This is a guest post from Dawn Hilbert.
I saw the deluxe version of Merchants of the Dark Road at Origins this year, but you never know whether you’ll play a game enough to justify the extra cost. After looking with longing at the dual-layer player board—a wagon—metal coins and screen-printed player tokens, I eventually bought the basic game, tucked away on a bottom shelf at the back of the booth.
After a few plays, I have decided Merchants has quite a bit of replay value, especially if you can get 3 or 4 players to the table. The various mechanics aren’t complex in themselves, but devising a strategy to make good use of them can be difficult.
The game uses dice in several creative ways, primarily to serve as worker placement tokens and to pay for movement on the road that circles the capital city of Lumi.
Merchants of the Dark Road is an economic game set in a medieval fantasy world, designed by Brian Suhre and published by Elf Creek Games. The art by Andrew Bosley stands out on the main board, which is dark and moody, reflecting the lantern-lit winter world of Lumi. Merchants plays 2-4 players (best with 3-4) and takes about 2 hours to play.
The game is played in 13 rounds, using fewer dice each round, so that your plays are somewhat limited by the time you reach the final three rounds.
You play a merchant with a wagon and steed. You’ll be picking up commissions, goods, and people (heroes) in the capital city of Lumi, and then delivering them to the outlying towns.
When you travel to an outlying town, you can caravan by inviting other merchants to travel with you. If they have heroes or commissions to deliver to the region you’ve chosen, they may come along, sharing the journey’s risks to make deliveries of their own.
Before you travel, you will make one or more circuits of the capital, picking up goods at the Grand Bazaar or the Dark Market, grabbing commissions from the Queen, or stopping at the Ringway Inn for heroes. Heroes have to be paid to join, even though they’re hoping to hitch a ride to one of the towns.
When you are ready to travel, you’ll stop at Yurg’s Excursions, invite other merchants to join your caravan, and pick up a special companion. Travel is risky, and you must choose whether to try a shortcut for a better payout or take the normal route on the Dark Road. Then you roll travel dice to determine losses or rewards. Finally, you will deliver your commissions and heroes for prestige, money, and special benefits.
At the end of the 13th round, the lesser of your money or prestige becomes your base score, and end-game victory points are added from deed cards you’ve collected throughout the game.
There’s the usual amount of setup for a game of this weight, with cards or tiles for all of the following: magic locations, deeds, commissions, heroes, routes, guides, and steeds. Dice are used in nearly all parts of the game. There are attractive, spendable, lantern and horseshoe tokens (both of which mitigate dice values) and nicely designed cardboard money tokens.
Choosing a die for your play is fraught with tension: first, its position on your board determines what extra action or bonus you’ll receive, and second, it gives you its face value in movement points. This took all players the most decision-making time and effort, partly because as you make your play, your reserve pool of dice serves to set up a future move.
One possible extra action lets you activate a special illuminated die that gives you the ability to visit two adjacent sites in the capital AND collect an item from a magic location. But an illuminated die may only be used once; if you want the “double turn” ability again, you’ll have to travel to the outlying areas to find another one. I like this mechanic—it’s a powerful die, but too difficult to obtain for it to be overused.
Much of your play consists of collecting items for future deliveries—commissions pay off in prestige, upgraded goods pay off in money, while delivered heroes pay in some combination of the two. This sounds a little dreary: making repeated circuits of the city collecting one thing here and one thing there. It’s not tedious—I was planning two moves ahead at all times. And with 3-4 players, someone is constantly putting a caravan together, giving you a shot at travel and danger!
The Grand Bazaar is a fun magnetic rondel, where both pricing and availability of goods can be manipulated, so it’s not too difficult to gain the goods you’ll need to fulfill a commission. The dice mechanism can sometimes let you double up on goods at no additional cost. I had no trouble getting the goods I wanted, but a couple of other players at the table were running a lean wagon and complained about scarcity.
Resources, unfilled commissions, and hired heroes all have storage limits on your wagon, requiring strategic decisions. The steeds may be magic, but the wagons are not. Upgrades to the wagons are few and minor.
Timing can be important at the Ringway Inn since everyone is eyeing the same heroes. Two of our players kept up a running narrative about the behavior of the bards and wizards in the hero pool. I found the logic of the heroes odd – you must “bribe” or “hire” them with any of the goods they require, but these goods get sold back to the supply, paying you money. It’s the chief way to earn money.
Leading a caravan is more fun with several players; we went on some journeys with most of the group; on others, the lead merchant went alone. Though the leader gets better rewards, it felt worthwhile to join the caravan if you had anything at all to deliver. Spending lanterns to use a shortcut has higher risks but higher rewards, as well.
One minor quibble though. For me, the game failed thematically on the Heroes mechanism. The hiring of heroes was actually about selling goods for money and it felt off, thematically, though some of our players enjoyed the heroes’ classes and art. This is a minor complaint, though, since the mechanic worked perfectly well.
If you like economic or pick-up-and-deliver games, especially with fantasy themes, you’ll enjoy Merchants of the Dark Road. It operates with different mechanisms in each part of the city. Travel to the outlying towns feels thematic, and it offers a change of scene from making rounds of the capital (literally a change of scene since it’s well separated from the rest of the board).
Final Score: 4 Stars – As a medieval merchant in the dark fantasy world of Lumi, you’ll need skill and traveler’s luck to win at Merchants of the Dark Road.
• The Grand Bazaar felt overdesigned for the actual difficulty of getting goods.
• The hiring of heroes didn’t feel thematic.