Friday, August 19, 2011
Russian Game Review - Potion-Making Practice
Russian Game Week is coming to a close, and I saved the best of the batch for last. I need a big drum roll and maybe a man dressed up as a dancing bear. This last game requires some fanfare, because it's one of the most entertaining games I've played this year. If I was a lot less lazy and bothered to rank things, this last game could be a contender for Game of the Year. But I don't, so it's just really fun.
The game is called Potion-Making Practice. Before you begin your derisive snorts, keep in mind that the game is made in Russia. It's not like they could hire Hollywood wordsmiths to come up with a sexy name. In Russia, the name is probably some clever play on words that doesn't translate to English. In Russia, 'Potion-Making Practice' probably means 'Free blowjobs,' but in the US, it just means chemistry class.
The name might be a little bland, but the art in this game is beautiful. The card design is lavish and ornate, with more eye candy than an NFL trophy wife. Whether it's a painting of mandrake root or an elaborate design that twists around everything like an insidious magical vine, the graphics for Potion-Making Practice will make you want to play, even if the name sounds like homework.
The premise seems simple enough. You're all combining elements to make potions, and then combining those potions to make elixirs, and then combining the elixirs to make talismans and mythical creatures and taco salads. The more complicated your concoction, the more points you get for making it. You can even use the compounds your opponents cook up, but when you do, they get points for having you steal their stuff.
An interesting element of Potion-Making Practice is that on your turn, you only ever get to play one card (unless it's a spell card that says, 'play another card'). This means you can't make potions with the elements in your hand. The only way to get the base elements is to pick them up off the table, and the only way those elements get there is if people put them there. Since you score a point just for contributing a new element, there's considerable incentive to fill the table with building materials, even if you don't have any way to use them.
It might seem like this is a game where you want to block your opponents by trying to figure out what they want to cook and depriving them of their recipe ingredients. But since the winning combinations come from combining existing potions, and you can use the finished potions your opponents mix up, it's actually in your best interest to let people make whatever they want. Making simple potions is not going to win you the game. For the really big scores, you need to whip up the impressive potions, the magical critters, or the tricky talismans. And to do that, you'll need to take advantage of the concoctions created by the other Hogwarts kids.
At first glance, Potion-Making Practice looks like it's all luck. If you never have the cards you need to build the potions you've drawn, you could just be screwed. But the player counting on luck is going to lose to the player who watches the card play, keeps track of his hand, and uses what he has when he needs it. Patience is the key - it doesn't matter if you make a potion every other turn, because in the end, the player who puts together the killer combinations will win the game, and he can only do that if he manages his cards very carefully.
Some of us were of the opinion that there were too many elements, and to be completely honest, that can be a consideration. The game can be frustrating if the two pieces you need to finish your creation never appear in the middle of the table. But then, you're not going to win the game with simple creations, so the elements on the table are not as important as they seem. It's frequently a good idea to put down the pieces your opponents need, so that after they compose your missing ingredients, you can whip up the extravagant creations you've been holding since the second turn of the game.
Potion-Making Practice isn't an easy game. There is a seriously intimidating number of things to track at once, and winning this game requires timing and patience and cunning. It's not a light game, either, and will demand your attention and intellect. But it is a tremendously fun game, the kind of game that you'll be discussing for hours and dreaming of playing for days after you finish. I'm writing this review right now and mentally salivating over the possibility of playing again tonight. For some people, Potion-Making Practice is going to be work. For people like me, it's a wonderfully complicated puzzle that demands every bit of genius I can bring to the table. Games as good as Potion-Making Practice just don't come along very often.
Smart and tricky
Requires intricate planning, careful patience, and whip-smart timing
After you play, you'll have a hard time thinking about anything else
Dense and potentially intimidating
Potion-Making Practice isn't just the best Russian game I've played. It's one of the best games I've played in a long time. You can get it on eBay, right here:
KICK-ASS RUSSIAN AWESOME