Reviewed by Herb Levy
THEOPHRASTUS (Mayfair Games; 2-5 players, Ages 9 through Adult; 30-45 minutes; $25)
As recounted in the rulebook, Theophrastus von Bombast der Hohenheim was a renowned physician (“considered by many to be the father of ‘modern medicine'”), occultist and alchemist who lived back in the 16th Century, a contemporary and equal of Nicholas Copernicus, Martin Luther and Leonardo da Vinci. Obviously, such a stellar figure required help in his work. In Theophrastus, the new card game devised by P.R. Chase, players compete to win the envious position of apprentice to the great Theophrastus. But such a reward does not come easy. You have to prove your skill and worthiness. That means you will have to compete to duplicate (or, at least, come as close as possible to duplicating) the mysterious formulae of the great alchemist.
Theophrastus is a card game that comes boxed with 27 Experiment parchments, 5 Player Research Guides, 120 Ingredient Cards, a Theophrastus Marker (a mortar and pestle) and 16 page rulebook.
Each player begins with a Player Research Guide. These guides (4″x7″ cardboard cards) serve both as player aids (as to what actions may be taken and their respective costs) and as the area where a player’s formula will be constructed. The 27 Experiment “parchments” (another set of 4″x7″ cards) are separated into A, B and C piles (as noted on the parchments). One of the A parchments is randomly drawn and placed in the center of the playing area. This will be the formula the players will attempt to duplicate this round. On the left side of the Experiment parchment is an explanation of the particular formula. (Nice for “atmosphere” but not really necessary for the game.) The key part of the parchment is located on the right hand side which is divided into three sections for the three types of Reagents in the game: Metals (red), Elements (blue) and Essentials (yellow). To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, “This is the stuff that formulas are made of”.
Each player’s guide contains the same three boxes – but those boxes are empty. Since you are only a prospective apprentice, Theophrastus gives you clues to the composition of the formula right on the Experiment parchment. You may see a particular metal listed (such as Copper). That tells you that Copper is DEFINITELY part of the formula and, to make the most of your effort, Copper should be included in YOUR formula. Sometimes, a box will be less specific. For example, “Any 3” in the Elements box means that any 3 blue Elements will be satisfactory. (But, again, the closer you get to the actual elements used by Theophrastus, the more credit you receive.) In some cases, a box might prohibit use of a substance by noting something like “any 3 Essentials but NOT Mercury”. Using Mercury in your formula under those circumstances would get you nothing! Now, you know SOME of what goes into the formula. The remainder you have to divine or discover for yourself.
The Ingredient Cards are shuffled and divided into five approximately equal piles. Each player takes one card from the top of each of the five stacks to create a starting hand of five Ingredient Cards. Three types of Ingredient Cards appear in the game: Normal Reagents, Special Ingredients, and Philosophers’ Stones. The Normal Reagents are the basic “tools of the trade”, specifying the type of ingredient along with a point total (ranging from 2 to 6 points). There are Special Ingredients for each type of Reagent: Lodestone (for Metals), Ether (for Elements) and Aqua Fortis (for Essentials). All are worth 3 points when scoring and these cards can be exchanged (for lesser valued substances) or act as “Wild Cards” and match ANY similar colored substance in the Experiment during the Scoring Round. Philosophers’ Stone Cards are the most powerful cards in the game. Their effects can result in changing one ingredient into another, invalidating an ingredient in play, plucking a card from another player’s hand and more! (Once used, Philosopher Stone cards are discarded.)
The oldest player gets the Theophrastus marker making him the “starting” player. As starting player, he draws a card and then MUST advance Theophrastus’ formula by playing any card from his hand onto the Experiment parchment, FACE DOWN, that fills a requirement of that formula. (If unable to advance the formula, the player to his left becomes the starting player immediately.) Now, starting with the player to the left of the starting player, each player in the game performs a set of actions.
On his turn, a player draws a card. At that point, he has 3 Action Points (AP) to use. He may draw another card (1 AP), look through any of the five stacks of Ingredient cards and take one of them (3 AP), place a card, FACE UP, onto his own experiment (1 AP), place a card, FACE DOWN, onto his own experiment (2 AP), play a card, FACE DOWN, onto Theophrastus’ experiment (3 AP), play any Special Card (1 AP), play a Philosopher’s Stone card (1 AP), flip over any face down card (2 AP) or look at any face down card in the playing area but keep it face down (3 AP). A player may flip over any of his own cards for free. A player may never end a turn with more than five cards in his hand. (If he has more than five, the excess must be discarded and returned to the bottom of one or more of the Ingredient piles.) The starting player, in taking his own player turn, completes the set of player turns (called a Research Round). The Theophrastus marker is shifted to the left and a new set of Research Rounds begins. Rounds continue until Theophrastus’s formula is completed, triggering scoring.
Immediately upon placing the last card completing the Theophrastus’ Experiment (whether by the starting player or by another player using all 3 of his Action Points for the turn), play stops and the “Scoring Round” starts.
Each player, beginning with the player to the left of the starting player, is allowed to take one last action. No action taken may cost more than 1 AP and reagents in the Theophrastus’ Experiment may not be altered (although reagents in any player’s experiment may be changed). Once all players have done their final action, all face down cards are exposed and scores are calculated.
Cards in a player’s formula are compared to those found in Theophrastus’ formula. For every card that matches a card in the Experiment (Copper to Copper, for example), a player scores the full point value of the card. Ingredients that do NOT match those in the Experiment (e.g. you have Copper but the formula uses Lead) only score 1 point. Forbidden ingredients found in your formula score no points at all. Once scores are tallied, all players replenish their hands to five cards (if necessary). The remaining Ingredient cards (those unused in the first contest and those used and discarded) are shuffled together and divided into five stacks (as before). Now, a second Experiment is randomly selected from the B stack of formulae and the next contest commences, followed by a final contest using a formula from stack C. After all potential apprentices have finished the last competition, point totals for all three contests are added. The player who has amassed the most total points wins the coveted position of apprentice to Theophrastus (and wins the game)!
Theophrastus has a lot of nice touches to it. The limited intelligence afforded to players by knowing some of the reagents in the formula and the limited Actions possible each turn force tough decisions. Should you keep your reagents secret (at a cost of 2 AP per play) or play them open (at only 1 AP)? This is a tough choice since reagents are vulnerable to Wild Cards and Philosophers Stone Cards ONLY when face up! Should you expose a face down reagent in Theophrastus’ formula (so all players know what’s there) or spend all of your AP that turn to see it and then return it face down? Having the starting player go last in his player turn and the ability to end a round by using your 3 AP to advance the formula works well as a balancing mechanism so that the starting player does not get an unfair advantage. The limited ability to make one last move (at a cost of 1 AP) during the Scoring Round gives you some “wriggle room” to adjust your formula or conjure one last “dirty trick” to salvage your score (or whittle down the opposition). As you gain experience and move from Experiments A to B to C, more reagents are needed, leaving you more vulnerable to attack from your fellow would-be apprentices. On the other hand, there are a few improvements that we’d strongly recommend.
The Player Research Guides and Experiment parchments should have been made bigger, at least 5″x8″. As they are, the boxes for the reagents are SMALLER than the dimensions of the cards. Equal sized boxes would have been so much more aesthetically pleasing. Larger Guides and Experiment cards would easily fit into the box. In this case, size does matter. More troubling is that a key feature of the game is obscured in the otherwise clear rules.
A key mechanism in the game is advancing Theophrastus’ formula. At first glance, it appears that, even if an ingredient is named on the card, a card for that ingredient must still be played onto the formula. Wrong! When the formula states, for example, that Mercury is needed, then it is a given that Mercury is present and a Mercury card is considered to be present already! In our first session with the game, we missed this and the game play suffered terribly. The conclusion is simple: a game plays better with the right rules. In a rulebook that displays clarity on other points, this handling of limited intelligence should have been made crystal clear. It wasn’t. Even the examples of scoring tend to reinforce this misconception. An errata sheet should definitely be included in the next printing.
Theophrastus is a card game that will test your acumen in second guessing your opponents in pursuing mystical, magical formulae. While alchemists were known for their failed attempts at turning lead into gold, Theophrastus succeeds in magically transmuting a deck of cards cards into a pleasurable game. This is a worthy first effort from P.R. Chase, a designer we’d like to see more from in the future.- – – – – – Herb Levy
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Summer 2002 GA Report Articles