When I look back on my life and career, I am often filled with regret. Missed opportunities, poor choices, and paths untraveled. It all stems from an early decision I made to pursue writing as my ultimate goal. Knowing what I know now I would have gone in a different direction. I would have become a blacksmith. Or maybe an alchemist. Or trained to be the captain of a fleet of fishing vessels. Or even a time-traveling chronomancer, which would have given me the ability to go back in time and pick something else if that career didn’t pan out. If only there was a way for me to give all these disparate gigs a shot.
But wait! There’s a game that lets you try a different one of these jobs each time you play! Carl Van Ostrand, Johnny Pac, and Drake Villareal have designed Merchants Cove, which lets its players take four very different career paths in order to become the most successful specialized merchant. Are any of these jobs better than being a writer? Let’s find out together!
I’m going to attempt to be as brief as possible about how Merchants Cove plays. The game isn’t terribly complicated, but each of the characters uses different mechanisms.
The main board has information that is shared by all the players. The most important information is contained on the boats that will unload Adventurers onto sale piers once they reach their maximum capacity. Each pier has different restrictions for what can be sold there (large goods, small goods, and a Black Market where anything can be sold but it will include a penalty in the form of Corruption cards).
Players choose which boat Adventurers will ride on when their time piece passes specific spaces on the turn order clock. Every action in the game forces players to move either one or two spaces on the clock depending on the action. The player who is furthest back on the clock is always the active player.
Once all the piers are full, players will be able to sell their goods to the Customers. In terms of mechanics, the Customer meeples at each pier represent a multiplier that increases the value of a specific colored good. (Three Blue Wizard Customers at a single pier, for instance, means that any blue good is worth three times its base value.) Any Adventurers who don’t make it to a pier get sent to their respective Faction Hall, which will grant extra points to players who have done the work on their own player board to trigger that particular Market Sponsorship. (Don’t ask me to explain the theme behind that.)
The bulk of the scoring comes from understanding where these boats will go and what goods players should make the most of on a given turn. How do players make their goods, you ask? Well, that’s where the asymmetrical part of this “highly asymmetrical” game comes in.
There are four characters included in the base game and each one essentially uses a single, unique mechanism to drive their actions. All the characters share two basic actions:
- Recruiting Townsfolk, which triggers a one-time power before the card is placed under the player’s Staff board.
- Activating all their previously recruited Staff abilities.
Aside from that, all the actions the players take are entirely different and even impact the turn order clock at different speeds. The following is a brief overview of how each character handles their business.
You can do this, Sacco.)
The Blacksmith is probably the most straightforward of the characters. The player controlling him is largely playing a dice manipulation game to craft their goods. Certain spots on The Blacksmith’s player board require multiple dice to add up to a specific value, and the forge action turns those dice into colored goods.
The Alchemist uses a resource management system. There’s a neat marble Decanter on The Alchemist’s board and the player controlling her can only take marbles from it in a specific manner. These ingredients are then loaded into cauldrons and by combining them in various ways the player can make specific goods. There are also wild-colored marbles that can copy other ingredients, but cause Corruption if they become too abundant.
The player controlling the Chronomancer is actually moving two characters and playing a tile laying and activation game. The catch is that the two characters must move around the tiles in a clockwise manner and can block each other so choosing whom to move when is important.
For me, the Captain was the most frustrating character to play. Essentially, she’s playing a pickup and deliver game minus the delivery. The player controlling her will have to send ships out to certain locations on the board and either fish or search for treasure that can be sold to the merchants.
The game ends after three rounds (that’s trips around the clock) and any Corruption cards players have accumulated will subtract points from their scores based on the number of Rogues who have appeared throughout the game. (Rogues get onto boats in the same way as Customers, but don’t buy anything. They’re like that one cheap friend you had in college who always tagged along to late night meals, but somehow never remembered to bring their wallet. Just the worst.) Players will also score based on how many faction icons they have in the matching Adventurer colors. Whoever has the most gold wins.
Merchants Cover looks big when you finish setting it up. The main board is enormous even though it doesn’t contain that much information and every player has a pretty substantial board of their own to contend with. And, somehow, the game is actually fairly small; players do things on their personal game boards and occasionally glance up at the boats that are arriving and that’s pretty much it.
The four characters included in the base game all play very differently even though the end goal of creating goods remains the same. What is most interesting to me is that none of the four characters utilize new mechanisms. There’s resource swapping and tile laying and dice manipulation, but nothing that’s never been done before.
The fact that these disparate elements are used to react to things on the main board is probably Merchants Cove’s most innovative concept. Everyone not only shares the same information—which Adventurers are going to be on which of the three piers—but they can also manipulate this every time new Adventurers are drawn from the bag and ships need to be docked. This basically represents the only player interaction in the game since you can always see what items your competitors have for sale. That knowledge might impact one’s decision about when and where to send a specific boat.
Still, the game is largely a multiplayer solitaire endeavor, so much so that it almost never makes sense to even inspect other players’ items because the Customers players sell to don’t go away once they’ve purchased something. Even if my opponent has a lot of green goods for sale, the Green Customer (they’re called Bards, I think, because theme!) will still buy as many green goods as I want to sell them on the same turn.
The designers have created four individual Euro games that deal with a single market and that in and of itself is pretty ingenious. Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily think that the game is as cohesive as it needs to be. I was often so wrapped up in figuring out the best ways to manipulate my own board that I never once concerned myself with other people’s turns. And then when it’s time to add Adventurers to the boats and decide if you want to send them to the piers, it’s very rare that you won’t choose the option that lines up best with the items you’ve already created.
The four characters do seem to be relatively balanced, but it should be noted that there is a minor debate online among people who’ve mentioned a few timing cost inconsistencies. While it’s interesting to dive into a new character each play, not all of them are equally engaging. The Blacksmith is very straightforward to the point of almost being uninteresting, while The Captain is frustratingly bogged down by a resetting board state and a bizarre spin-and-gain mechanism.
I’ll also add that I found the solo mode pretty challenging and fun to play. That might be because even with other humans around the table, Merchants Cove still feels like you are playing the solo variant of whatever character you’ve chosen to be.
Going into my early plays of Merchants Cove I was anticipating a much more complicated interaction between each player’s personal board and the larger shared market that everyone must contend with. That interaction isn’t really there but I’m not convinced if that’s a flaw of the design or a flaw in the way I approached my early plays.
All in all, I think that the sum of Merchants Cove is actually less than its parts, especially considering that the weakest mechanism of the game is when all of the players come together to sell their goods. Since the Customers don’t disappear after a player sells to them it means that all players will be able to maximize their sale value every turn. Maybe if there was some incentive to selling goods first, it would have made this section of the game more competitive and added an extra layer of depth.
(My wife, who for the most part enjoyed the game, was often annoyed when she sold a good to a Customer and then watched that tiny wooden meeple turn around and buy something from another player. “Whatever happened to customer loyalty?” she’d ask.)
Merchants Cove is both a fascinating exercise in game design and something of an underwhelming experience. Having varied individual mechanisms is neat, but ultimately that part of the design is asymmetric without necessarily being innovative. The game is definitely good, mind you, but it isn’t as good as it probably could have been and is very much lacking in the often overlooked “fun department.” The mechanisms all work together pretty cleanly, and the rules overhead isn’t terrible (aside from having to teach different roles to new players), but it does feel like there’s a spark missing somewhere that could have really made the game stand out from the rest of the pack.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – An inventive take on a variety of mid-weight mechanisms that, while good, doesn’t quite come together fully.
• Main selling mechanism is bland
• Teaching new players different roles is a bit of a chore
• Some minor balancing issues
• Certain mechanisms seem superfluous to the overall design