This is Picklemoose's Blog. A small section of Pixelated Cardboard dedicated to topics outside of digital board game ports. Posts here will be less formal & cover a range of topics.
Fun in board games is a difficult thing to nail down. For some, a deep, heavy, three hour brain burner is the pinnacle of fun. For others, nothing is better than a 10 minute round of a light, breezy filler. Personally, I was never quite clear on what fun meant for me when it came to playing board games. I decided to write about a game that helped me answer that question; Quacks of Quedlinburg.
Quacks of Quedlinburg places you in the role of a ye ol’ doctor of questionable qualifications. You have been summoned to brew potions in your magnificent cauldron. Luckily, local merchants offer a variety of ingredients to get the job done. These include pumpkins, toadstools, mandrakes, ghost’s breath, and a few others. Be careful, however, should your potion end up including too many of the volatile snowberry ingredients, the whole thing will go ‘poof!’ Points or profits will be lost, and you will fall behind your fellow Quacks.
This is a bag building game, which means you have a cloth bag out of which you draw things (in this case, cardboard chips) to play. Inherent in this mechanic is 1) a lot of luck and 2) a push your luck aspect. To begin the game, you seed your bag with a bunch of snowberries and two low powered chips then start drawing. You pull chips out one by one, advancing the level of your potion on a spiral track in your cauldron. You continue until you bust by drawing too many snowberries or wisely give up before doing so. The further you get with your potion, the bigger the rewards. Should you avoid busting, you will get both victory points and money to spend at the end of the round. If you do bust all hope is not lost as you will get to choose to receive either points or money, but not both.
Points are points, but what’s this money doing for me? It buys you better ingredients to be placed into your bag along with all of your other chips at the end of each turn. Ingredients do two things. First, they have a number on them which indicates how far along your track you move when you draw it. For most types, these are tiered into 1-2-4 levels. The chips with fours on them are the most expensive as they move you the farthest. Early in the game you will be buying ones, but as your engine, nay bag, grows and you are creating bigger and bigger potions to reach new heights in your cauldron you will start grabbing those lucrative fours.
Second, each color/type of chip has some associated power. Except pumpkins, those are just pumpkins and obviously have no special abilities, what a ridiculous thing to think. The ingredient powers are the crux of the game and they vary wildly between the different chips. One will allow you to remove snowberries from your potion, pushing off busting a little longer. Others will provide you with valuable rubies, give you points. or allow you a free draw from your bag. There are seven different chip types (eight if you count the white snowberries), each doing something different. There is some light synergy in play at times, for example, with the red toadstools and orange pumpkins, a toadstool will move further along the track if there are already pumpkins in your potion.
All of those specific ingredient abilities I mentioned are for the starter set of ingredient books. The game comes with four different sets of books for most of the ingredients. Each of the four offer something entirely different. Great for variability and replayability, absolutely abysmal for written reviews.
That is Quacks in a nutshell. There are a few extra little things going on such as rubies, potions, bonuses, and rat tails. It’s sufficient to say that these all work towards helping you make bigger, better potions. The rat tails are the game’s catchup mechanism which works to limited success. There is also a card draw from a small deck each turn which provides some bonus or round condition to all players. You play over the course of nine rounds which are mostly identical. Two of the ingredient types aren’t available initially, but get rolled out over the first few rounds. The last round, in which there is no point in buying more chips, allows you to trade money for points. The game has a running scoreboard and after the ninth round scoring is complete, the game is over. Most points wins the game.
The components are fine. Nothing special, just nice cardboard bits with a decent thickness. The cards from the deck are a bit thin. The player cauldron boards are great, as is the main scoring board. The only real complaint is that it’s pretty clear that the chips will start to wear with more and more plays which is why so many people upgrade with plastic covers or Board Game Geek’s insanely popular plastic replacement bits.
The introduction to this review mentioned fun no less than 83 times, so I suppose I’ll address that. Quacks of Quedlinburg has become my definition of a fun board game. Every round of this game will involve somebody at the table agonizing over whether to draw one more chip. This will, despite the apparent odds, often end up poorly for that player but highly entertaining for everybody else. This is a built in feature of any push your luck game, but the magic of Quacks is how much better it pulls this trick off than others. It’s a perfect balance, really. It’s a simple, light game so nobody (well, almost nobody) is actually going to be mad when they bust. Also, busting once, especially early on, isn’t actually the end of your hopes and dreams as you still receive points or money (spoiler: it will almost always be money early and points late in the game).
Players will do the math in their head and decide that only one chip in their entire bag, which feels like it has about 8 or 10 chips, can cause them to bust. The feeling of despair when that one chip is revealed in the palm of your hand is a feeling that I’m entirely too familiar with. It’s oh so painful, but oh so fun at the same time. Again, by lowering the stakes it allows this kind of chance-driven madness to shine as being delightful rather than infuriating. It’s a tight line to walk, and Quacks manages to do so perfectly.
My second favorite part of the game is the replay value in the base game. Most ingredients have four different abilities, this keeps you busy for a while. I believe the rules suggest you use matching books across all ingredients rather than mix-and-match initially, but you are certainly free to choose any combination you please. Some of them work better than others, naturally. I’ve found the second side tends to lead to significantly lower scores than the first side, for example. Unless you play this weekly or have played it 20+ times, you probably won’t remember what each of the four different variations of ingredients do, so the combinations are, generally, quite fresh as you are reading through them to start the game. The game is fun enough on the first side that I’m not sure it even needs the variants. Thankfully, the designers disagreed, and the result is a lot of variety out of the box.
That’s a lot of gushing, so what are the downsides here? It’s entirely luck based. You can stack your bag full of greatness only to be ruined by snowberries. You can mitigate them once a round with a potion, but that’s not a bulletproof plan by any means and it does have limitations. That’s part of the deal with a game like this, you have to accept that some games just aren’t yours to win. Thankfully, I enjoy them all the same, but there is likely a significant portion of the board gaming world who will disagree.
Quacks has slowly become one of my favorite games. I was thoroughly whelmed after my first game. It seemed...fine? It’s not that it is an overly complex game, but I still found myself feeling it out my first time through. “How much does busting ruin my game? Should I laugh when somebody else has a terrible round? Why are the yellow ingredients so awesome?” I quickly grew to love it starting with the second game, and it has only grown in my eyes over a dozen or two plays since. I’ve played it up to five players (only possible with the expansion) and it works well thanks to simultaneous action. Games breeze by, with two players generally finishing in about 45 minutes or less and larger games taking roughly an hour once learned, but they do top out at about 90 minutes for a five player game with new players. It is enough to be used as a centerpiece game for a lighter-leaning group, as it offers more than a Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne type gateway, or as a longer filler game for a heavier group.
The review is over, but I did want to add mention of the expansion, The Herb Witches. I generally don’t buy expansions, but I made an exception here. The primary reason for that was the fifth player components, but it also appeared to hit the perfect spot for me with expansions: more of the same, with fun, minor changes but nothing drastic. I have a strong distaste for expansions, especially first expansions, which drastically alter the base game. Fair or not, I believe these feel like corrections on the base game rather than natural extensions.
The Herb Witches offers more ingredient books for more variety, the previously mentioned fifth player board and components, 1.5 new ingredients, and the witches themselves. The full new ingredient is kind of bland as its use is tied to whatever you previously played. It can certainly be super powerful if drawn at the right time, or it can be really boring. The half new ingredient is a super expensive pumpkin with a SIX on it, that’s a lot of potion building goodness. The Herb Witches are the meat here, they give each player the chance to take three special actions over the course of the game. There are a handful of each of three types, randomly choose one before you start the game to add in fun. These ladies are powerful. One of them doubles your money during the buying phase, another gives you rubies equal to the number of points you get, and other completely chaotic, game-breaking abilities. It works out fantastically well because each player gets to use all three actions over the game, the key is figuring out when to use them. It’s amplifying the madness in this already crazy game, and it fits right in with the spirit of the base game.
Want a huge helping of fun served up with a healthy dose of wild randomness? Give Quacks of Quedlinburg a look.