I’d read a bit about this game a year or so back, and decided I’d wait until some reviews were posted before I pulled the trigger on this dark horse. Well a year came and went, and there was still no real information other than that on the Game Crafter page for this title, so I decided to give it a go. The rules looked interesting and … Someone has to, right? Forgive me if I mash together components and game play as they arise. This really is a simple game to learn and play.
Players: 1-7 with expansion
Theme: Military action on remote island; think The Expendables for reference
Game Time: approx 25 min per player
Overall mechanics breakdown: area control, stat-based combat, character building/outfitting
Component quality: I understand that there exists a print and play version, but I prefer to support the designer of any game if I can, so I shelled out the embarrassing premium for the game and its expansion. To Game Crafter’s credit, I received an E-mail within three hours of the order, I believe, telling me that MERC was ready to ship out. The game comes with mostly cards of different types in whatever card-stock game crafter normally uses. They worked well enough and did not wear poorly, considering how often a certain set of cards are shuffled (more on that later). Also included were seven different sets of plastic poker chips and a single player pawn to match each one. There is no board. Of special note is the art, or rather I should say the lack of art. The cards have various pictures on them to represent what are on the cards. The merc pictures in particular are hilarious, in a good/bad sort of way. Campy, I suppose I’d call them. A friend of mine said as he looked through the merc deck for the first time “I teach seventh graders who look like they could whoop these ‘mercs’”. Much of this game’s theme comes from imagination, take that as you will.
Since It arrived, I have played two games of it- one co-op two player and a team-versus four player. Here is what I found:
I suppose this will make more sense if I explain how the game plays before I explain what I do and don’t like about it. To begin a game, first players choose a game mode. Either co-op or versus are available. Co-op pits players against a deck of dictator cards, attacking players and conquering territory until the game turn limit is reached. Versus plays the same, except it is against other players instead of the deck of cards. The object of the game, regardless of the game mode is to control the most value in territory at the end of the game. Players lead a band of “Mercs”, represented by Character, Equipment, and Vehicle cards, attempting to capture and retain control of territories during the course of the game.
Game Setup: The game board is made out of cards drawn from the map deck and placed into a 3x3 or larger grid, depending on player count. First, the corners are made to be “industries”, that is, land of high value. Then the rest is randomly populated face up (no fog of war). An interesting note here is that a land’s value has three purposes. Firstly, land value at game’s end is the sole determinate of who wins the game. Owning land of highest combined value is the only thing that wins the game. Secondly, each land has placed underneath it random equipment cards equal to the land’s value, ergo a land with value twelve gives its occupying player twelve cards of equipment to outfit his or her mercs with. Lastly, combined land value is the maximum number of Mercs you can have in your employ at a time, at a rate of one merc per every five land value.
With that I better explain how mercs work. Each merc you have in your employ comes from a global merc deck, or talent pool, if you will. Mercs are not created equal, and as such, players may pick from the deck instead of randomly drawing them to join their forces. You start the game with a Merc and may hire more through “merc actions”, which I’ll discuss later. Mercs have five Statistics that affect their usefulness:
Leadership: Leadership determines two important things. It determines how may ‘guards’ (poker chips) a merc may train to protect an area in its owner’s absence from enemy mercs. A leadership of two can train two guards for a single merc action. The other important factor leadership influences is combat turn order. Again, I’ll get to that later.
Marksmanship: accuracy in combat
Weapon damage: Some mercs have a base weapon damage without being equipped (must’ve brought their own piece through customs)
Armor Rating: another combat stat that works about like how you imagine it would
Medic: Used for healing injured mercs
Repair: To heal vehicles
When players gain the employ of mercs, they place that merc on the table in front of themselves. Merc cards, aside from the statistics, also have spaces for a weapon, armor and accessory. These are filled by the player’s choosing from the equipment piles underneath each land card where the player’s team resides. Mercs come into play unequipped. As a rule, equipment that mentions a mercs stats replace the given stat, not add to it. This means that some mercs will have with more attack power if you do not equip them with a weapon at all, depending on what is available to you, for example.
A short pause to say that, hands down, the most fun I had playing this game was when I was equipping and re-equipping my mercs with different equipment and vehicles over the course of the game as they explored and captured terrirory. “Ahh… found a rocket launcher. This will go nicely with that merc with the high armor to counter that Sherman tank…” Sort of like a lite-rpg character equipping.
Player Turns: On a players turn they can pretty much do one of two things. Most often they can simply move ALL of their mercs to an adjacent space, or further if they have a vehicle or vehicles. All of your mercs always move together, hence the single player pawn of each color. This can lead to a combat with enemy mercs and/or their guards for control of a territory. Likewise, even moving through neutral territory is dangerous as players must draw to see if a random event card is drawn as they move through each uncontrolled space. Otherwise, A player may stay in their current sector and have each individual merc perform a single ‘merc action’. Merc actions include healing mercs, repairing vehicles or training guards. This is also when you could exhaust mercs to hire more mercs up to your controlled value limit of land.
This section highlights the single biggest flaw in an otherwise serviceable game: the skill deck. The skill deck is a separate deck of cards used to determine the success of many merc actions, including combat damage. Think Warrior Knights fate deck. There are really only two major problems that cripple the use of the skill deck, and by association, the game itself. One: The skill deck WIDELY varies in value; comically so. The amount of damage a single card in an attack can do, without getting into combat nuances, ranges from one to ten, with even a MULTIPLIER hidden somewhere within the skill deck. All killable things in this game (mercs, guards, militia, and vehicles) have a universal twenty hit points, so even a few cards can be deadly, and usually six to twelve cards are drawn for a single attack. This makes leadership disproportionately important during combat, as damage is applied immediately, and he who goes first may well wipe out another squad entirely before they even have a chance to return fire. The second problem with the skill deck is its presence. The deck of cards slows the game to a crawl as multiple cards are flipped, added up and discarded for each individual attack. The rules state that the deck should be shuffled with the discard at the beginning of each combat, and that is simply more downtime in an already slow moving game. I think that if implemented smartly, dice could do what the skill cards try to do much better... but that’s another topic.
Remember that character customization I was raving about? Well it sucks when it isn’t your turn and somebody else is outfitting from a large pool of cards. Since the merc information is open to all players, competitive players will want to wait and see what other players equip their mercs with before taking their turn. This adds considerably to the game length and downtime.
Lastly, the rules are a bit ambiguous, as a few questions popped up during our plays that had to be house ruled.
To summarize my thoughts on the game itself, I guess I’d call it more of a game kit as it is. That is, there is everything here to make a neat game about mercs fighting for control of an island, but the skill deck trounces on every attempt to form a strategy beyond ‘get highest leadership’, and has the nerve to slow the combat to a crawl. Don’t get me wrong: there is some thoughtful design here, such as vehicles being balanced by making their driver unable to attack during combat but still being a valid target or face an exit initiative penalty in exchange for the vehicle’s armor affecting the rest of the squad, or the way the encounter deck encourages you to build a ‘road of guards’ from your start point to prevent accidentally triggering them and ending your movement. I also like the fact that the equipment cards underneath the land cards are the only ones in the game, forcing players to make the best with that is on site. These are good, fun decisions players are faced with, logistically and tactically speaking, but I feel that I must “fix” the game by removing the skill deck and replacing it with some sort of “skill dice” before this becomes a game I can enjoy as a good game, and not merely a fun, random experience.
I'm JT, the primary designer of MERC. Thank you for your thoughtful review.
From your review it sounded like there were only two inaccuracies (almost certainly due to me needing to write better rules), that I'd like to correct.
1) I may be misunderstanding what you're saying about the number of skill cards you draw in combat, but in general you shouldn't be drawing 12 skill cards worth of damage. If you have a marksmanship of 3 for example, and a weapon damage of 5, you would draw up to 3 skill cards for marksmanship (until you git a HIT card), and then draw 5 skill cards for damage. So in that example you're drawing (up to) 8 cards, but not all used for damage.
2) The rules ask that you reshuffle the skill deck before each combat, but not before each characters turn in combat. Again, perhaps I am misunderstanding you here, but your review makes it sound like you're doing an awful lot of shuffling. If you're only shuffling at the beginning of the entire combat, it shouldn't be a lot of shuffling.
Thank you again for your review.
I'd love to hear what rules you found ambiguous so that I can attempt correct those problems.
Also, when I was designing MERC it started by using dice for combat. When we switched over to the combat deck it increased the speed of the game significantly. That's an area I'm sure I don't do a good enough job explaining, and will definitely have to expand upon. However, if you have ideas on how to make dice work in a more sound or faster mechanism, I'm certainly all ears.
Aha, I see what you are saying now. The rules state that the damage on the skill card for the marksman is applied along with the weapon damage worth of cards. That is clear now, but when I first read it, I misunderstood it as saying that the skill number on the "hit" card itself is added to the amount of CARDS drawn for weapon damage. It is written "The hit card counts toward the damage (next page) done". I misread it as "The hit card counts toward the Weapon Damage". Thats a relief. While I have your attention, there are a few more rules I'd like some clarification on, if you don't mind.
Vehicles: How are players supposed to noterize vehicle damage after one has been destroyed? Should chips or something be placed on it until it is repaired? I suppose I could space the cards farther apart to make room for a card with pieces on it to be separate from the stack of equipment. Would a vehicle need to be fully repaired to be used again? Users ejected from a destroyed vehicle immediately take the initiative penalty, right?
Also on vehicles: At what point does a player have to declare if a merc is exiting a vehicle during combat to take the initiative penalty but still get to do a combat action? The beginning of each combat round I assume?
Another vehicle question: When using a vehicle to move, are a player's mercs assumed to still be in that vehicle if they are immediately attacked before their next turn? I played assuming so, to add risk to traveling by helicopter. Likewise, when does, or does a player even have to, declare who is in each controlled vehicle or any vehicles at all, outside of combat? This question is important as mercs may not enter vehicles during combat, and one will face an exit penalty should he/she wish to join the fray. It's all a little gray on timing and commitment of vehicle crew/passengers outside of combat.
Merc Hiring: Do hired mercs come in exhausted? Or can I move the squad on the same turn I bring a single one in as a "Free action"?
Do guards and militia count vehicles as lowest leadership targets? The manual doesn't say either way, but this makes more sense to prevent exploiting their firing habits with massive passenger armor potentially making all attacks on the mercs ineffective.
What is the exact timing on equipping mercs? Is it simply once per turn, before movement, after movement? Either?
Thats all of the rules questions I came up with off the top of my head... I've never been so glad to hear I made a rules mistake. I'll try to play it again sometime soon and revise my review. Thanks again JT for taking the time to address my concerns.
Yeah, I clearly need to come up with a thick rule book to give lots of clarification and examples. I'll do my best to answer your questions:
Re: MERC: a lonely review
Place chips on the vehicles to denote damage, just like when your MERC gets damaged. Vehicles that are damaged can continue to be used until all 20 points of damage have been used up. Then they must be repaired. Passengers and the driver of the destroyed vehicle must exit immediately and take the exit penalty.
Yup, all action declarations should go at the beginning of the round for exiting a vehicle.
At the beginning of combat players already in a zone declare whether they are in or out of a vehicle. However, if you drove into combat, then of course your MERCs are in the vehicle at the start of combat. Your entire squad of MERCs must either be in or out of the vehicle. You can't have some in and some out, but as I said above at the beginning of combat you can declare whether your MERCs are in or out of the vehicle. I should also note that everyone except the driver can shoot from the vehicle in case that wasn't clear.
Hired MERCs come in exhausted.
Guards and militia will only attack vehicles if there are no MERCs to attack directly, or if the armor of the vehicles would prevent them from hitting the MERCs (for example the Tank).
You can equip once per turn as a free action, except during combat. It doesn't matter if you do it before or after movement.
Thanks for playing MERC. I hope you and your friends enjoy it more the second time around. And if you haven't, definitely try playing the Director mode for the Dictator. I suggest letting the person with the most evil laugh in your group control the dictator. =)