|Name||The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018)|
|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [1.94]|
|BGG Rank||64 [7.83]|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
I have a number of things that aggravate me about Quacks of Quedlinburg but none are quite so intense as my hatred for whoever named it. I have never once written it down correctly the first, second or even third time. It’s given my spell-checker a stress headache. Whenever I talk about it I have to look at the smeared out writing on my palm, at which point it becomes ‘Quorks of Cuisinart?’. This is a game that has built its search engine discoverability around what it found in the recovered escape plans of Osama Bin Laden. Even now, writing this review with the box right in front of me I’m still not sure I’ve spelled it correctly.
Still, aside from the name there’s a nice pitch in here. For those of you that may struggle with imposter syndrome, this is a game that will give you something of an outlet. Here, it’s not a syndrome at all – you genuinely are an imposter. You’re a traveling peddler of snake oil and other reptile based unguents, plying a trade where healing potions use chunkiness as a first order selling point. How else could you explain a game mechanism that lets you use rat tails as a bulking agent? I mean, that’s how I get the appropriate blend of textures in my home-made soup but I had assumed that was my own innovation.
Mostly what you spend your time doing in Clacks of Quindington is worrying. It’s a game built almost entirely around the idea of catastrophising. And yet you really only make two significant decisions during any round of the game. At the end of every phase of potion brewing, you get to buy fresh new ingredients for your future hideous concoctions and add them to the cloth bag that acts as your storage pantry. That’s decision one. Decision two is a less sophisticated instrument. You get to say ‘stop’ when adding ingredients to the boiling pot of your kitchen cooker.
Everything else is set dressing.
Ingredients you draw from your bag have a colour, which may have a special effect either when placed or at the end of the brewing phase. Each also has a number, which is how many spaces along you place it from the last ingredient. The further along the potion track you get, the more points you’ll be awarded and the more money you’ll get for buying new ingredients.
The problem is that your ingredient bag contains some special tokens that add bulk to the body of your potion, but also instability. If you draw a sufficient number of these that their numbers exceed seven your potion will explode. It presumably ;eaves you comically drenched in a children’s TV style gunge as you stare dejectedly at the camera, wondering how you have found yourself in such low station at your decrepit stage of life. It’s like an episode of Breaking Bad if it had been written by Timmy Mallett. It should have been called Wacadays of Chesingtons instead of Quirks of Quasimodo.
There’s some other stuff relating to droplets (how much of a start your potions get each round), rubies and fortune cards but those don’t really matter. Quicks is heart and soul a game about ‘saying when’. Imagine if rather than adding sugar to your coffee, someone was repeatedly ladling a spoonful of magnesium into your cup. ‘When’, you’d scream. ‘For the love of God, when!’
And yet, for something so simple it is an intimidating game to set up. So many different ingredients, so many different modular effects for each. The cauldron looks positively alarming, like a spreadsheet someone distorted through a spiral filter on Tiktok. Much like the façade of competence you are projecting into the game, it’s all a trick of perception. At its core the game is exactly as simple as I have described. And yeah, it’s fun. But also, it’s not a lot of fun.
Much like the game itself, the problem that lurks in the heart of Cranks of Quinningtons is in the balance of its ingredients. It’s got everything it needs to offer the game equivalent of a sugar rush, but I just found the blend of flavours was off. Instead of a hit of sweetness, it has the thick earthy and unexpected taste of mushrooms. The last thing you want really when you down a can of Pepsi is the taste of chantarelles in the back of your throat. It’s not that it’s an unpleasant taste – it’s just not what you wanted.
Here’s the issue – it’s fun to say ‘when’ and it’s fun to stock a bag full of ingredients that will come out in random order. But in the act of doing one (filling your bag) you lose the tension in the other (drawing too many of the wrong tokens). The really good tokens cost you a lot of money, and you’re restricted to buying two per market phase. But a decent potion will certainly bring enough profit for you pick up two ‘okay’ tokens and it’s always worth doing that because of how they simmer down the stress of the draw. Let’s move on to the most exciting part of any review – basic arithmetic that I will somehow still manage to get wrong.
The starting composition of your bag is one green token (of value one), one orange token (also of value one), and seven white ‘danger’ tokens – four ones, two twos and one three. That means assuming a genuinely random draw from the bag here’s your balance of danger:
And we can break that down farther:
The first round in Quotas of Bennidorm is reasonably tense. The risk is very much skewed towards the white tokens, and even if you’re lucky and draw your good tokens out first you know all that’s left is a horror story. You are fretting about the ordering of your problems, rather than the chances of them.
However, after you buy two new ingredients at the end of the round, things shift.
And then two more ingredients…
To be fair, you do add a new ‘bad’ token into the bag as the game goes on but it doesn’t at all counteract the gradual ‘purifying’ of your bag of tokens. The risk of an explosion is that you get to choose points or money rather than both… but explosions really aren’t very hard to avoid because bag composition is easily analysed. And by that I don’t mean ‘You know the chances of pulling out your four value blue ingredient’, but rather ‘You know how much badness is left in the bag’. If you’ve drawn out six points worth of white tokens and you still have a white two and a white three left, then you are risking yourself with each additional pull from the bag. On the other hand, if you drew out the three then you know the worst that can happen is that you get a two.
Gambling requires a certain thing to be true before it is truly risky and addictive – an unknowable window of uncertainty. It needs that window to be wide enough that my own ruin can be prophesized in the stats, but not so wide that it doesn’t encompass my own enrichment. What Quonks does though is encourage you to engage in a kind of card-counting version of risk management. Sure, it doesn’t stop you going wrong but it does mean that whether an explosion happens is entirely up to you.
In other words, this is a game of blackjack where you know the dealer is only going to give you cards within a manageable range of values. ‘Okay, you’re at eighteen and I’m going to deal you no card higher than a three. Hit or stick?’. If the white three token is in my cauldron, I know I can’t go bust out on the next flip of the deck.
But it’s even worse than that, because that seven isn’t a hard limit. It’s modified by fortune cards and certain ingredients. Sometimes the limit will be eight, sometimes it will be nine. And the higher the limit is, the less you need to worry about explosions. Not just statistically, but also strategically. I think it’s a bad sign in a push your luck game where you can essentially call your shots and know it won’t go wrong. I can say things like ‘Draw out three tokens’ and know it is mathematically impossible for the result to be an explosion. In a casino, the odds are always in the house’s favour. Here, that’s not often true.
But it’s even worse than that because every player has a ‘get out of a bad draw free’ potion that they can use. If they just pulled out a white token, they can drink it and put that token back in the bag. Sure, each usage will cost you two rubies to replenish it, but if you just drew a white three you can make that a problem for Future You, and screw that guy/gal. I mean what’s he/she ever done for you? Nothing, because you’re the hard worker in your relationship and they’re a layabout goldbrick.
But of course, that’s all ignoring the key part there of pushing your luck. The appropriate frame of analysis shouldn’t be about the arithmetic of stopping, it should be about the promise of continuation. You should be incentivised to do that because the potential for high rewards outweighs the risk. And the farther you progress along the potion track the better – you get more money, or more points, and occasionally you get rubies that can be exchanged for droplet efficacy or another swig at your ‘easy mode’ potion. But you don’t get so much more that it’s really all that worth the risk. In order to go from getting four points to getting five you need to move on four spaces, which depending on the composition of your bag (which you will know) that can be anything from four tokens to one token. Similarly with money – tokens are expensive to buy and it’s entirely possible that improving your position in the potion won’t even give you access to the ingredients you really want because each space is such a marginal improvment over the last. And on top of this you don’t ‘keep the change’ after each transaction, so you don’t get the benefit of saving your pennies. Every trip to the market is stateless – it has no memory of your previous bank balance. With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter if you have five coins left over after your ingredient buys, or if you have ten.
And, here’s another thing that annoyed me about Quills of Quartering – drawing tokens from the bag is physically unpleasant. They stick on the fabric and they refuse to shuffle properly. The result is that anything that incentivises me to stop drawing tokens is a strong pull towards inaction. Some games are just pleasant to play – their tactility is joyful. The physical clinking of good poker chips and the sound they make as they splash into the pot – that’s addictive in a way that is independent of the merits of Poker itself. That’s not true here. It’s like drawing a hang-nail down a cheap polyester sheet. Sometimes the thing that stops me taking the risk of drawing another token is that I just don’t want to wrestle with the bag any more. Even if I enjoyed playing Quarks more than I do, I don’t enjoy physically interacting with it.
I’ve focused a lot on the risk balance in this review because I think it’s necessary to contextualise my judgement. Quest of Quattrocento is a push your luck game where the risk is largely imaginary. It’s gambling with the safety wheels on. It’s rolling a loaded dice, or dealing a poker hand from a marked deck. What kind of game would you play if you didn’t actually trust your luck was solid enough to push? You’d maybe play this. It’s an unthreatening game – one where the rough edges of fate have been sanded down and fitted with rubber bumpers.
What I’m saying then is that Quacks of Quedlinburg is the game you’d play with your kids when you think they couldn’t handle the financial ruination of a proper session of blackjack. As a super light, super inconsequential game of flirting with fortune, this is a reasonably fun way to spend. Some people don’t want to risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss and that’s not a bad thing. Those that prefer live ammunition when duelling with fate though will find little to excite them within this box.