Full disclosure: A review copy of Whirling Witchcraft was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
I wrote this one in a bit of a hurry, but that’s because I have an ongoing policy of bringing a few games over to loan to my friend when I visit, and I haven’t had a ton of games in the last cycle to loan them, beyond Merv and Geisha’s Road. Don’t want to come over empty-handed; that makes me a crummy houseguest. I’m also bringing donuts, but I’m not sure that they know that, yet? Guess we will see. Anyways, that also lights a nice fire under me to get my games reviewed, so here’s my latest review, AEG’s Whirling Witchcraft! It’s a bit behind the like, October spooky season, but as my housemates continue to yell at me, Halloween is forever, so who’s to say?
In Whirling Witchcraft, players take on the role of witches, quickly making brews and swirling potions around as they wield awesome arcane power. That’s the trouble with magic, though; it can explode on you without much in the way of a warning. To try and prevent that terrible fate, players will whip their cauldrons around to each other, dumping the previous results onto their workbench to become the next potion’s ingredients! Efficient players will be fine, but any careless move might lead to an overflow (and a catastrophe!). Will you be able to quickly work your way to an easy win? Or will you just end up having to double, double, your toil and trouble?
Start off by giving each player a player board:
Give them a cauldron as well! The cauldrons don’t match the player boards, so don’t worry about that.
Each player gets a reference card as well. If it’s players’ first game, give them each an Initiate card:
If not, give them two random personality cards that aren’t Initiates:
They keep one. Each player also gets four recipe cards to start:
Also, create a general supply of the various ingredient cubes:
Everyone takes ingredients according to the back of their personality cards. If they have any Arcana Icons on the front side, players increment their Arcana Tokens on the Arcana Tracker:
You should be ready to start!
A game of Whirling Witchcraft is played over several rounds, as players create magical recipes and use the results to try and overwhelm their competitors. As they do, ingredients make it back to your Witch’s Circle, and once any player has at least five ingredients in theirs, they win!
A round is divided into two phases. Let’s go through them!
Over the Study Phase, players prepare and play recipes so that they can use them for brewing during the subsequent Brewing Phase.
To start, each player will choose a Recipe Card from their hand, even if you don’t think you’ll be able to use it this round. Place the card face-down. Once every player has chosen one, reveal them. Cards without an arrow can be rotated upside-down to reverse the inputs and outputs.
Certain Recipe Cards will have Arcana icons on them! When you play a Recipe Card with an Arcana icon on it, increment your Arcana token on the tracker by one. Each time you hit an even number (2 / 4 / 6, you get a benefit based on the Arcana icon):
- Cauldrons: You may take an ingredient cube of any type from the Supply and add it to your cauldron.
- Ravens: You may remove any two ingredients from your Workbench. They do not have to be the same type.
- Books: Choose an ingredient type. For this round, you may take ingredient cubes of that type from the Supply as if they were on your Workbench.
After this, all players proceed to the Brewing Phase.
Now to make recipes! The Brewing Phase has a number of steps. To start, each player can produce ingredients using their Recipe Cards. They do so by taking cubes from their Workbench and placing them on the inputs of various Recipe Cards. Each card can be used once. When all of a Recipe’s input spots have been filled, it produces output cubes! Those cubes are taken from the Supply and placed immediately into the player’s cauldron. If there’s some dispute about when players produce ingredients, go in numerical order based on the most recent Recipe Card played. Lowest first. Slows the game down, though, so do that sparingly.
After every player has used as many of their Recipes as they want, they all pass their Cauldrons to the player on their right. The player receiving the Cauldron dumps the ingredients directly to their Workbench. If a player cannot fit the ingredients on their Workbench, they give the overflow ingredients to the player who passed them the Cauldron. The player then puts those ingredients on their Witches’ Circle.
Check! Does any player have more than five ingredients in their Witch’s Circle? If so, that player wins! If multiple players have more than five, then the player with the most ingredients in their Witch’s Circle wins. Otherwise, pass the Recipe Cards to the left, draw back up to four Recipe Cards, and play another round!
Player Count Differences
I think the major difference is going to be seen between games with two players and games with more than two players. Functionally, beyond that you don’t notice players that much; it’s like 7 Wonders in that the only players that matter are the player to your left and the player to your right. At two, those players are the same person, so your engine has some weird effectiveness issues, as you’re essentially powering an engine that’s trying to destroy you. This can lead to some tension, as generating fewer resources means your opponent has fewer resources to work with (and can consequently fulfill fewer recipes that will negatively affect you). At higher player counts, I’m usually pretty unconcerned with the goings-on of other players, since they can only affect my play to a certain point (because I can’t directly impact them either, beyond the players to my left and right). There is one issue that pops up at higher player counts, and that’s the distinction between Not Losing and Winning. Here, Not Losing is managing to keep your recipe plays in order and not overflow resources, as mentioned above. That’s a different animal than Winning, or causing your opponent to overflow. And those two things aren’t always necessarily aligned. If you choose recipes that will just reduce your workbench capacity in order to avoid overflowing, other players may sacrifice some points in order to pick recipes that will definitely ruin their opponents more quickly. You need to kind of keep track of that! Otherwise, a player can win out from under you because their engine, while fragile, is more effective in the short-term than your longer-term plans. That trips you up more at higher player counts. While I enjoy both player count sets in Whirling Witchcraft, I do think the game is most dynamic at higher player counts, so I have a slight preference for that.
- Sometimes you have to lose a bit in order to win. If you’re just focused on clearing out your workbench, you’re not efficiently planning your recipes to maximize the pain you’re dealing to the player to your right. Instead, sometimes it’s better to play a recipe that allows you to have a lot of output in exchange for losing a couple cubes; this way, you can dump even more cubes on your opponent and hopefully make up for your deficit. Nobody cares about which player had four or three cubes in their Witch’s Circle if you have five or more in yours.
- Going deep on resources is probably better than going wide. At some level, you don’t really want to go wide on the resources you generate and generate a lot of different types; you want to generate a lot of one or two particular types of resources to overwhelm your opponent with those cubes. If you’re generating two of everything, honestly, that just improves the types of recipes your opponent can take on, which just helps them.
- Your player power is definitely going to nudge you in a particular direction; lean into that. Some of the player powers are themselves recipes! Use them for a big extra boost, if you can, or figure out what they’re giving you and how to use that to get ahead (or come back from behind). This is kind of Generically Useful Advice, but you’d be shocked how many folks don’t use their player powers to their full potential.
- There’s an art to card selection; are you picking what will benefit you, or are you trying to leave your opponent with unhelpful options? If you see that the player to your left is getting overwhelmed by blue, it might be worth getting rid of a card that will allow them to get rid of blue cubes. That’s pretty high-level play, so I tend to only do things like that if it still benefits me to play that card. You don’t really want to take recipe cards you can’t use (save for The Last Arcana, which just gives you 2 in every arcana at the same time).
- You’ll likely have to choose between recipes every so often; you won’t always have enough cubes to power everything. This happens a lot in rounds three and four, in the games I’ve played; players have finally burnt through their starting cubes (because their recipe costs were relatively low) but don’t have enough recipes in play consistently to generate the resources required to power their opponents’ larger recipe engines. When that happens, think both about what cubes you want your opponent to get and what cubes you want to save; you may want to plan for the next round so you can come back even better.
- Use your Arcana bonuses strategically. Being able to dump a few cubes from your Workbench or take an unlimited number of any one cube from the Supply or add whatever cube you want to your cauldron are very useful abilities. Try to see what your opponents are generating or what they don’t need and use that to your advantage when choosing how to use your Arcana bonuses. Keep in mind that your Recipe cards activate them, so try to plan out when you want these bonuses, as well. No sense activating a Book bonus when you already have enough cubes for all your recipes anyways.
- While players have fewer spots for black and white cubes on their workbench, they also tend to generate more powerful recipes. You may not want to give your opponents that kind of power, but it can be a very quick way to advance since, once you’re generating two black cubes per round, you’ll likely be knocking at least one of them into your Witch’s Circle unless your opponent gets some very useful recipes. That said, if they do, you might end up giving them the resources they need to put some serious hurt onto their opponents. There are plenty of recipes that take only one black cube or one white cube and generate several resources. Worth keeping an eye on.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art and use of color in this game is exceptional. I really like the art in this game; it might be one of my favorite art styles I’ve seen in a witch / magic-themed game? It just works, really well, and the color blends are often striking on the cards, player boards, and cauldrons. Looks like it was Weberson Santiago? That makes sense; I thought I recognized it from Rolling Ranch. But the game is truly better for his involvement; the artwork and style elevates the game quite a bit. Solid graphic design work from Luis Francisco, as well.
- For a larger-box game, I was surprised by how quickly it plays. I think the box is mostly large to accommodate the cauldrons, but I was still impressed. A pretty experienced group of players can probably knock this game out in under 30 minutes. I suppose it’s faster if one player in particular is inexperienced, but that seems like a mean thing to gauge a game’s playtime around.
- The cauldrons are a particularly pleasant little assembly. They fit together nicely and look great once they’re assembled! I particularly like the swirling brew as a place to keep ingredients, and how it’s layered such that the cubes don’t fall out of the cauldron when it’s passed. People have been doing some great stuff with cardboard in games, lately, and I really like these in particular.
- I like that players start with varying numbers of ingredients. I think that’s a cool setup effect, especially since it causes different recipes to be more in demand / useful, especially when compared to the player powers. It definitely means I’m not just shooting for the same recipes each time, which I enjoy.
- The player powers are all particularly compelling and make for very different gameplay experiences. I particularly like the card that lets you rotate any recipe, not just rotatable ones, but that’s not necessarily the “best”; it’s all up to how players use them. All things considered, though, I think there’s a very good mix of player abilities. It’s also nice that they include “Basic” abilities for your first game; those are still actually pretty useful abilities even later (since you can end up with a junk hand that you really don’t need, from time to time).
- I just really enjoy the engine-building nature of this and how your output provides another player’s input. It reminds me a bit of a more directly-competitive Factory Funner, since that had a similar element of piping inputs to outputs. I’ve been seeing more games mess with a bit of a complex input-output system, and it’s starting to activate the secret Game Design parts of my brain. I don’t know about that last thing, but I think this game’s going to be very satisfying for folks who want to see the direct outcomes of their decisions. Every cube you give to your opponent is either getting used or potentially setting them up for a loss, and your agency in that decision is super interesting.
- Relatively simple game to teach, which is also a relief. You just play cards and then use them to turn resources into other resources and pass the outputs along. It’s got a very conveyor belt energy to it, which I think makes the explanation simple, but navigating the complexities of that resource conversion is very tricky. I think it’s a very fun difficulty, but it’s definitely a challenge nonetheless.
- There are times where you may want to be watching what outputs another player has or what inputs they need, and that slows the game down a bit / makes it feel a bit clunky. In those situations (you can produce a blue or green resource and you want to wait to see which resource your recipient has the most of), you can follow the ordering on the cards, and that’s what the game says to do. And that’s fine and all, but it does slow down an otherwise quick-and-snappy game, and with the wrong group of players could likely make this a bit of a slog. I haven’t experienced it, but it’s something I worry about from observing the game, so, we’ll call it a Meh.
- You’re definitely going to either complain about or benefit from good card drawing luck, so that’s probably a Meh. I’ve gotten near-Yu-Gi-Oh levels of luck and drawn the perfect card for saving me from a loss quite a few times, much to the frustration of my opponents. It’s great for me, but that’s also what happens when you’re drawing cards from a deck. The Clairvoyant (who has a 5 card hand) ensures that the player after them never gets to draw cards (since they always pass four), so if you want to kind of eliminate that, you can always play as them.
- There’s a point in which you neither play poorly or make a mistake, but you can still lose the game. This is fundamentally a consequence of this game’s method of player interaction. Since you only ever pass your cauldrons to the right, if the player to your right does a good job of managing their resources and gets the right cards, you’ll be hard-pressed to knock them out. This generally means that whoever is sitting to the left of the player who optimizes the worst will probably win. For you, the player, that means you should be likely trying to group players with similar skill / experience levels together when you’re playing this game, as the benefit of experience seems to be nontrivial, especially if you know what kinds of cards to expect.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I think Whirling Witchcraft is fantastic. One of the better games I’ve played this year, I think. For me, a lot of it is the art and the theme, and I think the intersection of those with the mechanics of the game is wonderful. The cauldrons are expertly constructed and fit a bunch of cubes perfectly, and passing them is a little silly thematic experience that works really well, as players fill them up with the outputs of their recipe engines. For as big of a box as it is, the game plays pretty quickly and smoothly when players are all aligned on just bailing themselves out and dumping on their opponents. If you start trying to min-max a bit and watch to see exactly who is doing what with what, then yes, you’re going to slow the game down; I also don’t think that’s the energy the game’s shooting for. Part of the fun is the chaos of recipes and cauldrons and everything spinning around. The game invites you into that chaos with great art and engaging characters, and losing some of that agency is just kind of the rent I think players have to pay to play. Is it worth it? In my opinion, absolutely. At its best, Whirling Witchcraft is an often-breathless spin through gaining resources, spending resources, and hoping that you can overwhelm your opponent with ten green cubes, only to find out that they anticipated you and cleared out their entire workbench with recipes that exclusively use green cubes. You’ve passed that pain on transitively, and the player to their right is starting to sweat. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m a big fan of Whirling Witchcraft. If you’re looking for a great piece of art, a nice casual game for game night, or something to brighten up your permanent Halloween Season (some people are just spooky all year round), I’d definitely recommend checking Whirling Witchcraft out!
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