Game Review: Catching the Solo Spirit of the Board Game “Distilled”

distilled board game solo review - box artFermentation is probably one of the most important chemical reactions known to humankind. Since the dawn of civilization, people have been taking advantage of how sugars change into alcohol, the process that underlies every alcoholic beverage, from the lowliest moonshine to the fanciest aged cognac. Fundamentally, though, it’s straightforward: water + yeast + sugars = alcohol. Want to make a specific spirit like vodka, gin, or brandy? You’ll need specific sugar sources (grains versus fruits, for example) and, for most of them, you’ll need to have patience while the spirit ages in a barrel, picking up those more complex flavors. Sell it in a swanky bottle and you’ll maximize your profit. Easy, right?

Building up and running a distillery is the foundation of the terrific new board game Distilled by Paverson Games, created by Dave Beck with splendid artwork by Erik Evensen. They sent me a pre-production prototype and I immediately shanghaied a friend to play through a few one-on-one games. I confess that the very first game took rather a while as Distilled has a fiddly setup, but the fundamental gameplay is simple: You combine specific cards in “recipes” to produce spirits of differing complexity. Spirits produce both Spirit Points and coins, the latter of which can be used to buy better ingredients, upgrade your distillery, etc. The player with the most Spirit Points after seven rounds wins the game.

I was more interested in reviewing solo play than multiplayer, however, so after a few games to master the basics, I turned to the solo rules. The solo game utilizes the same basic gameplay but solo mode has a solo goal achievement tableau that you have to complete in addition to achieving a target Spirit Point goal.

DISTILLED BOARD GAME SETUP

Rather than a single board, Distilled has a number of boards, along with an ever-changing card marketplace, player distilleries, recipes, and quite a bit more. To start, here’s an overview of my table, set up and ready for solo play:

distilled board game review - starting overview

From the top, you can see the Basic Marketplace, the scoring grid, alcohol and taste cards (the latter for when you’re aging a spirit), the solo goal tableau and, at the 6 o’clock position, my spirit recipe “clipboard” and a board that represents my distillery. On the lower left are a grid of quick reference cards (always helpful!), then the spirit label and recipe (cube) markets, a stack of coin tokens, and, in the very middle, the Premium Market.

Note: Some of these prototype components and boards will be simplified in the final game.

I know, it’s all pretty small in that pic, so let’s look more closely at these different play areas so you can see how it all works neatly together.

To start, my distillery and spirit checklist boards:

distilled board game review - individual distillery

Starting at the lower left, each distillery has a pantry (for ingredients), a storeroom (barrels, bottles, and similar), and a warehouse (where barrels of spirits are stored to age, turn by turn). Along the top are the office (where your character lives) and three distillery spaces where you can install upgrades. The very top are spirit label bonus spaces: Every time you get a new spirit label by selling a spirit, you can place it on one of these spots to get a bonus; coins, a Spirit Point or two, free item, or similar. To the right is the Spirit Checklist, the “clipboard”, that’s one of the most important parts of the game.

Looking at a few recipes a bit more closely:

distilled board game review - spirit checklist

Spirits require specific ingredients and a recipe. The cube space on the left corresponds to the color grouping (Soju is bronze while Gin is silver. Moonshine (not shown) and Vodka are so simple they don’t require a recipe). Most are associated with a specific region, so Cachaça is from The Americas, Soju is from Asia and Gin is from Europe. Each is distilled with a combination of water, yeast, and the specific ingredients shown. Vodka, for example, can be made with any sugars, whether grains, plants, or fruits, while Gin requires grain and 2x fruit, but cannot contain any plants at all. All of the above can be sold immediately upon distilling without any aging required, as denoted by the steel drum icon. Each has varying levels of reward for the achievement, from 2 Spirit Points + 1 coin for Vodka to 7 Spirit Points for Gin.

Each Distilled player, whether in solo mode or multiplayer, gets a character who has a home region and signature recipe that is worth lots of Spirit Points. Additional points can be obtained by using the signature ingredient, but you have to get that into play before you can utilize it. I’ll play as Jacqueline Booker whose signature spirit is Straight Bourbon:

distilled board game review - individual character

Each character has a different starting setup too: As Jacqueline I start with either a basic water or basic yeast.

Speaking of which, the Basic Market along the very top of the playing area shows what ingredient cards look like:

distilled board game review - basic market water yeast grains plants

The price on the lower right is zero for the most basic of ingredients, but notice that Plant Sugar costs 1 coin. There ain’t no credit so if you can’t afford something, you’re stuck with the freebies. But then again, you can’t have a spirit without yeast, water and some sort of sugar, so it’s no accident you can get all three ingredients for free (tho remember, you can only buy max of two per turn). The coin symbol on the top left denotes its value when the card is included as part of a distilled spirit you sell.

The center of the board is the Premium Market, comprised of Distillery Upgrades, Ingredients, and Premium Items. Turn by turn, everything migrates from the deck on the left to the “truck” of discarded market items on the right.

distilled board game review - marketplace

Those distillery upgrades? Excellent investments at any point during the game if you can afford them. Better ingredients can add value to your spirit and premium items let you create aged spirits, realize more profit when selling a spirit in a fancy bottle, and similar.

HOW TO PLAY DISTILLED

Distilled takes place across seven turns, each of which is comprised of four stages. They are Market Phase, Distill Phase, Sell Phase, and Age Phase. In Market Phase you can buy anything available in either the basic marketplace (max of two cards, remember) or main marketplace (as many as you can afford). Since I’m starting out with just a single yeast, I’ll get water and grain sugar, both of which are free.

Distill phase is when you get to utilize what’s known as the Washback. Think of it as a huge mixing container! You’ll always need at least one water, one yeast and one sugar. I place those and then for every sugar I have, the process creates an alcohol. So here’s my first distilling:

distilled board game review - making moonshine

Definitely not glamorous, but when ya just opened up your distillery and have no money, there’s only so much you can make. In fact, all I can make is moonshine, so that’s what I’ll do. Similar to how real distilling works, Distillery requires you to then shuffle all of your Washback cards then put the top and bottom cards back into your Pantry. Those are known as the foreshot and feint in the ‘biz. In this instance, I’m going to be left with two of the four cards, but later in the game, you might distill a spirit with a dozen or more cards (and one of those you return to your pantry might well be a critical ingredient).

Since moonshine can be made without any remaining sugars (thankfully since I lost my grain in the trim) doesn’t need to age, I can immediately sell it for a few coins. Helpful. I need to add a container for the distilling and a bottle to get it to market and here’s what I actually end up with for this first round:

distilled board game review - made moonshine

Count up the top left symbols and it’s worth 4 coins. But a close look at the recipe list shows that moonshine is worth 2 coins and 1 Spirit Point too. Whoo-hoo, first round and I’ve earned a point and 6 coins. No complaints! Heck, I’ll drink to that!

SOLO NUANCES OF THE GAME

I haven’t talked much about the solo variant but most of the gameplay is identical, with the main difference being that solo goals ladder you have to ascend. Start with the bottom cards and as you achieve a goal, collect the Spirit Points, money or other denoted reward. My first moonshine achieved the first solo goal – sell a spirit with you basic sugars – and a few rounds later I managed to distill and sell a pretty valuable Gin, which was worth $11, sufficient to achieve the goal of “sell a spirit worth at least $8”. Here’s my tableau, with achieved goals marked with coins (for convenience):

distilled board game review - solo game goals

Zooming ahead, I did manage to make my signature spirit, Straight Bourbon, which I then had to age in my warehouse in a suitable barrel:

distilled board game review - straight bourbon aging in warehouse

You can see that I have purchased the Pirate Bottle to help sell the bourbon for maximum value (who wouldn’t want a bourbon in a pirate bottle?) and you can see that while the bottle cost me 3 coins, it’ll be worth 3 Spirit Points since bourbon is an American spirit. Notice the Straight Bourbon recipe card on the right too: Two grains, no plants, no fruits, one corn, and then it has to age in a barrel at least long enough to collect two flavor cards. it’s worth 2 coins, but far more importantly, it’s also worth 17 Spirit Points. In fact, once I age and sell my bourbon, I know I’m going to get at least 17 + 1 + 3 Spirit Points, plus 2 more points for having two taste cards (shown below the barrel card, you earn another taste card each round you age a spirit rather than selling it).

In fact, when I do go to sell it, it’s quite the bonanza:

distilled board game review - bourbon

It adds up to 28 Spirit Points and a whopping 15 coins. Not too bad at all. The path I took on the solo goals tableau requires me to earn 85 points, however, and at the end of the game I only had 82. So while I won on required achievements, I failed to earn enough points, but oh, so dang close…

THOUGHTS ON THE GAME DISTILLED

While this may seem daunting, the complexity in Distilled all makes sense and is entirely logical once you get into the game. Yes, setup is a bit tedious and that first game will take a while, but once you realize the basic cycle of choosing a recipe, buy ingredients, distill them (with extras so you can be sure you don’t lose a critical item in the distillation process) and either age or sell them for maximum profit, it actually moves pretty fast. In solo mode I found that I was spending a lot of time assessing the main market area, particularly since it changes a lot each turn, meaning there are always plenty of new potential upgrades, ingredients and items to consider.

Game designer Dave Beck tells me that the final game will be a bit simplified when compared to this prototype, which is good as a few things seem a bit unnecessarily fiddly, but overall, this is a terrific game, really fun, one that begs for a few spirits to be consumed during gameplay, and one that I will definitely play again and again. Solo mode is challenging too, as I learned, and I know what I did wrong (I should have focused more on the aged spirits as they are much more valuable), but whether multi-player or as a way to challenge myself ro an hour on a quiet afternoon, this is a keeper and one I heartily recommend.

Distilled is currently on Kickstarter and has blown through the original funding goal and backers have unlocked just about all of the stretch goals. In other words, you’d be smart to back it before the campaign wraps up so you can get all the cool upgrades and expansion too. Check it out: Distilled on Kickstarter.

DIsclosure: Paverson Games sent me a prototype of Distilled for the purposes of this review. Thanks!

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