Potion Explosion

Category: Euro Game

Designer: Stefano Castelli, Andrea Crespi, & Lorenzo Silva

Publisher: Horrible Guild (2018 English edition)

Year Published: 2015

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 45 mins.

To Play or Not To Play: Play

Have you ever wanted to play Bejeweled in real life? Here’s your chance! The centerpiece of Potion Explosion is a large cardboard structure. It has five sloped tracks, which are partially obscured by an overhang. You dump a bag of marbles onto the overhang, and the marbles roll into the tracks, creating five columns of marbles. These marbles are your potion ingredients, and you’ll take marbles out of the track to match the recipe for whatever potion you’re working on. Gravity will roll the remaining marbles down, and if two marbles of the same color collide, they’ll “explode” and you get to claim those marbles as well for your potions.

Two students prepare for a brew-off!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why are we making potions? In Potion Explosion, you and your opponents are apprentice wizards practicing your potion brewing skills. The marbles each represent magical ingredients, such as unicorn tears. Each player has a workbench with two potions to work on. Each potion requires between 4 and 9 ingredients to brew. When you pick up marbles on your turn, you can place them in your in-progress potions, or if you don’t need a certain marble right now you can store it on your workbench for a future turn. But watch out, you can only store three extra marbles. Any others that can’t be placed or stored have to be returned to the supply.

This player got a bunch of marbles on their turn, but not in the right combination of colors.

Each potion is worth several victory points based on how difficult it is to brew. Your goal is to accumulate the most points, but along the way you have to demonstrate your academic prowess. You can master a type of potion by brewing it three times. Or you can demonstrate your generalized skills by creating five different potions. Either option will earn you academic recognition, which is worth 4 victory points. The game continues the players have collectively achieved a certain amount of recognition. Then everyone counts up their points to see who won.

Here’s where things get tricky. On your turn, you can only pick up one marble, and then you also get any other marbles that explode in a subsequent chain reaction. But there are other ways to get marbles too. You can also call for help from your instructor once each turn, which allows you to take an additional marble at the cost of 2 victory points.

The potions are shuffled and distributed into five supply piles. When a player finishes a potion, they get to select the top potion from one of the piles to add to their workbench to make next.

But more importantly, the potions you make don't just sit there glistening next to your workbench. Oh no, no, you can DRINK them yourself to gain immediate, one-time-use special powers! The most basic potion allows you to take an additional marble, but does not trigger explosions. Another lets you take two adjacent marbles of different colors. A third lets you steal a marble from another player's workbench!

As light-hearted and silly as this game sounds, it’s remarkably intense. When you first look at this game, you think you’re just going to mess around with marbles and colorful tokens. Then you start playing and discover that there’s this extremely challenging optimization puzzle hidden just beneath the surface. Sure, some people might play this game where you just try to get a few marbles each turn without thinking too hard about all your various options. But when I introduced this game to one friend, she immediately saw that there were ways to really optimize her moves. After just a couple turns, she was chugging potions and calling for help to set up massive chain reactions that would let her complete one or two potions each turn! The only way to keep up was by following suit, and now I can't play the game any other way.

This player completed a Magnetic Attraction potion, and has made great progress on their next one.

And that’s what’s great about Potion Explosion. It was fun when I just took marbles willy-nilly, and it was fun when I began staring at the marbles trying to find the line that would help me reach my goal the fastest. And I think that all boils down to the thing that makes Potion Explosion unique: the marbles! Potion Explosion uses components that most other games wouldn’t touch to create an experience that’s mentally AND tactilely satisfying.

Of course, you do run the risk of getting bored as someone spends minutes staring at the supply trying to find the right answer. In other games where you spend a long time waiting for your turn, you can usually plan out your next move in advance. But by this game’s very nature, the situation could be completely different by the time your next turn comes around, which means even the best-laid plan could go awry just before your turn. And then you’ll have to sit and think up your new plan.

This player completed a Potion of Prismatic Joy! At the end of their turn, they selected a new potion for their workbench. However, it's not their turn, so they can't move the marble from their storage flask to the new potion. This means that another player could use a potion to steal that stored marble.

I think that’s what makes Potion Explosion such a unique game. You can play it as a light-hearted, casual game, and you’ll have fun. But as soon as one player decides to really take it seriously, it forces everyone else to do so as well. It’s still fun, but it changes character abruptly. In a way, Potion Explosion can be a great gateway game into the hobby. Every player’s goal is public, so newer players can see what everyone else is doing, and why they’re doing it. Before long, they’ll catch on and give everyone else a run for their money!

Potion Explosion is simply a delightful game. It has wide appeal, but provides enough depth to keep gamers of all skill levels engaged. And there’s an app available for PC, Mac, and mobile devices if you don’t have access to the physical game, though I haven’t actually tried the app so I can’t say if it’s any good. Check the app store reviews, I guess! At this point, I think it goes without saying: yes, you should play this game.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below! This week's review was selected by my followers on Twitter. If you'd like to have a say in what game I review next, please follow me @OrNotToPlay.

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