A favourite gateway board game full of tense moments, difficult decisions, and amusing self-made mishaps, Quacks of Quedlinburg is all about pushing your luck to the very limits. Brimming with accolades, from the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres, to BGG’s ‘Golden Geek’, Quacks’ cup runneth over with praise. But we haven’t had our say yet, so we’re going to try and jam some more into the cauldron. What could go wrong?
If you’re unfamiliar with Quacks, and haven’t come here from our best board games list, we’ll fill you in on the premise. Players are all quack doctors, alchemists, and peddlers of dubious medicines, who’ve gathered together for a nine-day bazaar where they’ll compete to create the best and most bubbliest potions in all the land.
You do this each round by blindly pulling chips with different values out of your bag of ingredients, and plonking them down onto your board, shaped like a cauldron of noxious green liquid. The further round the track you get before calling it a day, the more points (for winning the game) and money (for buying new ingredients) you earn. But your bag also has explosive cherry bombs lurking within. Go over the limit on these and BOOM! you explode, forcing you to make a painful choice – you can gain either money or points, but not both.
Between rounds you’ll peruse the market and buy a couple new ingredients to pop in your sack. Each one has a different effect. You might grab a moth that awards you bonuses at the end of a round, a tiny bird skull that lets you see into the future (pick your next draw), or a mandrake that can defuse your cherry bombs, if you’re lucky enough to play it right after one (fat chance). Over the course of the game’s nine turns you’ll personalise your pot, landing on a strategy, or just grabbing the most expensive ingredients you can afford each round.
The ingredient picking portion adds some interesting decision-making and a needed layer of tactics to Quacks, but it’s not why this board game is so great. The true magic, drama, and joy of Quacks lies in the potion brewing stage. It’s a simple push-your-luck mechanic but, partly due to theme, partly due to mechanics, it plays out brilliantly.
The first thing worth noting is that everyone plays simultaneously, pulling at their own pace. So if you’ve rushed ahead (or had to stop early) you can pause and take stock, sharing the moments of drama as they happen around the table. A bonus is earned for coming first, leading to tense standoffs when just two players are left. Are you going to stop now? No, are you? There’s no mechanical interaction between players’ boards, but you’re constantly interacting with each other – commiserating with an unlucky opponent, or cursing someone who’s faring impossibly well.
Quacks beautifully feeds on your hubris, your competitive desire to do just that little bit better than everyone else. It leaves you punching the air when a risk pays off and creates hearty guffaws round the table when your potion inevitably blows up in your face.
The theme works well to add extra drama – you can almost hear the cauldrons sizzling, churning away, about to boil over and detonate. Just one more pull! It’s comical to imagine you’re pompous doctors trying to craft a beautiful concoction, then popping the wrong thing in and getting a faceful of fumes.
Sometimes you’ll chuck ingredients into the pot in wild abandon. Other times you’ll spend what seems like minutes feeling around in your mysterious bag of ingredients, running your fingers over a chip, trying to guess what it’ll be, as though you can somehow sense colour through your fingertips. You’re incentivised to keep going not just for the mechanical reward, but also because each round you’ll have bought some more ingredients and want to encounter all the great stuff you’ve stuck in your bag.
At the end of the day, Quacks is a highly luck-based game, which means it won’t be for everyone. Certainly, it can leave you feeling a little sour if you explode right away more than once early on. But Quacks is remarkably forgiving, with catch-up mechanics that mean you never fall too far behind. And it’s so funny that it’s hard to stay grumpy for long. If anything, it teaches you not to take yourself too seriously.
There’s plenty of variety here too, not even glancing towards the Herb Witches or Alchemists expansions. For starters, there are four different rulesets to try for the various ingredients, which can easily see you through hours and hours of play. Random events drawn each round also add an extra wrinkle, and a more advanced board on the backside of your cauldron adds test tubes which give you even more decisions to make.
Quacks of Quedlinburg certainly deserves its explosive success. It’s a fantastic family board game, and also one of the most funny board games I’ve ever played – with the added draw that it’s not trying too hard to make you laugh.
Brewed to perfection
One of the best luck-based board games ever made, Quacks of Quedlinburg is light and fun, with just enough decision-making to keep things interesting