There was a time, not all that long ago, when I would have been intimidated by a game that comes in a box as big as Distilled. But my gaming tastes have evolved over the years. To the point where I saw Distilled on Kickstarter and knew straight away that I was all in on it. How could I not be? It combines two of the things I am know for: board games, and drinking.
Don’t get me wrong, I am far past the ‘iron liver Dan’ days of my youth and waking up in car show room entry ways holding on to half eaten cheesecake slices. True story. Don’t ask. But I do still enjoy the odd tiple. Especially if that tiple happens to be unusual and interesting. And coincidentally, that is pretty much a perfect depiction of Distilled: unusual and interesting.
But if unusual and interesting is the whiff of the innards, then what are the tones, the highlights, the enriching supplementary flavours? Well, pour yourself a few fingers of your golden nectar of choice, and settle in, for I have a few words to say on the subject.
“I drink to make other people more interesting.” Ernest Hemingway
As a slight disclaimer, it is worth noting that the pics I have provided for this review were taken from my Signature Blend pledge level copy of the game. So, there may be elements not present in the base game, such as brewers from the Middle Eastern expansion, metal coins, coasters, shot glass, neoprene mat etc. But, that said, the base game and components are all produced at an excellent standard and the retail version of the game is still superb.
As soon as I opened the lid on the box for Distilled, I knew I made the right decision to go all in on my pledge.
“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” Benjamin Franklin
For a game that comes in such a big box, Distilled is deceptively simple. From set up to scoring, everything flows smoothly and is a game that can be taught easily. Throughout your turns you will be acquiring various sugars, grains, upgrades, barrels, bottles etc all so that you can brew the best spirits that you can. And at the highest profits of course.
You begin the game in the market phase. In this phase you will take turns purchasing items from the market or pay to unlock an extra spirit recipe. There is a basic market that consist of your general yeast, water, sugars, grains, and barrels. You are only allowed to take two of these per turn. And then there is the premium market that offers upgraded versions of these basic items and upgrades you can add to the distillery. Players take turns purchasing items until everyone has passed.
We then move on to the distil phase. This is where you place all the ingredients you want to brew into your washbag and add an alcohol card to match each sugar. You then take all the cards in your washbag, give them a shuffle (face down), remove the top and bottom card and the remaining are the ones you will use to brew your spirits. The removal of the top and bottom card is meant to mimic the angel’s share and the devil’s cut from the distillation process. Adding mechanics like this that add to the gameplay and that mimic the theme goes wonders in turning a great game even better. Out of the cards that are left in the stack, this is what is going to determine what spirit you have brewed.
Comparing the ingredients to your unlocked recipes to see which you have brewed can be a make-or-break part of the round. It can be a great feeling when you pull off creating a complicated spirit. But it can also be devastating when you have planned to craft a batch of delicious rum for 11 points, but then the top and bottom card you take out happen to be your only sugars. When this happens, you are left brewing moonshine for a measly 1 point.
The upside of this is that the cards that you pull from the top and bottom of the stack are not discarded. They go back into your pantry to be used again in consequent rounds. Design decisions like this really save the game for me. If they were simply discarded, then that would likely tip my thoughts on this game way over in the opposite direction.
The next phase is the sell phase. This is where you, well, sell the spirits you have brewed. Selecting what bottle to sell the spirits in and reaping any immediate points or coinage. When you sell a spirit, if there is a spirit label of that type available, you get to take that and cover up one of the spirit label spaces on your board. This gives you a one-off boon and are all useful to you.
We then move into the age phase. This is where you can choose to age your spirit to be sold in rounds further in the game. This is where the big points and coinage can come from. Each round that passes you get to add the top card of the flavour deck, which will add some interesting flavours to your drink, and potentially make them worth more points, and sell for higher.
“Here's to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
There is so much to love about Distilled. Everything about the game and its production has been lovingly crafted. It would have been so easy for the designer to create a simple game wrapped in the theme of spirit brewing. But they have gone above and beyond in every possible way. They have taken what must have started as a simple game idea and transformed it into an excellent gaming experience.
There are tons of characters to choose from, each come with their own signature blend to craft once during the game. You can mix and match your player board with tons of different flight boards. Each of these offer many different spirits available to unlock and brew. The game plays out really simply. It is simple to teach. The rule book is incredible. That should not be understated. The rule book is fantastic. It is littered with clear explanations, examples and is written really well. The components are all crafted really well, even down to the outstanding material quality of the cards and the rulebook.
The thing that really had me smiling however was the small sheet that I was presented with when I opened the box. It warned me to stop and informed me not to throw away the empty punchboards after popping out the components. These empty sheets were to be placed at the bottom of the box. This meant that when everything is placed back into the game box, everything rested perfectly flush with the rim. Sheer detail perfection. I adore little things like this.
It is really hard to find fault in this masterpiece. But I do have a job to do…
“Alcohol may be man's worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy.” Frank Sinatra
I find the mechanic of collecting bottles from different regions as one too many in Distilled. It gives one extra thing to think about during gameplay, which I often forget about. Although I have known many people over the years that have collected interesting bottles, for a game about distilling, it seems a little mismatched. But I understand the need for it there, to offer some end of game scoring.
There is a small gripe I have concerning the number of rounds in the game. I primarily play games 2-player and this game ends after 7 rounds. This means that whoever goes first on the first round, also goes first on the last round. Whilst this doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, it is just one of those things that irk me.
Asymmetric characters aren’t totally balanced. I played one game where my character started with 1 coin, 1 water and my signature blend was worth 7 points and 1 coin. My opponent’s character started with 4 coins, 1 yeast and their signature blend was worth 17 points and 3 coins. This may have been down to me not selecting a balanced choice of characters, but it seemed odd that they could be so mismatched.
Annnnd that about sums up everything that I have to say that veers on the negative side. And trust me, I needed to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find something to put in this section.
“The golden nectar of life is sweeter when shared over games” Dan Hilton
It is apparent that the team behind Distilled are passionate people. Passionate about both good tiples and good games. And considering this is the first foray into the world of game design for this team, they have done an outstanding job. Every aspect of this game has been lovingly crafted and all the small details that have gone into it have been well received.
I 100% recommend Distilled. It immediately skyrocketed into my top 10 games. I think the theme and mechanics work so well in tandem with each other, and on top of everything, the game is simply great fun.