The Quacks of Quedlinburg

by Christopher Jarvis

The Quacks of Quedlinburg
March 1, 2020 Christopher Jarvis

Imagine yourself as an alchemist in the Middle Ages, struggling to be the very best in a market town full of alchemists. The only way you can rise to the top is by selling the best potion over a series of days. How do you make the best potion? Throw random ingredients into a cauldron and either make the best brew or blow up in the process.

Does that make any sense to you? No? Join the club. However, Quacks of Quedlinburg is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable games to be released in recent times. It won the coveted Kennerspiel des Jahres award in 2018 and has been steadily finding a huge audience over the last year.

Quacks of Quedlinburg is a game in which players have a basic set of ingredient tokens in a bag, which are drawn and added to a cauldron to make a concoction. The number on the token indicates how far along the progress track to place the ingredient and at the end of the process, players go to market to gain victory points and also money to spend on new ingredients. These new ingredients go into the bag, the cauldron is emptied into the bag for the next day and the process begins over.

The challenge is that this is a push-your-luck game. Your bag starts with mostly white tokens. When the combined value of these white tokens exceeds seven, your potion explodes and you take a penalty for that round — but if you stop drawing early, you get all the benefits of the next scoring space. Much of the game is about carefully buying new ingredients to gradually alter your odds each day. The more you add, the less likely it is that you will draw the dreaded white chips. Do you press on, aware of the new and wonderful ingredients you have bought for your bag? Or is that the ‘three’ white chip you can feel, waiting to ruin your round?

However, it’s the ingredients and their combinations which make Quacks of Quedlinburg a joy to play. Apart from the basic white tokens, every ingredient has a powerful effect, either on its own or in conjunction with another ingredient. For example, Pumpkins and Mushrooms combine to give bonus potion progress, Bird Skulls allow a greater choice of which token to add next, Garden Spiders provide end-of-round bonuses if they are among the final two ingredients, and so on.

What allows for great variety is that five of the seven ingredients come with four possible recipes (there is also an expansion available, which adds two new recipes per ingredient, new mechanisms, and a fifth player board). The individual tokens can adopt different rules, and when combined in conjunction with other recipes vastly different game experiences can be created.

It’s well known among gamers that randomness is a key ingredient in designing a good game. Too much and the player feels robbed of agency and the result feels arbitrary. Too little and the game can become stale as strategies are perfected. Quacks of Quedlinburg has been designed to accept and master randomness. It’s true that you can’t predict what you’ll pull from your bag, but it’s your choice which ingredients to buy and only you can decide when to stop adding ingredients. Most games I’ve played feature multiple occasions of a greedy or desperate player saying “just one more” before pulling the chip which destroys their round.

Quacks of Quedlinburg also has a few brilliant ideas to prevent bad luck from becoming bad momentum. At the beginning of each round, players who are lagging behind gain a one-off bonus to their starting position, ensuring that no leader can become a runaway and that everybody gets the chance for a great round that keeps them in contention. It’s one of the best catch-up mechanisms I’ve seen in a game, not least because an experienced player can work it into their strategy.

Quacks of Quedlinburg is addictive, quick and — despite the high level of randomness — generally leaves players feeling that they are responsible for their own choices, rather than cheated by fortune. On top of that, it’s a beautiful product. The recipe books, tokens and boards are exquisitely designed and a pleasure to look at.

If there’s a fly in the randomly-crafted ointment, it’s the box the game comes in. There are a great number of small cardboard tokens and in nearly every copy I’ve seen (my own included) players have improvised their own plastic tubs to organise and keep the pieces separate. While it’s common for hobby board games to not provide custom storage, the organisation of the chips is such a fundamental element of Quacks of Quedlinburg that it feels notable by its absence. On top of that, the player boards are prone to bending, due to a cardboard box liner which does little to properly support the components. It’s not enough to stop Quacks of Quedlinburg being a fantastic game, but it is a warning that you might need to put in a little extra homework to make it a smooth experience on game nights.

It’s worth that effort, though. Quacks of Quedlinburg is a wonderful experience. Simple enough to be extremely easy to teach and learn but with enough choice and variety to keep everybody enthralled for game after game. It’s also not overlong: most of the potion-crafting phase is played by all players simultaneously, so even at higher player counts, Quacks of Quedlinburg won’t overstay its welcome. This game is highly recommended and a personal favourite.