The board game Apotheca deals in deception from the moment you lift the lid off its box. Its first act of deception lies within its well-worn win condition: To defeat your opponent, the game tells you, you’ll have to be the first to create sets of three matching tiles in a row or column. If that goal evokes the victories of, say, a Candy Crush or Connect Four or tic-tac-toe, you’d be forgiven. Unfortunately — if you like games slightly smarter than something a four-year-old could master, anyway — those are not the sexiest of companions.
To be fair, it is a matching game. Once you begin a match, however, Apotheca wriggles into focus as a slick, clever thing. If the premise evokes Connect Four, Apotheca is Connect Four played in a common room at Hogwarts, where Newtonian laws are warped to the point that you’re never not quite sure where the chit you dropped will be when your turn rolls around again.
Apotheca won’t exactly stun you with thaumaturgic board game powers, but it does find a bit of magic out of its simple rules: On a turn, you can place a tile face down (called a potion, natch, which comes in one of three colors) on the four-by-four grid, flip a potion face-up, use an “apothecary power” to shift a potion’s position, or buy a fresh potion-shuttling power. Often, you’ll want to do all four of these things, but can only do two on any given turn. (You can also reset the board, too, though only if the tiles get locked up in an unmatchable pattern.) Get three face-up potions of the same color in a row or column, and you’ve made a match. Get three matches to satisfy your apothecaries, and you win.
After a few moves, it becomes apparent Apotheca also wants you to deceive your opponent. Because you place your potions facedown, they beg your opponent to flip them over — which, if you play your tiles right, can strategically devour one of their two precious actions. And once your opponent has been burned one too many times, you might be able to bluff — perhaps you start to gamble and place a potion facedown that sets up that sweet three-in-a-row next turn.
But the best laid tile can be swept aside by almost any apothecary power. Powers include the ability to shift all potions to one side of the board, to hop over tiles as though a potion was a chess knight, or slide potions off the edge of the game board and back around, in the style of Pac-Man. It becomes a puzzle of bluffing and shifting, trying to block an opponent’s match while setting yourself up for victory.
(There’s a single player mode as well, which is enjoyable in the way of a Rubik’s Cube or a 15-puzzle — the old-timey game of a four-by-four grid, 15 tiles and one empty space, and you have to flick the tiles around until you have them in the proper order. It’s diverting enough but not really where Apotheca shines.)
Aesthetically, the game comes across like concept art for a forgotten Laika movie — think Coraline, ParaNorman, or the upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings — with apothecary powers wielded by trolls and frog-men and a giant flamingo. It’s neat.
That said, for an intense game of strategy and planning, you’ll want to look elsewhere. The apothecary powers can be a bit too swingy, and games tend to be won on a turn-to-turn basis, rather than by whoever hews closest to a grand strategy. (A bit of planning can pay off in the form of combo of apothecary powers: Alone, the Tidemaster, who sweeps all tiles to one side, is almost too haphazard to be threatening, but in combination with another apothecary he can be devastating.) Lucky potion draws, too, will snatch victory out from under a dominating player. But because each Apotheca game takes only about 20 minutes or so, it’s easy to brush off a defeat and get back to the market to sling some potions.
Apotheca is not quite a concoction that needs to be mulled over — but knock a few games back in quick succession, and they’ll tingle as they go down.