If It Quacks Like a Quack…
Wolfgang Warsch is on a roll. Within the past year, he delivered the mathy Ganz Schön Clever, a great game that certain doofopoda don’t consider a game, a bunch of stuff I haven’t played because their titles are in German, and now The Quacks of Quedlinburg. I’d call his output improbable, except his games seem to truck in probability, so it’s… good odds? A fair shake? I have no idea.
On the surface, Quacks is about charlatan doctors peddling fake potions. But forget about that; it’s what we hoity-toity professionals call “setting pasta-toppa.”
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Quacks of Quedlinburg is somehow deeply invested in its whole “charlatan potion-makers” setting. Like a foppish dandy flouncing into the town square for the harvest festival, it sports its finest decorative gambeson and calfskin boots that defy the mud of the road. Informative ingredient books heaped high with colorful tokens, swirling cauldrons hungry for a taste of crow skull or bleu fromunda cheese, cardboard flasks arrayed oh-so-nicely atop your personal board — there’s no denying it’s a handsome devil.
But don’t mistake it for Alchemists, Matúš Kotry’s game in which the brewing and cataloguing of potions might very well fail to cure, or even result in illness. Instead, Quacks is a delightful trifle of probabilities, fiddling with the odds until they’re even, and pressing your luck. And it’s far more immediately silly and a quarter as burdened by its rules than Alchemists. All without requiring a digital app. Those are all very good things.
The gist is this. From your bag you draw ingredients, one at a time, and throw them into the deep frothing swirl of your cauldron. The “bigger” the ingredient, the farther you place it along the track. Your goal, naturally, is to move as far along that track as possible, racking up points and cash. When the potion is finished, you earn the reward in the next visible space. Huzzah! Alchemy! Delicious fraudulent alchemy!
But that isn’t quite enough to give this potion any zip. Rather, the rich pumpkin undertones of this particular brew are present because of the opportunities and risks paired with your ingredients.
Let’s talk opportunities first. As you earn money, you’re able to purchase new ingredients to your sack. There are different sets to try, adding some much-needed variety across multiple plays, but commonalities soon emerge. Toadstools tend to thicken your stew depending on the placement of other ingredients, while spider sacs earn rubies and new tokens as long as they’re the last things stirred in. Crow skulls are defensive in nature — more on why that’s important in a moment — whereas the eerie moths from The Silence of the Lambs provide bonuses when you dump more of them into your cauldron than your rivals. Mandrake roots are all over the place, doubling the placement of other ingredients or stacking in value as more of them are added to the mixture; bleu fromunda cheese always provides new ways to earn points.
Over time, strategies and considerations emerge. If you place a venom sac, should you stop now in order to claim its bonus? Or press on courtesy of the eau de rot emanating from your pouch? When it’s time to purchase new ingredients at the yuck market, would some additional moths outpace your rivals, or do you require the security of a few bird skulls? The actual brewing is largely a matter of chance, the whims of a fickle god assigning tokens at random from your pouch. But the odds are entirely of your own making, whether stacks of smaller ingredients or a few larger gambles.
With so many wonderful options to consider, you might wonder where the threat lies. I mentioned earlier that this is a press-your-luck game, and there isn’t any luck to press unless you stand to lose big. In this case, danger, thy name be snowberries. These left-handed bastards are piled into your sack from the outset, and their toxins will explode your cauldron if too many are added. This is no laughing matter, robbing you of certain bonuses and forcing you to choose between keeping that round’s points or its cash for shopping. Put another way, a detonation is sufficiently punitive that you definitely hope to avoid it, without totally wrecking your chances of recovery.
It’s this dimension that breathes life into The Quacks of Quedlinburg. As your pouch grows thinner with each new placement, the temptation to continue placing additional tokens grows stronger. Not only are you earning more points and cash with each placed token, you’re also nabbing each ingredient’s bonuses. Even when you have six or seven snowberries on the table — when even a single draw could easily set your potion overflowing with poison — it’s often nigh-impossible to stop wagering on the appearance of one more venom sac or root about for a crucial moth. It’s the addiction of gambling compressed into a more harmless arena, made-up numbers and half-considered probabilities flickering in the back of your head. Just one more of the right token, and you could reach the next ruby space. Two more splats of fromunda cheese and you’ll earn a huge bonus. When you inevitably draw your largest bundle of snowberries, surely it’s because you’ve been cursed and not because you’re crap at statistics.
This is why even low-value tokens can be critical as diluting agents. Lowly pumpkins might not earn any bonuses, but they’re cheap and plentiful and gradually marginalize the odds that you’ll draw another run of four snowberries. On the other hand, high-value ingredients often protect you by letting you choose from multiple drawn tokens — thank you, crow skull — or ignore the next snowberry, feeding right back into the game’s standoff between quantity and quality.
A few other elements help deepen Quacks, or at least provide the illusion that it’s about more than plucking tokens out of a bag. There’s the obligatory event card at the start of every round, although these so-called fortune teller’s tips are usually helpful. Some provide round-long bonuses like a higher immolation point to your potion. Others spark a pumpkin festival, in which all orange tokens will move an extra space. Meanwhile, a secondary currency, rubies, can be spent to either move your cauldron’s “droplet” forward, altering the starting space for your tokens, or to refill the flask that can be used once per turn to return a snowberry to your ingredient bag. These are minor but important elements, offering little decisions that, over time, can have a surprising impact. For example, it’s satisfying to reach the last few rounds and have your newest tokens begin where your earliest brews concluded. Free points!
Quacks also features a delightful catch-up system, doling out freebie brewing spaces depending on the number of “rat tails” between yourself and the winner’s position on the score track. It’s a helpful perk without leveling the playing field, and I can attest for all the meanies out there that runaway victories are still possible.
In the end, you’re still playing a game of chance, albeit one where the odds are yours to massage. Even with a careful assemblage of ingredient flavors and sizes, it’s possible to lead with your two biggest snowberries and spend the next two minutes sweating — and likely failing unless you quit prematurely. In other words, it isn’t the sort of game where skill is all that important. Some basic sense for what remains in your pouch, a few careful purchases, and that’s about the best you can do.
This bothers me about as much as the game’s flimsy setting. As in, hardly at all. Sure, it’s wallpaper, but it’s wallpaper that pretties up some excellent pressed luck and manipulated odds. I don’t expect it will always appeal, but for now, I’m happy to keep counting tokens. In other words, the Quacks of Quedlinberg may claim to be about hoaxes, but it’s no hoax of its own.
A complimentary copy was provided.