GTM #201 - Potion Explosion
Reviewed by John Kaufeld

Everybody loves wizards. From the magic user’s grand fireball spell that saved the whole party in your favorite fantasy roleplaying adventure to literary spell casters like Gandalf, Merlin, and those little kids on the 9 3/4 platform, wizards are some of our favorite fictional people.

But, do you ever consider how they got their start? (Well, apart from the kids, that is. It’s pretty well documented.) According to ‘Those Who Know Such Things’, amazing magic requires plenty of training and practice, plus the occasional laboratory explosion.

So, if you hope to do the impossible by mixing potions in the magical arts, then you need some practice. And that’s probably why you picked up Potion Explosion from Cool Mini Or Not.

Let’s go straight into the five things you need to know about the game.

~ Assemble, Then Play ~

In addition to the normal “punch out the pieces” step before playing a new game, Potion Explosion comes with a full-fledged construction experience to assemble the game’s marble dispenser. The dispenser is a key part of the game, since it randomizes the marbles and presents them in tracks for selection on your turn.

Between punching everything from the cardboard frames and putting together the dispenser, give yourself about 30-minutes to fully prepare the game for its first play. On the bright side, you never need to do this step again, because the box insert holds the dispenser in its fully assembled form.

You also need to count the game’s marbles at this point. They represent your potion ingredients. You need 20 marbles of each ingredient type: unicorn tears (blue), dragon smoke (red), ogre mucus (black), and fairy dandruff (yellow). The game includes some extras of all colors in case you lose one or two. Be careful with the marbles, though — my review game had some broken ones in the bag. Nobody got cut, but broken glass marbles are still glass, so be safe.

~ All About the Dispenser ~

The dispenser you just assembled is a key part of the game’s mechanic: selecting ingredient marbles and making things explode.

When filling the dispenser, don’t force the marbles into spaces at the top of each track. If a track is full, just steer any remaining marbles into the nearest open track. The marbles get stuck if you force too many of them into a track.

The game play works much like those jewel-dropping games on your phone or table. On your turn, you check the potions that you’re working on to see which ingredients (colored marbles) you need. Each round, you pull one marble out of a row on the dispenser. If pulling that marble out made two or more marbles of the same color collide with each other, then there’s an explosion and you get those marbles as well. If you really get lucky, that might cause another explosion and so on.

Remember: Explosions are a good thing. We’re trying to learn, so we’re bound to blow some stuff up along the way.

~ Drink Your Potions ~

Once you successfully complete a potion by gathering the right marbles to fill all of the potion’s available ingredient spots, you move your completed potion to one side of your playing area, recycle the marbles into the dispenser, and get a new potion to cook.

The game includes eight unique potions, such as the Elixir of Blind Love, Sands of Time, and the ever-popular Potion of Prismatic Joy. In addition to scoring points toward your victory, each completed potion also gives you access to some special ability. Being a potion, though, it can only do its magical trick once.

You don’t lose points by using a potion, so keep a sharp eye on how the game is progressing and drink those potions at the right strategic moment. Also, pay close attention to precisely what the potions do, because the rules are very specific. Check the back of the rule book for a complete list of potion effects. In fact, you might want to copy that page for each player.

~ More Than Meets the Eye ~

Even though Potion Explosion feels like a pretty light strategy game, there’s more happening here than it seems during your first romp through the game. After three or four plays, you’ll see nuances in selecting ingredients, causing explosions, and picking potions. For example, potions affect your victory points, your future special abilities (once it’s complete), and can impact when the game will end. That’s a lot to think about.

On a related note, pay very close attention to the actions available during your turn as well as the precise order of steps at the end of the turn. Once you get to the “end of turn” step, certain things can’t happen anymore (like drinking potions and using spare ingredients). Manage your time, actions, potions, and ingredients wisely. Don’t let your spare ingredients — or vital opportunities — go to waste!

~ Expect Strong Re-playability ~

The game comes with eight potions, but you only use six every time you play. That small change can make a big difference, because it affects both your potion abilities, but also the potion combinations available. All of those possible combinations, along with the random way ingredients show up, give the game strong re-playability.

For some added fun, keep a log sheet of which combinations went into each game you play and how well people liked the outcome of that mixture. Do some potions build on each other in stronger ways than others? Make notes so you remember the possibilities.

~ Verdict ~

Whether it hooks you with its delightful gameplay, light strategy, or the addictive sound of marbles clacking together, Potion Explosion will make a good addition to your tabletop game selection.

Even though the box says 14 and up, brighter 11 and 12 year-olds shouldn’t have any trouble picking it up. (In fact, my 12-year-old squashed me mercilessly at it during our test plays.)

  • Age range: 14 and up
  • Set-up/Play time: 10-minutes to set up, 30-45 minutes to play
  • # of Players: 2-4
  • Price point: $49.99
John Kaufeld often frets over whether the word "meeple" has a proper plural form. You can find him writing about board games, parenting, and other stuff on Twitter at @johnkaufeld and in his newspaper column, The Dad Game (http://dadga.me/column).