It’s time for the Greatest Exhibition in the World, and animalfolks from all over Daimyria are competing to be the Director. Gather your wares, build your market stall, and come to the Dale of Merchants!
In Reaping the Rewards, I focus on the finished product of a crowdfunding campaign. Dale of Merchants Collection was originally funded on Kickstarter in late 2018, and delivered to backers near the end of 2019. It’s now available for purchase (and Snowdale Design has since successfully Kickstarted the latest game in the series, Dale of Merchants 3, which is wrapping up production and should be shipping to backers soon). This review is an updated version of my Kickstarter Tabletop Alert, showing the final production copy.
What Is Dale of Merchants Collection?
Dale of Merchants Collection is a stand-alone expansion for Dale of Merchants, a deck-building game for 2 to 4 players, ages and 10 up, with a playing time of 20-60 minutes. It retails for 49.95€ (about $59 USD), and is available directly from Snowdale Design or in stores. While the game isn’t too complex, it does have some concepts that set it apart from many other deck-building games; 10 and up seems reasonable for kids who have some prior experience with deck-builders.
The first two games came in small, compact boxes, and Dale of Merchants Collection includes space for the contents of the first two, as well as Dale of Merchants 3 (the third small box game). There are also some additional elements that are new to this third title.
Dale of Merchants Collection was designed and illustrated by Sami Laakso and published by Snowdale Design.
Dale of Merchants Collection Components
A lot of the components are very close to what I saw in the prototype, though the generic wooden discs have been replaced by printed cardboard tokens, and all of the artwork is now complete. (In the prototype, some of the artwork hadn’t been fully colored yet, and some cards had no artwork at all.)
Here’s what comes in the box:
- Market board
- 27 Deck Selection cards
- 20 Junk cards
- 33 Specialty cards
- Clock dial
- 8 Animalfolk decks (15 cards each)
- 55 Character Cards
- 20 Trap cards
- 32 Card Dividers
- 9 Large Specialty cards
- 2 Pangolin dice
- 50 Coins (40 small 1-value, 10 large 5-value)
- 42 Globe tokens
If you’re familiar with either of the original Dale of Merchants games, you can see that this version has a lot more stuff in it. Those typically had 6 animals, 20 junk, a market board, and a die. This expansion (subtitled The Greatest Exhibition in the World) includes some new components that work with the new animalfolk, as well as some additional optional play modes.
The illustrations in the game are by Sami Laakso, who’s also the game designer, and they’re wonderful. The artwork is what really caught my attention back during the Kickstarter campaign for the second title, and I ended up backing the campaign for the first two titles. The animals have a lot of personality (and each one gets a descriptor, like the “Stealthy Long-winged Tomb Bats” or the “Fickle Giant Pangolins”).
Each animal has a color used on all of its cards, both in the background and the ribbon at the top of the card, though there are some fairly similar colors—though that’s hard to avoid now that there are a total of 27 different animals across the various sets. Fortunately, each animal also has its own icon in the ribbon, plus each card has the associated animal name below the card title.
One of the nice things about the deck selection cards is that it rates each animal on four scales: Complexity, Interactivity, Nastiness, and Randomness. That lets you tune the game for your group: if you like a lot of “take that,” then pick high Nastiness ratings. If you’ve got less experienced players, you can go for low Complexity. The deck selection cards (and the divider cards) include the animals from all four sets: Dale of Merchants 1, 2, 3, and Collection.
The marketplace board is two-sided, showing the marketplace during the day and at night. There’s no game difference in the two sides, but it’s a fun treat to have two options for the artwork. Each set has its own board—they’re all functionally equivalent, but just have different artwork. This board has a sort of United Nations feel to it, with a giant globe sculpture and lots of flags.
The box for Dale of Merchants Collection is large enough to hold the entire collection, including the three small-box titles. Underneath the market board, there’s a smaller well for the large character cards, and then a space underneath that for the clock dial. That space (which is the same size as the small boxes) can also store the manuals from the small-box titles, which is nice. The divider cards keep all the animals and other cards organized, and there are icons indicating which set each animal is from. You’ll notice in my photo that there’s an empty die space—that’s for the Snowshoe Hares die, which will come in Dale of Merchants 3.
How to Play Dale of Merchants
You can download a copy of the rulebook here. If you’re already familiar with the game and you want to see what’s new, skip ahead to the next section!
The goal of the game is to be the first to build 8 stacks to complete your market stall.
First, choose which animalfolk will be used in the game; you use one more set than there are players (so a 4-player game will use 5 animal sets). Set aside the “1” cards from each animal (the ones with the portraits) and shuffle the rest of the animalfolk cards together to form the market deck, revealing the top five cards onto the market board.
Give each player one of each “1” value animal card, returning any remainders to the box. Then, each player should take Junk cards to make up a 10-card deck. Each player has their own hand, deck, and discard pile. Shuffle your deck and draw 5 cards for your first hand. Whoever got up earliest is the starting player.
On your turn, you get 1 free action, which may be any of the following:
- Buy 1 card from the market
- Build 1 stack in your market stall
- Play 1 Technique card
- Discard any number of cards from your hand (including 0)
Buy: The cost of a card in the market is the printed value, plus any added cost shown on the market board. The card on the far left has a +4 to its cost, but the card on the far right is just its face value. Discard cards from your hand that add up to the cost, and then take the card you purchased into your hand. Cards spent for their face value are not used for their card abilities.
Build: Your market stall will consist of 8 stacks, with values from 1 to 8 in consecutive order, and they must be built in that order. The cards within each stack must be the same suit, but you may use different suits for different stacks. When you build a stack, you must build the whole thing at once—for instance, you can’t play a “4” Pangolin card and then add a “2” Pangolin card on a future turn to make your sixth stack. Once a card is placed into a stack, it’s essentially removed from your deck and you won’t be able to use it anymore.
Technique: Many cards are “technique” cards and may be played to use the effect printed at the bottom. If the card has a “+” sign on the ribbon, you get an additional action after resolving the technique, which may be spent on any of the 4 actions (including playing yet another technique card).
Discard: You may use an action to simply discard any number of cards from your hand; usually this is to clear cards out of your hand so that you can set yourself up for the next turn.
When you have no actions remaining, draw cards until you have a hand of 5 cards, and then refill the market by sliding cards to the right (toward the cheaper side of the market) and replacing them from the market deck.
Some cards say “Passive” on them; these cards have an effect that may be used as long as the card is in your hand; this effect does not count as an action. The “throw away” effect is a little bit like “trashing” cards in other deck-builders, except that they will go into the market discard or back to the junk card pile, rather than being removed from the game entirely.
The game ends immediately when any player builds their 8th stack and completes their stall, winning the game.
There are also rules for a 2-vs-2 team variant, though the basic rules of the game remain the same.
What’s New in Dale of Merchants Collection
Some of the new animalfolk have some new keywords on their card effects.
The Turtles have a “Finish” keyword. When you use this technique, you use any text before it says “Finish” and then you leave the card in your schedule (the play area where cards go until fully resolved). At any point during your action phase (on the same turn or a future turn), you may pay the finish cost to resolve the text after the “Finish,” at which point the card is resolved and goes to your discard pile.
There’s also a new keyword “Spend,” which means that you must spend the amount listed in order to use the effect. The “Spend” keyword appears on a number of cards, including the Penguin.
The Tuataras use the gold coins—there are various cards that will allow you to get gold coins from the supply. Once acquired, coins may be spent just as you would spend cards to pay for things, whether to buy cards from the market or pay for a “Spend” or “Finish” ability.
The clock is used for the Mongoose and the Bat sets. It has six spaces, three at day and three at night, and at setup it is set to the first day space. The “1” Mongoose card allows you to advance the clock one space if you wish. Mongoose cards have different abilities during the day or the night—during the day you’ll get to draw more cards. The Bat cards allow you to manipulate your deck and discard pile during the day, but at night they add the text “or another player” and you’ll be able to manipulate somebody else’s deck or discard pile.
Each Dale of Merchants set has one animal that uses a die; the Fickle Great Pangolins have two dice. Each one has sides representing a player’s hand, deck, and discard pile; the lighter die is the “source” and the darker die is the “destination.” The Pangolin cards allow you to move cards from a source to a destination, sometimes between two different players, though there’s a lot of randomness involved.
If you want to mix it up a bit, you can use the character cards. These oversized cards give each player unique abilities; each card has instructions for additional components required during setup, and instructions on how to use the abilities. Some abilities have limits to how many times they may be used each turn and when they may be used. Others include additional specialty cards that are added during setup. Character cards are colored green, yellow, and red to indicate their level of complexity.
For instance, Rozan has three specialty cards that are shuffled into your starting deck. These cards have a value of 2 and can be spent to pay for things as usual, but they also have passive effects: if another player builds a stack, buys a card, or shuffles their deck, you can get a bonus if you have the right specialty card in hand at the time.
Walok, on the other hand, is a bit of a trickster. He has a pawn shop with three slots that start with his three guarantee cards. Once per turn, he may spend 2 to draw cards from another player’s deck, and put one of them into his pawn shop, giving that player the guarantee card instead. That player has the option of trading it back once they draw the guarantee card—or they might just use the card’s 2 value to pay for things instead, leaving their card in the pawn shop for later.
There are 55 different characters, so there’s a huge variety of abilities. Some use dice from a particular Dale of Merchants set, some use the clock, some use those blue tokens that are also included in the game. There’s a broad range of interactivity and nastiness in the character abilities, too.
The trap cards are also a new optional element in Dale of Merchants Collection. There are four different trap cards, each marked with a different color (and paired with a color that just indicates which color player you are). The cards may be spent for their face value, or they may be played into another player’s discard pile. If you ever draw another player’s trap card into your hand, it triggers, giving that player a bonus of some sort, and then returning to the top of the owner’s deck. (Each player also gets a card indicating what color they are so it’s easier to remember, since there aren’t any player pawns in the game.)
The rulebook recommends using only one or two trap cards per game, and everyone shuffles the same trap cards into their own starting deck during setup.
Dale of Merchants Collection is GeekDad Approved!
Why You Should Play Dale of Merchants Collection
As I’ve mentioned before, I backed the second campaign for Dale of Merchants sort of on a whim: I liked the artwork and I love deck-building games, and the idea of culling your deck to build the market stall intrigued me. Since I had missed the first campaign, I took a chance and backed for both games together, without having played the original. As it turns out, I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying it. Since then, I’ve tried all of the sets (including the prototype for Dale of Merchants 3) and it’s among my favorites.
Deck-building games are one of my favorite genres anyway, and I always like to see different ways the mechanic is used. Dale of Merchants has a pretty simplified turn structure: you get one action, and then you draw back up. But then, of course, there are a lot of exceptions. If you chain together technique cards with the “+” symbol, you can end up taking a lot of actions in a turn, drawing more cards, manipulating your discard pile, and so on. In general, you’re limited to making one purchase or building one stall, which ends your turn, but you can do a lot of other stuff in the meantime.
One of the things that sets Dale of Merchants apart is the way that the culling is a required part of winning the game. Sure, weeding weaker cards from your deck is an important part of the strategy in many deck-building games, but it’s not usually absolutely necessary. Here, the only way you can win is by building those stacks, which removes cards from your deck. Not only that, but you typically can’t just get rid of weak cards. Junk cards can’t be used in your stall, so you have to find other ways to get rid of those. As the stacks progress, they increase in value—that means you either have to use more valuable cards, or more cards. By the time you get to the 7th and 8th stacks, it’s a little bit of both.
There are some really tough decisions to be made, figuring out what to buy so that you’ll have enough cards of the right suits to build those high-value stacks, plus still have cards that you can use for their effects. In many cases, I’ve seen the market deck run out because people are buying as much as they can indiscriminately, but then you end up spending a lot of turns trying to get the right combination of cards into your hand at the same time. Or, in some cases, you might end up being unable to complete your market stall because you didn’t have the right cards left for the last stack.
The only other game where I’ve seen this sort of deck-culling is Valley of the Kings, another small-box deck-building game in which you must take cards out of your deck to win—though in that case you’re scoring for cards in your tomb. Dale of Merchants is strictly a race to the 8th stack, and whoever builds it first wins. The downside to this, though, is that if all the players are focused only on building their decks instead of building their market stalls, the game can go much longer. The first time I played Collection, it took us closer to 2 hours, partly because the animalfolk we happened to choose were all the most complex of the set, but also because most of us didn’t even start building stalls until the market deck was almost out. There is a bit of a shared pacing to the game: as soon as one player starts building stalls, other players will need to keep up, because you can only build one per turn. Wait too long, and you have no hope of catching up.
I’ve tried out some of the new character abilities and the trap cards. I like the way that the character cards differentiate each player a little bit, and add some more variety that might drive players toward different tactics. The trap cards are a fun way to add just a touch of “take that” without changing up the game quite as much as the character cards do. There’s always a little thrill when an opponent draws a card and it’s one of your traps … though of course the flipside is the disappointment you feel when you draw one of theirs. The first two trap cards don’t generally impact you negatively—the trap’s owner gets a little bonus but you don’t lose anything. The last two trap cards are a little nastier, randomizing your hand or discarding cards from your deck, so you can include those for players who want to be a little more aggressive.
That’s another thing I like about Dale of Merchants: you can adjust the amount of interactivity and nastiness based on which animalfolk you choose. A common complaint about deck-building games (particularly some of the older titles) is that they feel like multiplayer solitaire—you’re building your deck, but you don’t do anything that affects anyone else. A rotating market allows for some hate-drafting, where you can buy a card that you know somebody else wants, but in many cases you can’t actually affect another player’s deck. Dale of Merchants offers the opportunity to do just that, with effects that let you steal cards or throw them away, give junk to other players, or even swap cards between two players. On the other hand, if you prefer the feel of a walled garden, where nobody can mess with your perfectly cultivated deck, you can select animalfolk with low interactivity and nastiness, and it’s a different experience.
If you enjoy the first two Dale of Merchants games, you’ll enjoy the new mix of animalfolk in Collection. I’m excited to try out even more of the character cards (and use the nastier traps), though the additional variants might be more than everyone wants. There’s a part of me that wishes the animalfolk cards and the new variants came separately, so that there were still an option to just get another small-box set for those who just want more animals but not the characters and traps. But as somebody who’s a fan of the series and will want the whole kit and kaboodle, I also like the idea of having it all in one box. I really love the Dale of Merchants series, and I think the Collection adds some terrific optional features that will give me plenty to explore.
I highly recommend Dale of Merchants Collection for those who enjoy deck-building and adorable animals. For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Snowdale Design website!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.