Posted by: gschloesser | August 6, 2011

Merchants of Amsterdam

Design by:  Reiner Knizia
Published by:  Jumbo
2 – 5 Players, 1 – 1 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Die Kaufleute von Amsterdam (Merchants of Amsterdam in English) loosely recreates a 100 year history of The Netherlands, tracing their rise and fall as an economic power. Players each compete to grab mastery in several locations: shipping, Amsterdam districts and regions of the world. Mastery is accomplished by gaining the majority or secondary status in these areas (hey, there’s an original concept!).

The game is yet another by prolific designer Reiner Knizia and is released internationally by Jumbo.  Rio Grande Games ultimately released the game in English after a considerable time delay.

The game has a lot going for it, but the one thing which immediately grabs your attention is the Dutch auction clock. I’d always heard the phrase ‘Dutch auction’, but never really knew exactly what it meant. Now, I have a much better idea. The game comes with an impressive and large octagonal timer. Players use this timer when bidding on the right to obtain certain privileges offered by a card. As the timer clicks away, players slap the clock to halt it at the price they are willing to pay for the card. This is a VERY neat mechanism which adds just the right amount of tension to the game, and ties in with the theme quite nicely. I’ve heard some utter complaints about the clock, stating that they prefer a straight auction / bidding method. I disagree. That method has been used ad nauseum in too many games. The auction clock is a breath of fresh air and, unless someone gets overly stressed by the tension the ‘ticking’ clock, should be a welcome change to the tired and now overused traditional bidding method.

That said, there is a nagging concern however. Games with mechanical parts scare me. Why? Well, mechanical parts tend to break. This auction clock may be especially susceptible to breakage as it requires players to slap it to halt its progress. I can’t imagine that, over time, repeated slapping is a good thing.  In fact, I’ve already heard of several incidents wherein the clock has, indeed, broken.  So what happens when the clock finally breaks? What are the odds of obtaining a replacement clock from a Dutch game company three to five years down the road? Probably not that good. I wonder if it would be worth purchasing an extra clock or two now and storing them for future use?

Back to the game. The mechanics are actually relatively simple, yet the choices can be tough. A deck of cards dictates the pace and progress of the game. Each turn, a player is the ‘burgermeister’ (mayor) and begins revealing the top card from the deck. Cards allow certain actions:

1) Hourglass: Move the time marker one space and take whatever actions or scoring triggered by the new space.

2) Shipping 3x: Allows the player obtaining the card to move his commodity markers up a total of three spaces on the shipping track.

3) Amsterdam District: Allows the player obtaining the card to place a new ‘warehouse’ in the indicated district in Amsterdam. Often, more than one district is highlighted, giving the player a choice. Further, the player may then move one of his commodity markers on the shipping track up one space.

4) World region: Allows the player obtaining the card to place a new marker in the indicated region of the world. Again, the player may have a choice of regions depending upon which regions are highlighted on the card. The player may then move his commodity marker on the shipping track up one space corresponding to the type of commodity upon which he placed his marker in the respective region.

The mayor reveals one card at a time and decides on whether to keep the card for himself, discard it or place it up for auction. This decision must be made before revealing the next card, which often results in a tough choice. Once a player places the card on the ‘keep’, ‘discard’ or ‘auction’ token, no further card may be placed on that token. So, do you keep this card, or hold out for a potentially better card. Watch out, though, as you may be stuck with a card you really didn’t want, or be forced to auction a card that you don’t want your opponents to have.

Actions are resolved in the following order: ‘discard’, ‘keep’ and ‘auction’. The placement of tokens into the Amsterdam districts, World regions or Shipping track is critical. When a scoring is triggered by the movement of the time marker, the player who has the majority or secondary position in these areas will receive cash pay outs. It always seems to be a balancing act as you try to acquire majority or secondary status in as many commodities, districts and regions as you possibly can. Tying for one of these positions depletes the pay out.

But there’s more here than just obtaining majority or secondary status. Leave it to Knizia to provide even more scoring mechanisms and enticements. There are various ‘bonus’ pay outs available:

1) Districts: A player who establishes at least one warehouse in each of the four Amsterdam districts receives a $100,000 pay out. Further, unlike the other areas on the board, having the majority of warehouses in a district doesn’t insure the largest payoff. Rather, players must concentrate on having the greatest number of contiguous (or adjacent) warehouses in the districts. This makes the decision on where to place a warehouse much more difficult.

2) Regions: A player who establishes at least one base in each of the four regions of the world receives a $100,000 pay out.

3) Commodities: A player who opens commodity markets in all four commodities and progresses them to at least the second level on the chart receives a free warehouse in Amsterdam.

4) Bridges: When establishing factories in Amsterdam, if a player establishes a factory on both sides of a bridge he receives a $40,000 bonus.

Be careful … these bonuses may not be permanent! Later in the game as Holland goes into decline, players are forced to remove markers from the various locations on the board. If this results in a player failing to meet the requirements for obtaining a bonus, that player must pay the bonus back to the bank! Ouch!

The auction method adds a neat twist to an already thought provoking, careful management game. Now, one must decide QUICKLY how much you are willing to spend to obtain a particular card. Not only that, one must also QUICKLY assess how much your opponent’s are likely to spend. In a ‘regular’ auction, there is time to ponder offers, make counter-offers, etc. With this noisy timer clicking its way down, there is little time for such bluffing and psychological warfare. Nope .. decide quickly and react before your opponents. It’s an added degree of tension that I thoroughly enjoy. To me, it takes the game out of the realm of the ordinary and makes it a bit more special. It is this mechanism, in combination with a genuinely decent game, which will cause Die Kaufleute to hit our table often.

The game progresses until the deck expires. There are enough ‘hourglass’ cards in the deck to traverse the entire period of history being reenacted, so players can plan on all scoring opportunities .. and setbacks .. which will occur. They just don’t know how quickly time will progress, which is also another ‘butterflies in the stomach’ mechanism which I enjoy. In spite of this timing uncertainty, every player will have the exact same number of turns as the mayor, so no one will have an unfair advantage in that regards. Sure, it is still possible that one player will get a bit luckier regarding the cards he reveals, but this hasn’t seemed to be a great problem in my half dozen games so far.

The game offers an apparently wide variety of strategies to pursue.  Clearly, one must obtain majority status .. or at least secondary status .. in as many scoring areas as possible.  This constantly poses the player with placement dilemmas.  Where to place?  Which commodity to increase?  Do you go for a placement which will secure a bonus, or do you instead concentrate on securing a majority in a region?  Further, there is always the nagging problem of just how much to bid for a card.  Bid too little, and you’ll fall behind on the race for majority status.  Bid too much, and you’ll not have enough money to win the game.  Tough decisions abound throughout the game.

When teaching the game to new players, I strongly encourage you to issue a powerful caveat: Don’t bid too much. The tension evoked by the auction clock has the tendency to force players to slap the mechanism too early, resulting in large pay outs to obtain a card. Resist this temptation. Otherwise, it is quite possible for a player to not bid at all and win the game. If players regularly allow the clock to dip below $150,000 or lower, then this ‘bid nothing to win’ strategy is doomed to failure.

My very first game of Die Kaufleute left me somewhat disappointed. Further playings, however, taught me to be a bit more conservative, as well as offered me glimpses of various strategies to employ. As a result, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the game and its nuances. I don’t think this ranks up there with Knizia’s elite games, but it is one which I enjoy playing and seems destined to have wide appeal. My wife has already played it and enjoyed it, so, for me, that gives the game greatly added appeal!

 

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Responses

  1. Could this be Knizia’s best themed game? Merchants of Amsterdam is framed by historic events that march toward the game’s end. I expected the noisy auction clock to interfere with gameplay, but instead it generates real excitement. There’s a metagame of watching other players for the slightest quiver–at what would have been the game’s most intellectual moments. For a moment, one becomes a child playing Perfection again, and that’s a huge compliment. (8/10)

  2. Area majority in three different things (world, items, city) at the same time. The reverse auction device. The turn track showing what is coming up. All things add together to make a fun game. You have to plan for the future and play for the present. Learning to gauge what others think things are worth is a challenge. 7/10


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