05 September 2022
Winter is coming. But people still ned to buy stuff.
Set in a frozen fantasy world, Brian “Winterborne” Suhre’s latest presents its players with a distinct thematic challenge: when you live in a realm where winter means 13 weeks of night-black darkness, how can you keep its heroic adventurers stocked up on crucial equipment? The answer is, pretty much, to be more adventurous than the adventurers.
Unlike similarly flavoured economic games (Bargain Quest, say, or Guild Master) Merchants of the Dark Road isn’t about fantastical shopkeeping. It’s about hitching your trusty steed to your wagon (aka your player board), loading it up, picking up some heroes at the tavern, and setting off out into the treacherous, rimy gloom.
Given it’s the turn of wagon wheels that keeps your business rolling, Merchants of the Dark Road is replete with rondels. Its six-piece kingdom board – beautifully illustrated by Andrew Bosley, of Everdell fame – centres on what is effectively an olde worlde roundabout. Your wagons will trundle around this, stopping off at specific locations to execute necessary actions: buying stock, accepting commissions, recruiting heroes and heading off on excursions (more on which later). Some of these locations feature their own rondels, the most impressive of which is the Great Bazaar, a smoothly rotatable pie-sliced circle which attaches magnetically to the board in the most pleasingly magical manner, and can be turned to manipulate goods prices to your benefit.
Amid all this impressive rondelry is a Bitoku-ish dice-placement mechanism. Each player starts with seven ‘night’ dice, whose value determines how far their wagon can move around the aforementioned roundabout. But as each die is activated, you can trigger other benefits, too, such as gaining a lantern, or crafting an item. Or, indeed, activating an eighth ‘illuminated’ die, which allows you to take not merely one, but three adjacent actions on the kingdom board. However, all these dice are an ever-dwindling resource. Illuminated dice are one-use only (and you’ll need to work quite hard to replace them), while over the 13 rounds (each representing a week of winter), you will gradually remove your night dice from the game, incrementally restricting your flexibility on each turn. The final few rounds become a deeply brain-burning matter of figuring out how to best exploit what little choice you have left. Especially as Suhre has implemented a Reiner Knizia-style scoring system, where your end-game result is determined by the lowest value you’ve achieved in either prestige or money, meaning you’ll have to maintain a careful balancing act between the two throughout.
It’s an entertainingly challenging system, but the game’s most enjoyable element involves the aforementioned excursions. This is the ‘quest’ bit, where you either go delving in some murky ruins (where there’s another rondel), or head off to fulfil commissions and drop off heroes in other towns. Here a kind of mini-game occurs, where you can choose to either travel the Dark Road (risky) or spend lanterns to take a shortcut (also kinda risky, to be honest), inviting any of the other players to join you. There’s some ‘push your luck’ here as dice are rolled to determine how an encounter affects each traveller, either inflicting a penalty or providing a boon. But the final rewards usually make it all worth it, including neat little upgrades for your precious wagon. And who doesn’t love upgrades?
Thanks to such neat mechanical touches, which are invaluably complemented by Bosley’s atmospheric art, Merchants of the Dark Road is a joy to play, somehow making its fantasy-world economics feel like the place where the real adventure is happening.
PLAY IT? YES
Atmospheric and challenging, with a sense of jeopardy and derring-do that you don’t usually get in commercially themed games.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED VISCOUNTS OF THE WEST KINGDOM…
In other words, if you’re partial to rondels, you’re gonna be in spinny spinny heaven.
Designer: Brian Suhre
Publisher: Elf Creek Games
Time: 60-120 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Six-piece kingdom board
- Magnetic market wheel
- 4 Wagon boards
- 4 Player screens
- 4 Player aids
- 4 Wagon pawns
- 4 Prestige markers
- 48 Hero cards
- 22 Companion cards
- 7 Steed cards
- 19 Deed cards
- 26 Event cards
- 30 Commission tiles
- 6 Wagon upgrade tiles
- 5 Double-sided building tiles
- 84 Goods tiles
- Dark Market marker
- Ruins of Yin marker
- 52 Tokens
- 48 Custom dice
- 60 Coins
- 28 Solo play components
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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