Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (expert category winner of the Game of the Year award in Germany). The name is quirky and doesn't sound very serious. If I were browsing games at a game shop, and if it didn't have any award-winner logo, I would likely have passed on it without hesitation. Thankfully I'm not picky when I play with my regular group, otherwise I would have missed out on this fun game.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is arguably a deck-building game, just that it doesn't use cards. It uses chips in a bag. It is also a push-your-luck game, like Blackjack.

Every player has a pot like this. You are dodgy witch doctors trying to make magic potions, and you are not quite sure how everything works. You are literally randomly chucking ingredients in to see whether things work out. Every round, all players work on their own potions at the same time. You try to make the best potion possible. The potion you make may earn you points and may also earn you some money, which can then be spent on new ingredients for your future potions. Your potions will get better and better, as your collection of ingredients improve. At the end of the 9th round, whoever scores the highest wins the game.

That droplet marker is where you start brewing your potion. Brewing a good potion simply means increasing its numerical value. It is possible to move your droplet marker. If you manage to do this, in future rounds you start your brewing from a more advantageous location, and it becomes easier to make a high valued potion. The list at the bottom left tells you the starting ingredients in your bag. Everyone starts with the same combination. Most of the starting ingredients are bad (the white ingredients). You only have one orange and one green ingredient. The flask at the bottom right is not an image drawn on the player board. It is a separate, double-sided game component. The unused side (with liquid) is showing now. Once you use it, it is flipped to the used (empty) side. I'll explain this later.

These are the game components at the centre of the table. The main game board is small. You use it to keep score, to keep track of the round number, and to remind yourselves the actions to be performed at the end of a round. Those books show the special powers of each ingredient type. The game comes with several special powers for each ingredient type, and you can choose to mix and match in any way you like.

The hanging lamps in the upper half represent the 9 rounds in the game. Special icons on the lamps are reminders that special rules apply. E.g. some ingredient types can only be purchased from rounds 2 and 3 onwards. E.g. in the last round money doesn't buy ingredients anymore, and instead is converted to points at $5 per 1VP. The icons on the banners in the lower half are reminders for things you need to do at the end of a round.

Every round you will keep drawing ingredients from this bag, one at a time. You place a drawn ingredient in your pot before you draw the next one.

Let's talk about the core mechanism, starting with the droplet marker. The droplet marker is your starting point. You want to place ingredients progressively further and further along the outward spiral, going as far as possible. Each position in the spiral specifies rewards. The further you go, the better the rewards are. If you are a trailing player, you may get to use the rat marker, placing it somewhere ahead of your droplet marker. The rat marker marks a temporary and better starting point for the current round.

Once the brewing starts, everyone performs actions simultaneously. You generally won't be interfering with one another so you can do this concurrently. Brewing simply means drawing ingredients out of the bag one by one, until you are happy with what you achieve, or you overdo it and the potion explodes. Each time you draw a new ingredient, you look at the number on it, and you place it that number of spaces ahead of the previously placed ingredient. In the photo above, the first ingredient drawn was a white 2, so it was placed 2 spaces ahead of the rat marker. The next ingredient drawn was the orange 1, so it was placed immediately ahead of the white 2. The rest all work the same way. Once you decide to stop brewing, your rewards will be indicated by the space immediately after your last placed ingredient. In the photo above, the rewards are $15 (number in green bubble) which can be spent on buying new ingredients, 3 victory points (number in box), and one ruby. Rubies can be spent to permanently improve your droplet marker position and to reset the flask.

Your potion brewing may come to an abrupt end if an explosion occurs. An explosion happens when the total value of white ingredients in your pot exceeds 7. After an explosion, you may no longer draw ingredients from your bag for the current round. Your reward is still based on that space next to your last placed ingredient (even though it has caused the explosion), but now you have to choose between money or victory points. You can't have both. You still get the ruby if the space gives you one. Having to choose isn't too bad a penalty in the early game, but towards game end, it becomes a big deal and exploding or not can mean the difference between winning and losing.

In the photo above, the white ingredients now total 6. There are white ingredients with values 1, 2 and 3. If the next ingredient drawn is a white 1, that's still fine. You hit 7 but you have not exceeded it yet. The next white ingredient can't be a 2, because there are only two 2's in the bag and both have been drawn now. If the white 3 is drawn, then kaboom!

Every round, everybody does this brewing thing, until either everyone chooses to stop or goes kaboom. You want to go as high as possible, but as you approach 7, you need to start thinking hard whether to stop or to draw one more time.

The most important thing you do after you are done with brewing and before a round ends is to to buy new ingredients. You may buy up to two per round, and if you buy two, they must be in different colours. New ingredients go into your bag. So do all ingredients drawn in the current round. You'll start the next round with a new distribution of ingredients.

The most important aspect of the game is the special powers of the ingredients. They need to be explained to paint a clearer picture of what the game is like. Let's start from the top left. The orange ingredient doesn't do much. That's why it's cheap. It mainly gives you a non-white ingredient, thus diluting the percentage of white ingredients. The blue ingredient lets you draw a certain number of ingredients from the bag, then decide whether to add one of them directly to your pot. Ingredients drawn this way and not added to the pot are returned to the bag. When you draw a red ingredient, if you already have some orange ingredients in the pot, the value of the red ingredient is boosted. The black ingredient lets you improve the position of your droplet marker. It may earn you rubies too. There is a condition though - you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your immediate neighbours, both of them if you want the ruby too. If the last or second last ingredient in your pot is a green one, you gain a ruby. A yellow ingredient lets you return your previous ingredient to the bag, if it is a white one. This temporarily reduces your risk of exploding.

If you look closely at the score track, you will see many rats. Rats are a catch-up mechanism. Some spaces on the score track have a rat tail between them. When you trail far enough behind the leading player, you get to use the rat marker to augment your start position for brewing potion. In this photo above, the red player is only two points behind the leading yellow player, and there are no rat tails between their score markers. So the red player does not gain any benefit. The green and blue players are further behind, and there is one rat tail between them and the yellow player. So for the current round, both of them get to use their rat markers. The rat markers are to be placed in the space immediately in front of the droplet markers, because the rat value is 1.

In this photo you can see a rat marker in front of the droplet marker. That means this player board belongs to a currently trailing player. You will also notice that this particular pot has exploded. The white ingredients add up to 8. Busted! It was that last white 1 which spoiled the potion. The space next to the last ingredient shows $18 and and 5VP. The player only gets to choose one of them now. Let's say he didn't draw that last white 1. In such a case, he would also gain the benefit of that green 1. The green 1 would be the second last ingredient, and thus it would give one ruby.

At the start of every round, one such fortune teller card is drawn. These are event cards which usually affect everyone. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. This particular card doubles the rat values, so this is good for the trailing players and bad for the leading player. Fortune teller cards inject some randomness and excitement.

One notable thing in this photo is the droplet marker, which has now moved 9 steps away from the centre. This is no easy feat. It takes conscious effort to make use of rubies and ingredient powers to push the droplet this far. The second notable point is the rat marker being this far away from the droplet marker - 4 spaces! If I remember correctly, this was due to the effect of a fortune teller card doubling the rat values. The third notable point is that the yellow 4 ingredient is five spaces away from the previous ingredient - the blue 1. This looks wrong at first glance, but it is not a mistake. There was previously a white 1 ingredient between the yellow 4 and the blue 1. It was the power of the yellow 4 which allowed that white 1 to be returned to be bag, thus creating this situation above.

Now let's talk about the flask at the bottom right. It is empty now, i.e. it has been used and flipped to this exhausted side. The flask can be used at any time to return your most recently drawn ingredient to the bag, provided that it is white, and the potion hasn't yet exploded. Once the ability of the flask is used, you need two rubies to reset it. In this photo, the white ingredients total 5 points, so the pot is now in danger of exploding. The most recently drawn ingredient is a white 2, so if the flask were not exhausted, it would be reasonable to consider using it.

The Play

I did a 4-player game, the highest player count, and I think that's the best way to play. The quantities in each ingredient type are limited, so more players mean they run out more easily. There is more competition. Every round there is a comparison to see who has brewed his potion the best relative to his start position (i.e. relative to the droplet marker or rat marker). More players means more competition here too. There will likely be a wider range of victory points during the game, and thus rat tails will come into play more. Adding players doesn't affect play time much, because brewing is done concurrently. That's a plus.

The biggest excitement in The Quacks of Quedlinburg is that of playing Blackjack. In the early stages of brewing, there is no risk of exploding, but you will still be anxious about whether you'll draw a white or a non-white ingredient. That lucky draw feeling keeps you engaged. It's like buying lottery and checking the results. You feel happy when you draw a non-white ingredient, usually. Sometimes you are less happy when you draw a green or a red ingredient too early, because you won't get to utilise its power. In the later stages of brewing, the tension builds because you start risking an explosion when you draw that one more ingredient. It is not hard to memorise the ingredient composition of your bag. You can calculate your probabilities pretty accurately if you want to. However, probabilities are just that - probabilities. A 10% probability of exploding does not mean you should just go ahead and draw again. You just might draw that cursed white 3 ingredient. Yet if you back down from a 90% chance of success, you may regret it. To draw or not to draw - that's the angst you keep getting all the time.

Max was first to focus on black ingredients. Black ingredients help you move your droplet marker, so they are a good early investment. To enjoy the benefit, you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your neighbour. Jeff and I were Max's neighbours. As we watched him reap benefits from the black ingredients, the neighbour envy kicked in and we both went for black too. Wakanda Forever! Allen sat opposite Max, so whether he took any black had no impact on Max. He didn't bother with black. After Jeff and I invested in black, we were able to deny Max because we caught up to him. In fact Jeff later overtook him. At the same time since Allen never bothered with black, Jeff and I enjoyed the black benefits as long as we had at least one black ingredient.

I was first to invest in blue. The blue combo could be terrifyingly effective. Some rounds when I used a blue ingredient, it helped me draw another blue ingredient, so I could trigger the blue power again. When I had many blue ingredients, such a chaining effect helped me reduce risk and also pushed my potion value up. Soon the others started copying my blue strategy, and not long afterwards the general supply ran out of blue 4 ingredients.

In our game the fortune teller cards triggered double rats at least twice, which was great news for the trailing players in those rounds.

These were the ingredients in my bag by game end. I had 6 blue ingredients. In the last round you don't buy any more ingredients. So this means in 6 out of 8 rounds I bought blue ingredients.

This was my potion in the final round. I was very close to maxing out my potion value - only 3 spaces away. At this point my white ingredients already totaled 7 points, so it was risky to continue to draw. I still had 2 blues, 2 greens and 3 whites in the bag, so I had more than half a chance of not exploding if I drew the next ingredient. However, too much was at stake to risk this. In fact, even the previous draw was already risky. Had I drawn a white 3 instead of the white 2, my potion would have exploded. I was already at 5 points then.

The Thoughts

The Quacks of Quedlinburg gives you that it's-my-lucky-day anticipation, and that push-your-luck anxiety. It also gives you that sense of progress and accomplishment of deck-building games. Your choices in ingredient purchase will yield results. There is some luck, and things don't always work out well, but eventually you will see the results of your decisions. Every round you get to buy up to two ingredients. Every round your bag is reset. This is akin to reshuffling your deck every round. It is like a sped up version of a deck-building game. I find the game fun and exciting. I think the KdJ win is well deserved. However I don't see the game as an "expert game" or gamer's game. I think non-gamers and casual gamers can handle it.

Each ingredient has a variety of powers. There are four recommended sets of powers which have been playtested and balanced. Once you are done with these, you can mix and match the ingredient powers as you like. We played the basic set meant for new players. The powers are straight-forward. I expect in the other more advanced sets there will be more interesting powers and more complex interactions among the powers.

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