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Players take on the roles of merchants during the Medieval period trying to sell their wares to the various castles in the land. Each castle has certain goods they are interested in obtaining and the first merchants to visit a castle receives a better profit for their goods than the late comers. Driving their horse carts around the countryside the merchants have to navigate different paths as the landscape changes during their journey. It will be up to each merchant to decide the best course of action and path to take. One thing they all have to be wary of traveling these paths is unstable regions where a rock slide can make a path impassable. Odds are they will need to navigate back to the warehouse and refill their cart with goods before the days work is through. The first merchant that manages to fill their purse with 18 gold pieces wins the game!
All right, I'll be honest; when I first read through the rules of Castle Merchants (Z-Man Games , 2005 - Jerry Dziuba), I was less than impressed. Moving goods around from castle to castle really sounded like a drab affair, even though I heard that the game was an excellent "gateway" game. Armed with this information, I introduced the game to some new players and waited to see the reaction. The game has elements of a racing game, and I was curious to see how it tied together with the theme.
And to my surprise, the game went over quite well. In the beginning of the game, I was a little concerned about the amount of luck, and the low amount of actions a player could take on their turn. Yet, over the course of the games I've played, I've seen people get amazing mileage out of their cards, laugh as they messed over someone else, and most importantly, have a lot of fun. The level of interaction is high, and players can pull off some nifty combos. The strategy is not overwhelming, as players basically have to deal with the cards they draw; but forward planning is possible, and the game is much more than luck.
Each player is given a reference card that also acts as their "cart" - on which they place one each of five different goods (cheese, jewels, weapons, cloth, and wine). Each player also receives two to four rock slide tiles, depending on how many players are playing; and the rest of the path tiles (castle path, village path, mountain path, field path, forest path, and rock slide) are placed next to the board in sorted piles - each pile corresponding with one number of a six-sided die. A board is placed on the table made up of a grid of hexagonal spaces, connecting five Castles and a Warehouse, where each player places a pawn of their color. Each Castle corresponds to one of the five goods that players are delivering and has a number of gold coins placed in them according to a table on the board (gold coins are valued from "1" to "5"). A deck of sixty path cards that correspond to the path tiles is shuffled, with six dealt to each player. One player is chosen to go first, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.
On a player's turn, they have two options. They can either play one
rock slide tile onto any space on the board, causing that space to be
impassible, then draw one card. Or, they can play cards to take
actions (and also play one rock slide tile, if they wish). The
actions they can take are these (actions can be taken multiple times,
if a player wishes):
- Play a card to place a matching path tile onto any empty space on the board.
- Play a card to move their pawn onto a path tile that matches the card played. Players may move along multiple path tiles if they are all the same type.
- Play any two cards to remove a path tile from the board.
- Play any two cards to roll a six-sided die. They may then remove a tile that matches that number from the board, rearrange one tile of that type - moving it to a different space, or add one more tile to the board of that type.
Once a player has taken the actions they wish, they draw up to three cards to refill their hand, keeping to the six card hand limit.
If a player moves into a castle, using any type of card, they may sell the ware that castle desires, placing it back in the warehouse, and take the highest gold coin still in that castle. This ends a player's turn. A player can also opt to not take a gold coin, instead, refilling their hand to six cards. If a player moves into the "meadow" (central hex), they can stop and draw up to six cards. A player can also do that if they enter the warehouse, as well as refill any goods that they may have sold already. Players continue to move around the board and sell goods until one player equals or exceeds eighteen gold - at which point they are declared the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: I enjoy the layout of the game, and it has nice, functional components. That being said, the components were a little less than I have come to expect from modern games, with the round terrain tiles being thinner than I would like, and having only a plain white back. The pawns and die were also rather generic; although once the game got going, I didn't really care too much. The board, however, is very nicely done - with nice graphics - and even has a scoring track around the outside for those who can't count their gold pieces. It is a bit odd to see a castle that is constantly on the lookout for cheese, but I do understand the urge for wanting that fine cuisine. Everything very easily fits inside the large square box - almost rattling around inside.
2.) Rules: The four page rulebook is very clear on exactly how to play the game with a full page example of how to play the game. I will say that from the initial reading, I quickly understood the mechanics of the game and how to play but didn't grasp the overall picture - the fact that the game is basically a race. When I explain it to others that way, the entire concept is much easier to assimilate, and I have no problem at all. The artwork, reference cards, and board all lend themselves to understanding the game; and I had very few questions when teaching it - even to teenagers.
3.) Race: As stated above, the game is basically a race. Yes, it's not a race in the typical meaning of the word; but as you quickly attempt to get your caravan around the board and grab gold, the player who does this the fastest will be the winner. The game is all about speed and borrows a clever mechanic from Odin's Ravens by allowing a player to treat adjacent, equivalent terrain as one space. This means that if a player can set themselves up a nice path then can quickly zoom down it with only a few cards. Players will most likely have to go back to the warehouse at least once on their journey; and must decide whether or not it is more profitable to run out to the more lucrative, yet farther Castles, or to go to the closer, less profitable Castles.
4.) Interaction: The game has players directly affecting one another with their play. This is mainly done through the usage of the Rock Tiles, which can effectively stop an opponent dead in their tracks if they don't have the correct cards to maneuver around it. One fun tactic is to zoom across some nicely laid paths on the board then drop a rock tile in the middle so that no one else can take the same route. The evilness of the rock tiles is somewhat diluted by the fact that players only get a few of them each game. Also, while rare, a player can possibly remove them by discarding two cards, hoping they roll a "6". But rock slides are not the only way to affect an opponent. Sliding into a castle before they do to snag a gold coin, messing up their emerging paths with a different type, and moving a tile out of the middle of a long path of the same path tiles are other ways for players to interact.
5.) Cards: A player starts with a hand of six cards and can play as many as they want per turn but can only draw replacement cards up to three if finished. This means that if I play all six of my cards the first turn, I am effectively reduced to only using three cards on future turns, unless I wait a turn and simply draw one card, slowly increasing my hand back to six. Playing six cards at a time seems like a wonderful idea, usually, as it allows a player to accomplish a short term goal. But players must trade off getting achieving this small success with being hamstrung for the next several turns. There are ways around this, with players attempting to reach the meadow, or even trading a good to increase their hand back up. This, I think, is the heart of the tactical decisions to be made in the game. It's not about laying paths down and moving on them; it's about card management. He who manages their cards best will win the race.
6.) Fun Factor: Some people might be put off by the very interactive "take that" feature of gameplay, as players can really mess up an opponent. However, I find that this is much milder than it sounds, because a player has to take away from their own precious movements to do it. Don't get me wrong - I will gladly mess you up if you are in the lead, and I think it will help me catch back up. The whole aspect of the game is fun in this regard; and while the theme may be one of delivering goods to castles, there's a lot more than that in this enjoyable race.
So yes, I consider this fun game to be an enjoyable racing game, as players seek to stop one another while at the same time coasting around the countryside making good deliveries. It's easy to get into and play and only takes about forty-five minutes for a full game, making it an excellent one to teach new folks. Components are slightly lackluster, but the nice board and competitive play make up for it. Delivering cheese to the castle was never this much fun!
"Real men play board games"
Designer: Jerry Dziuba
Publisher: Z-Man Games
2 - 4 Players, 45 minutes - 1 hour
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
NOTE: This review first appeared in Counter Magazine
Designed by Jerry Dziuba – better known by his online pseudonym Nick Danger – Castle Merchants from Z-Man Games is a bit of an enigma. When I first played, I found the game somewhat frustrating. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of control, and one’s fate was mostly determined by the cards drawn. No one at the table thought very highly of the game, and one was quite outspoken about his dislike for it.
In spite of this experience, I had an inkling that there was something more there. A discussion with the designer also heightened this suspicion. Subsequent playings have, indeed, revealed that there is more here than meets the eye, and players do have a bit more control than I initially thought.
Castle Merchants is set in the popular world of medieval times. Players represent merchants traveling the countryside to deliver their wares to the various castles in the realm. The land they must traverse is unknown, and skillful play of cards will allow the merchants to safely pass and beat their competition to the castles.
The board depicts a hexagon grid upon which players will place terrain tiles of five types. They then must play cards of the matching types to traverse these tiles. Five castles ring the realm, and each desires a specific type of good. Successful delivery of a good yields points for the player. These points range from 2 – 5, with the more valuable rewards being located at the more distant castles. Along the top of the board the terrain tiles are sorted by type, with each type arranged above a 1 – 6 numerical chart.
Each player begins the game with five wares in his cart, six terrain cards, and from 2 –4 rock tiles, depending upon the number of players. Rock tiles are played to block paths, and usually force players to take a longer route to their goal.
Each turn, a player may play a rock tile, followed by as many cards as he desires. Cards are played to lay the corresponding terrain tile to the board, as well as to move across tiles. Separate cards must be played to lay the tile and to move onto it. This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the game, as far too often a player possesses the cards to lay the tiles, but then no longer has the matching cards to move onto them. Frustration levels can rise as a player can often go turn after turn not drawing the card he needs. There are ways to manipulate the tiles, but these aren’t foolproof. I’ll explain that aspect of the game shortly.
A key movement tactic is laying several identical tiles in a row, then playing a matching card to move across ALL of those tiles with the play of that one card. This can allow a player to speed across large sections of the board. Of course, the player must have the correct combination of cards, which isn’t something easy to accomplish. This generally takes luck, or numerous turns hoarding cards in hopes of collecting numerous identical cards. Since one’s hand limit is six cards, though, this still requires a considerable amount of good fortune.
Another option on a player’s turn is to play two cards and remove one tile (excluding a rockslide tile) from the board. Sometimes this gets a difficult tile out of the way, allowing the player to play a card and place a more desirable tile in its place. Alternatively, the player may play two cards and roll the terrain die. He may then either place a tile corresponding to the number rolled, move a tile of that type to a new location, or even remove one of that type from the board. This can be useful, but it is risky, as the results of the roll are naturally random. This is the only way in which a rockslide tile can be moved or removed, as the rockslides lie at the number ‘6’ position on the chart.
If a player successfully reaches a castle, he may deliver the desired ware and take the highest-valued point token as a reward. Alternatively, the player may deliver the ware and elect to refill his hand to six cards. In the vast majority of cases, the point token will be selected, as the first player to reach 18 points wins the game. However, there are times when re-filling one’s hand can be more advantageous. Additionally, if a player ends his turn in a castle, he may roll the terrain die and exercise the same options described above.
A player ends his turn by drawing new cards equal to the number he played during the turn, but only up to a maximum of three cards. Thus, if a player plays more than three cards on a turn, he will find his hand capacity reduced for quite some time. In order to refill one’s hand to its full capacity of six cards, the player must return to the warehouse (where new goods can also be acquired), reach the center “meadow” hex, or surrender a ware in a castle as described earlier. Generally, most players will seek to exercise one or more of these methods during the course of the game, as possessing a full hand of six cards give the players far more options.
Another option a player has on his turn is to do nothing, save the possible play of one of his rockslide tiles, and simply draw one new card. This is a long, painful path to refill one’s hand, but sometimes it is necessary, especially when you are surrounded by tiles for which you have no matching cards, or if you have only a few cards in your hand.
Based on the distribution of point tokens, it is very, very unlikely that a player will be able to amass the necessary 18 points without having to return to the warehouse to refill his cart. It is possible, but that would require the player being the first to visit just about every castle. That is improbable. So, at some point, a player will be forced to return to the warehouse. While there, he may refill his cart with wares, and refill his hand to six cards. When to return and when to push on is an important decision, and could easily spell the difference between victory and defeat. It is sort of like making a pit stop in a car race. You have to do it, but when you do, your opponents have the opportunity to scoot ahead of you.
Due to the distribution of the point tokens and the fact that victory goes to the first player to amass 18 points, the game is essentially a race. While there is a temptation to wait until you amass a handful of needed cards, the hand limit and race aspect discourages players from spending too many turns accumulating cards. You must get to the castles fairly quickly, lest your opponents scoop the more valuable point tokens. Sometimes you can deliberately trail your opponents and utilize the pathway they have constructed. This isn’t foolproof, however, as it requires you to have the matching cards in your possession. Most of the time you will be building your own pathways, or at least attempting to manipulate existing ones.
There is no doubt that I enjoy the game now far more than I did after than initial playing. I have come to appreciate the various methods one can use to partially overcome the luck of the draw. I say “partially” as these methods are not certain, as they too can rely on random factors. While the designer may disagree, I still say that fortune still plays a major role in the outcome of the game. Tactics can help, and will quite likely be decisive in many games, but good fortune can still be the deciding factor in a fair share of matches. That won’t sit well with many folks who desire more control. For those who don’t mind a fair dose of luck in their games, however, Castle Merchants is worth investigating.