PLAYlist 21: Ars Alchimia & Lemuria

Feb 28, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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Board games are too damn big! When many of us first get into the hobby, a small stack of bulky cardboard boxes tucked away on the top shelf of a closet doesn’t seem so bad. Before long, though, there'll be enough of them to need a dedicated shelving system all their own.  That will inevitably start to spill over, though, and as the collection grows, many of us find ourselves navigating wobbly towers of board games stacked high from the floor just to get to our game shelves.

I’ve got a problem, I know.

A lot of the time the size of a game’s box is justified. You usually need to fit a board in there, and sometimes individual player boards on top of that. Then you have decks of cards, tokens, pawns and other bits of varying sizes. If it’s a game from a particularly kind publisher, there might be also some sort of plastic organizer inside there to keep all of that stuff properly sorted. Other factors such as manufacturing costs and shelf appeal also contribute to a game’s dimensions. But, all things considered, too many games still come packing a whole lot of air.

Oversized boxes are particularly annoying when you live in a place where space is at a premium. If you’re a game publisher and you’re asking me to dedicate a steamer trunk-sized area of my apartment to your new game, you’d darn well better include at least 350 plastic spaceships in that box. That’s not to mention how much of a pain they can be to transport. Go ahead and try lugging multiple games with you on a subway train: not only do you run the risk of throwing out your shoulder, but people will stare (and it’s not because they can’t believe how cool you are.) 

There are great small games, sure – I’ve written about a few really good ones in this very column – but they don’t always the same itch as a large strategy game, the kind that come in those accursed big boxes with a gazillion pieces. That’s why I really have to appreciate what the two games we’re looking at today have pulled off. Ars Alchimia and Lemuria manage to condense all of the things you like about big, meaty strategy games down into manageable-sized boxed.

Ars Alchimia is a Euro-style game by designer Kuro, originally from Japanese publisher Manifest Destiny and brought stateside by the fine folks at Tasty Minstrel Games. Its box is smaller than an iPad and about two inches thick. From the outside, you’d assume it contained a couple decks of cards and maybe a baggy of cardboard tokens, but no, that’s not the case at all. This is a heavy little box. Open it up and you’ll find they’ve squeezed more than 170 pieces inside – many of them wood, and many of them of very high quality.

In the game, you and your opponents are posing as competing alchemists in a steampunk-ish fantasy world. You’ll win by making more valuable potions than anyone else, which you’ll do by claiming various orders, gathering ingredients from around the land, and then transmuting them at a local forge.

A worker placement game with a strong bidding element, you’ll start with a whopping nine worker pawns, and can gain up to 20 to use in a single turn. In a round, players will take turns placing their pawns on the board’s many action spaces, which allows them to take or fill orders, pick up resources or hire assistants. Unlike most worked placement games (like, say, the ever-popular Agricola) where a space is blocked for the rest of a round once a player is using it, you can use an occupied action simply by placing more of your pawns there than your opponent currently has on it. Thus, you’re rarely truly locked out of a spot you want. But on the flipside of that, there’s no limit to how many workers you can place at once, so you can attempt to block other players by loading up somewhere right out of the gate, and forcing them to consider other paths. Blowing your load in one spot to screw over an opponent isn’t always the best strategy to use, except in those rare moments when it totally is. (The game does mitigate absolute screwage by giving players bonus pawns for going later in the turn order.)

Aside from requiring your opponents to spend more to take the same action as you, there’s an advantage to placing more pawns than are necessary on a given spot. Ars Alchimia introduces luck into the game by having you roll a six-sided die on certain actions to see if your execution was “perfect.” Let’s say you’re gathering blue ingredients at the “Crescent Lake of Mist.” Normally you’d only get two blue resources, but if you roll a four or better, you get a bonus third blue. Each extra pawn you placed on the space gives you a +1 to the roll; so, say, by placing two more pawns than needed, you’d only have to roll a two or better to win the extra resource. The same goes at the forges, where rolling a perfect can earn you extra points. The action spaces themselves are randomized, and refresh from various decks of cards at the start of each round.

Additionally, you can hire adorable little assistants throughout the game to give yourself special powers and unique abilities, ranging from converting resources to gaining bonuses on dice rolls. You can keep these assistants from round to round, but it will cost you worker pawns. (You’ll need to weigh whether their granted advantages are worth the decreased bidding power.)

All of the game’s art design is fantastic. The assistants are illustrated as squat, cutesy anime people – like something out of a video game like Final Fantasy Tactics – and the board itself is a colorful and intricately drawn village, like the painted backgrounds you’d see in Studio Ghibli animations such as Kiki’s Delivery Service or Howl’s Moving Castle. Not only is the design economical, but it’s elegant. If there’s one little complaint, it’s that you’d better have good vision and a brightly-lit room to play this one: the text on some of these cards is downright tiny, and it’s squeezed on there in both English and Japanese. 

Relatively fast-paced for a worker placement-style game, Ars Alchimia offers up a lot of strategy to consider within its hour-length playtime. It’s fun and flavorful, and looks great on the table. Importantly, too, it’s pretty easy to grasp – new players should be able to pick it up after a short explanation of the rules and goals.  

On the more complex side of the spectrum is Lemuria, another Kuro/Manifest Destiny game imported to the U.S. by Tasty Minstrel. It comes in the same svelte box and has a similar, anime-inspired art style.

The game is set on the mythical continent Lemuria that's said to have once occupied the area between Madagascar and India. Like the lost city of Atlantis, popular legends contend that Lemuria was once the home to an advanced culture, but sunk into the sea in the wake of some great cataclysm. The board game version of Lemuria raises things a step further, supposing that the Lemurians possessed technology that allowed them to bend time and transform magical “materia” into the various resources their society needed. You and two or three other players will become Lemuria’s time-bending wizards – errr, city developers – hired to erect new buildings for the citizenry to live in.

The central mechanism of Lemuria is the “Star Altar,” a cardboard disc demarcated into thirds and depicting the game’s six resources: food, cloth, and wood (requiring “plant” materia), and gold, brick, and stone (derived from “mineral” materia). This is surrounded on the board by a round area divided up into sections of varying sizes. As the game goes on, the altar disc will rotate within this area, effectively changing the cost and values of the six resources.

On their turn, a player can “seed” materia by placing a one of their acrylic markers – they’ll have four in their color, two each representing plant and mineral – into one of the spaces around the altar. If a player’s marker is already in that area, only one of a matching type can be placed with it. When a section is completely filled, they can “harvest” – remove all materia from the area – and collect the corresponding resources. (All players with markers in the area receive resources, even if they’re not harvesting.) When a round ends, any areas containing both player markers and open spots will gain one generic “filler” materia, mean that players won’t have to rely on their opponents (or dedicate all of their own resources) to filling the larger sections.

The Star Altar is definitely Lemuria’s most interesting element, but it’s also the hardest to explain to new players. You’ll be trying to get your opponents to unwittingly help you gain the resources you want, as well as piggyback on their efforts as much as possible. Starting one third of the way into the game, the center of the altar will rotate each round, adding an element of timing to factor into your decisions. (You don’t want to invest in a space only to have it no longer reap the rewards you need by the time you can finally harvest it.)  

You’ll use the resources you gather to build buildings and buy (or play) citizen cards. Across the top of the board you’ll have a line of building cards; you’ll get bonus points for the leftmost ones, but discounts on the ones on the right. When you purchase one, you’ll place a token in one of four areas on the board; when you control a majority of buildings in one of these areas, you’ll get various bonuses. You’ll also take the building card itself and place it in front of you. When you play a citizen card from your hand, you’ll pay the resource cost indicated and use the special, one-time effect listed. Then, you may turn them sideways and tuck them inside one of your buildings to “live” there, which is worth varying victory points depending on whether the citizen’s color matches his or new home. Additional victory points are earned for having people in your buildings during the festival rounds, which take place every fourth round. After 12 rounds, the game ends.

The art style in Lemuria is similar to Ars Alchimia’s: ornate and anime-inspired, where it looks like there's a lot going on all over the board. Lemuria’s art, for what it’s worth, feels a bit darker and – for lack of a better word – more mature than its sibling's. While Ars Alchimia went with squashed, cutesy people, the citizens of Lemuria are larger and more detailed, like something out a YA manga.

Ars Alchimia plays two to four players in roughly an hour, and has an MSRP of $39.95. Lemuria requires three or four players, takes more than 90 minutes, and costs $34.95. Both games successfully pack a “big game” experience into a small box you could easily slide into the pocket of your JNCOs. While we did enjoy both, if we had to recommend one over the other, it would be Ars Alchimia, which played much faster and was easier to learn. (Its rules are a scant four pages.) The challenge is easy to wrap one’s head around, and there’s a lot of strategy to take into mind for a game that’s pretty straight-forward. Lemuria, meanwhile, does the opposite: it feels far more complicated than it really is, moves much more slowly, and – even without dice – makes dumb luck a major factor of the game based on what cards are drawn and when. Its rulebook, in comparison, is a big, fold-out sheet that will probably need a couple reads before it all finally clicks in your head.

If you twisted my arm, I’d tell you that Ars Alchimia was simply the more fun game of the two. Both have earned spots in my collection, however, and it’s not just because I can fit them both in the same amount of shelf space taken up by your average, Ticket to Ride-sized box and still have enough room left over for a Subway foot-long sub. They’re genuinely good board games.

Today’s games proved that good games can come in oversized packages. In the same sense, so can songs.

Look, I love “Echoes” as much as the next Pink Floyd fan, and I’m always going to choose the album version of any song over the radio edit. But, sometimes I’m in a hurry and just don’t have time for a full, three-minute pop song. Lucky for me, so many great bands have songs in their catalogues that clock in under two minutes. In honor of Tasty Minstel’s two densely-packed little Japanese imports, we’ve crammed more than 70 songs by UTR-approved artists into a playlist less than two hours long. Better yet, we’ve avoided things like skits and instrumental album-fillers. These are lean, mean li’l songs, folks. Have at ‘em – and enjoy!

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Previous PLAYlist columns: A Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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March 1st 2018
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