Battle Merchants has dwarves, orcs, hobgoblins, and elves: four things I'd rather not see in games anymore. And yet I'm thrilled because they're all fighting each other and you don't care who wins, so long as they buy your weapons to kill one another. Do I want to play a game with an orc or a dwarf? No, unless that game is "Let's You and Him Fight". And that's what Battle Merchants is.
In Battle Merchants, designed by Gil Hova and published by Minion Games, you are an arms dealer forging and selling various weapons to the warring races. Through the game you increase your craft level in each weapon, forge them, sell them, and gain bonuses to help you make more money during the process than your foes, rival arms dealers.
A very brief overview of the rules: Each season each player takes an action at a time. Actions are increasing craft level, forging weapons, selling a weapon, or taking a Kingdom Card. Craft level makes your weapons harder to defeat with other weapons and unlocks other bonuses: at craft level 5 you can make vorpal versions of your weapons, which defeat regular ones, and the first person to reach craft level 6 for a weapon gets a special Master Craftsman card that gives them a special advantage for that weapon. Forging is how you make weapons and costs money. Selling is how you make money back. You sell a weapon to an appropriate spot and get a reward of a base cost plus bonuses for each time you've sold a weapon to that race. Sell to the Elves a lot and you'll make more money when you sell to Elves. When three new battles are outfitted with weapons (both sides have a weapon) the season ends an each battle is evaluated. Vorpal weapons beat non-vorpal, and higher craft level weapons beat lower craft level weapons of the same type. The winner gets the broken remain of the loser's weapon as a trophy. Then each player gets two gold for each of their weapons still on the board. Repeat for the next season. At the end of Winter, the players who've defeated the most weapons get a bonus, some Kingdom Cards pay off, and most money wins. Kingdom Cards are one-shot quick boosts or permanent long-term aids in making money.
The theme is well-represented. It's a cynical game, and not only can you provide the weapons for both sides of a battle, it's very often a good strategic move. The Kingdom Cards add a heavy dose of flavor to the proceedings with titles such as "Outsourcing", "Bait and Switch", and "Instigator". There are also nice touches such as one of the players' companies being "Hellyburton".
The components are also great. The artwork is spot-on, with all kinds of great little details in it (I'm appreciative that the female characters are not drawn in the bosoms a-heaving style so common to fantasy themed games.) The board is well laid out, and the player boards have all the info you need on them. The cardboard money is really nice, with great designs for the different coins. Everything looks great. I only have a couple of minor complaints about design, which I'll touch on in a bit.
I also really like the gameplay. It's more thinky than it appears at first glance, and towards the beginning you will look at how vorpal weapons cost 15 gold to forge and wonder how it will ever be possible to create them. You'll be looking at a sword you've forged and realize there's nowhere to sell it and despair. You'll be disgusted at selling your crappy axe to a battle where it's destined to lose but dammit, you need the cash. That's fine. It's part of the arc of the game and believe me, by Autumn you'll be right there throwing down vorpal weapons like it ain't no thang. You will have to balance short-term benefits against long-term rewards. You'll have to choose between specialization to make your few weapons better or being able to sell a larger variety of weaker weapons. You'll get Kingdom Cards that give you specific bonuses and will want to leverage those bonuses as much as possible. And you'll definitely need to keep an eye on what the other players are doing and how to screw them out of key sales and battle wins. There's a lot going on, but it's not overwhelming.
I like that the design is driven towards the theme. Unlike many recent game releases, everything you do in the game is pointed towards making money selling weapons. There's no set collection minigame or other stuff that is tacked on, so it's easy to explain to new players how everything relates to their ultimate goal of having the most money.
The game plays 2-4. The board is double sided, with one side for 2/4 players and the other for 3. I've played with both 3 and 4 players and both games were equally tight and balanced. I haven't tried the 2p game because first of all it involves a sort of robot player, which I'm never too crazy about, and second it seems like it's fine for two players who already know the game but probably not so good for a learner, which is the 2p situation I was in. I'll give it a try now that I have people around who already know the basics of the game.
I only have a couple of minor complaints. The first is that a lot of the Kingdom Cards are a bit vague and open to interpretation. There is a file on BGG that is a great guide to interpreting them, which was not included in the game. It really should have been. You'll want to print this out. I also wish the vorpal weapons were a little bit easier to distinguish at a distance. Once you get used to them you can tell which ones they are, but they really should pop more. The most critical complaint I have is that tracking weapons strength is difficult. When trying to see how your level 5 mace will fare against your opponents' hammers or axes you have to look across the table and see what their strength is by counting small icons on craft cards that don't stack to display very well. It's annoying, so I made a paper chart, added some extra cubes I had, and voila!
It's a little fiddly, but it helps out a bunch. (It's also available on BGG.) The tracker doesn't help with the other issue on the craft cards, which is that some give you discounts on forging that type of weapon and it is super easy to forget them. (The cards are designed to fan right to see all the icons, but this takes up a lot of space and doesn't work well with the ones printed on the player boards.) The final, very minor issue, is that for some people there's a break of the theme in that a weapon's strength isn't determined when it's forged, but when the battle resolves. I can sell a level 3 sword to the elves, then later that same turn increase my craft level to 5, and when the battle resolves it's now a level 5 weapon. Some people may have an issue with that, especially given how well the theme works elsewhere, but I can handwave it away.
Battle Merchants was the delight of Gen Con for me. Most of the other games I got there were things that were already solidly on my radar. It came out of nowhere to be one of my favorites, and the only reason I didn't buy it on the spot was that my luggage was already jam-packed. Instead I waited until I got home and then immediately ordered my own copy. It's a great title that deserves some more attention.