Trismegistus: The Ultimate Formula is a new release from Board&Dice Games out of Poland. It’s designers are Federico Pierlorenzo and Daniele Tascini, the latter already well-known for Council of 4, Tzolk’in, and Teotihuacan. With such a pedigree you could reasonably hope that Trismegistus would be a good–and heavyish–game, and you’d be right.
The game combines dice-drafting, engine-buildings, pick-up-and-deliver, and resource manipulation. You and up to three others play alchemists trying to amass the most glory by brewing the most potent potions and publishing the results of your experiments.
Each of the game’s three rounds begins with the rolling and sorting of a set of custom dice, each face of which represents a different alchemical element. The dice come in three colours, and naturally those colours matter when it comes to taking various actions such as harvesting and transmuting resources, buying and recharging artefacts, and acquiring experiments. Players take turns drafting and activating dice, with opponents having a limited number of opportunities per round to leech off of your action for their own nefarious ends.
There are all sorts of complicating factors, from the fact that most resources come in two forms (raw and refined), to the various effects of the artefacts, to upgrades you earn every time you transmute, to other upgrade bonuses you earn from publishing experiments, to an action-selection mechanism that depends on how much potency you spend when you take the action…
It’s a Difference Engine with enough moving parts to give even a seasoned player a mercury-induced headache. The rules are cogent and (relatively) well-organized, but it takes quite a while to understand how all the systems work together. To the game’s credit, most of the mechanics mesh really well with the theme, helped along by the strong (but not distracting) artwork. The one nit I would pick is how easy it is to confuse the alchemical symbols for the various elements, which are used everywhere; they are all scientific and historically accurate, but not easy to tell apart at a glance.
The end result is a very thinky game, and the satisfaction you get from putting the pieces together in just the right order and pulling off an awesome combo produces a high of hempish proportions. Which puts me in mind of a conversation I had at a boardgame event I was running last week:
One of the attendees was a relative newcomer to the hobby, less than a year into it. He said something really insightful: he felt that a lot of games coming out these days seem aimed at people who already have played a lot of other games. He meant that a lot of new games aren’t content with centering on a single main mechanic. These games presume you’ve already been exposed to building-block mechanics such as worker placement, deckbuilding, action selection, and so on, and then combine them. And as someone new to tabletop, he found that quite intimidating.
I thought he was spot-on, and the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was that it was true. When Modern Tabletop was young all we needed was Catan or Hoity Toity to get our dopamine fix. And for many, that’s all we needed.
Some tabletoppers, though, got habituated. They started needing something heavier to bring on that rush. And so the games that have tended to generate buzz on BGG and established gaming groups have been the more esoteric ones that require more previous knowledge to really appreciate. In this sense, tabletop is no different from painting, music, or literature–and yes, I really am implying that Tabletop-with-a-capital-T is an artform. But that’s next week’s column.
It used to be that heavy games were also long–epically long: Civilization, Twilight Imperium, Arkham Horror. But who has time for those monsters? Tabletoppers want their fix in more consumable form, so over the last couple of years some designers have been trying to jam all that heaviness into shorter games. I’d already noted this trend two years ago writing about Great Western Trail.
Now here is Trismegistus, currently sitting at 7.6 on BGG, respectably climbing the charts. This year we also saw Black Angel (7.6), Reavers of Midgard (7.7), and Maracaibo (8.3) all zoom up The Hotness chart this year on BGG. For players who’ve been around the block a few times, these games provide a welcome challenge. But I wonder how many of these games will still be brought to the table in a few years’ time.
The current popularity of these games makes me wonder if some designers–and players–have begun to equate complexity with quality. “It must be a good game–it’s got so many moving parts!” And I’m trying to say is that while having interesting decisions is a necessary condition for a good game, it is not by itself sufficient to make for a great game. The best games also have simple, elegant rulesets (Patchwork) or strong narrative (Twilight Struggle).
With Black Angel, despite an initial “meh” feeling, I found myself thinking about it and wanting to play it again and again. Was it the theme? The particular puzzliness of the game? I don’t know. Of course, to each their own. Meanwhile, what Trismegistus does, it does very well. I enjoyed it a lot, and experienced players should find its gameplay very intellectually satisfying. But once I’d taken a few drags, I was done. I’d gotten my high. I was ready to move on. What about you?
Thanks to Board&Dice Games for providing a review copy of Trismegistus: The Ultimate Formula.