
A competitive game for 2-4 players, Res Arcana falls into the category of ‘engine builder’, where added abilities grow over time and create combos. But it’s in the components for building your engine which set Res Arcana apart from other games of this type, such as Terraforming Mars or Race for the Galaxy. Instead of a main deck from which you draw and discard cards, cycling through for the best new options, Res Arcana deals each player only eight cards, which are the only ones available to them for the duration of the game. Some players dislike this aspect and it seemed odd to me at first but, after several games and considering different approaches, I found Res Arcana to be very clever.
To begin with, you may study all eight cards at the commencement of the game. Rather than the mystery of drawing new cards and trying to make the best of the draw, here the player needs to carefully consider the whole deck they have been dealt and work out the most efficient way of using those cards together. You start with only three, but you’ll know what else is coming up in your deck. Planning and timing are key skills.
It’s easy to fear that you can end up with a deck which doesn’t work together. I have heard that many players house rule an optional ‘mulligan’ whereby you may burn your first deck and draw a new one, or even take it in turns to draft cards from a common deck between players, reducing the random chance. However, I’ve found that even with a seemingly incongruous deck, the cards are surprisingly well-balanced and provide a route to victory. Any card can be placed back at the bottom of your deck (meaning they are never lost) in exchange for two basic elements or one gold. Thus, a player with several cards they do not wish to play will have a glut of resources if they choose to keep cycling those cards round.
In addition, each player will have a unique power, linked to the character card they choose, as well as an additional power card which is different each round. Then, if you really need more powers which your deck doesn’t provide, Landmark cards often have abilities as well as victory points, assuming you can afford the price of four gold.
It’s a highly thematic game, using weird devices to manipulate the basic elements which, in this game, are Life, Death, Calm and Elan — although why these last two are not called water and fire I have no idea, since the pieces and cards clearly depict these. The art is bright and fantastical, although not afraid of including some clever and well-hidden pop culture references in the imagery.
Res Arcana plays fast, since each player only takes one action at a time, and it’s rare that most players have ‘passed’ while one player still has a lot to do. It’s also incredibly clever how the choice of when to pass — indicating that you will take no further actions this round — is highly significant. The first player will begin the next round and holds a temporary extra victory point, meaning that a win can be stolen by a player who simply chooses to pass at the right moment.
Res Arcana even makes player versus player elements work in a game which is largely economy-based. Dragon cards not only allow abilities with special dragon icons to be activated, but can also attack all other players. Typically, a dragon attack will consume one specific resource from all players, or double if they have to pay the incorrect type. However, anti-dragon countermeasures are typically very cheap to acquire and thus the player versus player interaction is largely a question of timing, versus a very common detente. It’s rather like chess: you can take your opponent’s pieces, but is it a wise choice given all the other elements in play? In this case, players can negate potential dragon attacks simply by stocking up on the basic elements they target.
I recommend Res Arcana wholeheartedly. While the sticking point for many is the restricted choice of cards each game, I love the puzzle presented by having such a limited and often motley choice of components.
A final mention has to go to the built-in storage for this game, which — in an industry often guilty of big empty boxes full of chaotic baggies — is a breath of fresh air for its effectiveness and pleasing form. The centrepiece is a pentangle-shaped storage tray which houses the game’s five elements, turning what could have been a chaotic mess on the table into a thing of arcane beauty.
Sand Castle Games