Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Merchants of Amsterdam
I like to think my internal compass is fairly well attuned to board game north; that my finger rests on, or moderately near, the pulse of the game-playing public. I’m not saying that everyone will like what I like, but in the hobbyist arena my tastes have seemed fairly representative. Rarely has my opinion clashed with the apparent consensus as with Reiner Knizia’s The Merchants of Amsterdam, a game I hold in higher regard than do other reviewers.
The focus of most discontent has been the mechanized auction clock, the central gimmick of the game. Each turn of the game involves a Dutch auction, in which the price starts high and gradually decreases until someone bites. The clock, similar to the wind-up timers seen in many party games, handles both the countdown and the buzz-in process. The first player to slap the dial stops the clock and wins the auction. Critics have had two major complaints about the clock, the first pertaining to its durability. The clock takes a lot of abuse as players race to slap it before rivals do, often with great force. Some players have reported breaking their clocks after only a couple of games. Original publisher Jumbo, and now Rio Grande, have offered to replace broken clocks at no charge. The clock in my set has worked flawlessly, and should continue to do so as long as players treat it carefully.
The other complaint concerns ergonomics. With the game board occupying the center of the table, it’s difficult to place the clock within convenient reach of all players. The severity of the problem will depend on what kind of table and seating arrangement you use. We place the clock in front of the mayor (current player), so everyone gets home seat advantage an equal number of times.
Some people just don’t like the reflex element of slapping the timer, believing it to be out of place in a strategy game. I think it fits just fine, especially given the theme, but I understand the sentiment. If you’re adamant, you can ditch the clock and have players secretly write down their desired price. An auctioneer then counts down and when he names someone’s price, that player shows his written bid to prove it (ties going to the player closest to the auctioneer). This accomplishes the same goal in terms of driving the game forward, but loses the tension introduced by the ticking clock and wavering hands.
Enough about the gizmo. The game it serves is another of Knizia’s many-ways-to-score, which-should-I-focus-on affairs. The theme is the rise of the Dutch trading consortia, and the three areas of potential investment— Amsterdam, the colonies, and the commodity market— reflect this nicely. Each of these areas works a little differently, but they’re all divided into four parts and players generally seek majorities in these parts. The areas available for expansion are determined by the mayor, a privilege which rotates each turn.
The mayor flips up three cards, each card allowing its owner to carry out an expansion somewhere on the board. The mayor discards one of the three cards, and keeps another at no charge as payment for his term of office. The third is auctioned using the aforementioned Dutch system. The puzzle for the mayor is that these cards are flipped one at a time, and the mayor must decide a card’s fate without knowing what will come after it. This is a great little mechanism, giving the mayor a tidy dilemma of just the right difficulty. The decision feels important, but is not so overwhelming as to grind the game to a halt. One of the charms of Merchants of Amsterdam, in fact, is the speed with which it charges forward. There are plenty of decision points and many valid avenues to pursue, but no single juncture feels so critical that it must be overanalyzed. The game is fluid enough that players can switch gears easily, freeing them to rely on instinct rather than intense scrutiny.
Knizia uses a modified “wertung” scoring system which mixes the unpredictability inherent in such a system with a pre-programmed sequence of events players can plan around. Shuffled into the deck are a bunch of hourglass cards. When the mayor flips one of these, the time marker advances along a track around the board’s perimeter and the mayor flips a new card. Most spaces on the track cause something to happen. In the early game, players get a free expansion somewhere. In the midgame, one of the three investment areas might score. In the late game, players are forced to give up some of their previous expansions. This fixed scoring sequence can make the timing of certain expansions particularly important.
The scoring system is a two-dimensional one which encourages competition both within and across divisions. When an area (such as the foreign colonies) scores, the top two players in each division get paid. But the divisions themselves are also ranked, with the largest payment going to the most-developed division. If Africa has six tokens and America only 4, the top two players in Africa earn more than the top two in America. In fact, it’s better to take second place in the top division than first place in the bottom.
The benefit of this system is that obtaining a majority doesn’t necessarily end your interest in a division. As others get more developed, you may need to reinvest to preserve the value of your majority. It also means that the more hotly a division gets contested, the more valuable it tends to become.
It’s possible for multiple hourglasses to appear in rapid sequence, or for long gaps to occur between advancements. The pace of the game is therefore different every time, and that pace can be crucial— especially in regard to the first scoring. This is a game where early investments tend to pay off multiple times, and so it’s worth buying things early— even at a premium. This can backfire if the first scoring is delayed by an hourglass drought, as other players scoop up bargains while your funds are low and potentially render your early purchases less valuable.
On the flipside it’s extremely common for players to overbid. When this happens, the winning strategy can be to simply not bid on anything. This is the most-voiced criticism of the game, and many players have written it off on this basis alone. But this is really the same problem found in many auction games, which is the difficulty of knowing how much things are worth until you’ve got a couple of games under your belt. Experienced players get a sense of how much things should sell for, and would do well to explain this to new players. Once everyone understands the system, unintentional overbidding is no longer an issue and a player who chooses to never bid on anything should find himself in last place.
The Merchants of Amsterdam was originally released at the same time as Taj Mahal, and for me Merchants is the superior game. The theming is stronger, the scoring is more sensible, the system more forgiving. Minute to minute, Merchants of Amsterdam is more fun. This isn’t the top of Knizia’s form, but it’s a solid B effort.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)