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DIE QUACKSALBER VON QUEDLINBURG

Reviewed by Chris Wray

 

DIE QUACKSALBER VON QUEDLINBURG (Schmidt Spiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45 minutes; $54.95)

 

Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg, a bag-building game from designer Wolfgang Warsch, immediately gathered an enthusiastic following in German-speaking countries after its March debut.  Nonetheless, the game didn’t garner much international attention until May, when it received a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination. Given its language independence, gamers around the world have been importing it from Europe since, and it is doubtlessly a strong contender this award season.  An English edition is planned for this fall by North Star games.

Bag-building, which appears to be an offshoot of deck-building, has been popular in recent years.  But the genre’s most notable titles — everything from Orleans (Winter 2016 GA Reportto Altiplano (featured last issue) have tilted toward the heavy side.  Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg is notable because it is more approachable to those that don’t necessarily play games often.

Quacksalber is played over nine rounds, with players players making potions each round to earn victory points, buying better ingredients for their bag along the way.  Each player receives a player board, a pre-set number of chits to put in their bag, a ruby, and a filled bottle. Some of the chits are snowberries, which are highly dangerous and explode.  The goal is to fill your bag with other, more meaningful ingredients, which afford bonuses. .

To begin a round, one out of a couple dozen possible “event” cards is randomly played. Next, players can begin drawing chits out of their bag, which is the game’s primary mechanic.  The game has a press-your-luck element, and a player can keep drawing chits until they draw more than seven points worth of snowberries (though event cards can increase this limit).  The chits are numbered 1, 2, 3, or 4 so, on a player’s cauldron, the next chit is placed a number of spaces away equal to its value. For example, a “1” chit is placed on the next available space, but a “2” chit would skip a space and fill the following one.  

The different colors of chits have bonuses, which may allow players to draw chits out of their bag risk free, place them spaces further, or handle them in other advantageous ways.  If a player draws a snowberry and their bottle is full, they may empty it (i.e. flip it over) and then put the snowberry back in the bag.

Players keep going until they voluntarily stop or their cauldron explodes, which happens if they draw more than seven snowberry points.  The space after a player’s final chit is what matters for the next part of the game. First, the player that got the furthest in their cauldron throws a die and earns a small bonus.  Second, players take bonuses for having black, green, and purple chits in their caldron. Third, if the next space on a player’s board shows a ruby, they take one, which can be spent later.  

Then comes the most important part: players are free to take victory points and/or go shopping.  If a player’s cauldron didn’t explode then they can do both. Otherwise, they can only choose between taking points and buying better ingredients.  The powers of the different chit colors depend on the “books” in the game. There are seven books in the game, one for each color of available chit.  The orange tokens are always the same — they cost 3 shopping points and don’t have a special ability — but the other six can change from game to game.  

By way of example, in the recommended intro setup, the blue tokens allow you to draw a specified number of chits out of your bag risk free, meaning you can place one or throw them all back.  The black chits give you bonuses (either a ruby or a further starting space in your cauldron) if you have more than your neighbors. The yellow chits let you discard a snowberry if it was the chit immediately before the yellow one.  

Though each chit can have a variety of different powers depending on the set up, the same colors of chits – and the corresponding numbers on them – are always in the game.  The orange chits are only available as 1s, but the other six colors are available as 1s, 2s, and 4s. (The only 3 in the game is on one snowberry in each player’s starting bag.)  The higher numbers cost more during the shopping phase, but they get placed further in your cauldron and they often have a stronger bonus effect.

After a player has shopped and/or taken their victory points, they then can refill their bottle by spending two rubies.  Alternatively, they can move their starting space (marked with a “drop token”) in their cauldron one space forward or, if they’re playing on the advanced side of their board, advance their other drop token to earn more bonuses.  Then a new round begins.

Rats sit along the score track and, starting in the second round, players look for the number of rat tails between them and the leader.  After the event card is played, players move their rat token a number of spaces beyond their starting cauldron space

The game lasts nine rounds, and each of them follow that pattern except for the last round in which, instead of shopping, players convert shopping points to victory points on a 5-to-1 basis.  After that, the player with the highest score wins.

My game group immediately fell in love with Quacksalber.  Though I expected comparisons to games in the bag-building genre,  I’d compare it primarily to Dominion (Winter 2009 GA Report) in weight: it isn’t quite a family game, but it certainly isn’t overly weighty either.  The gameplay in Quacksaler is clever, and while I applaud Wolfgang Warsch’s other award-nominated creations this year, I think Die Quacksalber is doubtlessly his best game. 

The game is easy to learn, and with a typical rules explanation lasting about ten minutes.  The graphic design helps: the various phases of the game are shown on the player board and the books set out the bonuses for the various chits.  But the game is also easy to learn because it is decently intuitive: it all comes down to building a good bag of chits and then drawing them out to earn some bonuses.  The gameplay is equally as good with two to four players.

Quacksalber – like all potion making – rewards experience and experimentation, as finding the right combination of chits to buy in any different game is a challenge.  But equally as important is learning when to press your luck. Exploding isn’t so bad in early rounds as players aren’t losing many victory points so it can be worth the risk to earn those extra shopping points.  Conversely, in later rounds, those victory points are really meaningful so exploding then often means missing out on the chance to go shopping. Finding the right balance is key.

Drawing chits out of the bag can lead to tense anticipation and it is the most fun part of the game.  As with any bag-building (or deck-building) game, there’s a luck element to what you draw. But Quacksalber has many elements to mitigate the randomness and using them to your advantage is half the fun.  Having a bottle lets you discard the last snowberry drawn and many of the chit bonuses go towards mitigating drawing snowberries. Plus, because of the rat tails and event cards, the game has a decently strong (but not overly strong) catch up mechanic.  

Even if I leave the books consistent between games, my scores seem to improve, which I consider to be evidence of the game’s depth.  Quacksalber feels approachable yet deep and, as I said above, because of the variable setup, it can be quite addicting. Every group I’ve played with – and I’m now part of five different groups – has demanded to immediately play again.  

In short, Quacksalber is deserving of the critical praise it has received and I believe it has an exceptionally strong chance at winning the Kennerspiel des Jahres.  The game is easy-to-learn but also highly engaging and challenging, all characteristics the Spiel des Jahres jury seeks. This will likely be a permanent part of my collection and I expect Die Quacksalber von Qwedlinburg to be a big hit in the coming months, especially once the English-language version is released later this year. – – – – – Chris Wray


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