When the Kennerspiel des Jahres winner was announced last summer, I … laughed. I did, because the game that won, The Quacks of Quedlinburg, has a name that is both ridiculous and as unfriendly to a marketer as you could conceive without coining something truly offensive. And it really doesn’t have to be this way, as Quedlinburg, a town in Saxony with several sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, has nothing whatsoever to do with the game—and the thing is, the game is very, very good.
Designed by Wolfgang Warsch, who also designed the Spiel des Jahres-nominated game The Mind (#5 on my top 10 games of 2018), The Quacks of Quedlinburg isn’t even a complex or long game, which is what the Kennerspiel is supposed to honor. It’s a clever twist on press-your-luck games that gives players a bit more control over their fates by allowing them to try to sway the odds more and more in their favor as the game progresses. Players do indeed pretend to be quacks of a sort, charlatans who are supposed to draw ingredients from their chests to concoct useless potions to sell to the gullible public and gain victory points, doing this nine times over the course of the game, each round buying more ingredients to craft bigger and more valuable potions in future rounds while trying to skew the odds more in their favor as the game progresses.
When you start The Quacks of Quedlinburg, which I’m just going to call The Quacks from this point because come on already, you have nine ingredient tokens in your bag, seven of which are white, one green, and one orange. All ingredient tokens have numbers on them from one to four, and when you draw a token from a bag, you place it on your board by counting that number of spaces forward from the last ingredient. White tokens are the dangerous ones: If the sum of all white tokens drawn and placed in that round on your board exceeds seven, your potion ‘explodes,’ and you will lose either your victory points or your money after the round.
All other ingredient colors are beneficial, and those can vary by game. You start with those two non-white tokens, and then after each round will use money you earned with your potion—the farther the potion extends on your ingredient track, the more coins you earn, although in each round it’s use it or lose it. Different colors bring different benefits; blue tokens might let you draw from your bag and choose whether to place a token or return everything to the bag and try again, while placing a yellow token lets you remove the previous one if it was white and return that to your bag. Black tokens give you rewards if your potion in that round has more black tokens than either or both of your neighbors’ potions. There’s a recommended first-game set of ingredient rules, but after that you can use specific sets or just choose randomly.
At the end of a round, all players whose potions didn’t explode compare their potion values—the next uncovered space on their potion tracks after their final ingredient—and whoever has the most valuable potion rolls a die for a special one-time bonus. If your potion didn’t explode, you get the number of victory points shown on that next space, and can spend the amount of money shown on that space. If it also shows a ruby, you get one from the supply; those can buy you benefits once you have at least two. After scoring, everyone returns all ingredients from their boards to their bags, along with any new ingredients you purchased, and the next round begins.
There are other quirks to The Quacks, but I’ll keep it quick. Each player starts with a flask they can use to return one ingredient to the bag rather than placing it, as long as it’s not a white ingredient that causes your potion to explode. Upon using the flask, you flip it over to indicate that it’s “full.” You empty it by paying two rubies. You can also spend two rubies to move the starting token on your potion track forward one space. In each round, you’ll uncover a card from the deck that adds an additional rule solely for that round—for example, one card raises the explosion threshold from seven to nine. And Warsch has added a balancing element to try to stop one player from running away with the game: in each round, players behind the leader will look at the scoring track and count how many rats are depicted between their own tokens and that of the leader, and then will get to start their potions for the round that many spaces forward on their tracks. Thus there’s even some benefit to hanging back a little bit, rather than trying to take the lead early, because of the built-in Harrison Bergeron mechanism.
Because players draw simultaneously, turns move quickly—the scoring phase can take longer than the drawing phase by the time you reach the last few rounds. The only hitch is that an unscrupulous player could try to wait to see where other players have stopped before deciding whether to continue drawing, although the rulebook recommends forcing players to draw tokens one at a time, together, in the final round. Beyond that, it plays simply and smoothly, with few rules to understand—the strategy is in deciding how to assemble your bag of ingredients. Decisions you make early in the game can come up round after round, for better or for worse, and there’s enough luck in the draws that there will always be a chance a younger or just inexperienced player ends up winning … not that that happened to me recently in a four player game where the 12-year-old who hadn’t played before cleaned everyone’s clocks. Don’t let the name or the ‘expert’s game’ tag fool you; this is a family game, one you can play in under an hour and can absolutely enjoy with adults and older kids alike.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.