Designed by Jerry Dziuba – better known by his online pseudonym Nick Danger – Castle Merchants from Z-Man Games is a bit of an enigma. When I first played, I found the game somewhat frustrating. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of control, and one’s fate was mostly determined by the cards drawn. No one at the table thought very highly of the game, and one was quite outspoken about his dislike for it.
In spite of this experience, I had an inkling that there was something more there. A discussion with the designer also heightened this suspicion. Subsequent playings have, indeed, revealed that there is more here than meets the eye, and players do have a bit more control than I initially thought.
Castle Merchants is set in the popular world of medieval times. Players represent merchants traveling the countryside to deliver their wares to the various castles in the realm. The land they must traverse is unknown, and skillful play of cards will allow the merchants to safely pass and beat their competition to the castles.
The board depicts a hexagon grid upon which players will place terrain tiles of five types. They then must play cards of the matching types to traverse these tiles. Five castles ring the realm, and each desires a specific type of good. Successful delivery of a good yields points for the player. These points range from 2 – 5, with the more valuable rewards being located at the more distant castles. Along the top of the board the terrain tiles are sorted by type, with each type arranged above a 1 – 6 numerical chart.
Due to the distribution of the point tokens and the fact that victory goes to the first player to amass 18 points, the game is essentially a race. While there is a temptation to wait until you amass a handful of needed cards, the hand limit and race aspect discourages players from spending too many turns accumulating cards. You must get to the castles fairly quickly, lest your opponents scoop the more valuable point tokens. Sometimes you can deliberately trail your opponents and utilize the pathway they have constructed. This isn’t foolproof, however, as it requires you to have the matching cards in your possession. Most of the time you will be building your own pathways, or at least attempting to manipulate existing ones.
There is no doubt that I enjoy the game now far more than I did after than initial playing. I have come to appreciate the various methods one can use to partially overcome the luck of the draw. I say “partially” as these methods are not certain, as they too can rely on random factors. While the designer may disagree, I still say that fortune still plays a major role in the outcome of the game. Tactics can help, and will quite likely be decisive in many games, but good fortune can still be the deciding factor in a fair share of matches. That won’t sit well with many folks who desire more control. For those who don’t mind a fair dose of luck in their games, however, Castle Merchants is worth investigating.
Gail, Rhonda and I loaded our carts and set-out to deliver our wares to the distant castles. I blazed my own path on one side of the board, while Gail and Rhonda followed each other on the opposite side of the board. My “go it alone” strategy seemed wise at first, as I scooped the most valuable point tiles from the first two castles I visited. Meanwhile, Gail seemed stuck, and decided to head back to the warehouse after visiting just one castle – Castle Fromage.
Rhonda and I were both approaching Chianti Castle from different directions, and began placing rockslides in each other’s path in attempts to impede our opponent’s progress. We spent several turns attempting to circumvent these obstacles, while Gail was able to speed unimpeded to two more castles. I did manage to reach Chianti first, grabbing the valuable 5-point token, and decided to push on to Excalibur Castle as opposed to returning to the warehouse to refill my cart. This proved a disastrous decision, as I reached the castle, only to get stuck there and unable to draw or manipulate the tiles in my favor. I watched helplessly as Gail continued her circuit, eventually visiting six castles, gathering enough points to claim the victory.
Finals: Gail 18, Greg 14, Rhonda 8
Ratings: Gail 7.5, Rhonda 6.5, Greg 6.5