A great potion brewing game that feels like a day at a Renaissance Festival but with less cosplay and more explosions.
Players: 2 – 4 Best with: 4
Age: 10+ GN Age: Pre-Teen
Game Type: Board Game Time: 45 minutes
Publisher/Year: North Star Games / 2018
Game Play: Deck Building, Press Your Luck
Score: out of 12
QUACK – (1) A fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical (or scientific) skill; a charlatan.
(2) The sound a duck makes.
Quacks of Quedlinburg has been on my wish list for a while now. I was making fun of its title on my Instagram account (because it is ridiculous), when the creators of the game, North Star Games, informed me that they just call it Quacks. So, if that’s good enough for them, then we’ll do it too.
The premise of Quacks is that all the best potion makers in the world/realm/neighborhood have gathered at this nine-day festival dedicated to making potions. (Now that’s a real niche market.) Each day, you use the ingredients that you have in your bag to brew up some concoction. The better your potion is the more points and gold you earn. You can then use that gold to buy more ingredients to make even better and more complex potions and thus earn more points and more gold. Capitalism at its finest.
But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. One of your ingredients is very volatile. If you put too much into your brew then the whole thing blows up! And no one wants to drink anything with burnt mandrake in it. Why you would even keep this explosive stuff in your bag? Don’t ask questions!
Here’s how it works. You start the game with 9 chits, representing ingredients, in your bag. As you draw chits, you place them starting in the center of your cauldron and spiral out from there. The value of the chit determines the number of spaces you move along the spiral, adding the “ingredient” to your potion. You can continue to place chits as long as you dare, however, if the total value of the white (dangerous) chits exceeds 7 then the potion explodes and your round is over. Fortunately there is a magic bottle that allows you to return a single bad ingredient back to the bag. How does that work? I told you to stop asking questions!
If your potion did not explode, then you get to score points and receive gold based upon how far along the spiral you got. If your potion did explode, then you can only choose one, points or gold. There are extra rewards as well, rubies, extra ingredients, bonus points, etc. so you really need to be aware of your board. Plus, some ingredients have special rules and rewards as well. There’s a lot going on inside these cauldrons.
As if that weren’t enough, if you get tired of playing with the same ingredient “rules”, there are 4 separate “Recipe” books that dramatically change your strategy while playing the game. It’s a lot to absorb, but the game is never stagnant.
With so many variables and factors and rules and gypsy cards going on, I was certain that our young players were not going to enjoy the game. But all the kids (pre-teen and teen) loved it. In fact, they loved it more than the adults. They loved the press your luck element, trying to see how far they could go before they exploded. They even loved the market phase, where you spend your gold to buy new, better and more potent ingredients. Quacks actually pulled off a very rare achievement; it got my kids to agree on something.
So, here’s the bottom line (half-way through the review). When the kids love a game and the adults think it’s at least okay, then that game is perfect Family Game Night material. And Quacks is more than okay; it is a fun, unique and interesting game. But it is not a perfect game which kept it from getting our top score.
Our first issue is with the potion brewing phase. To move gameplay along, everybody draws from their bag and creates their potion at the same time. But because you are so focused on your own cauldron, you don’t get to enjoy the social aspect of watching the others succeed (or fail) with their potions. Part of the joy of playing board games is interacting with the group, but sadly, this private building phase removes all that.
In a more cynical vein, because everyone’s attention is on their own board, it is ridiculously easy to cheat at this game. Secretly, I always judge a game on its cheat factor but I generally don’t discuss it because I like to think that we are all honorable people here. But, whoo boy, it’s a charlatan’s smorgasbord inside those bags. Palming, double draws, dropped items, ignored rules, peeking, switching; it’s a flim-flam fiesta.
Now there is one thing that will improve the social game and eliminate cheating. Make every draw occur simultaneously. Unfortunately, this will make the game grind to a sloooow craaaawwwl. So, just like a medieval fair filled with potions, you gotta pick your poison; an interminably long game or a room full of no-good, lyin’, thievin’, swindlin’ hucksters. Basically, a bunch of Quacks. On second thought, maybe this was intentional.
Our second issue is a little more serious. In every game we’ve played, one person becomes the instant leader who cannot be caught. And at least one person has such bad luck that it just isn’t fun to keep playing with zero chance of winning. Quacks clearly favors the leader.
Quacks attempts to address this by giving the losing players a bonus to their potion’s starting point. This is represented by a rat that swims around in your potion. And just how does aquatic vermin improve your potions? I’m not gonna tell you again, stop asking questions!
But despite its flaws, Quacks of Quedlinburg is a great game. It won the 2018 Jahres des Spiel for strategy games and is one of a very few in that category that is great for players of all ages 10 and up. Plus, the changing ingredient conditions will keep the potions fresh and its shelf life high for years to come.
As always, a watched cauldron never boils (but it might explode), and Game On!
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble…” – The Weird Sisters