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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

TRISMEGISTUS: A Formula for Tabletop Junkies

by | published Monday, December 23, 2019

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 4Tzolk’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: CivilizationTwilight ImperiumArkham 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. 


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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One thought on “TRISMEGISTUS: A Formula for Tabletop Junkies

  1. Nathan says:

    I completely disagree with this statement. I think the problem is is that as an older gamer you are exposed more to have your games but these heavier games have always existed in this part of the market

    there are also lots of lighter games that are just as popular that exist in that part of the market it’s just up to us heavy or gamers to introduce those games instead of the games that were liking right now

    For instance you’re talkin about a season where we got games like crime chronicle, kingdomino, Azul, santarina and a host of other games that are very easy to teach a new player but don’t get the same amount of buzz because they’re not talked about by the now larger season community. I go to lots of cons and lots of games stores and the shelves are packed with great lighter games. We haven’t even talked about games like tiny towns. the fact that I’m reading this article and you mention this game that compared the hobby to is so not right. I walked by this game and packed and I love the idea of it I want to play it but even I is a heavy gamer I’m not interested.

    I also have to say that I don’t think it was complexity that made games more complex it was more eurogamer’s an american-style eurogamer’s wanting more theme into games and us games added complexity to fit the themes more. take the game escape plan which is one of the best ematic games I’ve played of a gyro it needs its components to make that happen. the same with the game like dungeon alliance which is one of the best dungeon crawls to mix Euro elements.

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