4 Lessons from Quacks of Quedlinburg for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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In 2018, Quacks of Quedlinburg won the elusive Kennerspiel des Jahres award. It has since remained a hot game on Board Game Geek and a perennial favorite in Pangea Games board game giveaways! So with that in mind, what can we learn from this award-winning board game with a silly name?

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Before we talk about what we can learn from Quacks of Quedlinburg, let’s talk about how the game works. For that, we’ll borrow the following blurb from the game’s Board Game Geek page.

In The Quacks of Quedlinburg, players are charlatans — or quack doctors — each making their own secret brew by adding ingredients one at a time. Take care with what you add, though, for a pinch too much of this or that will spoil the whole mixture!

Each player has their own bag of ingredient chips. During each round, they simultaneously draw chips and add them to their pot. The higher the face value of the drawn chip, the further it is placed in the swirling pattern. Push your luck as far as you can, but if you add too many cherry bombs, your pot explodes!

At the end of each round, players gain victory points and also coins to spend on new ingredients to add to their bags. But players with exploded pots must choose points or coins — not both! The player with the most victory points at the end of nine rounds wins the game.

1. The name is immediately funny, and the theme adds another twist.

When you first heard Quacks of Quedlinburg, you probably chuckled a little bit. The name itself is ridiculous, calling to mind images of ducks wandering the cobblestone pathways of Bavarian towns making a ruckus (as if they were geese). It’s a funny image that warms the hearts of non-gamers who aren’t enticed by the idea of trading wood for stone.

Once you open the box, though, you find out that you’re actually playing as a quack doctor, pushing a different kind of canard! You compete against others to make life-improving elixirs for the uneducated populace. Of course, if you fail, your whole pot will blow up like you dropped Mentos in Diet Coke.

It’s absurd and you can’t help but smile at it. Aspiring board game designers should take note of how the name and the theme tear down barriers that would otherwise keep would-be-gamers out of gaming.

2. It’s an example of push-your-luck par excellence.

Quacks of Quedlinburg is unabashedly, unashamedly push-your-luck. Not everybody is into this kind of mechanic and many find it to be unsatisfying. But this game leans into it, and instead of trying to shoehorn push-your-luck elements into a game where it doesn’t belong, it fully embraces it.

Throughout the whole game, you are building your bag to have different ingredients which you draw at random and add to your potion. You know that adding ingredients gives you a better chance to win, but you also know that adding too many will make the whole thing explode. When playing, you have to constantly ask yourself, “is it worth the risk of adding that one, final ingredient?”

The trade-off is dead simple and couldn’t be more obvious, but it works.

3. Mitigate push-your-luck with a good catch-up mechanic.

Unfortunately, push-your-luck games can quickly become obnoxious. This is because any game that proudly proclaims that it is luck-based runs the risk of becoming unfun very early on. You are, after all, one bad dice roll away from ruin in many push-your-luck games.

Smartly, Quacks of Quedlinburg included rat-tails, which act as a catch-up mechanic. In essence, you will receive an amount of rat-tails proportionate to how far you are lagging behind the first player. The first player, of course, will receive no rat-tails. Without getting into the specifics, the important part here is that losing players receive a handicap that matches the number of rat-tails they receive.

The upshot of all this? The game works to give losing players a chance, not unlike Mario Kart, which gives better items to players who are losing.

4. The time to play each game is matched perfectly to the game’s weight (as suggested by theme).

When you have a game that is proudly luck-driven, you have to keep the play-time short. Even with well-designed catch-up mechanics like rat-tails, luck-based games are like firecrackers. They’re fun for a short amount of time and they fade away quickly.

That is to say, a three-hour luck-based game would be Monopoly intolerable. A forty-five minute luck-based game, such as Quacks of Quedlinburg is much better.

Now that said, one of the common criticisms of Quacks of Quedlinburg is that it runs too long. The game has been generally received as positive, so the time to play is not a particularly nasty issue. That said, if you’re creating a luck-based game, let this be a lesson to you: even with a catch-up mechanic and a fairly short play-time, you will likely receive the same criticism.

Final Thoughts

Quacks of Quedlinburg is a fine example of a heavily luck-driven game done well. It’s enticing to newcomers and has a good sense of humor. The play-time is short, keeping the game from feeling like a long game of roulette. The presence of a catch-up mechanic keeps it from feeling like the die has been cast from turn 1.

Passion isn’t a Pitch and 6 Other Ways to Misunderstand Board Game Kickstarter as a Marketplace

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I’ve made my fair share of mistakes while building this business. I don’t sweep them under the rug. In fact, I even pulled apart the broken bits of my failed Kickstarter campaign for my understanding and published them online for public benefit. Being able to analyze and move forward after failure is critical to your success and a big part of getting your game from Start to Finish. This is part two of four in the Failure Recovery series.

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Today, I’m going to be covering six really common ways board game Kickstarter campaigns fall apart. This is based primarily on my observation of Kickstarter as a market in 2018, not necessarily how it was in the past. The market is shifting and maturing, moving inexorably toward large companies with established intellectual properties. That’s not a bad thing – it brings more people into the hobby board game world we enjoy! It definitely changes how you have to approach the business, though.

Mistake 1: Emphasizing passion instead of the game.

Kickstarter started in 2009 as a way for people to fund their passion projects. That may not have been the intention of the company from the get-go, but that’s how the site was interpreted by the general public. For a long time, emphasizing your passion for the project while simultaneously pitching it was a reliable way to appear human and receive funding.

I’m not so sure about that anymore. Don’t get me wrong: passion is a beautiful thing. Passion will see you through difficult times, make you more charismatic, and give you a compelling story that people can rally behind. However: passion isn’t a pitch.

When you make a board game today, you’re on the same platform as CMON and other very high-profile publishers who can reliably pull more than one million dollars per campaign. These companies are very rarely mom-and-pop shops like old-school Kickstarter. They make a lot of money because their products are carefully crafted for the audience, their pitches are extremely strong, and the games are good.

Your game’s fit for the market is more important than your passion. So many indie creators, myself included, emphasize passion to the detriment of the product itself. Passion needs to be at the root of your product. It’s not a selling point.

Mistake 2: The game lacks a hook.

Because Kickstarter is so crowded these days, you need to catch each backer’s attention in a few seconds. The only way your game can survive in this environment is to be a good game and a good product. Good games have clever themes and mechanics. Good products are made for audiences using hard data to figure out what people like. If people like sci-fi and fantasy, you give them sci-fi and fantasy. If people like worker placement, you give them worker placement.

That’s only the beginning of making a good product, though. Even something as ideal for Kickstarter as a $20 fantasy worker placement small box game needs something to catch people’s eyes. It could be great components, a unique rule, or really special art. Your hook can be lots of different things, but it needs to be both tested with your intended audience and strong enough for people to identify your game as “the one with…”

Mistake 3: Poor price point.

An overpriced game won’t sell on Kickstarter. This concludes Economics 101, hope you enjoyed the blog, sign up for my mailing list and Discord

But seriously: you need to pay attention to people’s purchasing patterns. A poor price point doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making your game too expensive. You can make games with an awkward price point that people aren’t buying at the moment. At the time that I am writing this, the campaigns I’ve seen succeed the most are expensive games or light games that are at or under $25. Much of what is in the middle is struggling.

Kickstarter is a giant open data set. Use hard data to figure out what price point core rewards are going for on successful campaigns. Try to match that price point.

Mistake 4: Poor components.

Lackluster components won’t necessarily sink a board game Kickstarter, but they won’t do it any favors. Having custom meeples, miniatures, or something creative and eye-catching helps a lot. In a lot of ways, it functions as a hook.

For better or worse, board gamers sometimes equate components with value. Do some research on Facebook or Board Game Geek to see what components gamers find valuable. You’d be surprised how often manufacturing price and perceived value don’t match up. I did one poll where wooden cubes scored higher than cards on value, despite cards costing three times as much to print and requiring extensive art creation.

Mistake 5: Poor art.

You have a few seconds to catch people’s attention. Art needs to not just be good in traditional artistic terms, but also good for product design. While there are a number of ways you can ensure your art is well-made from a tactical and technical standpoint, the most important thing to remember here is: test your art with your audience.

It’s impossible to know what art will resonate with people without running it by an audience. If you have a Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram account, try using those sites to see what people think of your art. If your art receives far higher engagement than your typical posts, that’s a very good sign. Every single art piece should ignite passion and interest in others. Otherwise, you could run into a situation where your game isn’t eye-catching enough to stand out in a crowded market.

Mistake 6: No reviews.

There are still some Kickstarters out there that go live without reviews. I don’t believe reviewers are the gatekeepers that they used to be, but it’s still a gigantic red flag when a campaign has no reviews. (Product-market fit, I believe, is more relevant than reviews, but I spent basically five points on that already.) You need social proof and reviewers act as testimonials to the quality of your product.

You need to print a few copies of your game from a print-on-demand supplier to send to reviewers. Thankfully, it’s easier than it’s ever been to get started with the actual printing process. For that matter, you can reach out to the majority of small reviewers by Twitter DM. The cost is relatively low compared to the rest of your project and the consequences of not having any reviews are too severe.

Mistake 7: Treating Kickstarter as the endgame.

Last but not least, one of the biggest strategic business errors you can make on Kickstarter is to only think about Kickstarter.

Sure, if you’re just making a single board game because you really want to see your name on a box, thinking about the Kickstarter campaign alone is fine. If you’re purely pursuing a passion project and don’t have your eye on distribution, designing other board games, or running a sustainable business, then you can treat Kickstarter as the endgame.

But if that’s not the case? Well, whether you’re trying to design a bunch of games, make passive income, or build an enterprise, your journey will not end with a single Kickstarter campaign. You won’t just fund and, POOF, all your dreams have come true.

In short: don’t just build a board game, build a business.

Board game Kickstarters can be complicated to run. Hopefully by spelling these common pitfalls, you can avoid them and fund successfully. Recognizing pitfalls is a great way to avoid failure.

If you have any additions to what you see above, please let me know in the comments 🙂

4 Lessons from Spirit Island for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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In 2016, Spirit Island raised $84,176 on Kickstarter. That is by no means a small amount to raise, but what’s interesting is that Spirit Island has remained on the Board Game Geek Hotness list off and on for almost three years. Its expansion went onto raise almost $800,000.

Clearly, there is much more to this game than what immediately meets the eye. There’s a lot we can learn from it!

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Hold that thought for just a moment, though. First, let’s explain to the uninitiated what Spirit Island is about. For that, we’ll reference the game’s Board Game Geek page.

Spirit Island is a complex and thematic cooperative game about defending your island home from colonizing Invaders. Players are different spirits of the land, each with its own unique elemental powers. Every turn, players simultaneously choose which of their power cards to play, paying energy to do so. Using combinations of power cards that match a spirit’s elemental affinities can grant free bonus effects. Faster powers take effect immediately, before the Invaders spread and ravage, but other magics are slower, requiring forethought and planning to use effectively. In the Spirit phase, spirits gain energy, and choose how / whether to Grow: to reclaim used power cards, to seek for new power, or to spread presence into new areas of the island.

1. Spirit Island flips the standard colonization theme on its head.

You can’t have a meaningful discussion about Spirit Island without discussing the theme. You and all the other players in the game play as Spirits who fight off the Invaders – basically, people who want to colonize your island.

Let’s be real: this is a politically hot subject right now. In the last couple of decades, in particular, many people have become much more familiar with the misdeeds of our distant (and not-so-distant) ancestors. Though this realization is about as comfortable as having a bucket of ice water dumped on your head, it’s a necessary one and ultimately a good one.

Done incorrectly, this theme could turn a lot of people off. But it doesn’t do that, because it’s well-executed and all-around fun! The fact that it happens to be covering a politically hot subject has actually likely contributed to its success.

Why does this work? In my opinion, it’s because it’s not preachy but rather clever and original! Spirit Island offers a really interesting twist on standard board game themes that have been done and overdone. We need more games like this that subvert standard board game narratives. (You’re next, agriculture games!)

2. Cooperative play is underused.

The default mode for most board games competitive. I have no problem with that and I certainly enjoy the feeling of good, well-matched competitive play.

Sure, cooperative play is not exactly some exotic unseen mechanic too. You have Pandemic, the Forbidden games, Mysterium, Elder Sign, and many other great games.

Yet if you take all the cooperative games on Board Game Geek and divide it by all the board games on Board Game Geek, you wind up with a figure like 6%. Just 6%! With such a small percentage of board games being cooperative, choosing to make a cooperative game – like Spirit Island – remains a deliberate stylistic choice. Spirit Island kicks it up a notch by having you play a cooperative game against Invaders, which as I mentioned previously, is the role you would play in most other games.

3. Playing defense creates gameplay experiences you don’t see in other types of games.

Even among cooperative games, you often wind up solving a mystery together or working toward some common goal. A smaller subset still have you focus on defending yourself from a dangerous outside force. In Spirit Island, you do exactly that.

While there is certainly the opportunity to plan ahead, the game forces its own agenda on you in a way I haven’t seen since Pandemic. This is a nice change of pace from normal cooperative games because it adds a necessary element of stress that makes Spirit Island feel satisfying.

I think Arah’s review on Board Game Geek says it best. “Vibe: brain burny whack-a-mole.” 

4. Balanced asymmetry leads to greater variety.

Last but not least, we’ve talked on this blog about how variable player powers can add variety to a game. We’ve even discussed at length how you can implement them in your own game. (Spoiler: the answer is TONS of play-testing).

The trick, of course, is to make sure all varying powers are definitely distinct while remaining balanced. With Spirit Island, you can tell they play-tested the game within an inch of its life.

To further explain my point, I’ll borrow from the Spirit Island wiki for the following sections. I’ll list out the play style of just four of the eight base game spirits. Check out how different the play styles are!

A Spread of Rampant Green

Fairly good at dealing with Towns, but terrible at handling Explorers (who are unfazed by prolific foliage). Can get Presence onto the board faster than most other Spirits. Extra Presence is good for targeting and especially for ‘Choke the Land with Green”, which can be extremely effective at slowing down invaders. Just be careful not to destroy Sacred Sites needed for Power use.

Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares

With most Spirits, Terror Victories are a backup plan if the main push against the Invaders stalls out for too long, but Bringer turns Fear into a more viable primary strategy. Its transformation of damage & destruction into Fear can turn Major Powers into tremendous sources of terror and panic. However, the only real offense Bringer has is the Dahan fighting back. While it does have some defensive ability, it is fundamentally poor at clearing areas of Invaders.

Lightning’s Swift Strike

Virtually all offense to start with: without a more defensive teammate, Blight may become a problem. Excellent at destroying buildings, less good at containing Explorers. Using Thundering Destruction tends to be a burst affair: a turn or two of position and build up Energy, followed by a really big turn.

Ocean’s Hungry Grasp

Extremely good at assaulting the coasts where the Invaders start out strong, but quite weak island – the ocean is not accustomed to affecting events so far ashore. Its Presence shifts in and out like the tide, which can be tricky to manage, but permits re-positioning and tactical retreats or offensives in the hands of a skillful player. Has fairly inexpensive Unique Powers, but the energy gained from drowning Invaders can be necessary in stepping up to more potent Powers.

Final Thoughts

Spirit Island excels for a few reasons. The first is because of its well-crafted, interesting, original theme. Another reason is that it uses underrated mechanics – namely cooperative gameplay and you vs. the world – to excellent effect. Lastly, the variable player powers are balanced in such a way that the game stays fresh for a long time!