PLAYlist 38: The Quacks of Quedlinburg | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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PLAYlist 38: The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Apr 26, 2019 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

Potions! Get your potions ‘ere!

The Quacks of Quedlinburg was something of a dark horse hit of 2018. It’s a testament to board gaming’s regional qualities that many North American gamers hadn’t yet heard of this German game until it was nominated for (and the eventual winner of) the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. (That’s the equivalent of board gaming’s Best Picture Oscar, if they gave a separate prize for especially complex movies.) By the time an English edition was brought to the States by the fine folks at North Star Games, the great buzz surrounding the game had American gamers in a state of Quacks-mania. It’s currently sold out with another printing on the way, but in the meantime we’re here to confirm that this hard-to-pronounce game is worth the wait.

Quacks was designed by Wolfgang Warsch, whose The Mind and Ganz Schon Clever were two more of last year’s sleeper hits. (Much like Cardi B’s, Warsch’s name was just everywhere in 2018.) The premise of the game is that you and your opponents are harebrained apothecaries who’ve traveled to the medieval, German city of Quedlinburg to participate in their annual nine-day potion-mixing festival. The quack who brews the best magical potions over the course of the fest will be named Top Quack. Do you have what it takes to be Top Quack?

Like Orleans or Altiplano, both of which we’ve covered in prior columns, Quacks of Quedlinburg is a bag-building game. Unlike those games, which channel the act of pulling random chits from an ever-growing bag of chits into engine building and limited resource management, Quacks takes its cues from a far more widespread human pastime: gambling!

At its heart, Quacks is a game of pushing your luck. In each round, players will simultaneously be drawing colorful cardboard chips from their individual bags. Each chip has a value which indicates a number of spaces it will be placed up your semi-psychedelic player board, on a track which starts in the center and spirals outward. (The chips represent potion ingredients, and the boards your cauldrons.) The further around your board you make it, the more points you’ll earn and spending power you’ll have to buy newer and better chips between rounds. But you’ll want to watch out: your bag is seeded with white, “bad” chips, and if their total value on your board reaches higher than seven, your whole pot explodes! (If you haven’t guessed, exploding is bad – it sets you back half a round from your un-exploded opponents, either via negating your score or purchase power.)

Playing Quacks conservatively is the surest way to guarantee you won’t be hit with any penalties, but there’s an old adage that says you’ll never become Top Quack by playing it too safe. You’ll always be able to see where your opponents are on their boards, knowing how far ahead or behind you are at any given time. Unless you’re in the lead, sitting pretty is not the way to get a leg up on your competition. Plus, there’s always the temptation provided by higher spaces – moving up the board not only means you’ll receive more points, but more money to spend on delicious, enticing potion ingredients. More cash means cooler chips to play with in later rounds. So, what’s the harm in pulling one more chip out of the bag, right? I mean, it could be the white chip that pushes you over the edge into explosionville, but there are so many other chips it would more likely be, right? Right…?

[Draws white chip from bag, explodes. Everyone around table laughs.]

Quacks isn’t the first game to tap into a gambler’s mentality, but it does it more magnificently than most. It encourages emotional decisions as often as logical ones, whether from necessity or hubris. We liken the final bag draws of each round to a hand of blackjack; even when the odds say that you should stay, your gut wants you to hit. We’d sit around the table watching as the last player hemmed and hawed over whether to keep going, or stay put. When she ultimately pulled the exact chip she needed, the rest of us were nearly as excited as she was. When she busted, there would be a collective groan. Quacks of Quedlinburg is a deceptively social game, heavily investing players in each others’ actions.

We’ll try make the most relatable analogy possible. Watching your friends’ turns in Quacks of Quedlinburg is like watching a contestant spin the big wheel on The Price is Right. Although you’re not actively part of the show, there’s still excitement when their spin stops right at 95 cents. There’s also an empathetic feeling of anguish when the next player has no choice but spin again after landing on a respectable 80 cents, and then busts with a totally unacceptable $1.25.

In between rounds, players will have the chance to purchase one or two new chips to toss into their bags. Each of the seven different colors of chips has a different special ability, such as letting you remove a nasty white chip from your board or tossing back your next chip drawn if it’s not one you want. As more chips are added to your bag, the number of undesirable white chips is diluted: meaning, you’ll be drawing them less in future rounds and making it higher up the board, thus gaining more points and more money to spend on more chips. Everything is cyclical, time is a flat circle, et cetera et cetera.

While that more or less explains the general idea of The Quacks of Quedlinburg, there are many nice, little nuances we’re only going to touch on. Quacks offers incredible variability right out of the box: not only does each chip color have four different powers that will vary from game to game, but the player boards are double-sided, offering a slightly more complex mode of play on their flipsides. There’s also a fat fortune-teller deck you’ll be drawing from at the beginning of each of the game’s nine rounds, and these cards offer special bonuses or goals that switch things up even further. Even without an expansion, it will take a considerable number of plays before everything in the Quacks base box starts to feel like old hat. (And by the way, an expansion is en route – it’s called The Herb Witches, which would also make a pretty great name for a sludge metal band.)

There are two more things we feel the need to laud Quacks for. The first is the way it mitigates a runaway leader by giving players at the back of the pack boosts which depend on how badly they’re losing. This is done in a way that’s pretty clever, and won’t make the winner feel like his opponents are just getting free hand-outs. The second thing is the game’s board design. Not only do Quacks’ good looks match its esoteric theme, but the iconography is clearly spelled out and rules reminders can be found all over the boards. Literally, everything you need to know to play Quacks is right in front of players the whole time, so there’s little need to be reaching for the rulebook each time you forget something like, say, turn order or what a particular chip does.

Quacks moves very quickly as players draw simultaneously, so games last under an hour. As soon as you’ve finished a round of drawing and placing chips, you spend two minutes buying new ones from the shop and then you’re on to the next round of draws. There’s little downtime, even playing at the full four player count. While Quacks is more luck-driven than the games we tend to recommend, that luck factor yields fun more often than frustration. Sure, you’re going to get hosed by awful draws in some games, but if you’re looking to have a good time without winning being of utmost necessity, Quacks is going to be a ton of fun.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is published in the U.S. by North Star Games, and will retail for $54.99.

We’ve stuck with Quacks’ mystical, potion-crafting theme for this column’s playlist. The compilation above is made up of classic rock and pop songs with lyrics about potions, magic, witches, and other such voodoo-hoodoo. Given just how many classic rock radio staples deal with magical tomfoolery of one sort or another, there must have been a real wizard problem back in the ‘60s that our school history books seem to have forgotten about.


Previous PLAYlist columns: The Climbers, NEOM, Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, Reykholt, Pandemic, Everdell, Kingdomino, Citrus, History of the World, Altiplano, Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, Photosynthesis, Ice Cool, Food Truck Champion, Ars Alchimia & Lemuria, A Game of Thrones Catan, Troyes, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Flip Ships, NMBR 9, Unearth, Escape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue), Whistle Stop, Caverna: Cave vs Cave, Twilight Struggle, Honshu, Bärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the Dragon, Yokohama, Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure, Villages of Valeria, New York Slice, Watson & Holmes, Hanamikoji.


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May 23rd 2019


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