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Subject: A Meeple Pusher Review of: Merlin rss

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David McMillan
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Madison
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Thoughts

Before I delve too deeply into what I think of Merlin’s gameplay, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the components and the artwork. Queen Games’s titles always contain top-notch components. Merlin is no exception. The components in this game are everything that I would expect to find inside of a Queen game. The rulebook is laid out solidly and looks great. The card stock is nice and thick. The wooden components are well-crafted. It’s just a solid game as far as the components go.

Then there is Dennis Lohausen’s amazing artwork. Well known for being the artist of many other popular games (Fields of Arle, Aquasphere, Camel Up, and the new Gaia Project just to name a few), he brings his masterful skill to Merlin as well – and to good effect. The colors are bright and vivid. The illustrations are exquisitely detailed. This game is truly a feast for the eyes. Because of Dennis Lohausen, Merlin has a table presence that cannot be ignored. This is the type of game that gets people’s attention.

And then that interest will gradually wane. At least it has for me. If Merlin’s slippage from BGG’s Hotness List is any indicator, I am not alone. Here are the reasons why…

For many that are interested in this game, it is because we all share one thing in common. We are Stefan Feld fans. Castles of Burgundy. Trajan. Notre Dame. Amerigo. Stefan Feld is a designer that continually produces solid games that emphasize skillful play over random luck. Even when there is a healthy amount of chance involved, Feld typically gives the player some method of mitigating this. In Castles of Burgundy, for instance, a player can trade one of his or her dice to obtain worker tokens that can be used to add or subtract pips from other dice on future rolls.

Merlin is no different in this regard. There are a few ways of mitigating bad rolls or lousy card draws: apples, flags, and the board space that allows you to discard cards and draw replacements. But all of these things require you to actually land on a space that allows you to acquire the things that you need to make them work. You can only obtain apples (beyond the one you begin the game with) IF you’ve landed on the holy grail. You can only obtain a flag IF you’ve landed on the correct principality space and IF you’re able to place your flag bearer there or IF you have managed to construct a manor on top of a tower space in the environs. You can only get rid of cards IF you’re able to actually complete them or IF you land on the board space that allows you to discard some cards and draw some new ones. That’s a lot of IFs and if the dice rolls are not coming up in your favor in a way that allows you to do any of the things that I just mentioned, then you’re pretty much screwed.

And this happens a lot in this game. I’ve been on both sides of the equation – things going my way and things going very poorly for me – and it wasn’t particularly pleasant either way. When you’re in the lead by a huge margin, it isn’t much fun because you know you’re not there due to anything you’ve personally done or any decisions that you’ve personally made. And it’s never fun to be trailing behind the leader by 20 or 30 points with no hope of ever catching up. I just wish there were a way for me to give up potential now for mitigation later. If Merlin allowed me to trash a die roll in order to gain mitigation on another roll, the game would be perfect, but it doesn’t exist. The game suffers as a result.

So, what can be done about the mitigation issue (assuming it’s as much of an issue for you as it is for me)? Well, the problem stems from the fact that your colored dice will always dictate your movement. Sans mitigation, regardless of which stops you make along the way, you will always wind up on the same space when all is said and done. If you roll a 2, a 3, and a 4, you will always have moved a total of 9 spaces regardless of which order you decided to use your dice to move. Yes, adding something to the game that would allow you to discard a die in order to gain a token that could be used to adjust the pips on dice in future turns would definitely work, BUT those components do not currently exist in the game.

Without altering the game by adding homebrewed components to it, the only solution that I can think of would be to institute a house rule that allows pawns to leap over other pawns if the space they would land on is already occupied. If you’ve ever played Lewis and Clark, you will be familiar with this rule. I feel like this would add some much-needed tactics to the game. In Lewis and Clark (a game which is solely about movement and nothing else) this rule encourages you to consider how best to maximize your movement by using the fewest resources possible. Merlin desperately needs something similar.

And that’s not all. Despite the awesome artwork, Merlin doesn’t seem to be very thematically cohesive. The classic tale of King Arthur and Merlin contains a round table and the game contains a rondel that’s shaped like the round table. Aside from that, the game doesn’t really feel connected to the source material in any meaningful way. When I play it, I don’t feel like I am a knight at King Arthur’s table. In fact, King Arthur isn’t even present in the game at all.

There are times that I almost wished a eurogame had decided to just go the abstract route instead of pasting on a theme and this is definitely one of those times. If you’re in the market for a game about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, you’re going to walk away from Merlin disappointed. There’s not much that you can do as a player about the thematic issues, but the issue of luck mitigation? That might be solvable.

Maybe things would be different if this were a pure Feld game as opposed to a designer team-up. Who knows? All I can say is that it pains me to admit that this is probably my least favorite Feld game. Am I sorry that I bought it? Definitely not. I’m not just a player. I’m a collector, too and I’m glad that Merlin is in my collection. But if I disconnect from that aspect of my personality, Merlin would honestly be a game I’d want to play once or twice and never revisit. As much as I REALLY want to love the game, it just isn’t very compelling… at least not for me. Maybe you like a little chaos in your games. If that’s the case, this is definitely the Feld game for you. Regardless, I would recommend you give the game a try at least once. It’s a good game, but it could have been a GREAT one.

FOR THE FULL REVIEW IN WHICH I GO INTO MORE DETAIL ABOUT THE COMPONENTS AND GAMEPLAY, CLICK HERE: http://www.meeplemountain.com/reviews/merlin-review-round-th...
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Bill Kunes
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You rated it a 9, which seems high for a game that disappointed and is your least favorite Feld. Out of curiosity, how many times have you played it and at what player counts?

meeple Keep playing...
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Marián Matušák
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CarcassonneFreak wrote:

Without altering the game by adding homebrewed components to it, the only solution that I can think of would be to institute a house rule that allows pawns to leap over other pawns if the space they would land on is already occupied.


I do not understand what did you mean? Which pawns? Knights? Merlin?
Rules on page 4 states: The number of figures on a single action space is not limited.
 
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David McMillan
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You're absolutely right. I gave it a 9 after playing it for the first time.
After playing it six or seven more times at all player counts,
my initial excitement wore off and I never came back and altered it.
Thanks for pointing it out.

bkunes wrote:
You rated it a 9, which seems high for a game that disappointed and is your least favorite Feld. Out of curiosity, how many times have you played it and at what player counts?

meeple Keep playing...
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David McMillan
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...institute a house rule...

It was a suggestion for a house rule you could possibly institute to help offset the problem of luck mitigation. Going back and re-reading it for clarity, it seems pretty clear to me.

Gimli_sk wrote:
CarcassonneFreak wrote:

Without altering the game by adding homebrewed components to it, the only solution that I can think of would be to institute a house rule that allows pawns to leap over other pawns if the space they would land on is already occupied.


I do not understand what did you mean? Which pawns? Knights? Merlin?
Rules on page 4 states: The number of figures on a single action space is not limited.
 
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S Smith
United Kingdom
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Personally I see the (slight) restriction in Knight placement as an essential part of the game. The ability to play the dice in a different order already allows some tactical variation - as does the strategic playing of an Apple.

However, a simple variant to open a few additional options would be to allow your first dice the ability to move your Knight backwards as well as forwards (same as Merlin). If restricted to your first coloured dice this is easy to track and doesn't alter any of the game mechanics other than open up a few options for more strategic movement.

E.G. For dice 1,4 & 5 I calculated that you can access a total of 16 different spaces from (and in this case including) your start position.

If preferred, a means to 'limit' this option would be to only allow it when a double is thrown - and you must use one of the doubles for your first (backward) movement. However, this introduces a further element of 'chance' that some players do not appreciate.

Another option would be to only allow the first dice to move backwards with the sacrifice of a shield or flag.

This simple variant doesn't require any additional components or additional changes to the way this excellent game works.
 
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Kathy Sheets
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We like Merlin quite a bit though it is not our favorite Feld. I have only played it at 2 and 3p counts. I can understand your complaints. The only thing you didn't mention when talking about dice mitigation is that several of the flags let you alter your move in some way. Flip your dice. Move counterclockwise. Take the action directly opposite. Use another player's action where their Knight rests currently. (I don't have the game in front of me, but I think those are all correct.)

We have been having fun trying to be most efficient at using the various mechanics to our advantage. I have not gotten into the expansion yet. Do you have that? If so, does it alter your opinion in any way?
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