The Apothecaries have invited you, the apprentices, to join their secret potion society. Stash ingredients in the marketplace, and use apothecaries you’ve recruited to manipulate the potions. Be the first to craft three concoctions, and you’ll gain entry to Apotheca.
At a glance: Apotheca is for 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 30 minutes to play. It is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a base pledge of $35 to get a copy of the game. Although the box says 14 and up, I played the game with my 8-year-old and 11-year-old and they both picked it up pretty easily. There isn’t anything inappropriate in the theme, content, or images that you need to worry about with younger kids, but there is a level of planning ahead and anticipating moves that less experienced players may have trouble with.
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- 1 game board
- 15 Apothecary cards
- 42 potion cards
- 42 gem tokens
- 4 player reference cards
Note: this is an active Kickstarter campaign, and there are stretch goals that may change the final component list if the game reaches certain funding levels. This review is based on an advance prototype, so the quality of the components is subject to change. For instance, the game will have cardboard punchout tokens for the gems rather than the plastic gems seen in my photos, but the plastic gems may be a stretch goal.
The Apothecary cards are tarot-sized cards, and each one is unique, with a large section for the artwork, a name, and then an ability (with a little diagram) showing how that Apothecary can manipulate the cards on the board.
The potion cards are square cards, with either a red, blue, or yellow potion pictured on each. The backs of the potion cards show a small brown bag, with an arrow pointing in one direction–these arrows are used to track which player placed the card on the board. On this prototype version, the card backs and board were a little dark so it could be hard to see the face-down cards, but designer/publisher Andrew Federspiel assures me that this will be adjusted in the final production. There are a series of stretch goals to add unique art to the ingredient cards, rather than only having three types, one for each color.
The game board looks really nice–it’s made to look like a bunch of square tables in a marketplace, and the artwork is very nice. The prototype board is 18″ square, but the final board will be 22″. I’m not sure I need the board to be any larger–it does take up a good deal of space on my table already–but once you’re familiar with the game you could actually play with just the cards laid out in a 4×4 grid. In fact, if you just took the cards and gems, this game becomes extremely portable.
How to Play
The goal of the game is to be first to create matches for three of your apothecaries. For two or three players, each player is responsible for creating matches for three Apothecaries to win. In a four-player game, players are on teams.
To set up, you shuffle up the potion cards and set out four face-down in a diagonal across the board, and then two face-up in the other two corners. Each player gets an Apothecary card (face-up), and three Apothecaries are set face-up to form Apothecary Alley. Mark them each with a different-colored gem.
On your turn, you must take 2 different actions from the following choices:
Reveal: Flip over a face-down card. Collect a gem of its color.
Restock: If there are fewer than 3 face-down cards in the marketplace, draw and place cards face-down until there are three. You get to look at the cards you place, and orient the arrow toward you–you are allowed to look at any of the cards you have placed.
Recruit: Spend two gems of the matching color to recruit an Apothecary and place it in front of you. Or, spend one of each color to recruit the top card off the Apothecary deck. (Refill the Apothecary Alley as needed.)
Power: Use an ability from one of your active Apothecaries (i.e., one that doesn’t have a match yet). Apothecaries allow you to move cards around the board according to certain patterns. You may use more than one Apothecary on your turn, but you may not use the same one twice.
To create a match, you have to get three face-up potions of the same color in a row or column (not diagonal). When you make a match, you take those cards and place them on one of your active Apothecaries. That Apothecary has now been satisfied and you can no longer use its ability. If you manage to make a match that involves more than three cards, you’ll also get a bonus gem of that color. However, if you make a match but have no active Apothecaries, you get a gem but the cards are just shuffled back into the deck and it doesn’t count toward victory.
The first player to serve three Apothecaries with matches wins.
Apotheca is a fun, quick game that requires some spatial skills and careful planning, and it doesn’t hurt to know how to read your opponents. I like the way that the Apothecaries let you manipulate cards on the board and rearrange them: some will let you swap cards, some let you move one or more cards around. Much of the game is spent trying to figure out how to use your powers to set up a match without giving your opponents the chance to do the same.
One nice feature is the way that you can always peek at the face-down cards you’ve put onto the board. It removes the memory element. I have friends who just don’t have good memories, and being able to look at the cards they placed makes this game much more appealing than if they had to play a shell game while everyone shifts things around on the board. Many hidden information games require you to just remember, and some players will obviously have an advantage. In Apotheca, it’s more about how you use your abilities, rather than whether you can remember what cards you placed where.
What you’ll often find while playing Apotheca is that if you had just one more move then you could easily make a match. If only you could place a card, rearrange the board, and flip one over… Or reveal one card and then use two powers… But because you’re limited to two actions, it forces you to set things up close enough that you can complete a match, without giving your opponent an obvious move to make. Generally that means using the “Restock” action to put some hidden cards on the board, hoping that your opponents won’t guess where the matching cards are.
The downside to the game is that sometimes you feel like you only have so many options. It doesn’t happen all the time, but occasionally a situation arises where you feel like your turn can only take one direction. For example, if there were already three face-down cards on the board, then you can’t start with “Restock.” And since you can only use “Reveal” once per turn, if there are multiple cards face-down, you can only flip one of them over–which means that you still can’t get a huge advantage by placing new cards after that.
Overall, though, I found Apotheca to be a fun game that’s easy to learn but will take some more plays to really get the hang of the strategy. It’ll appeal to people who like pattern recognition in games, but also has that bluffing and psychological element for those who enjoy player interaction.
For more about Apotheca, visit the Kickstarter page.