An Introduction to… Wolfgang Warsch
We all like hobbies, right? Absolutely. I have a few: reading, watching movies, singing, writing, life modelling and… I’m sure there was something else, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. For most of us mere mortals, our hobbies are just for ourselves, they’re not there to bring joy to the world… though I suppose my life modelling has raised some mirth. Mr Warsch, it appears, is no mere mortal though, because he has designed some absolutely corking games – AND HE DOES THIS FOR FUN!
A little bit about the man: Wolfgang Warsch is an Austrian molecular biologist, 39, ruggedly handsome and a dabbler in making board games – he is to board gaming and molecular biology what Brian Cox is to cosmology and nineties synthpop. So if you can ungrit your teeth for a moment, let’s look at some of the games he has brought to the world in a relatively short time…
Though he had released two games in 2015 and 2016, Dream Team and Shadow Master respectively, Wolfgang really hit the public’s attention (and then some) in 2018, with the ‘roll and write’s Brikks and Ganz Schon Clever – for those unfamiliar with the terminology, if you remember playing Yahtzee, where you rolled dice and recorded your scores, sometimes having to choose to cross out higher, less likely scoring options in favour of lower, less likely scores, then there you have the principle of your roll and write.
Brikks is a light but entertaining retro take on retro classic Tetris, where the colour of the dice face rolled determines the shape of the brikk you have to fit, with the added challenge of ‘generating’ energy to move your pieces – nice to play with the family and simple to pick up. Ganz Schon Clever took roll and writes to another level though. Combining Yahtzee, bingo and maths, Ganz can be played by one to four players and has you rolling six different coloured dice, each having its own way of scoring.
Choose up to three dice from your three rolls, discarding lower dice to a silver platter, and score those dice, while your opponents pick over your discards and choose one dice each for themselves. As the game progresses, not only do players build up their scores but trigger c-c-c-combos allowing them to double chosen dice, re-roll or fill in extra spaces on their score card, and once you start triggering the low score multiplying foxes… well, things can really escalate.
It is such an elegant, simple, short (and cheap) game that it makes a perfect warm-up/filler, and with it being suitable for single players it also makes a great little lunch or break filler, and there really is something incredibly satisfying about beating your own high score. But this was just the beginning: Wolfgang was about to start messing with… your mind.
Effortless segue there. The premise of The Mind is so simple that it barely definable as a game – the box blurb calls it a ‘thought experiment’ – but with the amount of tension The Mind can generate, if it is an experiment, it is a cruel one. As a game – eh, tension is fine.
The idea of the game is for number cards to be played in ascending order. That’s it. Only thing is that players cannot hint, indicate or guide in any way – you try and synchronise with your fellow two to four players/guinea pigs. As you can imagine, the synchronisation may take a while, so you start with three lives and two shuriken – these can be used when a unanimous decision is made in time out to remove the lowest value card from each player’s hand. You lose a life when you go out of sequence (i.e. a card gets missed). Stage one gives each player one card. Get through this and stage two dishes out two cards – the longer you last, the greater the number of cards, the higher the tension. There are 12 possible stages.
Despite the simplicity of this game, you can see Wolfgang’s love of old school arcade style play very much in effect through the levelling up dynamic. Complete some levels and you get an extra life or an extra shuriken; the shuriken are pure smart bomb material. Getting to the end of a level is a reason to celebrate and a brief respite from the pressure. Simple? Very. Addictive? Totally.
Right. Enough messing now. This game exploded (literally… well, contextually/figuratively) into my life earlier this year. Having snuck in under my ‘wot no spaceships/dragons/elder gods/superheroes’ radar. I’d heard its name mentioned with reverence. but thought ‘why do I want a game about ducks?’ Silly boy. So when a gaming friend of mine turns up at a games night and says ‘here, try this’, I was somewhat surprised by the absence of ducks but utterly seduced by the presence of GAME.
In case you hadn’t heard, this game got GAME. (I don’t really know what this means, but if I write it often enough. I can imbue it with meaning, right?). Each player is a quack/mountebank/snake-oil salesman. They are trying to make the best potion. You do this by taking ingredients blindly from your bag and placing them on a spiral track in your ‘cauldron’. Different ingredients have different effects, but the ones to really watch for are the cherry bombs. Too many of those and your potion explodes, which can have severe (well, irritating) consequences.
When everyone has either blown their cauldrons or decided to be prudent and stop, points are scored. And/or ingredients are bought (you can only do one of you blew your cauldron). Gems can be obtained and used to move your start place forward. If you fall behind on the scoreboard, rats’ tails can be used to give you a head start. Also, each round has its own set event and a random fortune teller effect card. This can give everyone some extra ingredients. These help the laggers or just make everyone’s life a bit easier. After nine rounds, whoever has the highest score wins.
The great thing about this game is the balance and the versatility. You push your luck too far, you at least get something for your troubles. Those rats tails really help when you’ve not scored for the last three rounds. The fortune teller effect allows you to push things just a touch further and in the last moments. You win the game – just. Not only that, but every ingredient has at least two possible effects. The ‘cauldron’ boards have two different sides to play. Enough permutations and combinations to keep you going for a while.
Okay, everyone played against their own board, but there’s always that “she’s still drawing… I’ve got to keep drawing,” which often ended in disaster, plus every game ends with a round where everyone draws simultaneously in a Mexican/German potion stand-off. It looks great, there’s plenty to do and plenty of game to play. Wolfgang’s leap to the world of big box games was a huge success, earning him nominations for ‘games of the year’ (and wins) across the board. In fact, 2018 saw Ganz, The Mind and Quacks often running against each other – it was the year of the Warsch. So, no pressure on his next game then…
The most recent addition suggests that Mr Warsch is a) loving his alliteration and b) developing a bit of a theme: Quacks of Quedlinburg, Taverns of Tiefenthal… we should be okay as long as he steers clear of Brandenburg. It is, again, set in Medieval Germany, only now the subject is not snake oil, but the amber nectar…
Again, this is a two to four game, where each player is the owner of a rival tavern in Tiefenthal (it means deep valley). During the course of the game, you are trying to tempt the locals into your tavern to spend their hard-earned cash on ale, which you in turn can turn into staff, upgrades and… more beer. Eventually, you’ll start to attract the nobles, who will bring the big points to your pub and at the end of ten rounds, the person with the most points wins.
The game brings together two of Warsch’s previous mechanics – drafting/deck building and dice drafting. In a round, players start by laying out cards form their deck to place staff, extra tables and the all-important customers. Once the tables are full, drafting stops (though travelling customers can be used to clear the tables and re-draw). Players then roll their gathered dice (some staff add extra dice to the regular five) and place one dice on their board to activate beer production, customer service, money making or all three, then pass on their dice – it’s like 7 Wonders, the dice edition.
Once dice have been placed, beer is used to tempt new customers to the pile. (the top, not the discard pile, meaning that you benefit from your acquisitions straight away). Money is used to either buy staff or upgrades (staff can be traded in for permanent upgrades, keeping your deck fresh). Upgrading your tavern attracts nobles; nobles mean big scores and, unlike other deck builders, actually DO something. Once all trades have been made, the round marker moves on and, in a similar way to Quacks, each new round brings new benefits. As well as this, you also have a man at the monastery, who, as he moves around the track, brings even more benefits. It’s all very beneficial. And once you’ve played the base game a few times, there are four more modules to add. All out of the box.
Though I am sure he has at least a few more games in him (please), Taverns feels like a real peak, a synergistic combination of all his previous games refined – each time he makes a game, it seems to be informed by his previous releases. Can you draft cards and dice? Well, we did it in Ganz and the tokens worked in Quacks, so let’s stick them together.
Can we use a score tracker for anything else? Yeah, let’s make it a way to beef up your play. Could those boards be a bit more… dynamic? Let’s make almost anything on it a reversible jigsaw. How about more player interaction? Let’s get them fighting for the best dice… or the best dice for them. Then to throw in a bunch of expansions that could have been sold separately – now that’s really nice.
The great thing about Warsch’s work for me though is that he is a clearly a fan of games making games. He wants to make a game that he wants to play, and he is getting very good at it; very, very good at it. Will he over-tweak and go down the other side of the bell curve? Will he plateau? Will he keep rising? Who can say? All I know is that, if these are the games he likes, then he can keep on making them. It appears that they are the games I like too.