Whirling B-Word Craft
By some measures, Erik Andersson Sundén’s Whirling Witchcraft is broken right down to its witchy heart. The second time we played — roughly eight minutes after the first time we played — Geoff turned to me and asked, “Is that all? We aren’t doing some tutorial mode?”
Indeed. I can’t even imagine what a tutorial mode to Whirling Witchcraft would look like. Passing cubes without any reason, maybe. But here’s the thing: despite its brevity and its chanciness — because of its chanciness — Whirling Witchcraft has given me a minor epiphany.
Chanciness. That’s the catchword. See also: draw-luck.
Whirling Witchcraft is a game about getting lucky, only not so explicitly. On the surface, it’s about drafting spells in order to make a cauldron explode in the face of your neighbor, thus leaning into the more termagantish definition of “witch.” The idea is simple. Every turn, you pick a single spell from a hand of four options. You then use as many spells as possible, using ingredients to generate more ingredients. Except these latter ingredients are thrown into your cauldron, which is passed to your neighbor. They add the resultant mushrooms, spiders, toads, and sprites into their storage box. The rub is that your storage is severely limited; anything that can’t be stored will “explode.” Spew enough ingredients over your opponent and you win.
A few disorganized thoughts occur. The first is that this is a deliciously breezy take on the “chain game,” in which you’re paying attention to the opponents on your left and right and nobody else — the right, because they’re the player whose cauldron you want to detonate, so it’s useful to glance at which ingredients they’re already stocked with, and the left because they’ll be passing you a bunch of junk, so it’s probably a good idea to know the output of their spells and be careful with the cards you’re passing along. Two tidy morsels of information. Enough to chew on, never so much that you’ll aspirate on them.
The counterpoint is that Whirling Witchcraft is insanely brisk. More than once, we’ve seen a witch cause a game-winning overflow within three or four rounds. To be honest, five rounds is pushing it. As soon as you string together a handful of spells — including the arcana symbols that permit occasional bonuses — the whole thing is over, often with a whimper from the opposite side of the table. And that isn’t the only sense in which it’s compact. If it weren’t for the punchboard cauldrons, the whole thing could be contained in a box a fifth the size. My sister-in-law called it “Whirling Bitchcraft.” Not because it’s particularly nasty. Because it cuts you off like someone who insists on having the last word in a conversation.
More than that, at no point does it offer any real wiggle room. In most cases, success or failure can come down to whether you drew or inherited the right sequence of cards. Although there are plenty of situational spells to choose from, in most cases the standing of your neighbors is plain enough that the optimal pick will be fairly obvious. Somebody’s about to send you a bellyful of spiders? Time to grab a spell that churns arachnids into something your neighbor can’t stomach.
If you’re anything like me, this might not sound very appealing. Don’t the best games let us chew over meaty decisions? Wrestle with hard choices? Strangle the option not taken in its crib?
Perhaps. But Whirling Witchcraft did something unexpected. After a couple of plays, I’d nearly written it off as too insubstantial. Then one of my friends announced that he wanted to play again. Now, this particular friend doesn’t often have requests, so I was happy to oblige. The next night, he asked for it again. It didn’t occur to me until the third request why he was so taken with it. The answer is obvious in hindsight.
It’s because he can win at it. Not more than average. Just the statistically probable amount. Which is more than this particular friend wins at games filled with the aforementioned meaty decisions.
In other words, Whirling Witchcraft’s chanciness was the great leveler. If I were a nerd, I’d compare it to Horatio Hornblower selecting as his instruments for a duel two pistols, one loaded and the other unloaded, because at least then he had an even chance of victory against a celebrated duelist. Since I am most decidedly not a nerd, I’ll instead mention that my appreciation for the game increased after that realization. After all, the moment to moment gameplay is rather sturdy. The spells are crisp, the powers are welcome, and the whole thing is over after only a few nibbles. My only remaining complaint is that the damn arcana effects don’t come with a reference, so you might as well fold back the rulebook to that page.
Am I praising it with faint damnation? You betcha. But it’s earned faint damnation. Many popular games are exercises in chance, a way for friends to spend some time in each other’s company while letting somebody feel like a winner, without the burden of assigning victory to whomever is most game-smart. Whirling Witchcraft takes that prompt and makes it tolerable. Where too many such games are tedious, it’s a delight. Where they drag on, it lets you decide how many rounds to play. Where they’re outdated and asinine, Whirling Witchcraft feels like an honest-to-goodness modern plaything.
More than that, it’s gotten me thinking about the games that offer a chance to our friends who haven’t mastered the peculiar set of skills necessary to rack up a killer win:loss ratio at board games. This is an overlooked virtue. But I’m glad to keep an eye out for it.
A complimentary copy was provided.