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Friday, 9 May 2014

Charming Chemistry

Compounded: Better Gaming Through Chemistry is a game about chemical research. It is a beautifully appointed, heavily themed game that sees the scientists undertake the roles of scientists competing to complete as many Compounds as possible whilst avoiding the possibility of lab explosions! Originally published through Kickstarter.com by Dice Hate Me Games, it is a set collecting and trading game that can be played through in roughly ninety minutes and is designed to be played by two to five scientists aged thirteen and up.

The theme to Compounded starts with its components. The first is the Scoring Board, which is done as a Periodic Table. It is perhaps a bit fiddly in use once everyone’s scoring counter is on the scoring track, but thematically, it is perfect. Second is its decently written Rulebook, which looks a little like a scuffed and battered chemistry school textbook.

The third are the scientists’ Work Benches. These have spaces for each scientist’s Element Storage Area, Lab Tools gained, and to track the progress of his Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab experiments. Each Experiment can be improved by completing certain Compounds.

Fourth are the game’s Compounds, such as Calcium Oxide, Acetylene, Nitric Acid, and Methanol. Each Compound is a square card marked with a name, its chemical formula, spaces for each of the elements it is comprised of, a spot to place a Claim token, and a scoring value—the latter ranging between three and eight Atomic Points. Others also have icons that grant Lab Tools and improvements to one of a scientist’s Discovery, Study, Research, or Lab experiments when the Compound is completed. Some also have icons indicating that they are flammable and could explode.

Fifth are Compounded’s Lab Key—a wooden key used to determine scientist order and various Lab Tool tokens—Bunsen Burners, Graduated Cylinders, Lab Keys, Pipettes, Safety Goggles, and Journals. Sixth, and lastly, there are the game’s Elements—in ascending order of rarity—Hydrogen, Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Calcium, and Sulfur (sic). These are represented by coloured chips of plastic. Again, pleasing on the eye and nicely tactile.

At the start of the game, each scientist receives a Work Bench and the wooden tokens to indicate his progress on the Bench. He also receives a Fire Extinguisher card. If this is filled, it can be used to stop the effects of a Lab Fire or saved until the end of the game for more Atomic Points. Likewise, he also receives a Wild Element that can be used or turned in for Atomic Points. He also receives his initial allotment of Elements. Then, sixteen Compound cards are laid out in a four-by-four grid Research Grid. Initially, these will include the yellow-bordered starting Compounds. The Compound deck is seeded with Lab Fire cards.

Compounded is played in four phases—Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab. In the Discovery phases draws Elements from the black cloth bag included in the game. Initially, each scientist can only draw two Elements and can only store four Elements in his Element Storage Area, but both can be increased by three. Once Elements have been drawn, scientists are free to trade Elements—as well as Lab Tools, promises, and so on.

In the Study phase, each scientist can use his Action tokens to claim Compounds. Once a scientist has claimed a Compound, no other scientist can score from it. Initially a scientist has only the one Action token, but by completing Compounds can increase this number to four. 

During the Research phase, the scientists take turns placing Elements on their claimed and unclaimed Compounds. This involves placing an Element of the right type on the spaces marked on the Compound cards. Initially this is just two, but can be increased to six. If a scientist does not have the Elements he wants, he can now trade in three of one type for one he wants.

Lastly, during the Lab phase, the scientists score Atomic Points for completed Compounds on the Periodic Table and adjust their Experiments if the completed Compounds help improve them. Completed Compounds are replaced from the Compound deck. If a Lab Fire is drawn, Flame Tokens are added to any flammable Compounds that have empty Flame icons on them—typically no more than two on any Compound. Should a flammable Compound gain enough Flame Tokens, the Compound explodes and is removed from the game. Any Elements on the exploding Compound ricochet around the Research Grid and will reappear in empty slots on adjacent Compounds—if they have space for that type of Element. 

A game of Compounded ends with one final round once a scientist has either scored fifty Atomic Points or completed three out of four of his Experiments. The game ends immediately if the Compounds in the Research Grid cannot be refreshed to a maximum of sixteen. The scientist with the most Atomic Points is the winner.

This is for the three to four player standard version of Compounded. Included in the game, is a two-player variant that adds a third ‘dummy’ player named Nobel, his actions being controlled by the lead scientist. Another variant, this for three and more scientists, adds ‘Lab Partners’ Compounds, double-sized Compounds intended to be completed by two scientists, who each receive the Atomic Points and its benefits for completing the Compound. They are much more complex Compounds and require many more Elements.

Although Compounded has very nice and thematically fitting production values, it is not quite perfect. The text on the Lab Benches and elsewhere is too small to read with ease, and the wooden tokens to track each scientist’s Experiments and their Action Tokens are a bit small and difficult to use—as are the Flame Tokens. Nor are the phases—Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab—as obviously named as they could be. In game terms, they are ‘draw Elements’ (Discovery), ‘claim Compounds’ (Study), ‘place Elements’ (Research), and ‘score Compounds and effects’ (Lab), but this is not all that clear on the Lab Benches.

Compounded is not a complex game—in fact anyone who has played Ticket to Ride or Pandemic will have no difficulty in understanding its rules and play, its complexity being light-medium rather than medium. The game is also informative, educating players as to both the nature of the research process and the atomical content of each of Compounded’s compounds. Beyond drawing Elements and new Compound cards, there is very little randomness to the game, though Lab Fires can upset many a scientist’s aim of completing particular Compounds. Compounded’s chemical theme is quite gentle, which when combined with its mechanics, makes the game unthreatening in terms of play. Although Compounded’s theme might be said to be rather dry, it is not ‘pasted on’; rather Compounded fully engages in its chemical theme to create a relatively light and appealing reaction.