Review: Compounded Brings a Lot to the Table

Compounded is all about chemistry. Obviously it is about forming chemical compounds from constituent elements. But more importantly, it is a game of interaction–of chemistry between people. Designer Darrell Louder and Dice Hate Me Games (DHMG) have produced a deeply enjoyable game, that proves that Breaking Bad is not the only way that chemistry can be interesting. It incorporates a clever mechanic of forming compounds, but the human aspect is where the game really shines.

What You Get

  • 100 plastic elements in 6 colors:
    • Hydrogen (30,) Carbon and Oxygen (20), Nitrogen (15), Calcium (10), Sulfur(5)
  • A drawstring bag to hold the elements and draw them from
  • Periodic Table scoring board
  • 5 player Work Bench boards to hold elements and track research levels
  • Assorted cardboard chits in each player color to track score, research, and claim compounds
  • 1 Lab Key
  • Various cardboard chits showing special powers
  • Small cardboard flame tokens to track volatile compounds
  • 5 Wild Element tokens
  • 5 Fire Extinguisher Compounds
  • 9 beginner compound cards
  • 54 normal compound cards
  • 5 Lab Fire cards
  • Lab Parners cards with complex compounds
  • 1 Chemistry Textbook (Rule booklet)

There is a lot of stuff included for a game with a surprisingly small box. But the size of the box is not an indication of the depth of the game. The materials are also up to the typical high standards of DHMG production. My only complaint is that some of the tokens are a little small, and the bag for elements could be a little larger. But these are small issues that don’t distract from the gameplay.

The art and graphic design do a phenomenal job of weaving the theme throughout the game. There are a lot of little touches that really pull the game together. The periodic table score track is not the most usable, but it worth mentioning as such an awesome thematic touch. The Lab Partners cards are styled like the composition notebooks I remember from high school chemistry. It strongly fits what I think of as the Dice Hate Me aesthetic (unsurprisingly because Darrell also worked with DHMG on Viva Java and other games), which does a great job of making the game stand out and draw players in.

What You Do

Players try to collect and trade elements in order to claim and form compounds in a race to 50 points. Setup is pretty quick, if you have one person set up the deck and the other player arrange the player and ability tokens. Create a four by four grid of compound cards, starting with the basic compounds (marked by yellow borders). Shuffle the remaining compounds and add the Lab Fires to the remaining stack. (The rule book has an error on about how to place them, and they actually get placed between 5 stacks of 8 and a stack of 7. Just distribute them evenly.) Players start with 4 elements on their work benches, drawn from the bag. The player with the most rare elements takes the Lab Key to start.

Each round has 4 main phases. In each phase, the player with the Lab Key takes his turn first. First is the Discovery phase, in which players draw new elements from the bag and trade with each other. Next is the Study phase, in which players take turns claiming 1 compound at a time, and then moving claim tokens if desired. Third is the Research phase, in which players place elements from their boards onto matching spaces on compound cards to try and complete them for scoring. Players may also trade elements with the supply (3 matching for any 1), or place their 1 wild element in place of any element except sulfur. Players may also add to their Fire Extinguishers, which are worth 4 points if completed, or can be used to extinguish 1 fire. Players can also add elements to unclaimed compounds. If they complete it by doing so, the player may temporarily claim it for scoring.

The final phase is the Lab phase, in which completed compounds are removed from the grid and scored in turn order (this can be important because of some side effects). Players might receive special ability tokens shown on completed compounds. Players also increase their experiment levels which correspond to the 4 phases. These actions are limited at the start of the game. A player can only draw 2 elements, claim 1 compound, and place 2 elements, and has only 4 element spaces on his work bench. But each compound has a form (solid, liquid, gas) that corresponds to an experiment (study, discovery, research, respectively). They increase the corresponding experiment level or Lab level, raising the action limits, when completing a compound. Finally the grid is refilled with new compounds. If a Lab Fire is revealed in this step, flammable compounds (marked with 1 or 2 flames) gain a flame token. These compounds can explode, scattering any elements on them to adjacent compounds. The Lab Key is then passed to the next player, and the new round starts.

The game ends one round after a player passes 50 points or has 3 out of 4 experiments completed, but if there are not enough compounds to complete the grid, the game ends immediately. Points from completed compounds, wild elements, fire extinguishers, and elements on complete and incomplete compounds are added up to determine the winner.

The negotiation and trading aspect is what really drives this game. Elements can be traded between players during the discovery phase. But more importantly, players can make deals for just about anything except research levels and points. Special ability tokens, fire extinguishers and wild element can be traded, but so can favors, like a beneficial trade in a later round, assistance with completing a compound, or sharing a research grant. But all verbal agreements are explicitly non-binding, which allows for some ruthless back-stabbing.

What I Liked

Compounded has in innovative mechanic in placing elements on compounds. It feels similar to resource conversion or building, but because it happens gradually, instead of all at once, it doesn’t feel like simply paying the cost. The experiments are reminiscent of research in Viva Java and Brew Crafters, which also contributes to the distinct DHMG feel. But the player has less control over it, since each compound is tied to a specific experiment. Negotiation adds a social element to the game, and really elevates it from what would not normally be considered an exciting subject. And the designer earns extra points for choosing an original theme, and making it work, helped out by the outstanding graphic design. I usually dislike aggressive play with backstabbing, which is possible (if not explicitly encouraged) in the game, but the group you play with makes a big difference, and you can choose to play a more friendly game. This flexibility to play casually or aggressively is one of the major strengths. The game can be played equally well while drinking some C2H6O (alcohol) without worrying about missing something or making a major strategic blunder, introducing it to new casual gamers, or sit with your intense gaming friends and enjoy the game, making it both a great social game and a gamers’ game.

What I Disliked

My only real issue with the gameplay is that the last rounds become more luck driven as players stop negotiating, and you are more reliant on draws from the bag, which can occasionally be disappointing. But this isn’t specific to Compounded, and is just an inherent feature of games that combine player-to-player trading and race elements (e.g. Catan). And the player still has some methods for controlling this luck aspect, with lab tools and increasing experiment levels. There is also a slim opportunity for vicious backstabbing. That usually makes me uncomfortable, but depends highly on your group, and that flexibility was one of the things I liked about it.

Conclusions

Overall, the game plays very smoothly. The compound mechanic is impressively robust and allows for a lot of variety in play, and the negotiation aspect turns it into something much deeper than it appears on the surface. We found ourselves getting excited about game-changing deals and steep demands for favors, and once or twice got so lost in our own negotiations that we lost track of the other players, only to realize we were all negotiating to complete the same compound. It was slightly more random, and more prone to treachery than I normally like, especially toward the end, but I enjoy playing and am unlikely to say no to playing a game. I can best compound this review with a mass of chemistry puns: we had a gas playing this solid game, in which the elements combine fluidly.

If you like the game, the radioactive Geiger expansion for Compounded is on Kickstarter until August 31st, 2014. If you haven’t played Compounded or missed your chance to buy it, you can even get a copy of the second printing.

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