So it’s probably about the right time to break out another Kickstarter game, and what better game to pick than Dale of Merchants, a cute modular deckbuilder from Snowdale Design. In it, you play as merchants in the town of Dale, eager to set up their wares in the market so that they can become a member of the Guild of Extraordinary Traders. However, building a market will require careful planning, smart purchasing, and sacrifice. Will you be able to win the annual trading competition?
First thing in the box you’ll notice is the Market Board, which is double-sided:
Set that out where all players can access it. Next, you’ll notice a bunch of different animalfolk decks:
Choose X + 1 decks, where X is your number of players, and then give each player a 1-value card from each type of animalfolk deck. Remove the remaining 1-value cards from the game. The remainder of the player’s deck should be filled with junk cards:
Which has a value of 1 and vaguely sucks. This means that each player will start with a deck that looks something like this:
Have each player shuffle their deck, and shuffle together the remaining 2-5 cards of each animalfolk deck to form the market deck. Once you’ve done that, flip cards into each space on the market board to finish setting up the game, and have each player draw 5 cards.
Once your setup looks like this, you’re ready to start:
So this game is a deckbuilder, which means you should probably understand what a deckbuilder is (and I explain what a deckbuilder is in some of my earlier deckbuilder reviews, like Flip City, Paperback, and Dominion). That said, it has a fair number of differences from a standard deckbuilder, so I’m just going to describe general gameplay and then cover the various types of decks.
On your turn, you may do one of four different actions: Technique, Market, Stall, Inventory. I’ll cover each in turn.
This action lets you play a technique card from your hand to resolve its effect. To that end, there are three different types of cards:
- Technique cards have an effect that must be played to be activated. After its effect is resolved it is immediately discarded unless otherwise stated.
- Passive cards have an effect which happens as long as you have the card in your hand or are using it as part of another action. To activate a passive effect, just show the card that you’re using so that other players know you have it.
- Rubbish cards are just junk. The only thing it’s good for is buying other cards, unless otherwise stated.
So, as the action on your turn you can play one technique card and resolve its effect. Show the card and then perform the action. If there is more than one action on the card, the actions resolve in the order printed on the card. Some actions have a (+) symbol on the card — this represents a bonus action. When you play the card for its technique (not for other things) you can then immediately perform another action of any kind. So handy!
This action lets you spend cards from your hand in order to purchase a card from the Market Board. You’ll note that there are +’s above the Market Board — these increase the cost of cards on their spaces by that amount. So, for instance, the farthest right card on the Market Board costs its value, whereas the farthest left card on the Market Board costs its value + 4, which can be fairly expensive if the card isn’t, say, a 2.
Now, a very interesting thing that makes this different from, say, Dominion and Paperback is that when you buy a card, the cards you used to buy the card go to your discard pile (as expected), but the card you buy goes to your hand. This means that you can play it next turn, since you don’t discard your hand between turns. This is pretty important!
Another interesting thing is the rules around overpaying. So, unlike Dominion: Guilds, you can’t just overpay for a card if you want to (since that’s the only way to get cards like Junk out of your hand); you can only overpay if you can’t make change. So, say you have a 1, 2, and 3 card in your hand. If you’re buying a 5-value card, you can’t spend all three cards since you could just pay with the 2 and the 3. If you have two 4-value cards in hand, you CAN spend both to buy the 5-value card since you only have the two 4s. You can even do this if you have a 4, a 2, and a 5 in hand — you just spend the 4 and the 2.
This is probably the most important action. You have one goal to win the annual trading competition, and that’s to build out your stall. Your stall is a row of eight areas, each valued 1-8. On your turn, you may commit a card (or set of cards following certain rules) to the first available stack in your stall (so starting with 1, then 2, then 3, and so on). Once you’ve done that, your cards are locked into the stall (unless otherwise stated), so you’re stuck with them.
Note the rules:
- You cannot normally play Junk with a Stall action. I’ve heard that the Flying Squirrels know a little something about getting around that, though…
- If you play more than one animalfolk card with a Stall action, all cards committed to your stall must be of the same animalfolk type. As always, this is true unless otherwise stated. This means you can’t play a Macaw 3 and a Panda 3 to create a stack worth 6.
- Once a stack is finished, it doesn’t really matter what’s in it. Some cards let you modify their value for a turn, so if you were to increase a 5’s value by 1, you can commit it to your 6-stack even though it won’t be worth 6 once the turn is over. It’s just about what it’s worth when you add it to your stack.
- You must build a complete stack all at once. You cannot build a partial stack and add to it later.
So, for instance, this is a valid stall:
If, at any point, you have a full stall from 1-8, you win. You win instantly, too, no “everyone gets another turn” or anything. Just a pure, straight win.
This action lets you discard any number of cards you want from your hand. I don’t ever really see people using this action, but it exists.
Once you’ve performed your one action (or resolved your bonus actions), your turn is essentially over. You draw back up until you have five cards in hand (note that if you have more than five cards through shenanigans, you do not draw more cards, as you might expect).
If you run out of cards in your deck, shuffle your discard pile and that becomes your new deck. Surprising me (I think I missed this rule), if you run out of cards in your deck and discard pile, draw junk cards to refill your hand to five cards (I assume this is to prevent a player getting stalemated by only having a 1-value card in their hand). If you run out of junk, well, get the unused animalfolk decks, add those to your hands, and treat them like junk cards. You cannot run out of junk. There’s always more junk.
Next, refill the market slots by pushing all the cards to the right to fill gaps and then drawing new cards from the market deck. If you run out of cards in the market deck, shuffle the market discard and make that the new market deck. If both the deck and discard are empty, well, you do nothing.
After this, the next player clockwise takes their turn. Play continues until one player wins by filling their stall with 8 stacks!
Now, let’s talk animalfolk.
Meet the Decks: Snappy Scarlet Macaws
These birds are all about hand management. Discarding cards, increasing your hand limit, throwing cards in your hand away (putting them in the market discard pile or the junk pile, depending on what card you get), everything’s fair play for the macaws. Generally, I think they’re a good starter deck for new players, but I still think they’re fun and I’m a bit more experienced.
Meet the Decks: Dealing Giant Pandas
Oh, the Pandas. The pandas work with market manipulation. Basically, what the macaws are doing to your hand, the pandas want to do to the market, but with some variation. They can clear the whole market, give you a card for free from the market, even help you buy from different sources, overpay, or help you get rid of junk. Also a great deck for beginners.
Meet the Decks: Hoarding Flying Squirrels
So we’ve seen hand manipulation and market manipulation, so it’s not terribly surprising that we’d see stall manipulation as another mechanic. That said, the squirrels exemplify stall manipulation perfectly. Some will let you play junk to build a stall, some will let you mix and match animalfolk, and one will even let you steal cards from other players’ stalls (ostensibly to add them to your own!). My personal favorite is a card that lets you build two stalls in one turn, provided the first stall contains that card. A great way to sneak in a victory. Again, another great deck for first-time players, but with some cool combo options.
Meet the Decks: Lucky Ocelots
These guys are whimsical as all hell. If you feel like the game would benefit from a bit of randomness, try out the ocelots! They’ll heavily feature a special die that you can see in the photo. This die may add value to cards or determine how many cards you steal from another player! Very high chaos. Other highlights are cards that let you try to guess a hidden card’s value (or force your opponent to do the same) for a potential benefit. I wouldn’t say this is the best way to learn the game, but it’s a super fun deck to play with.
Meet the Decks: Thieving Northern Raccoons
And here’s where we get mean. For those of you who like Dominion for its attacks, the Raccoons are probably a great card for you to consider. With forcing random discards, giving other players more junk, and stealing cards from players, the raccoons are essentially a sampler platter of deckbuilding attack cards. I really like that they exist as a module that can be added or not, because it’s not particularly my scene but I imagine other players like that a lot. That said, I’ll still try them from time to time because they’re fun.
Meet the Decks: Adapting Veiled Chameleons
Now these guys are weird. Taking after their relatives in Coloretto, the chameleon cards are used to copy other cards in play, either in your hand, the market deck, or other player’s hands / discard piles. You can get into weird cyclical reflection loops (it cancels it out, in case you’re wondering), which might be pretty confusing for new players, so play with them at your own risk. Personally, they’re one of my favorite decks because they’re so interesting to use. Plus, having the right card to copy at the right time can really tilt the game in your favor. Looking to set up some strategies and not worried about confusing yourself? Check out the chameleons.
Player Count Differences
Honestly, with this, there aren’t too many player differences short of getting more decks in play. If you play with four people, you’ll be using five animalfolk decks so you will see far less junk in the game. This does make it a bit easier for players to start their first stall, but the randomness of more animalfolk decks mixed into the market deck means that it’s hard for me to argue that that presents any kind of advantage after Stack 1.
I guess it’s nice to play with a few more people since you’ll have more animalfolk decks in play, but I do enjoy it at two players as well.
Generally, I’d say that it just takes a bit longer to play since there are more people taking turns between yours, but that’s literally every deckbuilder. So no real preference, here.
Well this depends a bit on what animalfolk cards you have in play, but I’ll try to note a few things that I’ve seen from my plays:
- Don’t wait to start building your stalls. Usually I identify which of my 1-value cards I want the least and just get to it after making a few buys. You don’t want to be stalling a 1-stack when the other player has just played a 6-stack. Try not to fall more than, say, two stacks behind, as a light rule of thumb, perhaps?
- Don’t forget that you can change cards’ values to put them in your stacks. The Bold Haggler (Ocelot 1) can increase its value by up to 3, making it a pretty flexible addition to any stack you’d want to make. That said, you lose the card by stalling it, so… be careful.
- Getting rid of junk helps, provided you have other high-value cards. You really don’t want to be in a place where it’s hard to buy things, so, try not to throw away all of your junk too early. Essential Purchase (Panda 3) is REALLY HELPFUL for getting rid of junk, as it torches all the junk you use to buy it.
- Don’t underestimate the Squirrels. Stack and stall manipulation are straight dangerous when done well. They’re also good for burning junk since you can use Squirrel 1 to stall itself and a bunch of junk at the same time. I think I once stalled Squirrel 1 and 4 junk for my 5-stack, for instance.
- The Chameleons are difficult to master, but worth it. Essentially letting you copy a variety of cards can be exceedingly useful. For instance, copying that Squirrel 1 to get rid of the rest of your junk? Super helpful. Getting to copy cards from the Market? Amazing. Sure, you’ll almost certainly get confused about what the card actually is, but that happens.
- Generally you want the top card of your discard pile to be junk. In this version at least, there are a lot of cards that benefit your opponent if the top card in your discard pile is anything useful, so I try to make sure that the top of my discard pile generally ends up being junk.
- Use the Ocelots and the Raccoons to hit your opponents hard before they can pull out a win. Either Ocelot to exchange some junk for their good cards, or Raccoon to force them to throw away or discard cards if they start getting into the 6-7-stack range. In my opinion, at least, you should be able to stall them for a bit to get your stacks in order. This, again, relies on you actually planning out your stacks early.
- Don’t forget about Passive cards. These cards just need to be shown to be used, so use them if you want.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Super cool theme. It also increases expandability since you can use literally any animal as long as you have a gameplay theme for it.
- I love the modularity of it. Again, increases replay value since you can mix-and-match, but also helps teach deckbuilding concepts since each set has a core “play theme” in mind and you can play around with those. Want to teach only hand, market, and stall manipulation? Only play with Macaws, Pandas, and Squirrels. Want to make everyone hate you? Play with the Chameleons, Raccoons, and Ocelots. The expansion / sequel adds even more animal friends, and I love it.
- Amazing art. The world feels super vibrant and colorful and I love the aesthetic.
- Short and easy to learn. I think it’s actually a simpler deckbuilder since you gain cards to your hand and then refill, rather than discarding your entire hand and drawing a new one. That’s my personal opinion, though. This isn’t a bad way to introduce deckbuilding.
- Interesting spin on deckbuilding. The stall theme and tearing apart your deck to place cards is interesting, and I like that it feels very thematically appropriate to the game.
- Not a huge fan of the Ocelots’s player interaction. I dislike the idea of randomly swapping cards with another player, as I tend to like tightly-controlled strategy in games like this rather than pure chance. That said, if you don’t like certain cards, just … play with other sets. I like the rest of the Ocelot cards enough to continually use that set, but I’m not a big fan of Whirlygig. I think it’s an interesting card; it just doesn’t gel with my play style.
- Sort-of lacks much of a catch-up mechanic. If you let one player get too far ahead, there’s not always anything you can do to stop them. That, in my opinion, means it’s on you to make sure that you’re paying attention to how other players are progressing in the game. That said, it’d be super interesting to see an animalfolk deck based around providing a catchup mechanic / potentially tearing down another player’s stall if they’re past a certain point. That seems like it’d be tough to swing, though.
Overall: 8 / 10
Dale of Merchants is great! I’m a big fan. I love the art and theme and generally I’m sold on the concept. I think it’s a great way to introduce new people to deckbuilding and it’s a generally unoffensive theme (as who doesn’t like animal friends?). It also has a variety of gameplay options and combos for players as they get more experienced, so there’s some idea of progression in gameplay. Basically, I’m super enthused to play this, pretty much won’t turn it down, and look forward to playing it in the future. If you’re looking for a cute little deckbuilder and you want an interesting spin on it, give Dale of Merchants a try!