My wife and I are known to break out a card game in the most unlikely places. Valentine’s day 2012 found us at our favorite local taco joint — Woody’s Tacos here in Vancouver, Washington — finishing off a plate of chilled octopus salad and a couple of shrimp tacos each. However as great as the food was (and it was grand), the main dish that evening was a little game by Reiner Knizia, published by Catalyst Gamelabs, called Merchants.
I always love breaking out a game in a restaurant, just for the incredulous stares you can generate from other people. While they are sitting at the bar slack-jawed watching another boring night of SportsCenter and calling it a date, my wife and I are usually having twice the fun. (Obviously you need to pick the restaurant carefully for this exercise, but that is for a different post.) Choosing a game to play in a restaurant, coffee shop or other public date-night location takes some consideration, and Merchants fits the bill perfectly.
First, the restaurant game must be compact both in design and play. It really doesn’t work to take your copy of Twighlight Imperium to the average restaurant. Merchants is one of two bookshelf games which Catalyst has produced in a standard sized video game box. The bookshelf concept is a great concept in game packaging which I wish other game makers would adopt. The game itself is smaller than the box, so it is somewhat wasteful space-wise, but this waste is easily made up for by standardizing the box which allows the game to be stored on its edge and thus keeps a collector’s game-shelf from becoming a precarious stack of uniquely sized packages — a clear disaster waiting to happen. Also Catalyst’s bookshelf packaging allows potential buyers to open the front flap and read most of the rules without having to purchase the game, something which should help drive sales for quality games. The game itself consists of a deck of cards, 30 wooden chits, a small pile of currency, and a few half-sized special cards. It can easily set up on an average-sized restaurant table with plenty of room left over for dinner.
Next, a game played in a restaurant or many other public places must be short. I won’t go into all the reasons why it isn’t kind to linger at a table longer than appropriate in a restaurant, especially on a busy night like Valentine’s Day. Suffice it to say games played in public places should be time-conscious. I am not going to break out Agricola unless that is expected and wanted, as it is at Snakes and Lattes in Toronto or at The Lucky Labrador which has become the unofficial board game pub of Portland, Oregon. Once again Merchants fits the bill perfectly for a quick but fun game, coming in at around 15 to 20 minutes.
Finally, games played while eating food worth tasting or sipping coffee worth drinking shouldn’t be deep strategy games. (Quite the opposite might also be true if the food in question is not palatable!) Merchants offers just enough strategy to keep things interesting and playable while allowing a brain to also concentrate on the wonderful octopus salad or juicy shrimp taco. The goal of the game is to become the wealthiest merchant when the last card is drawn. Players earn wealth through selling goods from their ships into the market represented by six piles of cards on the table. The goods a player’s ships carry are represented by wooden chits placed on the ship cards in front of them. Whenever a card played by any player matches goods I have on my ships, I score one point for every card of that type of goods on top of the six market piles multiplied by the number of ships I own carrying that type of good. Thus the game is mostly about playing what I have in my hand at the right moment to score the most points possible. However, I also must make sure my opponent will not also score equal or more points for the same play. Really there isn’t much thinking to be done here, and the fun comes from a good laugh about falling behind 20 points in a single move or successfully blocking your opponent’s perfect play. These same characteristics have also made Merchants our standby game for those few minutes my wife and I have to ourselves each evening before one or the other of us involuntarily passes out from exhaustion.
I have spent most of my time on the two player game, and I should say the three and four player games are quite playable and interesting, although I did not find them as neat and enjoyable as the two person game. The game mechanic allows for some guessing about what your opponent will do on their next move. The better you guess, the more likely you are to win. This little bit of strategy becomes much more difficult in a three or four person game. Also in the name of creating alternative strategies for victory, the game designers have included only two of each “special card.” Once purchased, special cards allow players bonuses throughout the rest of the game. This does not affect the two player game in which all cards are available to both players. However, in the three and four player game this can make the luck part of the game more obvious as the player who can jump out to an early lead has their choice of the best special cards. Players who lag may have good hands later in the game but not be able to exploit them as well due to the special cards they were forced to take. However, these are minor quibbles. The game remains enjoyable as a three or four person game, although its clear sweet spot is as a two person duel.
Players: 2 to 4
Ages: 8 and up
Playing Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Conclusion: Merchants is an enjoyable light strategy game for two to four people. This game’s price, compact design, and mechanics make it particularly good choice for date-night or any other moment when time, space, or fatigue leave you and your significant other wanting a light investment and quick game with enough strategic heft to keep it interesting. A serious consideration for any game collection.
Wired: Great date-night game to take to public places like restaurants and coffee shops.
Tired: The inclusion of only two special cards can make the three and four person game feel a little more luck based than the two person game.
Disclosure: Catalyst provided a review copy of this game.