60's Ads: 1963 Erector Set and Chemistry Set by Gilbert

Opus Magnum is one of the games I picked up on sale from Steam and have concluded that it would have been worth every penny had I paid full price.

Here’s the basic conceit: you are an alchemist. The tutorial part of the game involves walking you through the basics of alchemy: reagents, arms, pivots, pistons, tracks, transmutions, and bonding.

So let’s go through these. The reagents are things that you’re already familiar with. The essences of water, earth, air, and fire. Salt. Quicksilver, lead, tin, iron, copper, silver, and gold. There are also a couple of forbidden reagents, but you’ll discover those on your own.

You create machines that take these reagents and manipulate them by moving them. Move the arm to the part of the board with the reagent. Pick up the reagent. Move the arm either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Drop the reagent.

A pivot is where you spin the reagent when you’re holding it in the arm’s grip.

A piston allows you to extend or retract the arm.

Tracks allow your arms to follow along a track (while also being free to spin and pivot).

Transmutations turn one reagent into another. You put your reagent into the machine, another reagent pops out. The simplest one is the glyph of calcification. Just run your reagent over it and, whammo: Salt. Other glyphs aren’t quite so simple… you have to add two reagents to get a new reagent from the machine.

Bonding is probably the simplest concept: move two atoms into the glyph and, voilà, you have a molecule. (There is also a glyph of unbonding where you can take your molecule and break it down into two separate atoms again.)

There are only a few more (fairly intuitive) rules: Reagents can’t bump into each other. They also can’t bump into the base of the arms. Oh, and a reagent can’t be pulled in two directions at once (so you’ll have to let go with it with one arm before you move it with the other).

And those are pretty much the basic concepts. Make a machine to manipulate your atomic reagents and create molecules (or new reagents) and then do it again. Similar, I suppose, to chemistry… but alchemy allows you to do so much more with atoms than meager chemistry does.

For example, the first real task the game asks of you after the tutorial is to turn lead into gold.

That’s right: it wouldn’t be a proper alchemy game unless you wrestle with the problem of turning lead into gold and they get that one out of the way right out of the gate.

So what do you do? You take an atom of your elemental lead and drop it into the glyph of projection. You add an atom of quicksilver to your lead and now you have an atom of tin. Add another atom of quicksilver and you have iron. Add another atom of quicksilver and now you have an atom of copper. Add yet another atom of quicksilver and you have an atom of silver. Then add the final atom of quicksilver and create your atom of refined gold. Drop your refined gold into the output slot and then do it again.

If that seems a bit complicated, maybe a .gif will help show you what I mean:


See? Simple.

After you successfully create your machine, you’ll get a handy dandy report telling you how you did compared to everybody else who did the same level. It compares three main stats: the area your machine takes up, the cost of your machine (arms cost anywhere between 20 and 40 units, different glyphs cost different amounts as well, tracks cost money too!), and the number of cycles your machine uses.

If you look at my machine above, you’ll see that it has an area of six (that’s the best possible, according to comparisons), it costs a mere 40 units, but it takes 179 cycles to do its thing.

So I was able to optimize my area and my cost but it meant that I used a lot of cycles. I wondered if I could get that number of cycles down somewhat… so I built a second machine:


That one takes up almost twice as much space and costs more than twice as much, but I got my cycles down to 118.

Still too many cycles. So I thought “what if I went hog wild with those spinny arms?” and then I came up with this:


A little bit better. 108 cycles… but there is a lot of wasted effort in there. I sat and I thunk and thunk and thunk.

Then I came up with this one:


Whew! I got the cycles down to 93! And I looked at the bell curve and saw that it was possible to get *EVEN FEWER CYCLES THAN THAT*! So I brainstormed for a little bit and I came up with this:


And, as you can see, that one is pretty… but it didn’t save me any cycles past the 93. So I have no idea how to optimize for cycles with that one even though it seems that some people got down into the 80’s. (How is that possible? I didn’t have any wasted movement!)

But, after that, I was *HOOKED*. The game has me making all sorts of stuff. Waterproof sealant, airship fuel, health tonics, stamina potions… all at the same time, telling the story a young genius alchemist in the Grand Old House Van Tassen and performing his alchemistic duties for his bosses. The story is really secondary though.

The joy comes from trying to figure out how to make a molecule, then trying to improve it, then trying to improve it even more. I went from wanting to optimize two out of the three, to trying to optimize one of the three, to saying “oh, jeez, I’ll just be pleased to finish this without trying to wrestle with making it perfect…” to staring at the desired product and thinking “I have no idea how to even begin wrestling with that…” to thinking about rotational symmetry or how a track could do it or how I’d need to set up a relay set of arms to build what I was being asked to build… and, from there, building it. (On Monday, Maribou and I went to the grocery store and I grabbed some energy drinks in different colored cans and described the sword alloy I had to make. “The black cans are iron. The gold cans are tin. They have to go on like this forever with bonds here and here.” “Yes, dear. Let’s get the ice cream.”)

(And even as I’m writing this I’m looking at the designs I designed in the first tier of puzzles and wincing at my ham-handed brute-force machines that don’t incorporate any of the elegant tricks I learned in the second, third, and fourth tiers.)

It’s one of those games that makes you think about problems from all sorts of angles and you can feel it improving your “order of operations” skills.

On top of that, they include a mah-jong-style game for you to play when you get stuck on a particular puzzle and just need some zen to resettle your thought processes.

If you do any programming at all, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up.

So… what are you playing?

(Picture is HG Wells playing a war game from Illustrated London News (25 January 1913))

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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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14 thoughts on “Saturday!

  1. I’ve officially hit a wall, I think.

    I’ve finished the first puzzle of the ones in Tier 5 and it was bowling-shoe ugly. Seriously, I was not proud of it at all beyond “ugh, I did it…”.

    And then they showed me the next four puzzles all at once. I have some idea, I guess, of how to do the first one (I searched for the rotational symmetry and, it took me a second, but I found it) but I look at the next three and I am *STUMPED*.


  2. One, that game looks neat as heck, and makes me remind myself (again) that I need to have a actual computer I can play games on.

    I’m currently taking a break from Xenosaga Chronicles 2, a sequel to one of the best JRPGs ever and a mostly incredible game in its own right.

    Except for the dire character designs.

    And the godawful font choice.

    I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the last week complaining about the kerning in a video game.

    I’m pillsy, and I’m definitely, absolutely not a weird, obsessive nerd.


  3. (I broke down and googled how to get my cycles for Refined Gold down even further… as it turns out, the mechanic where I’m using the wheel to add quicksilver to the glyph of projection is inefficient because I have to 1 pick up the quicksilver, 2 move the quicksilver, 3 drop the quicksilver before going back to the beginning again. The people who got their turns down did it by using two arms and so, after the first picking up of the quicksilver with the first arm, are constantly in the “move the quicksilver/drop the quicksilver part of the cycle” effectively cutting this part down by a third. Which makes me feel dumb.)


    • Oh, and if you want to see a gif of the so-far-best-solution (or, at least, one of the umpteen potential so-far-best-solutions) and compare it to my relatively inefficient refined gold solutions above, check it out here.

      For what it’s worth, I can look at such solutions all day and then go on to my next puzzle and waste 5 cycles before I get to the second arm.


  4. I spent a fair bit of time last year playing a game that provided a similar kind of puzzle – Factorio. Its about being trapped on an alien planet and having to build a rocket from scratch – basically you start right from mining ores to smelting them to creating more and more sophisticated production lines so you can build components in sufficient quantity that you can build a rocket to call for help.

    In that case the challenge is less about “How do I make this?” and more “How do I get enough inputs to these assemblers that I can make enough of this?”


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