Posted by: gschloesser | July 29, 2011

Castle Merchants

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 DangerCastle 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 are not foolproof.  I will 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.

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