Before I begin I was provided a prototype copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. This is NOT a paid preview. If you would prefer to see a video preview, you can check it out below. You can get your own copy of the game here.
You can see a video preview here (note this is a very early video so it has odd camera angle and sound)
Arguably the biggest buzzword in gaming the past few years has been “asymmetrical”. You can’t throw a virtual rock in kickstarter without hitting an asymmetric game. Heck, the reigning game of the year according to practically everyone is Root, which is perhaps the most asymmetric game ever.
For those of you that do not know what I am talking about, basically, in a truly asymmetric game every play plays extremely, if not completely, differently. They often have different game mechanics, often score points differently. Often they are really challenging to teach.
The beauty of these games is that they have an INSANE replay value, because each faction, or character is so different you are playing a uniquely different game.
Now Merchants Cove is the most asymmetric game I have come across since I first discovered Root, and Vast (Sentinels of the Multiverse is a distant second). In this game, each player is a different vendor in Merchants Cove. Over the course of three days each player will attempt to sell their wares to the incoming customers (who show up on sick meeple-boats), and at the end of three days, whomever makes the most money wins.
Each player has their own mechanics on how they gain the goods they are trying to sell. The alchemist has a marble placement mechanic, that in many ways operates like a game of potion explosion. The Blacksmith uses a dice placement, math-y mechanic. The Chronomancer (and his plucky assistant) uses a tile placement mechanic. While the Captain uses a worker placement mechanic, utilizing a spinner for movement. Then there are the two expansion characters; the innkeeper, and Oracle who utilize their own mechanics. (My preview copy did not include the latter two so I cannot speak to them).
Note: Since this preview a third extra character has been added-The Dragon Rancher. I have gotten to play both the Oracle and Dragon Rancher and they are both delights. The Oracle uses a roll and write mechanic, while the Dragon Rancher is a mix of Mancala and Pac-man. The Innkeeper creates his own mini economy in his inn.
Each day players take their unique actions (or they can hire townsfolk to work in their shops…probably at minimum wage…or if they are artists for “exposure”). Each of their actions costs the player a set amount of hours. As players move their tokens around the clock more and more customers (colored meeples) show up in the boats.
As the boats fill, they will dock at one of three docks. Whatever dock they go to will determine if they will be looking to buy large goods or small goods. There is also the option to sell on the “Black Market”, but if you do that you earn corruption (which is worth negative points at the end of the game). At the end of each day is the market phase, which allows players to sell their goods if they wish to, or they can wait for a, potentially better crowd another day. Once goods have been sold players can also earn points for sponsoring one of the various guilds (colors of meeples) whose guild halls have slowly been filling up as the game progresses.
So what do I think?
Most everything. I adore this game. The beauty of this game is that I liked it the first time I played it. Unlike so many other highly asymmetric games, you are able to just learn YOUR character, because how the other characters play does not effect your strategy, for the most part. In Root, for example, you really need to understand how the other factions play to really grasp what is going on, and that can be daunting and challenging. (For the record, after playing a few times I now REALLY like Root and think it is certainly worthy of its accolades).
Each of the characters is its own mini game, and all of them are a delight to manage. Even if only one of these mini games were the core mechanic of all the characters, if would STILL be a delightful game, yet here you are getting four, or six. That is amazeballs.
Next, I think the components are top notch, keep in mind I only received a prototype copy and the components were still in the top echelon of game components (clearly I am not counting Chip Theory Games, cause their stuff is a whole new level of components). The meeple boats are super cool, and the board is gorgeous and the card quality is already high.
Finally, I already alluded to this, but the replay value is off the charts. Not only do you have the character variety, but the game also comes with various “Rogue” cards which change the rules for the grey meeples. Each different rogue card will change what happens when a grey meeple is drawn from the bag. Just by changing one of these cards, you will have a different experience, even if you play with the exact same characters.
Edit: Since I did this review I have gotten to play with the updated solo mode, as well as several of the story based scenarios. I think both of these are FANTASTIC, and make a great game better.
I have already praised the artwork on the board, and I stand by that. It is stunning. I did find that the artwork of the characters seems to not completely mesh, they feel as if the styles of them are just a little bit different. On their own they are great pieces of art, they just don’t quite jive for me. I will also say that I found the Alchemist to be a bit necessarily “boob-tastic”.
Second, I will say that this game has a whackingly ginormous table footprint. It takes up a ton of space, and might be hard to play on a smaller table.
Now to be fair, I only got to see an early draft of the rules, but the rules needed a lot of revision for clarity and ease of reading. I will also add that it has already been confirmed that a professional editor will be reworking the rules, which should fix this issue. I will say that I have never heard any complaints about the rules for any other FFG games, so this one might be “much ado about nothing.”
Bringing it all together
Merchants Cove is a brilliant asymmetric euro game. Each character is its own delightful mini-game, that does not require you to understand what everyone else can do in order to have a chance to win. The early version of the rules need revision, but after it gets an editing pass they should be clear. The components are top notch, and with the exception of some of the art not quite feeling matched, and the alchemist being a bit “booby”. The solo mode is easy to manage and adds an incredible amount of depth to the game, and the solo scenarios add an amazing challenge. I think that Merchants Cove will likely be the best euro game of 2020.
The game takes place in three days, why does it take me four to read that review?
- Incredible game play, each character is its own unique mini game
- Top notch components
- Awesome “time” mechanic, that is something I have never seen
- Overall art is good, though I think there is a a slight miss on the Alchemist character artwork, but the rest I enjoy-especially the board
- Incredible replay value
- Early rule set needs a revision
- Game takes up a ton, not just a ton a metric ton of space
- Did I mention the meeple boats?
- I predict this is going to be one of the best games of the year