When I think back to my time at Hogwarts, my recollection of Potions was a somewhat different experience to how it’s presented in Potion Explosion. It was less about unconstrained play and more about trying not to catch Snape’s eye lest he make a remark so toxic that it curdled your pepper-up potion into a peculiarly potent poison. We all carry the scars of school with us, and I can’t play a round of this without hearing Alan Rickman intone ‘Heron… it appears that you have lost your marbles’. And then the class starts laughing and I look down and I’m naked and then the class starts crying and I start crying and then and I wake up and realise I’ve been safe and sound all along, happily slumbering away as I drive into work at 70MPH in the grey depths of an early Scottish winter morning.
So, Potion Explosion then…
I’m reviewing the German version of this because I’m something of an idiot and believed the seller when they claimed this was a multilingual box. None of the components have any text so it’s fine really – but I’m still not entirely sure what that subtitle means. I think it’s German for ‘all that junk inside your trunk’, which seems somewhat inconsistent with the rest of the game’s tone. Never mind that. When you open up the box you’re faced with the first of Potion Explosion’s minigames – the assembling of a piece of Ikea furniture according to mystical diagrams. I found doing this in German was actually easier than trying to follow along with the standard flatpack assembly instructions you’d normally get in English.
This is, the manual claims, a one-time assembly process. That’s true if you’re willing to glue everything that moves into position but otherwise this thing blows apart faster than a fart in a hurricane. Pick it up in the wrong way, at the wrong angle, and you’re left with little more than kindling that needs assembled yet again before you can play. Once you’ve built it though you’re left with this marvelous dispenser of alchemical treats sitting proudly in the centre of your table.
Let me stress here something that’s going to be important to understanding the fun in Potion Explosion – an awful lot of it comes from the thrill of throwing marbles into this dispenser and seeing them cascade down in neatly ordered troughs. My one-handed shaky video footage is testament to that:
Wheeeee, right? Potion Explosion tickles the childish part of your brain that still thrills to the joy that goes along with the tactility of marbles. You get a big bag of these coloured spheres, tip them up and watch them sort themselves into neat rows on the slider ready for play. And play is so easy – you pick up a marble, and it’s yours. Whenever this causes two of the same colour to newly bump together, you get those marbles too, and so on, and so on, until two marbles of different colours collide. You might pick a single marble and end up with a dozen if you do it right. I mean, look at this:
Check the central slider. It’s where all the action is going to happen. For our move, we pick up the blue marble at the top and slip it into our waiting fingers. That causes the yellow above it to spark against the yellow below in a potion explosion (BOOM, TITLE DROP).
We don’t get the yellow ones at the top of the slider because they started off together, but we do get the two that just banged into each other. So we pick them up into our hand, causing the two red marbles to come together.
We get them as well! We get SO MANY MARBLES YOU GUYS. And in the process, we create a new union of three yellow marbles:
Which we then grab to make two blue marbles spark together:
And when we grab them:
We can grab those final three red marbles to finish our go. It’s possible, if fate smiles upon you, to empty an entire slider in this way. The explosions only stop when they run out of fuel, and at the end we may find ourselves with more marbles than any person could possibly want. We are marbillionaires – if there was a decent exchange rate, we could retire on our new fortune. In fact, given the direction of the pound’s value it might not be a bad idea to actually start saving the marbles instead of British currency. It’s not quite ‘Bejwelled the Boardgame’, but it certainly evokes a lot of the same primal satisfaction that goes along with that and similar kinds of ‘match three’ games.
We have other plans though than saving these little beauties under our bed in preparation for a hard Brexit. While these look like marbles they’re actually the mystical ingredients that we’re going to carelessly toss into our potions with all the cheerful abandon of a Michelin starred chef seasoning a broth. These aren’t red, blue, black and yellow marbles – they’re unicorn tears, or dragon smoke, or ogre mucus, or fairy dandruff. We learned all of this at Hogwarts, so don’t be too upset if muggles like you can’t tell the difference. It does say on them which is which, but unfortunately it’s written in Octarine so that’s probably not going to help you either unless you know how to talk to your cat.
Every player has a crucible of potions in front of them showing the two philtres they have under construction. Those ingredients we just picked up get spent on the free spaces of these potions, and when all the spaces are filled up the potion is brewed and we plop it into our eldritch fridges. We can drink these later to achieve various magical effects that will permit us to claim ever more potions in every grander configurations.
We’ve also got a small bank of three tokens we can save round to round, and that’s going to be useful in mitigating some of the spikiness that goes along with gathering. Turns in Potion Explosion are often exercises in pulling your punches – avoiding the big explosions just because you know none of the ingredients are currently useful. It’s great to hoover up a dozen marbles in a turn, but a little disappointing to find you only have a home for two of them and need to throw the rest back into the dispenser. Sometimes you’re going to want to do that just to deprive an opponent of the cornucopia of their dreams. Really though you’ve got enough troubles just filling your own apothecary satchel with useful doodads.
The brewing of potions is what gets us points, and the difficulty of the potion determines the number we get. Everyone begins with two recipes from ‘Alchemy for Dummies’, but upon completing a potion we get to replace it from the common supply. There are eight different kinds of potions in the box, but only six will be in use in any given game.
The different kind of potions, once we’ve brewed them, can be drunk at a later date – we still get their point value, but we also trigger their magical effect. These effects don’t trigger explosions, but they let us change the dispenser in such a way that we might be able to create the scenario under which explosions might happen. The potion of wisdom lets you grab any random marble; the potion of magnetical attraction lets you take two adjacent marbles of different colours; the abyssal draft lets you take ingredients of different colours from the bottom track. There are others too, including the Elixir of Blind Love which lets you steal all the stored ingredients in an opponent’s pool. Aside from that one single element of PvP interaction the game is entirely one of passive aggression mediated through a cardboard marble dispenser.
At any time a player can nudge the professor for a little help – at the cost of picking up a token worth -2 points at the end of the game, the player can grab any ingredient from the dispenser without triggering an explosion. Sometimes that might be worth doing if you can offset the penalty with the brewing of enough potion to warrant it. You’re never truly at the mercy of the marbles, but sometimes fate doesn’t so much need a nudge as it needs a massive push and that kind of thing is going to cost you.
In the end, we’re competing for the tokens of the professor’s admiration. We earn a skill token when we first complete three of each particular kind of potion, or when we complete five different kinds of potions. Each of these tokens is worth four points at the end, and when the last one is picked up the game end-state begins. Everyone takes their last turn, and then the value of potions plus rewards and penalties determines the winner.
It’s a really light, airy and simple game – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy and that’s a difficult balance to achieve. The challenge associated with Potion Explosion comes not from understanding deep synergies or assessing strategic impact of short-term decisions. It’s in the simple act of the analysis of optimisation that goes into selecting which marble is the one you’re going to pick. It reminds me in certain respects of the industry legend of the ‘Handyman’s Invoice’:
Upon being hired to investigate a problem in a complex set of factory machinery, an expert wandered in to a room, listened for a moment, and then chalked an X on what seemed to be a random piece of equipment. ‘Replace that, and it’ll fix your problem’. A few days later, an invoice for £50,000 arrived at the factory.
The factory owner, outraged at the bill associated with a simple chalk mark on a piece of equipment, demanded a fully itemised breakdown. It came back the next day:
£1 Chalk to make an X £49,999 Knowing where the X should go
Here, the fun comes from working out where the X should go – which marble is going to yield you the results you need. You need to assess not only the immediate effect of your marble selection, but the effect it’s going to chain, and what marbles you’ll have at the end. That involves a fair bit of mulling over different possibilities. The solution space you need to explore too is larger than what the dispenser would imply because potions, and the professor, can all let you nudge that starting state into a more agreeable configuration. You can spend a lot of time staring at the dispenser here in the hope you can, through cogitation alone, solve the logistical nightmare of ingredient acquisition in your favour. It keeps Potion Explosion simple, but it ensures it has the potential to be genuinely absorbing. The satisfaction of going from an empty set of ingredients to two fully completed potions is considerable – the chinking of marbles as they form ever more lucrative explosions contains all the emotional catharsis you might expect from hearing your child’s first words. It’s probably better in fact although I don’t have children and so can’t conduct a truly quantified comparison. I can’t imagine that your child’s first words are going to be all that interesting though, so I feel confident in my assertion. ‘Dada’. ‘Mama’. Get back to me when you’ve got something worth saying, kid.
Potion Explosion requires enough skill to be satisfying and employs enough luck to balance the enjoyment when playing between mismatched players. There’s no serious learning curve either which means that it serves well as a strikingly distinctive introduction to modern designer games for those still associating marbles with Hungry Hungry Hippos.
It thrives in that space really, which is good because the problem is that I don’t think it’s got staying power otherwise. Potion Explosion encourages occasional sessions with diverse groups – it doesn’t benefit from deeper investment of time without the novelty of a new audience. There’s some variety with regards to what potions are available in any given game, but not a lot – the difference between potions isn’t trivial in impact, but they all feel like very safe iterations on a theme. The random shuffling of potions to set up a new game context (which, by the way, is a massive pain in the ass to do) adds a little variety into each session, but every session still feels very similar. After all, there are six potions in any game out of a total pool of eight. It’s inevitable you’re going to experience very similar combinations each and every time. Once you’ve mastered the logical alchemy of explosions, you’ve pretty much drained the cauldron of all its polyjuice.
But c’mon, look at it – let’s not pretend here that we’re above enjoying something that is as much toy as it is game. The dispenser that sits at the heart of Potion Explosion is a glorious indulgence in a game that is already a visual treat. When fully loaded up with ingredients, it looks like no other game I have in my collection. Simply leaving it out is enough to make people think ‘Ooo, what is that? Can I have a go?’. Something like Concordia might be a richer, deeper and more replayable game but nobody is ever going to look at it and say ‘I absolutely need to play with that right now’. Potion Explosion is a decent game, but it’s also a marvelously tactile experience that shows yet another facet of the endless innovation to be found in boardgame design. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some Felix Felicis to brew.
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