The Quacks of Quedlinburg + The Alchemists Review
I’ve got to start this review with a bit of a bombshell. The Quacks of Quedlinburg (which I’ll shorten to Quacks for the rest of the review) has NOTHING to do with ducks. Not so much as a feather. The quacks in question are the ‘doctors’ of the time, and the quote marks around ‘doctor’ are very deliberate. Rather than carefully dispensing antibiotics, you’re going to be throwing roots, fungi and berries into your cauldron and hoping for the best.
Quacks, from designer Wolfgang Warsch, is a mixture of two well-matched game mechanisms: bag-building and push-your-luck. You’re trying to pull as many ingredients from your bag in each round, and place them on your cauldron board without making the value of any white tokens exceed 7. At the end of the round, you’re rewarded with victory points and money to spend, based on how much stuff you managed to throw into your potion. Go over 7 though, and boom! The cauldron explodes, and you’re forced to choose either VPs or money, not both.
Playing the odds
Quacks is a game of chance. You start the game with a number of tokens – including the dreaded white ones – in your slinky bag, and as you pull more of them out, there’s a quick bit of mental arithmetic and odds calculation. For example – you might already have white ingredients in your cauldron with a total value of 5. You know you’ve got another in your bag that’s worth 2, and one that’s worth 3. Remember, 8 or more = kaboom! You remember you’ve also got another four safe colour tokens in there. So now you know there’s a 1-in-3 chance of grabbing a white one, and a 1-in-6 chance that you’ll end up with potion on your face. So, the question is, do you feel lucky, punk? Do ya?
That example might not make for the most stimulating reading, granted, but it’s the kind of internal dilemmas you’ll be facing every single round.
That’s where the whole game of Quacks lives, in those risky decisions, and it’s what makes it so much fun. Hearing the laments of your opponents as they pull white after white from their bag, while your rooty brew hasn’t had even one so far. The gasp of relief when someone goes for one more token that they know damn well they shouldn’t go for, and survives. It’s a real social experience, and one that’s a lot of fun. It’s one of those games that works just as well with your family as it does with a group of friends.
The best game I can think to compare Quacks to, is Blackjack, or Pontoon depending on where you grew up. The game where you’re trying to draw cards to get close to – but not over – 21. Obviously there’s a lot more going on in Quacks, but the feeling is remarkably similar. Quacks is wonderfully balanced, and there’s a great catch-up mechanism which relies on rats’ tails on the VP track to give temporary boosts to the losing players
Keeping things fresh
When you earn money at the end of a round, you spend it on new ingredients for your bag. The mathematicians among you will already have figured out that the more tokens you add, the lower the probability of pulling out a white one each time. The more you spend, then generally the more a token is worth, and the further it moves you around your cauldron’s spiral, increasing the rewards. Each colour of token has an opportunity of bonus scoring too, based on the ingredient books you’ve chosen for the game. Those ingredient books are great, they really change the game up and stop it getting stale too quickly.
Each round introduces a new fortune teller card too, which might change the rules just enough to make you re-think your strategy this time around. I say ‘strategy’, but most of the time strategy goes right out the window. Pure gut feeling tells you that this next token in your hand, this is the one, this is the one that gets you victory, this is the one that gives you loads of money, and – crap! It’s another white one.
There’s plenty to keep the game fresh. There are four sets of ingredient books which define the bonuses for each colour, and they’re double-sided and can be mixed and matched. The player boards too, can be flipped to reveal an advanced side, which adds in some more constraints. If, after that, you still want to add more to the game, there are a couple of expansions you can buy. First came The Herb Witches, but today I’m going to take a look at the latest one – The Alchemists.
Expansion – The Alchemists
In The Alchemists you’re tasked with trying to cure patients with some very unusual complaints. Everything from forgetfulness to having an actual carrot for a nose. The Alchemists adds an extra add-on player board for each person (including the 5th player if you have the Herb Witches expansion). The new boards have a flask, a series of vials, and a new tracking token. There’s also a new ingredient to add to your concoctions – locoweed.
The idea of the expansion is to reward having a good mix of ingredients in your bag and cauldron. In the base game you might choose to just concentrate on one colour, to try to maximise the bonuses from it. In The Alchemists however, after the end of the preparation phase, when everyone has finished mixing their brews, you move your new marker up the new track based on the number of different colours in your potion. You also get rewarded if your neighbours push their luck too far and explode their potions. It means pushing your luck too far is even riskier now, as you could end up directly benefitting your rivals
Final Thoughts – Quacks of Quedlinburg
I love push-your-luck games. Can’t Stop is my most-played game on boardgamearena. Quacks appeals to that part of our brains that gets stimulated by gambling. If you know the odds say you’re going to pull out another white token which blows your potion to smithereens, but you do it anyway and get away with it.. that’s a feeling that’s as amazing for you as it is infuriating for the other players. The mixture of luck and strategy is really enjoyable to me. I know which ingredients are in my bag, I know how well I can score if I pull them out, and I know the probability of pulling them out. That doesn’t mean I will however, and it’s that random chance which makes the game so much fun.
The Quacks of Quedlinburg is really simple to teach. Anyone can pick up the basics inside the first round they play. That’s great, because it means it’s a big-box game that I can pull off the shelf and know my son will be able to play with me, and more importantly, he wants to play it with me. For a game where your focus is so insular, it’s surprising how vocal and social the game becomes. You don’t care what’s happening in the other players’ cauldrons, as there’s no way for them to block you or influence your turn, but mark my words, you’ll be keeping an eye on what’s going on.
The shouts of disbelief when someone survives a risky extra pull, and the cursing of your chosen deity when you pull out white, after white, after white. It’s such a fun experience, and it’s one of those special games that lives on after the game. You’ll be talking to your friends about games long after you played them. “Hey, remember that time when you blew up your pot in the last round, even though you had a bag full of amazing tokens? Or what about the time I managed to get away with that one last ingredient which won the game?”. It’s moments like that which make board games special, and Quacks is packed with them.
If pure strategy is your thing and you hate luck, this might not be for you, but for the rest of us The Quacks of Quedlinburg is a brilliant game, and one I think belongs in everyone’s collection.
Final Thoughts – The Alchemists
I’m a bit of an oddity, as I’ve gone straight to The Alchemists without having played the Herb Witches expansion. But taken on its own merits, The Alchemists is an excellent addition to the base game. My usual turn-off with expansions is when they add a whole new layer of complexity on top of a game I’ve already taught. The Alchemists doesn’t do this, you don’t have to change the way you play the game at all. All of the additions happen after the normal preparation phase of the game, which is unchanged.
I really like what it does, and the way it does it. You could safely add The Alchemists after just a couple of plays without frightening anyone off, and if anyone doesn’t feel confident in engaging with the expansion, they can just play along while pretty much ignoring the new board, and still get rewards from it. Plus, the table looks gorgeous with the extra glassware and colour. It’s cheap, and it adds a lot to the longevity of the game without complicating it. It’s a very easy recommendation from me, if you enjoy the base game of Quacks.
A review copy of The Alchemists was kindly provided by Coiledspring Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018)
Designer: Wolfgang Warsch
Publisher: Schmidt Spiele
Art: Dennis Lohausen, Wolfgang Warsch
Playing time: 45 mins
The Alchemists – (2020)
Designer: Wolfgang Warsch
Publisher: Schmidt Spiele
Art: Oliver Schlemmer
Playing time: 45 mins