Full disclosure: A review copy of The Quacks of Quedlinburg was provided by North Star Games.
Well, given that the American Tabletop Awards just gave The Quacks of Quedlinburg their Casual Game of the Year award, it probably would be good if I had some content ready for it. But what do I know? This was a fairly recent game brought over stateside by North Star Games, publisher of games in that nice general “party games to strategy games” area (running the gamut from Dude to Evolution: Climate or Warsaw). It’s a good niche, and I think Quacks fits in quite nicely with that, given what I’ve seen of it. But I don’t want to get into the review up here; let’s talk more about the game further down the post.
In The Quacks of Quedlinburg, you take on the role of famous quacks, or “amateur medical professionals”. You’re brewing potions based on some things you find on the ground and selling them at market to cure maladies or to cause seemingly unrelated ones. Who can say? Naturally, you’ve added a few more explosive ingredients to the pot to give it a bit of texture (and everyone loves a bubbling pot; it’s one of the Facts of Quedlinburg). The problem is, too many, and you’ll have a problem, but your ingredient bag is too jumbled for you to know what you’ve grabbed without throwing it in. It’s irresponsible, but, you don’t have a medical degree so, you’re pretty used to winging it. Will you be able to make a name for yourself as something they call a “doctor”? Or will your enterprise just end up blowing up in your face?
Setup is a tiny bit involved. Give every player a pot:
Set the board out in the center:
In the empty spot in the center-bottom-left, add Seals for each player:
And give each player tokens matching the color of their pot:
The droplet token goes in the center of their pot, the rat token goes in the bowl, and the blank token goes on the scoreboard on the 0 you just placed. The other droplet token is only used in a variant; you can set it aside otherwise. The flame token goes on the scoreboard above Round 1. Now, give each player a flask in their color:
Shuffle the Fortune Teller Cards:
And set the die aside, for now:
Now the tricky bit. You’re going to want to set up the Ingredients:
The bowls are made by Nettersplays; they don’t come with the game. Each Ingredient has a corresponding book that explains what it does. The Orange Book is always the same:
The Black Book has a 2-player side and a 3-player side:
The other books are part of a set (1 / 2 / 3 / 4), based on how many bookmarks they have. Choose a set and make sure all the books are from that set; if you don’t, the game could potentially be wildly unbalanced:
I usually cover the Yellow and Purple Ingredient Books to start, since they’re not available just yet. Help each player set up their initial bag by giving them the following Ingredients:
- 1 White 3
- 2 White 2s
- 4 White 1s
- 1 Green 1
- 1 Orange 1
Players should put those ingredients in their bags. Last thing, set the rubies aside:
You should be good to start!
A game of The Quacks of Quedlinburg is played over 9 rounds. In each round, you attempt to brew a potion to sell at the market to earn fame (by way of victory points) and money, to buy new ingredients. As you do, a Fortune Teller may change or reveal some of your fate, if you’re lucky. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins!
The round is played over multiple phases; I’ll explain each in turn.
A round starts by moving the flame to the next round (you skip this step for the first round). Certain rounds cause certain events to occur:
- Round 2: Yellow Ingredients may now be purchased.
- Round 3: Purple Ingredients may now be purchased.
- Round 6: Every player adds a White 1 to their bag.
- Round 9: At the end of this round, instead of a Market Phase, players may gain their money and buy 1 VP for 5 money as many times as they want. They may also trade 2 Rubies for 1 VP.
Now, reveal the Fortune Teller Card. That’s a round modifier that’s only in effect for this round, and a very helpful way to see how many rounds you’ve played. I’ve gotten this wrong many times. I once played an 11-round game. Whoops!
After that, give each player their Rat Bonus, if eligible. Check where you are relative to the player in the lead. If you are not in the lead, count the number of rat tails between you and the player in the lead on the scoreboard. Place your Rat token that many spaces ahead of your Droplet token.
Now, players pull ingredients. There aren’t turns, so you may wish to do this simultaneously. You may also want to hang back and watch how other people play, but if you try that in a four-player game you’ll be here for two hours. In Round 9, you must do this simultaneously.
How this works, is you pull a piece from the bag and place it X spaces away from the last piece you played (or the Rat / Droplet token, if you’ve played no pieces). X is the number on the piece. So a 1 is played adjacent, and a 2 would skip a space. The non-white pieces generally have effects; check the books for more information.
After drawing a piece, you may choose to stop drawing additional pieces and wait out the rest of the round. That said, if you ever have more than a total of 7 across your white pieces, you bust! You stop drawing and your round ends. If you just drew a white chip without busting, you may flip your flask over to return it to the bag and draw again. You cannot do this if you busted, though.
Roll the Bonus Die
The player who made it farthest along the track on their pot without busting gets to roll the Bonus Die and get those rewards. If multiple players are at the same point, they all get to roll the Die.
Black / Green / Purple Ingredients Activate
Black, green, and purple ingredients often have abilities that take place at the end of a round, rather than during it. These happen at this point.
If the space after your last played ingredient has a ruby pictured on it, you may gain a ruby.
This is critical. If you busted, you may do this phase or the Market Phase, but not both. Look at the space after your last ingredient; there’s a number in the box. Gain that many points.
Still critical. If you busted, you may do the Gain Points phase or this Phase, but not both. Look at the space after your last ingredient; there’s a green number. Gain that much money.
You may use your money to buy 1 or 2 ingredients and add them to your bag. You may not buy the same ingredient more than once.
Now, you may perform either one (or both) of the following actions as many times as you want, provided you have enough rubies:
- Move your Droplet token forward. Spend 2 Rubies to move your Droplet token forward 1 space on the track.
- Refill your Flask. Spend 2 Rubies to flip your flask back to its filled side.
End of Game
After 9 rounds, the game ends. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Yeah, if you’re playing with more than two players, force all players to play simultaneously; it’ll make your lives a lot easier. At higher player counts, allowing people to stall will force the game to drag, being real, and that’s not what you want. I think Quacks plays best as a casual game, not a hard-thought high-strategy game of complexity and decisions. The one piece that really complicates that notion is the Black Ingredient. That one will slow the game down pretty significantly, on the regular, as it incentivizes players watching each others’ pots to see if they have more or less Black Ingredients than other players do. I usually tell people if they’re not playing at two players, then, though; you’re still playing simultaneously. It makes life a lot easier. But yeah, no real player count preference unless you’re not playing simultaneously; then I have a strong preference for lower player counts to keep the game on the shorter and casual side of things.
- It may feel like a deckbuilder, but you’re going to need some new strategies. There really isn’t any culling or thinning in the traditional sense. Instead, you’re trying to avoid grabbing “bad” ingredients (the white ingredients) so that you can score points and money. Think about the best way to avoid those ingredients, given that they don’t feel any different than other ingredients and you can’t look into your bag. Generally speaking, there’s one good suggestion to solve this problem:
- Dilute! You should be buying a lot of ingredients, since it will make it less likely that you’ll draw the bad ones. There’s some issues with this as a core mindset, but mostly just that you’ll end up having trouble getting a strategy together if you buy too random of a mix of ingredients (since they may not combo together well). That said, this is still better than busting.
- You should generally be buying two ingredients, when you can. Ideally, at least one of these would be a 4, but try to do what you can. Early in the game it’s fine to get two 1s, since they’ll be helpful for you, but late in the game you really want to get more 4s if you want to make it anywhere.
- Take stock of which ingredients will help you, not just which ones are “best”. A lot of players will spend a lot of money on Yellow 1s and Purple 1s without considering what they need; in some books, Yellow 4s aren’t any stronger than Yellow 1s, so you might as well spend your money on cheaper 4s where you get more yield for your money, in my opinion.
- I don’t usually buy a lot of Green Ingredients. They rely on being the last thing you draw and I have pretty regular bad luck with drawing them first or second. I don’t want to end my round that early, so, I generally just don’t bother with them too much.
- Buying more than three Black Ingredients will start to yield diminishing returns. I mean, strictly, they’re quite expensive (10) and they only are useful if you get strictly more than an opponent, so if you escalate a bidding war then you’re both going to miss out on buying more valuable stuff; there are plenty of 2s that are 10 – 12, and they move you up twice as far as a 1 (as you’d guess, since, math).
- Busting early isn’t the worst thing. You’ll lose a couple points and get a few rat tails, which might help you buy even better things in the subsequent rounds that you can capitalize on for the rest of the game. Just make sure you’re not stuck in last when players are getting 7+ points on a turn; it may make it hard to recover from that.
- Busting late in the game is the worst thing. Yeah, you losing 15 points in a turn is not great. Hopefully your bag is diluted enough that that won’t happen with any frequency.
- Don’t go the whole game without using your flask. Lots of players mistakenly sit on it hoping they can use it at the Perfect Opportunity. You might as well use it once you’re worried; get worried enough and you can just refill it again on a subsequent turn.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Bag-building is something I personally enjoy. I think it’s an interesting mechanic, generally, and it requires a lot less shuffling than a deckbuilder, which for someone who has spent hours over the course of their life shuffling Dominion and Legendary and Dale of Merchants and what have you cards, this is a pretty strict win for me. I do not miss shuffling.
- Definitely a colorful game. It looks great on the table! I really appreciate games with a lot of color. I mean, I’m always down for table presence, but they’re easier to photograph, too.
- Press-your-luck elements also always entertain me. There’s a distinct tension in this game where you need to keep pushing, to risk busting, just to outpace another player, and it’s great. I’m a huge fan of it. At least, I am when it’s another player busting.
- The catch-up mechanic does a great job of keeping players competitive, even if they’re not doing that well. Having 10 Rat Tails usually means you’re pretty far behind, but if enough players have bad turns, that 10 Rat Tail turn usually means that you can catch up without much trouble. It’s possible to catapult right back into the game if enough players have one really bad round. And it’s pretty awesome to watch when it happens.
- 4 different books to play with gives a lot of potential plays right out of the gate. The expansion adds even more, which I appreciate, but I definitely like that there’s some highly variable play in the base game. Lots to do and lots to try, and even a given set of books has many different strategies that one could utilize to be successful.
- Not terribly hard to teach. I mean, you pull ingredients out of the bag and place them on your board. Too many of the bad ones busts you. Not a ton more complicated than that. Learning it is a bit tougher, since you need to learn the books as well.
- It would be nice if the cover were a bit more diverse. Alas.
- If players want to drag the game out, they definitely can. If you don’t play simultaneously, I could see some players refusing to draw until they see an adjacent player’s total stock of black chips. I wouldn’t let them refuse, but, I imagine some places playing this as more of a turn-based game than a simultaneous one, which is a bummer.
- The Fortune Teller round modifier cards can feel a bit swingy, sometimes. We had one game where a player bought a ton of pumpkins and got overwhelmingly rewarded for it, which, respect, that was a good move. But the cards can sometimes help one player to the exclusion of all others, and that never feels particularly great in a game.
- If you’re looking for a lot of player interaction, you likely won’t find it in this game. There’s some, but most of it is seeing if other players are beating you on your quest to get as many Black Ingredients as possible. Beyond that, you kind of just have your own board; nobody can add bad stuff to your bag or force you into a bust, which is really nice.
Overall: 9.25 / 10
Overall, yeah, I think The Quacks of Quedlinburg is excellent, I said, generally in line with popular opinion on the subject. Sometimes I get to stuff a bit late; whatever. At its core, it’s a fantastic press-your-luck game, that I think is easy to teach, looks great on the table, and has enough variability in the box that I kind of want to see if I can get it on my 30×10 this year (I won’t, but, I’d like to). I think, for me, it’s a game that’s well on its way to becoming a classic, and I’m always excited to try it every time I play it. This does put it in good company; some of my favorite games are in the 9 / 10 – 10 / 10 bucket, and at some point I’m just going to host a game day where I only play games that are 9+ and see how that goes. I’m excited to put The Quacks of Quedlinburg on that list, personally, and I can’t wait to check out The Herb Witches expansion and see what’s going on with that! If you’re a fan of bag-building or press-your-luck games, I’d definitely recommend The Quacks of Quedlinburg! I’ve had a blast with it.