Early buzz on Medieval Merchant (Pfeffersacke in Germany) said that the game passed through railroad and airline themes before landing in medieval times, and that heritage is immediately apparent. The game carries little mechanical connection to its ostensible theme, which more than usually so for German games stands out as being a thin veneer slapped on after the fact. The game could just as easily be called Starbucks. Indeed, a theme of coffee shops spreading throughout the land would actually have more resonance to a modern (American) player. The game casts players as merchants setting up shop in European villages and towns. Initially players start in one of the boardís twenty villages. From there, players travel to other villages and towns to hang a shingle and vie for money or victory points. Each town has a value (2-8) representing both its worth in victory points and the number of market stalls it can accommodate (villages allow only a single stall from a single player). A correspondingly numbered set of cardboard disks a little larger than a silver dollar is randomly distributed among the players. Initially all city gates are closed. Each turn a player opens a city by placing a disk onto a city of the same value. Until a cityís gates are opened with a disk, nobody can pass through or open up shop there.
Players expand their mercantile network via the elaborate route system shown on the board. Each path carries with it a toll which must be paid when traveled. Roads connecting cities tend to carry high costs, while roads linking to a village are cheaper. Only one route can be used per turn, so networks expand slowly and deliberately. Often a destination can be reached through a quick but expensive direct route, or through a cheap, slow route via one or more villages. In this game, time really is money. Thereís a strong incentive to spread as quickly and widely as possible, not the least of which is a bonus awarded at the end of the game for each of the boardís ten regions youíve reached.
When a player reaches a new city, he occupies a stall by placing one of his colored wooden houses on that cityís disk. At the start of each turn, players get income for the number of unoccupied stalls in that town. A player can forego income from a town in exchange for extending his franchise there (placing another building on the disk). If one player gets more than half the possible number of stalls, he claims the cityís disk & victory points. If the city fills up without such a majority, the player with the most buildings there (or the earliest one, if tied) scores- but only half the townís value.
Most good games are, at their heart, about tough choices. The two recurring struggles at the core of Medieval Merchant both relate to money. Thereís the cash/speed tradeoff mentioned earlier and the cash/victory points dilemma described above. Itís good to solidify oneís position in a town, but the sooner you do so the more income you lose. Itís a game of brinkmanship and waiting for your opponent to blink- except that if he does, itís usually too late for you.
Usually, but not always. Each player has two vouchers, each of which can be turned in to double oneís total income, travel twice in a single turn, or expand franchises twice in a turn. Judicious use of these vouchers can change the tide. Merely holding onto one after all opponents have used theirs can create a deep psychological edge. The untapped voucher tends to dissuade opponents from ďwastingĒ their efforts against such a player.
The game ends once the last town or village scores- a key conjunction, that ďorĒ, as the pressure of one trigger can spur action on the other. The regional bonus is awarded, leftover cash is converted 20:1 into victory points, and the winner announced.
Medieval Merchant doesnít appear to be broken, but for various reasons neither does it truly click. This is a game that demands a base level of competence from all players. Like Modern Art, having one sub-par player can unbalance the game in favor of someone else. In this case, the problem arises if someone fails to encroach on a rivalís cash cow town, thereby allowing the rival to sit back and collect lots of income. Without expending vouchers, players can only execute one plan per turn. I might dearly want to slip into that rivalís town, but be physically unable to get there while neighboring Mr. Oblivious is happily expanding in the other direction.
After three plays, the NW corner seems to be a potent place to start. Itís well isolated, allowing a player with the right disks to set up shop there unmolested for the early part of the game unless opponents make a diligent effort to move in. The player starting there won two out of three, and only lost the third because a bad tile draw left him trapped until the last disk set him free. If heíd gotten out earlier, heíd have swamped us. Imbalanced? Iím not sure yet, but itís something to watch for.
Some people have concerns about the random tile distribution. Rio Grande offers this alternate setup to address it: instead of dividing the tiles into two groups, divide them as shown below and deal them evenly from each group.
|3||(7/8) (one 4/5/6) (2/3/4)|
|5||(6/7/8) (two 4/5) (2/3/4)|
|6||(one 5/6/7/8) (3/4/5) (2)|
Perhaps the most insightful critique offered by one of our players is that moves made early in the game have a far greater impact than those made later on, rendering the endgame anticlimactic. Instead of starting slowly and building to a dramatic, fierce finish, the gameís action and most significant decisions are front-loaded. This renders mistakes hard to recover from, and relegates the last few turns to simple mopping up of loose ends. The game peters out with a whimper instead of concluding with a flourish.
That said, the game does allow for a variety of strategies- the cash king, the regional spread, the quick point grab, the rapid expansion ploy, etc. With so few actions available each turn the game rattles along briskly. I may not be chomping at the bit to play again, but Medieval Merchant is still hovering in the sweet spot of games I donít feel Iíve fully explored, and if I had to give it the Siskel & Ebert treatment my thumb would be up.