Kickstarter Tabletop Alert: ‘Cauldron’

Cauldron box cover
Cauldron. Image courtesy Altema Games.

In Cauldron, players take on the role of magic users furiously brewing potions to gain skills and become the most powerful magician in the land. The game is for 2-5 players, takes about 90 minutes, and is recommended for ages 11 and up. (That said, my nine-year-old son enjoyed the game, although he did struggle with some of the vocabulary on the cards.) It launches on Kickstarter today. A pledge of US $24 gets you the game, including free shipping to the US, Canada, and China.

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Components:

  • 1 Magik Track to keep score
  • 7 Character Cards and matching Tokens
  • 35 Basic Potion Cards, including 6 Easy Starter Potions
  • 22 Advanced Potion Cards
  • 50 Basic Spell Cards
  • 37 Advanced Spell Cards
  • 46 Omen Cards
  • 12 Cellar Cards
  • 44 Field Pieces:
    • 8 each of Frog Legs, Toadstool, and Cobweb Fields
    • 5 each of Mandrake Root, Blood Crystal, Dragon Egg and Snake Skin Fields
  • 132 Ingredient Tokens:
    • 24 each of Frog Legs, Toadstool and Cobweb
    • 15 each of Mandrake Root, Blood Crystal, Dragon Egg and Snake Skin
  • 5 six-sided dice
  • 10 Used Tokens
The Cauldron components. Image courtesy Altema Games.
The Cauldron components. Image courtesy Altema Games.

I received a prototype version for review, so the components were not final. The artwork on the prototype is very good throughout, so I assume the final will be at least as good if not better. The game’s designer, Artem Safarov, has said that the final character tokens will be round, and the ingredient tokens shaped to fit the artwork, unlike those in the photos below. I cannot comment on the quality of the components, however.

Setup:

Each player selects a character to play through the game, and takes the corresponding character card. Each character has special traits that, if played carefully, can make the difference between winning and losing. They also place the character token in the starting spot on the Magik Track. Then, players take Toadstool, Cobweb, and Frog Leg pieces equaling the number of players plus one and lay them out on the table in a hexagonal grid. The rules say to do this randomly, but the position of the pieces relative to one another only has a minor impact on the game if certain spells are cast. The remaining fields are placed to the side to be used later in the game. All ingredient tokens are likewise sorted by type and placed to the side.

Cauldron fields. Image courtesy Altema Games.
Cauldron fields. Image courtesy Altema Games.

The six easy Basic potions are shuffled and one is dealt to each player, with the remaining cards returned to the box. Then, each of the decks is shuffled individually and placed on the table. Each player is then given one additional Basic Potion and two Basic Spells.

As long as the pieces are packed up to keep everything separate, setup is pretty quick, taking only a few minutes.

Overview:

The game is played in a series of alternating “seasons”: Harvest and Market.

Players begin the first Harvest season by drawing an Omen card, which impacts all players. Most of the cards that we drew in our game were positive, but looking through the deck there seem to be plenty of nasty things that can come up.

Then, players populate the board by placing one ingredient token on each matching piece on the board, unless the Omen card said to do something different.

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Everyone then rolls to determine turn order. This ended up being an interesting part of the game, since you cannot predict what order you will complete your turn on the next round. The first player then completes one required action of harvesting an ingredient, stealing ingredients from another player, or brewing a potion.

To harvest, the player simply takes a single ingredient from the board. They can take any ingredient they want, whether they need it for a potion or not (so you can grab ingredients you know other players need).

Stealing involves rolling the die, and on a 4 or higher, you can take an ingredient from another player and add it to your supply.

A character card with potions and harvested ingredients. Image courtesy Altema Games.
A character card with potions and harvested ingredients. Image courtesy Altema Games.

To brew a potion, you discard the ingredients required by the potion and gain the amount of Magik indicated. You do not, however, discard the potion, so it is possible to brew the same potion repeatedly.

Players also have the option of performing Quick Actions. These include brewing certain designated “quick” potions, casting spells, and moving ingredients in and out of your cellar. A player can perform as many of these quick actions per turn as possible.

The Harvest season continues until all of the ingredients have been harvested. This means that the phase gets progressively longer as the game continues and more fields are added to the board, but because not everyone will grab an ingredient each time, it’s hard to predict exactly when the phase will end. As all leftover ingredients “spoil” and have to be returned to the stock at the end of each harvest, you have to be very careful in managing what you do on each turn.

Once all of the ingredients are harvested, players return all remaining ingredients in their supplies to the game stock (unless you have a cellar, which allows you to carry one ingredient over to the next harvest), and play proceeds to the Market phase.

In this second phase, players each have a single action: they can either buy something or pass. Purchase options include additional fields for the board, cellars, or more spells or potions. What makes this particularly intriguing is that the game’s currency is Magik, meaning that you have to spend the points you earned in the Harvest phase to buy anything in the Market. Some of the prices are fixed, such as fields, which always cost three Magik, while other prices increase: basic potions cost one Magik for each potion you already have. This simple mechanic means that the points leader continually fluctuates. In one game we played, my son trailed, pretty badly, though most of the game, but in the final phases made some shrewd purchases and came roaring out of nowhere to win.

A sampling of the Spell, Potion and Omen cards. Image courtesy Altema Games.
A sampling of the Spell, Potion and Omen cards. Image courtesy Altema Games.

Once everyone has made their purchase or passed, everything starts over: you draw a new Omen card, place ingredients back on the fields, roll for turn order, and begin a new Harvest phase.

There’s one other interesting twist worth noting. The Magik track, which is used to keep score, has several points that trigger additional rules once the first player passes it. So, for example, no one can buy advanced spells or potions until someone gets at least fifteen Magik. When someone passes the 20 Magik point, everyone except the player who passed that point gets a free spell. In one of our games, I found myself carefully managing my points and intentionally not brewing a potion because I wanted someone else to pass that point first, figuring that the free spell would most likely be worth more than the points that round.

Verdict:

The game is surprisingly deep and a lot of fun to play. At first glance, the Harvest seasons mostly involve taking obvious actions, but then you realize that you have to carefully manage your resources and limited turns. More than once I thought I could wait and collect more ingredients, only to have the other players grab the remaining ingredients on the board and end the Harvest, forcing me to lose everything I had collected. And then there’s the challenge of the much shorter Market seasons. With only a single purchase available each time, and the fact that you have to spend the points you worked so hard to earn in the Harvest, figuring out what to buy each season is challenging. Do you risk paying the ever-increasing cost of potions, or buy spells that will hopefully let you mess with your opponents? Or do you pick up a cellar so that you can begin stockpiling those precious ingredients?

The Magik track. The red "used" tokens denote the trigger spots that have already been passed. Image courtesy Altema Games.
The Magik track. The red “used” tokens denote the trigger spots that have already been passed. Image courtesy Altema Games.

It’s also refreshing that a game with this much complexity and depth is so simple and easy to learn. The rule book is only 14 pages (at least in the prototype I was given), and the whole game can be explained in a matter of minutes.

After only a couple of plays, Cauldron has already become a favorite in my family. If you like games with lots of strategy that are nonetheless easy to learn and can appeal to the whole family, I’d highly recommend that you back Cauldron on Kickstarter so that you can add it to your family’s collection as well.

Rob is a geek with a 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. He teaches web and graphic design at the college level, watches a ridiculous number of movies, plays as many board games as he can, and loves the history of the technological age almost as much as he loves Firefly.