Distilled Review, A thematic board game about making spirits

I always love it when I discover a game that manages to capture its theme in the game’s mechanics. Distilled, a game about running your own distillery, does this quite well.

The game includes things like, shopping for the best ingredients, making your mash, cutting the head and tail off during the distilling process, and even bottling and labelling your spirits.

Disclosure: Thanks to Paverson Games for providing us with a review copy of Distilled. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from eligible purchases.

Distilled is a game about making spirits

The box for Distilled from Paverson Games

Distilled was designed by Dave Beck and features solo play by David Digby. Artwork is by Erik Evensen. This is the first game published by Paverson Games. It was originally funded on Kickstarter and is currently up for pre-order on Paverson’s website

This booze making board game has proven to be very popular and is being localised to a number of different countries by various different publishers. As of when I’m writing this, there are currently nine different versions of the game out there, from Paverson and eight other publishers doing localizations.

Distilled plays one to five players and plays very well at all player counts. Board Game Geek lists it as best with three but I don’t really agree with that, unless you are trying to get in a quick game during lunch or something. We found it plays just as well with five and is quite cutthroat at two.

The game length is very player count and player AP (Analysis Paralysis) dependent, which could be where the three-player suggestion comes from. Two-player games take less than an hour, but our five-player games have been closer to three. 

Distilled is a board game about making spirits in a distillery. Each player has recently inherited their own distillery along with a signature recipe. Each round players hit the market shopping for distillery upgrades, ingredients, new recipes, and useful items like barrels and bottles. Once the shopping is done, it’s time to brew using a uniquely thematic push your luck system that has players taking the head and tail off of their mash deck. Next, the spirits are either sold off or warehoused and aged before moving to the next round. At the end of seven rounds, the player with the highest reputation will be awarded the title of Master Distiller. 

The components in Distilled. Image by Paverson Games

For a look at the components and the excellent GameTrayz insert that comes with this spirited board game, check out our Distilled Unboxing Video on YouTube.

The component quality here is top-of-the-line. Our copy didn’t include any of the cool Kickstarter upgrades, like metal coins and metal recipe cubes, but the game still feels deluxe and elegant. The GameTrayz holders for labels, money and cubes work great and actually help you keep things organized while playing. That said the card holder that’s in the bottom of the box only really works if you store your games flat.

The rulebook matches the component quality, being extremely clear, and there are detailed reference cards for all players. Honestly, I can’t really see anything to improve on here.

Distilled Overview of Play

Set up and ready to start a two player game of Distilled.

While Distilled’s mechanics are tied well into the theme and the game has a great flow to it, there is a lot going on in this game. It features many moving parts and interactions, more than I want to cover in this review. This will be an overview of how to play, not a rules teach.

The first choice you have to make when setting up a game of Distilled is which tasting board to use. There are six options and we quickly learned that they make a big impact on how the game plays. All players will be using the same tasting board.

Once you choose a tasting board, set up the game as instructed in the rulebook, including filling the shelf board with labels that match your chosen tasting board. Watch for things that are based on player count, like the number of labels in play and the number of spirit awards available.

Next, each player chooses a colour and takes their own personal distillery board and recipe clipboard. They are then dealt three distillery goals and two distiller Identities. Each identity has a game breaking asymmetric special ability. Each player chooses one identity to keep and then grabs the signature recipe, signature ingredient, and starting resources for that identity.

Some of the Distiller Identity cards from Distilled

Each identity comes from a specific part of the world, called their home region. There are three of these, Asia, North America, and Europe. The spirits on the recipe card also each have their own region or show a home symbol. The home symbol represents your distiller Identity’s home region. 

The game is played over seven rounds, each of which has two phases. First, a market phase and then a distill phase. 

In the market phase players use money to buy things. These include unlocking new recipes, buying basic ingredients which are always available to all players, collecting premium ingredients and items that come from a randomised central market (which is refreshed as cards are bought), and purchasing distillery upgrades which unlock rule-breaking bonuses.

While shopping each player is restricted to only buying a maximum of two ingredients from the basic market each turn. This represents a brewer’s co-op, with limited supplies and resources. However, any number of items, ingredients and upgrades can be bought from the central market as long as players have the money for them.

The player board and basic market from the spirit making board game Distilled

Ingredients come in three forms, yeasts, waters, and sugars, and there are three types of sugars: grain, plant, and fruit sugars. The basic forms of each of these are available in the basic ingredient market but players will want to buy more expensive versions from the central market to distill better spirits. 

Items include bottles to place your finished spirits in and barrels to age your spirits. Most bottles have regions, just like spirits, and award extra points if you bottle a matching spirit in them. In addition, players will score end game points for their bottle collection which is also region based. Players start the game with a generic glass bottle that isn’t worth any points but can be re-used any number of times.

The goal all players need to be working towards, during the market phase, is to gather the ingredients to distill something by the the time the distill phase starts. To have any chance in Distilled you need to be brewing something every turn.

Different recipes score different amounts of points and money, but the basic things you need, every turn, is one yeast, one water and one sugar. More advanced recipes may require multiple sugars of the same type, can’t have certain types of sugars, or require a specific type of vessel to age. To make things a bit easier, as the game progresses, ‘leftover’ alcohol can be re-used in your recipes in place of yeast or water. 

Checking my tasting board in a game of Distilled

You are collecting all of this stuff for the distilling phase. Here players decide what ingredients to put into their mash and make a washback deck out of that. This deck must have at least one sugar, one water, and one yeast. For every sugar you have in your deck, you add one alcohol. Everyone then shuffles their own deck and removes the top and bottom cards, returning them to the pantry spot on their personal board to be used in future turns. This represents removing the head and tail of your brew, something that is done during actual distilling.

Players then need to put their new brew into something. Everyone starts with a basic metal barrel, which like the basic glass bottle can be reused any number of times. However, a metal barrel won’t work for spirits that need to be aged. There are two types of aging vessels, wooden barrels and clay pots. Players can buy these, and other improved barrels, from the market.

Next everyone finds out exactly what they brewed by referencing what’s left in their deck compared to their flight card. No matter what, as long as you have the basic ingredients to brew, you will end up with either Moonshine (a spirit with no sugars in it) or Vodka (a spirit with any mix of sugars). If things go well you hopefully have something that matches one of the better recipes that you’ve unlocked on your flight card.

The scoring board at the end of a game of Distilled.

Players will take the matching label, if there’s one available, for their new brew and put it on their spirit stack. Note labels are limited and unlock bonuses so everyone will have to watch what the other players are brewing to make sure they don’t over saturate the market with one type of alcohol and miss out.

Next, in player order, players have the option to sell what they have brewed. Most spirits have to be sold the turn they are made but others require aging. These are the ones that were placed into wooden barrels or clay pots. They are placed into the warehouse spot on your board where they will start accumulating flavour cards for each round they are stored. 

When selling a spirit, players pick a bottle to use, which can include the basic starter glass bottle or something they previously purchased. Players collect points and cash based on their mix as shown on the flight cards as well as what cards made up the final batch. Premium ingredients provide more points and money than the basic ones as do upgrades like better bottles and barrels.  

Aged spirits can also be sold at this time (as long as they have been aged at least one round) and the process is the same, except you get bonus points based on how many flavours the spirit has picked up, the more flavour the better. Individual flavour cards will also affect the value of your finished spirit. 

A five player game of Distilled

For each spirit you sell that you have a label for, you unlock a bonus by placing the label onto the top of your player board. These bonuses let you do things like take ingredients, items and upgrades from the market for free, claim some extra cash, search through the truck (the market discard) for cards, or unlock your signature ingredient for use at any point during the game. This is a powerful tool and why distilling something every turn, and making sure there is a label available for it, is vital.

Signature recipes and ingredients are unique to each distiller identity and tend to be worth a lot of points as well as money. They are generally harder to brew than most of the other spirits in the game and require your signature ingredient to be in the final mash. Thankfully these special ingredients have an ability that saves them if they are removed from the deck, but that won’t help you if you pull out other required sugars. If you use your signature ingredient and your batch fails it’s gone for good. 

While all of this is going on, players also need to watch their distiller identity’s unique ability, upgrades, and the modifications on cards as these can all break the rules. Players also need to watch for chances to claim the spirit awards put in play at the start of the game. 

The spirt awards are on the left in this picture of a two player game of Distilled

Each of these provides a first come first served, set of bonus points that players can claim during a round if they meet the criteria on the award. These include things like brewing a batch with X amount of sugars in it, having your warehouse full, brewing spirits from all three regions, having a set amount of money on hand, selling a spirit for a set value, etc. More than one player can claim the same spirit in the same round, but once claimed they are removed from the game for future rounds.

The game continues swapping between market and distilling phases round after round, with the start player rotating and the market clearing a bit between phases. After the third round, players will choose one of their goal cards to discard, saving the other two for end-game scoring. After the end of the seventh round, everyone completes the final scoring.

Here players get points for any spirits still aging in their warehouse (but lose out on the flavour bonus), their bottle collection, distillery upgrade points, distiller goal cards they have accomplished, and leftover money. 

The player with the most points becomes the master distiller and wins the game. In a cute bit of marketing, Paverson included an actual cardboard award that they encourage you to hold up, snap a selfie with and share on Facebook and/or Instagram. 

Distilled is going to be a good fit for a wide range of gamers

Playing distilled with Sean and the family.

Hopefully, I didn’t scare you away with that overview of play. I realize that it makes Distilled sound really overwhelming. There is a lot going on in Distilled but it sounds way worse than it is. The key to all of this is how well the mechanics I described above integrate with the theme of distilling spirits.

Thematic tie in can be found in all aspects of Distilled including the fact that you have a recipe board that holds your flight menu, how the general market represents a distiller’s co-op, and probably most notably, the way during the distilling phase that you remove the top and bottom card from your deck. This directly relates to how actual distilleries remove the head and tail of their wash during the distilling process. 

Because of this theme integration Distilled is surprisingly easy to teach. I’ve also found the rules easy to remember, even if I go a month or two between games. Everything just makes sense and is logical.

To help with onboarding, Distilled also comes with a First Taste book that is great for learning and teaching the game to new players. It helps you through set up and walks you through the first few rounds of a game using specific distiller identities paired with a specific tasting board.

Playing Distilled two player at the Sandwich brewery.

This walk through works pretty well, but honestly, except for my first learning game, I’ve never felt the need to use it again, even when showing off the game to new players. Even with players with very little hobby game experience, I’ve been able to jump right in.

Another thing that helps with this is the excellent player reference cards included in Distilled. These are extremely thorough and cover all aspects of play. The few times I’ve had to look something up in the rulebook, before I could find the answer someone at the table has quoted their reference card and saved me the rest of the search.

Distilled is a very elegant game. It looks great and the theme matches the gameplay. It has a flow to it that just feels good at the table and that covers all phases of play. While there’s sometimes some AP during the market phase, things still go around the table quickly. The fact that the distilling phase is mostly done simultaneously makes that part of the game flow as well. All of which leads to a surprisingly quick game. 

Note that quick doesn’t mean simple and easy. Distilled is an engine building game, where you start off with basic ingredients and only the knowledge of simple recipes. You build on that over time, learning new recipes, upgrading your equipment, and collecting more expensive and rarer ingredients. With this though you will never get everything you want. Money in Distilled is TIGHT, leaving you with hard decisions in every phase.

Playing Distilled while on vacation up north.

What I find very interesting about Distilled is that this brutal resource management system, which has you having to plan out things turns in advance, is combined with a push your luck element.

In every distill phase in Distilled you are taking a chance, that is unless you really went overboard on ingredients to make sure that no matter what cards you remove from your washback deck you will get the brew you want. You can do that, but that will end up limiting you severely in other areas.

Those extra ingredients come at the cost of upgrades, bottles, or variety in recipes. For some players, it will be worth the cost, as there’s nothing worse than losing your signature ingredient when failing to make your signature spirit. On the other hand, pulling your signature recipe off with just enough sugars can be one of the most rewarding experiences in board gaming. 

Not every batch is perfect and there are a few things I think could be improved in Distilled. For one, my wife did not like the onboarding system presented in the First Taste guide. She does not like games, or people, telling her what cards to play. She would have preferred to just read an example round or two of play rather than playing through the pre-set first rounds of the game.

Distilled has a lot of bits and took a long time to punch. Something I should have done before breaking it out to play at Red Lantern Coffee.

Next up, despite any love I shared for the Distilled box insert during my unboxing video, it could be better. Specifically in regards to the bottom tray that’s designed to hold all of the cards in the game.

While this tray looks like it will hold everything in place, just moving the game from my basement to my kitchen table causes things to shift if I don’t hold the box completely flat and when I end up packing it up for a public play event it’s a disaster. I usually have to spend five to ten minutes sorting cards before I can set up the game to play.

If Distilled ever gets a second printing I would also like to see the iconography both clarified and made a bit bigger. The region symbols in particular are rather tiny and hard to see. While they are colour coded even that is difficult to differentiate from across the table. Big letters NA, A, and E would be better than what is on the cards now. The ingredient types on the flight cards could also stand to be larger.

Another potential issue with Distilled, for some groups, is doing to be the randomness. At first, the rules and game summary make Distilled sound like an open information, highly strategic, Euro game, something on the level of games like Food Chain Magnate. Then you get to how the distilling phase works and find a random push your luck element.

Trying to decide if I should take my chances and just brew without any extra sugars in this game of Distilled.

While this is a fantastic catch-up mechanic, giving someone who’s falling behind on points a chance to push their luck while trying to catch up and make high-value spirits cheaply, it’s going to turn off some players. It can be very frustrating to have an otherwise well laid plan fail due to a bad cut of your washback.

In addition to this, there are also the vagaries of the market deck. I’ve had more than one game now where the aging vessel I needed just didn’t come up. Yes, the basic version is always available, but every point counts in this game and sometimes you just don’t get what you need to maximize things the way you want to.

Overall, I love Distilled, It is one of the best games in my collection (and I have quite an extensive collection). I adore how well the theme integrates with the mechanics and how easy to pick up this game is. The gameplay is elegant and plays very smoothly

The other part I like is how big a game this is while still playing in what I would consider a short and manageable time frame, especially at lower player counts. I can’t think of many other games in my collection that pack this level of strategic, brain burny, punch in about an hour (with three or less players). With Distilled, I get the feel of an epic, challenging game night in a surprisingly short burst. 

Distilled is a hit for us!

I think anyone who enjoys engine building games that reward long term planning and who likes being presented with a set of restrictions and goals to form a strategy from, is going to like Distilled. Though do be wary if you don’t like randomness.

On the other side, that randomness is what is going to make this game appeal to fans of lighter games. Well, that combined with the ease of picking up the rules and gameplay in Distilled. It’s also what is going to help level the playing field between experienced and new players.

Despite its depth, Distilled can be played fairly casually or can be taken seriously enough that I could see using it in a tournament situation.

Honestly, I have a hard time trying to think of game groups that won’t enjoy Distilled. Now I can see why the whole alcohol based theme may be wholly unappealing, and I understand that, but as for mechanics and game play, I think there’s something here for a wide variety of game groups. Plus this is not a drinking game or a game about drinking, instead it’s a game about making spirits.

So I guess what I’m saying is, unless you only dig dexterity games or party games, you should find a way to try out Distilled. I think you’re going to like it.  

There you have my thoughts on Distilled, one of the best new game discoveries I made in 2023. It’s a great example of a game that is made better by its theme and showcases how designing mechanics around a theme can make even more complicated games sing. 

Distilled: A Spirited Strategy Game
  • Distilled: The Spirited Strategy Game is a highly-thematic, medium weight euro game about crafting alcoholic spirits in a distillery for 1-5 players.
  • Player Count: 1-5, Ages 14+, 30 minute playing time
  • Strive for the title of master distiller, through purchasing goods, building up your distillery, and crafting the world’s most renowned spirits!
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