Alchemy!

More boardgames should use Alchemy. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that alchemy was one of my favorite elements of the video game Secret of Evermore. And it plays a large part in Fullmetal Alchemist, one of my favorite anime.  These provide two entirely unique manifestations of alchemy to provide detail and enrich their worlds. But there is still a common thread running through them–a thread that can be woven into a wide variety of experiences.

What is alchemy? Historically, alchemy was the forerunner of modern chemistry. But it carries a long tradition, dealing with a range of intellectual pursuits, combining philosophy, religion, mythology, medicine, and magic with elements of actual chemistry and the scientific method. The ultimate goal of alchemy was the creation of the philosopher’s stone, a mysterious substance that can transform any metal into gold or confer eternal life.

The broad scope of subjects that alchemy incorporates makes it applicable to a wide variety of game themes. While modern chemistry can be the source of a great gaming experience, it is only available to games set in the mid-19th century on. But alchemy spans a much longer period of time before then. Alchemical terms are mentioned as far back as the Roman empire, and many references in alchemy extend further back.

The relationship between chemistry and alchemy also has another thematic benefit. While chemistry is typically limited to realistic settings, alchemy can act as a bridge between science and fantasy. The special language and symbology used in Alchemy are code for some lost knowledge. Exploring and rediscovering this meaning makes alchemy a powerful story-telling tool.

Alchemy can be used to add the element of magic without resorting to traditional spells or other fantasy elements, as it does in Secret of Evermore. Alchemy is steeped in mysticism, making it is easy to tie in an entire other mythology, which may include magical elements, as in Fullmetal Alchemist. For games that have a fantasy setting, alchemy can even act as a stand-in for science, or as a non-fantasy alternative to magic. It can lend both a timeless and archaic feeling to a game. Many games use only this aspect, but there is a lot more that Alchemy can add to a game.

Alchemy can also provide a thematic hook into many mechanics. Obviously, there are secret goals and hidden information, but the base alchemical principles offer numerous ideas. One of the base principles of alchemy are the four base elements air, fire, water, and earth, which combine in varying amounts to create everything else. This behavior spawned several mobile and internet games, where players start by combining these basic elements in increasingly complex chains (fire + earth = lava, lava + water = stone, stone + fire = metal, etc…). This is a neat mechanic I’d like to see in a board game, but may be difficult since keeping the combinations unknown until they are created is a key component.

Secret of Evermore takes a different path, where the player combines basic ingredients such as water, clay, and roots to produce different effects. This again reflects the spirit of alchemy, where common substances (“reagents”) are mixed in precise quantities to produce powerful and mysterious substances. This begins to sound like fertile ground for a resource collection and conversion mechanic.

Full Metal Alchemist may provide the most unique point of view. The show (and associated manga) are rich with references to historical alchemy. The main character has the ability of “transmutation” but it is really just the ability to manipulate matter, change its form and atomic structure, not change from one element into another. Matter manipulation could be an interesting mechanic to design a game around, especially with variable player powers that specialize in one form or another.

I’d like to see a lot more alchemy used in boardgames. But it can and should be more than just a source of flavor text. There is a vast world of untapped potential in the theme, and the mechanics it suggests. And you don’t need a Philosopher’s stone to turn the ideas into gold.

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