Trismegistus: The Ultimate Formula
Ok, so apart from the name that is a mouthful and difficult to remember (there have been a spate of games like that recently… it must be something in the water), Trismegistus is a game to sit up and pay attention to. Hermes Trismegistus is an historic character - a scribe, a prophet, astrologer, philosopher and alchemist. Trismegistus (the game) focuses on alchemy - players aim to transmute raw materials into more valuable refined materials and, ultimately into gold. This is a heavy game, and can involve a lot of longer term planning, to get the most out of raw and refined materials. The alchemical path is a long one - the most common of raw materials can be transmuted up to six times, ultimately being transformed into gold.
Trismegistus is a dice drafting game. Each round a handful of dice are rolled, and are sorted into several bowls, according to the symbols rolled. There are six alchemical symbols, each representing one of five of the raw materials, or a wild symbol. When a die is drafted, its “potency” (or usefulness) matches the number of dice in the selected bowl at the time of the draft. Therefore, successive dice drafted through the round are weaker and weaker. Three dice are drafted by each player in each round.
There are three properties of each die which is drafted - its potency, the symbol on the face, and the colour (red, black or white). The potency is determined by the bowl it comes from, not by the face of the die itself. The same die is used repeatedly on successive turns, with its potency depleting each turn as it is used. The symbol relates to one of two things - the raw materials which are used in the alchemical process, or an “essence”, which is used during the alchemical transmutation. The colour relates to a number of elements of the game, such as determining which transmutations can be conducted, or for acquiring artifacts (which can be used as boosters through the game).
All materials are acquired in their raw form. Players “spend” potency from their die to acquire the raw material shown on the die face. The raw materials can then be transmuted, using essence, into the refined form of a more rare material. In this way, materials “progress” along the transmutation path towards the ultimate alchemical material, gold.
Essences are acquired in the same way as raw materials, by spending potency of dice. The essence which is acquired is also related to the face of the die - the icon for the essence is (clumsily) shown on the board next to the corresponding material bowl. Any essence may be used for any transmutation, but the essence selected results in progress on the corresponding Mastery track.
Transmutation requires three things - a raw or a refined material which can be transmuted into a rarer refined material; essence, to fuel the transmutation, and potency from a die. All transmutation paths correspond to a specific colour of die - a white die can only be used to transmute Tin or Mercury, for instance. So arguably the choice of die colour in the draft can be more limiting than the choice of symbol.
As mentioned previously, the choice of essence used results in progress along the corresponding mastery track. Points are earned at the end of the game for the position at the end of the mastery four tracks.
Artifact tiles can be acquired by spending die potency. The colour of the die dictates which artifact tiles can be acquired, as well as where they are placed on the player’s laboratory board. Each artifact tile can only be placed in specific coloured slots, corresponding to specific transmutation paths (which are coloured accordingly). Once again, the colour of the die is more important than the symbol. Artifacts give bonuses when their linked transmutations are carried out, and are then exhausted (although they can be refreshed in a number of ways).
One further use of the drafted dice is to acquire experiment cards. These are linked to the symbols on the dice (so maybe the symbol is more important… ?). Once acquired, experiment dice can be used (conducted) at any time, as long as the player meets the conditions (sufficient progress along mastery tracks). Conducting an experiment requires the expenditure of a number of materials (the experiment cards become progressively more challenging throughout the game), but come with endgame points, as well as an additional reward, such as materials, essences or further progress along mastery tracks.
It’s a complex formula… but does it work?
Taking into account all of the above, as well as some other, minor game elements, Trismegistus is a rather complex game, with the decision of which die to take at any time having considerable impact on the next few turns. After a few rounds, the game starts to flow fairly well, and can result in some rewarding moments of satisfaction. Once the game is over (four rounds later), you are left with that “want to play it again” feeling - which is definitely a good sign.
Trismegistus is let down by a couple of things.
Firstly, and by far the greater sin, the rulebook is horrific. I mean terrible - one of the worst I have ever seen. This is a real disappointment for a well produced game, with quality components, and with some high profile names on the front of the box. It isn’t just that it is badly written… it feels incomplete, is poorly laid out, disordered, and very difficult to find any information in. As you might imagine, a game of this kind of weight demands regular reference to the rule book, especially since… wait for it… there is no useful player aid. The game isn’t devoid of player aid - there is a small card for each player which details end game scoring, but it has NO information on it which is useful during the game. So I would strongly advise that all players spend some time researching how to play the game in advance. It is still possible to miss out some crucial rules (as we found on our first play), because they do not appear in the rulebook in any logical or meaningful order.
Secondly, the graphical design choices leave a lot to be desired. Many people take issue with the symbols and icons used throughout the game - some of the icons on the dice are very similar, and can make it difficult to identify. As mentioned previously, the icons for the essences are shown alongside the symbols for the materials on the board, like chalk marks (looking a bit like graffiti). Further, there is a large space on the board which is taken up with four large symbols which have no significance in the game… pretty, but meaningless.
Despite its criticisms, Trismegistus is a great game. It can, however, feel like hard work - the depth of the decisions require considerable planning, and working through the iconography in the game makes it feel more laborious than it ought to. And then there is the rule book…
However, the game flows really well, once you get going - but it can take considerable patience to get to that point. I really enjoy it, however; the drafting mechanism, the variety of functions of the dice, and the way that those interact, make for a very interesting puzzle of a game, and once which I can’t play often enough. I would highly recommend it, but be wary of the negatives here.