Theophrastus: Alchemical Test of Apprenticeship

Pros: Original and entertaining; great atmosphere; sly sense of humor
Cons: Steep learning curve
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 1/10/2003

“Theophrastus,” a card game designed by P.R. Chase and manufactured by Mayfair Games, is quite the unusual game! I knew when I saw it that I just had to pick it up. The premise is this: master alchemist Theophrastus is willing to take on one, and only one, apprentice. You and the other players are the would-be apprentices competing to be chosen for the honor. In order to determine who is most worthy, Theophrastus poses three alchemical experiments for you to solve. Whoever can come closest to duplicating Theophrastus’ own research into those experiments will become his next apprentice.

Intricate Gameplay

The rule booklet is complex and in-depth. There are quite a few little details to learn, and to be honest, this is not something you’ll pick up in five minutes. When the box says “a challenging cardgame,” it means it. However, if you have the patience to sit through a couple of rounds, you’ll find that the game is not so bad after all. It simply has a high learning curve. Once you’ve played it a couple of times, it seems much more straightforward and understandable.

I’ll try to give a brief overview of gameplay (so I don’t keep you here all day!). First, the game comes with 27 “experiment parchments.” These are oversized directions for the individual experiments; they’re a little tough to shuffle due to their size. But they’re also remarkably cool-looking, and the description on each lends a lot of atmosphere to the game. The parts of the experiment are separated out into metals, elements, and essentials, and there are some guidelines you must follow. Sometimes there’s a simple ingredient limit (three metals, for example). Sometimes there are required ingredients (one water plus two other elements). Once in a while there’s a “forbidden” ingredient–something you’ll get absolutely no points for if it turns up in your experiment. By the way, the game includes three blank experiment parchments so that you can come up with your own experiments!

The game also comes with 120 “ingredient cards.” These are the metals, elements, “essentials,” and special ingredients that you use to complete the experiments. These cards are small and square, and difficult to shuffle (hint: shuffle them in batches). Each player takes a turn being Theophrastus; there’s a cool-looking metallic mortar-and-pestle “Theophrastus marker” that you pass around. Theophrastus adds to his experiment first, then the players all take turns. The marker gets passed, Theophrastus goes, and then all the players go. Theophrastus always plays his cards face-down, so you only know the identities of the cards that you played when you were being Theophrastus.

Each round each player gets three “action points.” You can do various things with these points, including playing ingredients either face up or face down (down is more expensive), using bits of the philosopher’s stone to screw over other players, looking at Theophrastus’ cards, and more.

Now here’s where the game truly becomes entertaining. You can discredit the research of other players, or even Theophrastus himself, causing them to discard cards. You can transmute other players’ ingredients into “forbidden” ingredients, causing them to get zero points for them. You can steal your opponents’ lab notes (cards), or bribe an opponent’s assistant to share their research (you can force someone to turn a face-down card upright. You see, you can’t transmute an ingredient that isn’t face-up). Ever wanted to engage in academic hijinks without having to fight for tenure? Well here’s your chance!

Finally, once Theophrastus completes his experiment, the round is over. Your point total depends on just how closely you matched your ingredients to his (and yes, there are “wild card” ingredients, just to make things truly interesting).

[A special note on “required” ingredients: the one problem here with the fact that Theophrastus’ cards get played face-down is that you never know which of the required ingredients have or haven’t been played yet, so you can’t be sure Theophrastus is sticking to the formula. Our solution has been to insist that any required ingredients in Theophrastus’ formula be played face-up. You aren’t allowed to transmute Theophrastus’ required ingredients anyway, so this doesn’t hurt game-play.]

You are provided with “research cards” for the players, which give you a summary of action points and what they’re used for, as well as the general order of play. They also provide a sort of organizational scheme for your work space.

The Details

The game may be a bit complex, but it’s well worth learning. It just has so much atmosphere to it, and allows you to do so many interesting things. It’s great fun to “sneak around” ruining the competition’s experiments while trying to complete your own!

The game is for age 10 and up. The box says that games last 15-30 minutes, but if you include all three rounds I think it’s definitely longer than 15 minutes. In some places the game says it’s for 2-5 players; in others it says it’s for 2-4 players. I think it would work for up to 5, given the quantity of ingredient cards provided.

In particular, we find that the number of action points is balanced well. It takes 2 points to lay an ingredient out face-down, and 1 to play an ingredient face-up. Since you get 3 points per round and you can’t save points you don’t play, this gives you an incentive to play some of your ingredients face-up. And of course, face-up ingredients are easier to sabotage!

If all you want is a simple game that requires no real thought, “Theophrastus” definitely isn’t for you. The learning curve requires a bit of thought, a willingness to read through a comparatively thick rule book, and a few rounds of slightly confused play. But if you don’t mind putting a little bit of effort into it, the game is a great deal of fun! Where else will you get the chance to be a medieval alchemist, mixing odd ingredients to create strange and unusual substances?

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