Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Theophrastus

Design by:  P.R. Chase
Published by:  Mayfair Games
 2 – 5 Players, 60 – 90 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

(Editor’s Note:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine, Issue #19) 

Having an absolutely abysmal knowledge of most scientific fields, the name “Theophrastus” meant absolutely nothing to me.  So, when I heard that Mayfair was going to be releasing a game under this name, I thought it might be some sort of Philosophy-based trivia game.  I eventually learned that the game’s theme is derived from the middle-ages alchemist Theophrastus von Bombast der Hohenheim.  ‘Theo’, as we called him for convenience, apparently won widespread acclaim as a healer using unconventional techniques.  He is often considered the father of modern medicine.  To be sure, this was not exactly a theme that struck me with an overwhelming desire to rush out and purchase the game. 

The game is designed by P.R. Chase, a new-comer to the game design field.  His wife has been somewhat active on the Spielfrieks games discussion board, promoting her hubby’s game.  I was a bit worried since I had heard others on the net complaining that the rules were poorly written and difficult to follow.  I was surprised, however, to find them quite clear and thorough and nearly everyone I’ve played with have been able to grasp the mechanics and strategies fairly quickly.    

Players represent alchemy students attempting to win the favor of Theo and become his apprentice.  To do this, they must attempt to match the components contained in Theo’s formulas as closely as possible.  The player who successfully accomplishes this over the course of three formulas (rounds) will be named Theo’s apprentice and, according to the rules, is “destined for glory”.  Although the game is quite good, I get the nagging feeling the theme will limit its popularity.  Alchemy is just not a subject that seems to fascinate folks in the modern world.

The assignments are divided into three classifications (A, B & C), with each category being more extensive than the previous one.  An assignment describes the formula that Theo is brewing and lists how many of the three major categories of components (Metals, Elements and Essentials) that must be included in order for the formula to be completed.  For instance, the ‘Erotic Philtre’ formula, which sounds strangely appealing, calls for: 

  • Any 2 Metals
  • The ‘Fire’ Elemental
  • Any 5 Essentials 

Just what particular components are required will be determined during the course of the round as players take turns playing components to Theo’s formula, as well as their own.  The object is to play cards to your own formula that will match the components played to Theo’s formula as closely as possible.  

As mentioned, the components are separated into three major classifications:  Metals, Elements and Essentials.  Each classification has several different ingredients.  For example, in the Metals category, one will find lead, gold, silver, copper and the magical lodestone.  Essentials include sulphur, nitre, mercury, vitriol and the mysterious aqua fortis (which we termed ‘aqua velva’!).  Of course, the Elements include earth, wind, fire, water, air and the wondrous ether.  Each ingredient has a point value ranging from 2 – 6, which will be tallied during the scoring round. 

To begin the game, each player receives 5 ingredient cards, with the remainder being separated into five face-down stacks.  An assignment from Theo’s ‘A’ category is revealed and a start player chosen.  In a neat touch, the start player token is a small lead  mortar & pestle.  

The round begins with the start player drawing a card from one of the five stacks and then playing a card face-down to Theo’s formula.  The card played MUST be played into the correct classification on Theo’s formula.  If Theo’s formula already lists a specific ingredient, then there is no need to place that card into his formula.  Players should try to place that ingredient in their own formula, however.  Further, sometimes Theo’s formula will list a ‘forbidden’ ingredient, in which case players cannot play that ingredient into his formula and should attempt to avoid playing it into their own formula. 

Then beginning with the player to the start player’s left, each player draws one card and has 3 action points to spend.  The actions and their costs are: 

  • Draw a card – 1 point.
  • Examine one stack of cards and take a card  – 3 points
  • Advance your own formula (face-up) – 1 point.  A player places a card from his hand face-up into the appropriate classification on his own player mat.
  • Advance your own formula (face-down) – 2 points.  A player places a card from his hand face-down into the appropriate classification on his own player mat.
  • Advance Theo’s formula – 3 points.  Place a card face-down into the appropriate classification on Theo’s formula.
  • Play a Lodestone, Ether or Aqua Fortis as a special action – 1 point.  See below for description of these cards and their abilities.
  • Play a Philosopher’s Stone – 1 point.  Again, I’ll describe this below.
  • Reveal any face-down card in play – 2 points.
  • Secretly Look at any face-down card in play – 3 points.
  • Reveal any face-down card in your OWN experiment – 0 points. 

Since ALL cards played into Theo’s experiment are initially played face-down, players must attempt to reveal or secretly peek at the face-down cards played into Theo’s formula  by their opponents.  Armed with this knowledge, you can better plan your own formula, attempting to match those cards in Theo’s formula.  Of course, you should remember the cards that you play face-down into Theo’s formula so that you can play corresponding cards into your own formula. 

But don’t worry – the game is not a ‘multi-player solitaire’ game.  There are numerous things you can do to mess with the formulas of your opponents.  Each classification has a ‘special’ card (lodestone, ether and aqua fortis) that can be used to tamper with your opponent’s formulas, or used as a ‘wild card’ to automatically match an ingredient in the appropriate classification in Theo’s formula.  Here’s how you can be nasty with these cards: 

  • You can play one of these cards into the formula of an opponent (or Theo!) and take a face-up card from the same classification from his formula into your hand.  Thus, if he has a valuable ingredient that you know matches an ingredient in Theo’s formula, you can effectively ‘steal’ it from him.  I guess students were deceitful even back in the middle ages! 

Please note that you are not totally ‘hosing’ your opponent as the card you are placing into his formula is a ‘wild’ card and will score some points for him, but usually not as much as he would have scored if you hadn’t messed with him! 

If your opponent has a face-down card in his formula, it is protected and cannot be tampered with.  This is why it costs more to play a card face-down into your own formula than face-up.  However, players can spend 2 action points to reveal any face-down card, so the protection is not foolproof. 

The Philosopher’s stone is even more evil.  This allows you to take a card from an opponent’s (or Theo’s) formula and replace it with ANY card of the same classification from your hand.  Of course, you will usually be nasty and replace it with a ‘forbidden’ card, or at least a card that doesn’t match anything in Theo’s formula.  There are also special Philosopher’s stones that allow you to discard ingredients from opponent’s (or your own) formula, steal a card from an opponent’s hand and reveal a face-down card.  Those Philosopher’s stones can be quite powerful … and nasty. 

After a player has used all three of his action points, he must discard down to five cards, with the discarded cards being placed underneath any of the five stacks of cards.  Again, it can be important to remember the stack(s) into which you discarded these cards if you later want to retrieve them.  

Once all players have had their turn, the start player token rotates to the next player and the cycle continues with that player beginning the new round by playing a card to Theo’s formula.  Then, all players take their turns and the cycle continues until Theo’s formula is completed (completely filled).  At this point, the game enters the scoring round, with each player drawing one card and having one action point to spend.  The only restriction during this scoring round, however, is that a player cannot alter the ingredients in Theo’s formula or discard a card from an opponent’s formula. 

Once everyone has used their one action point, all ingredients are revealed and players score their formulas.  For each card that matches an ingredient in Theo’s formula, it scores the number of points indicated on the card (2 – 6).  If a player has an ingredient in his formula that doesn’t match one in Theo’s formula, he still scores 1 point … UNLESS it was a forbidden ingredient, in which case it scores zero points.  Wild cards (lodestone, ether and aqua fortis) score 2 points each.  Players record their total points and a new round begins. 

At the conclusion of a round, players fill their hands to five cards and discard all cards played to their formulas and to Theo’s formula.  These are shuffled with the draw piles and five new stacks are formed.  A new formula is revealed (from the ‘B’ stack for round 2 and the ‘C’ stack for round 3) and a new round is held.  After three rounds, the game concludes and the player with the most cumulative points is named Theo’s assistant. 

Although luck of the draw is certainly a factor, the game is filled with choices and decisions on each and every turn.  Also, a bad hand of cards is easily rectified as a player can spend a turn drawing three new cards and purge himself of unwanted cards.  So, it is very unlikely a player will be saddled with a poor hand throughout a round.  

The variety of actions allowed provide ample opportunity for clever play, allowing players to manipulate the situation in their favor or hinder the efforts of their opponents.  Choosing which actions to execute and how best to use your action points are critical choices that have tremendous impact on the play of your opponents and the outcome of a round.  I find the game very intriguing and fun to play.  It somehow has the feel of Bazaar and Andy Merritt’s Too Many Cooks.  I’ve played the game numerous times and my appreciation for it continues to grow.  I look forward to further efforts by Mr. Chase.

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