Tactics & Tactility #5 – The Clairvoyance of Failure

Doomed Drinks, Magical Maths, Abstract Fingers
Matt Lees 18 comment(s)

[Tactics and Tactility is our column about the feelings, details and pleasures of tabletop gaming. This week Ava is looking at Quacks of Quedlinberg and the perils of prediction.]

Ava: I’m a potion maker, I’ve got a bag of secret ingredients. There’s magic spilling everywhere. In this moment, I know the exact odds of failure, and I make the fatal mistake. I say it out loud.

‘There’s only one thing that can kill me, and there’s loads in here. Knowing my luck, I’m doomed.’

I pull out that one ingredient, my cauldron explodes, and so does the table. A wave of sympathy and laughter. Of course I did the thing. A one in six chance was the only possible outcome.

Quacks of Quedlinberg is a simple push your luck game wrapped in the right trappings to take it off the table and into your hearts. It’s built out of simple probabilities, a little calculation, and the illusion of control. You pull tiny cardboard chits out of the soft, black bag you’ve built for yourself. You always know exactly how many of the dreaded berries inside can ruin everything.

For most of the round, you’re fine, you just pull and pull and pull. Then you hit the danger point. Suddenly, the security is gone, and you’re really playing the game.

Are you going to risk it? Are you going to take one more pull? There’s one, two, maybe three things that could kill you. But you can feel roughly what the odds are. Actually feel them. With your fingers. It’s not abstract numbers, it’s the little bits of cardboard that dance across your fingertips, hiding in corners and bumping against each other.

All of this would be pointless, if board games weren’t so social. Sat around a table, it’s almost impossible not to talk. You want to share the drama with your friends, it’s what you all sat down for. So of course, you start talking about how you’re doing.

And you start predicting.

The fun (and occasionally dreadful) thing about humanity is that we always remember the unlikely thing, particularly if it’s also the bad thing. My memory of Quacks is almost entirely made up of me saying ‘I’ve got a one in six chance of failure, so obviously that’s going to happen’ and then promptly blowing up my cauldron. It’s a trick of the mind, but it’s a joyful trick.

There’s already something magic about pretending these cardboard chits are important, and there’s even more magic in pretending we have control over them. Pretending what we say matters. There’s a reason the game is about potions and  magic and fortune tellers and witches. It’s all part of the theatre, it wants you to think you’re magic.

Istanbul’s gambling den begs you to indulge your predictive fatalism. It asks you to pick a number you can beat with two simple dice. Everyone knows the odds, what should be safe (pick it and you’ll roll high, of course), what’s an enormous gamble (you’ll just fall one shy, of course). There’s a cruel interplay between our understanding of the maths involved, and the bit of our heart that tells us everything happens for a reason.

This sort of magical thinking is genuinely dangerous, but a special thing about games is that they make the dangerous safe. You get to toy with your own approach to the world, overestimate and underestimate and fiercely estimate the future. You take your fate in your hands and you pour the dice onto the table and play with the fire you could never control.

But it’s only a game. You don’t get burnt. You just roar and moan and laugh and let go. You get to make mistakes. It’s all for the sake of the drama, the table, the moment.

The moment when you tell everyone you’re so very wrong, and you’re exactly right. Games are the artistic application of theatre, mathematics and magic. An alchemical rack of machines built to refine a group of people into a set of stories. Say it out loud and take part in the magic. Win or lose, you’re part of the story now.


So folks, what’s the most magical thing that happened to you playing a game? What’s the story about your precognitive powers you always like to revel in? When did you promise yourself failure, and get it?