Ten years (and several months) after the release of Dominion (2008), I declare the deckbuilding era of eurogaming dead. Oh, Dominion and Ascension (2010) are still putting out expansions, and Pathfinder ACG (2013) just got a big new edition, but the biggest recent successes have been Star Realms (2014) and Clank! (2016), both several years gone now. They just aren’t making them like they used to.
With that said, I’m thrilled to see continued innovation in the subgenre of bagbuilding. I suspect these games are cheaper to make than classic deckbuilders because they don’t require the huge set of cards, and so they’re helping to keep the intriguing deckbuilding mechanism alive in a slightly different form. So in what I suspect will be one of my final articles in this long-running look at the rise and (now) fall of deckbuilding games, I wanted to take a look at one of the newer bagbuilders, The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018) — which to my disappointment turned out to have nothing to do with ducks.
The Quacks of Quedlinburg is a bag of making potions. You start with a bag of explosive white ingredients, plus a little bit of green and orange. You make a potion by drawing those ingredients from the bag one at a time. You’re trying to make a potion with a high quantity of ingredients, but if you draw too many white ingredients, your potion will blow up, so it’s a game of pressing your luck, as you’re trying to get lots of stuff into your potion without drawing too much white.
Once you’re done, you get to earn victory points and buy new ingredients, based on how good your potion was (and whether it blew up). New ingredients not only help to water down those explosive ingredients in your bag, but they also can give special powers, either when the tile is drawn or at the end of the turn.
On Physicality. The big advantage of the original deckbuilding genre, of course, is that cards can have lots of room for text on them, designating special powers that might be quite complex. That’s why deckbuilders took off. Dicebuilders and bagbuilders need to figure out other mechanisms to designate how things work because you can’t find much text on a die, token, or cube. Orléans (2014) resolved this by putting all the rules on the game board, but Quacks instead uses the same methodology as Quarriors (2011) and Automobiles (2016): the powers are on supplemental cards that are laid out in the middle of the table to explain the other components. This allows for variety, as the cards can be changed out (much as is done in those other games), and Quacks takes full advantage of that, listing out four sets of colored ingredient powers that can be used in the game.
Press Your Luck. The biggest innovation of Quacks is obviously that you’re not just drawing a set hand of cards, but instead drawing until you stop, with the goal of avoiding the bad results (explosion!) along the way. This nicely shows that there are still fundamental ways to change the basic rules of deckbuilding (and offers a very different sort of gameplay, while still building on the evolving designs of deckbuilders from the last decade).
Controlling Your Draw. Hand in hand with that, Quacks offers stronger ways to control your draw than just about any other deckbuilder out there. You can reject draws, you can choose among multiple ingredients, and you can even return previous draws to the bag — if you use special colored ingredient special powers.
A Bag of Bad. Most deckbuilders start you off with subpar cards, discs, or cubes. A few even have some useless cards in their initial decks. But, Quacks goes a step further by putting explosive ingredients into your bag that are just bad. This creates an interesting variant of the standard deckbuilding gameplay where your goal isn’t to make a great deck, but instead to try and figure out how to offset the badness that’s implicitly a part of it.
No Killer Combos! Most deckbuilder games either randomize sets of cards (ala Dominion) or else individual cards (ala Ascension). This means that the gameplay often centers on killer combos, where the strategic goal is to figure out which cards work together well, then to pounce on them before your opponents. Quacks seems to have taken the opposite stance. It carefully segregates its ingredients’ special powers into sets, with the idea being that you play with only powers from one of the four sets at one time. Further, these sets seem to purposefully minimize the killer interactions between cards. Thus, the game isn’t about the perceptiveness of spotting (and utilizing) killer combos but instead a more standard type of strategy, where you take one of several routes to victory and try to push harder than your opponents. (Will players just randomize the cards outside of these sets, stepping away from this interesting variant? I suspect so.)
Exhausting Draws. By the last several rounds you could easily be drawing a few dozen ingredients, and this gets a bit exhausting — so much so that you have to have rests between drawing. It’s just too much of a good thing, like those turns of Dominion where you end up playing and drawing several hands full of cards — except that it’s every round at the end.
Strained Simultaneity. Theoretically, Quacks is played simultaneously, but that’s built under the assumption that people won’t be looking around to see how their opponents are doing. If players violate this, then the game instead moves to a strained simultaneity where players draw their ingredients one at a time, as someone yells “stir” again and again. In addition, this is theoretically the required gameplay for the last round of play. It can make the exhausting draws of the later rounds even more brain-numbing.
Obvious Imbalance. Every deckbuilder has to fight with the problem of the rich getting richer. A good deck is just going to produce better turns than a bad deck. This problem seems to be notably magnified in Quacks for several reasons. Part of it is that you’re offsetting bad ingredients in your bag, and part of it is that you’ll usually draw most of your ingredients on each turn. But the thing that makes the growing power imbalance of Quacks really obvious is that players go head to head each round, comparing their brews. So you know if someone is killing everyone else every turn. It’s sufficiently problematic that I’d be very cautious about repeating that mechanic in another deckbuilder. Quacks tries to offset this with a heavy-handed (but relatively elegant) balancing mechanic based on rat tails on the score board, but even that’s not enough to give players a fair shot if someone is pulling ahead.
The Quacks of Quedlinburg is an interesting design primarily because it moves so far away from the standards of bagbuilding (and deckbuilding) design, in large part due to its draw which isn’t based upon quantity, but instead on risk. A lot of the deckbuilders that I’ve written about just make small, incremental changes to Dominion’s primordial deckbuilding formula, so it’s always great to see something that goes further afield — and that’s been a particularly notable element of the whole bagbuilding subgenre, I think because the dramatically different components really encourage innovation.
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples