Board Game Review: Mercante—Where Every Point Counts
This week, we take a look at the second game in the Tempest line (and last to be reviewed) – Mercante. With the influence of the nobles faltering, it’s time for the Merchant Houses to import and sell the goods that may not have been as plentiful previously. And, if they make a tidy profit, so much the better. You are one such merchant house and compete for points and crowns.
The Basics. At the start of the game, each player is represented by a different merchant house. Those houses confer special benefits – either in-game bonuses, or one time set-up bonuses. Each player also receives a contract. Unlike other games, a player receives an up front payment for taking a contract. Then, when the player fulfills it, they get points. If left unfulfilled, they lose points.
There are also five shipment cards which randomly bring goods into port. On their turn, a player selects one of the shipment cards to go up for auction. If it has more than one good, then it can either be auctioned as a lump sale or auctioned one good at a time. Auctions are once per round with the acting player going last. Whoever wins the auction takes the goods and places them in one of his warehouses as long as he has room.
From there, the player can then assign his agents to his personal board to take various actions. These include bringing on more agents, buying victory points, adding warehouses, selling goods to the markets, manipulating the events, getting additional contracts, securing warehouses, and the dreaded skullduggery. There is a board which marks the prices for points and agents. In the early game, points are cheap and agents expensive. Each time one is bought, the marker slides down the board. As the game progresses, points become more costly and agents become cheaper.
The market board reveals the prices for the four different types of goods. When a good is sold to the market, it goes on to the topmost spot earning the highest amount of money. Later goods are sold to lower spots for less money.
Finally, just about once each round, there is an upkeep phase. During this phase, some goods are removed from the markets, auctions may take place for victory points, and a new event is revealed. Play continues until one of three end conditions is met: run out of shipment cards, a player has 80 crowns, or the agent/point marker gets to the end. Then, whoever has most points wins.
The Feel. Mercante is a strong economic game that forces players to carefully consider their bids. And, unlike many economic games, gaining crowns and gaining points are not necessarily related. Gaining crowns is just a means to an end, but crowns by themselves (while helpful) will not secure the victory. Clever play must be married to strong economics to do well at Mercante.
The auction phase of each turn is critical. Not only are players trying to get the right goods to fulfill their contracts, but they also are trying to acquire goods that can be sold for the best prices. While everyone may have a relatively equal interest in the prices, the desire to complete contracts will tend to skew prices in a variety of ways. But, because it is a once around auction, if you want something put up for bid by someone else, you’ll have to be willing to bid high for it.
And, unlike many auction games, Mercante allows for a wide variety of play styles. One player might grab numerous contracts and then fulfill them over the course of the game. They can bid on just the goods they need – thereby keeping their costs down – and get a slew of points. While another player might focus entirely on raw money generation, and then use their massive funds to simply buy points each turn. Still others might increase their warehouses and be able to swing their additional storage for lower prices when others are filled up. Mercante can provide success for numerous play styles.
Plus, there is always skullduggery. A unit placed there can steal from unsecured warehouses and/or pick up discarded goods. It’s an interactive element that keeps other players on their toes. They will either have to use up an agent simply securing a warehouse, or they will have to run the risk that someone will break into their warehouse and steal the precious goods.
But, the thing I like most about it, and the thing that makes the game so tense, is that points are few and precious. With all the auction maneuvering, skullduggery, and everything else going on, the games I’ve played have all seen a winner with around ten points. Ten points. So each bought point and each completed contract takes on a whole new measure of significance. Every single decision becomes that much more important when the scores tend to be close and the points low.
Even better, Mercante provides a tense economic game in a relatively short play time. Even with five players, the game stays under ninety minutes. It allows for a big game experience in a short interlude – somewhat like it’s fellow Tempest game, Love Letter.
Negatives are sparse in Mercante. But, if I searched it would largely come down to two items. First, some of the actions (like a third warehouse, or manipulating events, or doing research) seem underpowered compared to what else might be available. Now, with repeated plays, these actions have revealed themselves to have powerful, if situational use, but to the novice player they may go unnoticed entirely. Second, there are a lot of little tricky rules like cartage and removal points that seem similar but differ in important respects. Keeping them all straight took a game or two. Those easily overlooked rules can lead to strange plays of Mercante.
Components: 4 of 5. The pieces in Mercante are outstanding. The cards are on fine stock and have a nice gloss, but they don’t typically see much shuffling other than at the start of each game. Players have their own separate, solid board. The turn track and the market board are both great. And, all of the chits are on thick stock. I even like the way the goods tokens were handled – rectangular items that eschew strange iconography in favor of written text.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Strategy is paramount in Mercante. There are a few elements of randomness – mostly in how the events play out during each upkeep phase. For instance, in one game my opening contract required that I ship Tin, but Tin did not arrive in the harbor until about three quarters of the game was done. But, otherwise it all comes down to the chosen actions of the player – and how that player reacts to the game. And, there are actions (like gathering intelligence) that can help mitigate any foul luck.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Other than a few too easily forgettable rules, Mercante is nigh flawless. It manages to combine a diversity of play styles and strategies with constantly tense decisions. And, the designer’s decision to make the game a low scoring endeavor was a stroke of brilliance. More than anything else, that constantly has the players watching to eke out just one more point.
Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Mercante is a fantastic game with surprising depth of play given the amount of time it remains on the table. Plus, with different houses, events, and contracts, players will have to compete in different ways each time. And, as players gain experience, it may become just as important to deny other players what they want as it is to obtain your goals.
Spite: 3 of 5. Spite is definitely present in Mercante although it is more of an appendage to good play than anything else. Skullduggery allows you to steal from another player, but only if their warehouse is unsecured, and even then, only if they have two or more items in it. So that prevents you from taking their only good. Plus, some events that impact the price of goods can be played as a reaction. So that Art you thought you were selling for 20 suddenly is worth six crowns less. Even so, it happens relatively infrequently and tends to be situational rather than targeted.
Overall: 4 of 5. Mercante is one of the better economic/auction games I’ve played. Every decision is tense, and the once per round auction means that everything is done at a reasonable pace. I don’t think I’m the only one to find it tedious when players constantly bid one another up by ones. Mercante brings a wealth of tension and tactics to the economic genre and the result is an engaging experience. If you have any interest in economic games, then you should definitely look into Mercante.
(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Mercante)