Working my way through various Kickstarter games takes us to the second Dale of Merchants game, again from Snowdale Design! This time, the city of Yengzuh is looking for a new Trade Master, and maybe … it could be you? The only way to find out is to expand your stall to sell wares in another deckbuilding mercantile adventure. Can you become Yengzuh’s Trade Master?
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 six all-new animalfolk decks:
Since I’m doing the extra expansion, there’s also an extra animalfolk deck, the Systematic Eurasian Beavers:
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:
Or, if you’re feeling really enterprising, you can use the special Junk cards that come with the Beaver deck:
All Junk has a value of 1 and is useless for pretty much any purpose. Each player will start with a deck that looks something like this:
Have each player shuffle their deck, and shuffle together the remaining value 2- value 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, like its predecessor, is a deckbuilder, which means you should know what a deckbuilder is (if you’d like an explanation of what a deckbuilder is, I cover it in my earlier Flip City, Paperback, and Dominion reviews). 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!
You normally discard the card once the action is completely resolved, which is usually the same turn. However, since the sloths take so darn long to do anything, you actually do not discard their technique card until the action has resolved, usually on your next turn. Silly sloths.
Note that Passive Abilities do not require an action to use, as they’re not Techniques. You just show the card in your hand and then the ability happens without you needing to discard. So easy!
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, except in one case), 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 ‘useless’ 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 the most important action, since it’s the only way you can end the game. You have one goal in Dale of Merchants 2, and that’s to build out your stall. Your stall is a row of eight stacks, 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. That’s about all there is to say about that, especially with this set. I hear the previous set might be able to change that rule…
- 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 Platypus 3 and a Sloth 3 to create a stack worth 6, even if that stack would be absolutely adorable.
- 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. Other cards let you pull cards out of your stack after the fact, so your stall may go 1-3-3-4-5 at a later point in the game. That’s fine.
- 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 with stacks valued 1-8, you win. You win instantly, too, no “everyone gets another turn” or anything. Just a pure, unfiltered win.
This action lets you discard any number of cards you want from your hand. I have played the entire Dale of Merchants series several times, and I have literally never seen anyone do this. Maybe you want to cycle your hand, I guess, but why not just … buy an expensive card, instead? I dunno. It’s there, though.
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 a variety of card effects, 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 in my first few plays of the original Dale of Merchants), 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 stymied 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. Seriously.
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: Experimenting Platypuses
The Platypuses work similar to the Macaws, but they’re about card control of many types. Market control, deck control, hand control, stack control, purchasing control, they do it all. They’re one of my favorite decks to play with (not just because they’re adorable platypuses) because it’s easy to understand their utility and they’re a lot of fun.
Meet the Decks: Diligent Pale-throated Sloths
Oh man, sloths. I almost squealed when I first saw them, as they’re just… great. They are almost exactly the same (down to the orange-ness) as Dominion: Seaside‘s (or others’) Duration cards. You play them, and then they resolve later, usually on the next turn. Slow and steady wins the race, after all. You can probably play with these in your first game without much trouble, but good luck convincing yourself that you don’t need these great sloths in every game you play.
It probably won’t work.
Meet the Decks: Intimidating Dwarf Crocodiles
Well, like the Raccoons in Dale of Merchants, you need at least one mean animalfolk deck, and here it is. The Crocs are all about harassing and threatening. Generally, threatening here means intimidating your opponents so that they don’t perform certain actions by making those actions more difficult to perform. You can see the limits on drawing back up or stack value or purchase price on the 2s and the 5s, and that can really wreck someone’s strategy. You don’t want to mess with the Crocodiles.
Meet the Decks: Friendly Fennec Foxes
As a direct contrast to the intimidating crocodiles, the Friendly Fennec Foxes have the power of friendship and alliteration on their side. Save for the 1, every player gets to enjoy the benefit of the fennec foxes’ cards, which is very interesting. I feel like this one might be more confusing for new players, since it’s giving other players rewards that they might hesitate to do, but for experienced players, it’s not just about giving someone something; it’s also about when you give them something. Knowing is half the battle, and apparently, with the fennec foxes, the other half of the battle is friendship.
Meet the Decks: Reckless Marbled Polecats
Were you playing Dale of Merchants and saying “Man, I wish the Ocelots were just, doubled?” Meet the Reckless Marbled Polecats. As with the Ocelots, they depend a lot on the die that was included with Dale of Merchants 2 for a lot of stuff (except, weirdly, the Sofa card, which doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the set as much), as they’re going to be rolling and multiplying and swapping and throwing cards away like crazy. If you’d like to inject a bit more luck into every game, these might be the Polecats for you.
Meet the Decks: Observant Snowy Owls
Another weird set, the Owls are purely passive. They have no active Techniques, so you can never play one of these cards as a Technique Action. Instead, you’ll reveal the card and perform the action. Owl 3 – Quality Inspection – is one of, in my opinion, the best cards in the game. At any point when this card enters your hand (I assume that counts pulling it from your deck or drawing it) you can throw away one card (whoops, initially said two) from your hand and draw another card from your deck. It’s one of the best ways in this game to clear out Junk Cards if you’re trying to play lean. Overall, this set rewards players who watch other players’ turns for opportunities and has a lot of potential interaction.
Meet the Decks: Systematic Eurasian Beavers
These guys were a stretch goal from the Kickstarter campaign and are available separately on Snowdale Design’s site. They are perhaps even more planning-oriented than the Sloths, as they sit in wait for “triggers” to occur, causing their effect to happen. Generally speaking, their best plays are to set and forget. Want to build a stack? Well, if you played Snack earlier, you can pull a card from the market (even if you don’t end up using that card in the stack), which is super helpful. Or maybe you played Overtime and you’ll just build that stack with any cards in your hand or discard pile. If you’re looking to plan out your actions and stick to them, the Beavers are a must-have. That said, if you’ve never played a deckbuilder before, I might get in a few games first before you go with these guys. There’s not really anything like it in other deckbuilders I’ve played (other than maybe Reserve cards in Dominion: Adventures, but those you choose to activate rather than activating via an effect).
Player Count Differences
As I said with the original, 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, since you start with 10 – (X + 1) junk, where X is the number of players. 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.
That said, if you are playing with Owls you will likely have more chances / opportunities to trigger those cards, since there will be more turns between your turns, so that could be a potential advantage if you’re looking to buy Owl cards from the market. You will likely see them get more play with four players than two. Similarly, the Fennec Foxes will likely slow the game down as you get more players, since every player does their action.
As with all deckbuilders, I’d say that it just takes a bit longer to play since there are more people taking turns between yours, but no real preference, as far as preferred player count goes.
A lot of the basic strategy is similar to Dale of Merchants, so I’ll reiterate it where relevant.
- Build your stall early. You should not build too quickly, since you just won’t have enough cards, but you should definitely get not wait until someone has four stacks to build your first one. Remember, this deckbuilder is a race to the finish line, not a game of points.
- The best move (especially in sets that lack conflict / aggressive player interaction) is often to get the game to a “X turns until I win” point. I find that having enough cards to play a 6-, 7-, and 8-stack is usually the strongest move, as that’s the hardest thing to organize. The difficult part is getting all of those cards in your hand. Well, unless you have Glue…
- Glue. Get it. I think Glue is the best card in the set, honestly. It’s a 5-cost card that you don’t discard from your hand when you use it to purchase. Sure, it makes it difficult to cycle your deck (which can make the late-game tough), but you can buy just about anything and then discard the other cards, which is awesome.
- Generally you want the top card of your discard pile to not be junk. In a surprising reversal from my original review, in Dale of Merchants 2 there are plenty of cards that benefit you if the top card of your discard pile is not junk, so you might be singing a different tune, this time around. Isn’t that fun?
- Remember that the Polecats can modify card values. Looking to get a six-stack? Maybe if you get lucky you can play Polecat 2 and multiply the 3 in your hand by 2? That’s rare, but plausible.
- Get rid of Junk where you can. Be careful in that if you’re too effective you’ll have to draw that junk back, but it can be useful to clear out your deck a la the classic deckbuilder strategies.
- Throw out all the stops if you think another player is about to win. Especially if you have the Crocodiles in play, nothing will mess up another player’s plan quite like “all your stacks must be +1 in value” or “cards in the market cost +2”, as this is a fairly fine-tuned game. I like those cards a lot more than “take cards from another player’s hand” or discard attacks. I’d be intrigued to see more cards like that in Dominion, too, though I think the -1 Coin Token in Adventures covers that already, a bit.
- With the Beavers, planning ahead is key. You should not waste your time playing a Beaver card that you don’t see yourself using sooner rather than later, as it can often take a technique action or reduce your buying power that turn. Have a system and plan accordingly. The Sloths and Owls will help a lot with planning, from my experience.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I think the art is just, amazing. It’s as good as if not better than the first game, and this is just a triumph. I love the animals, the new market board, the brightly-colored box, just, everything about it.
- Still a great set of theme ideas. If you’re ever looking to design a deckbuilder, the Dale of Merchants series is essentially “deckbuilding mechanics 101 + 102”, so you can learn different mechanics from it (hand management, passive effects, nondestructive negative player interaction, triggerable cards, all sorts of stuff). I think it’s super cool as a design exercise, and it seems crazy extensible. There are easily more than 13 animals, as well, so it’s possible / highly likely that there will be some expanses in the future.
- Short and easy to learn. I already said this about the first game, but it’s still true here.
- Adds some more depth and takes some cool risks. I think this definitely feels like a sequel game, but I appreciate that it’s playable with the first set. I need to spend some time playing with them together, since I like both so well already. I think it definitely developed on the first game and branched out in interesting ways.
- I’m not as bothered by the “attack” animalfolk this time. I don’t love stealing cards from another player’s deck and giving them (likely) junk, but at least it’s not attacking their hand. I really like the cards that increase requirements for purchase or stacks, though. I think those are awesome.
- Lots of subtle nice touches. One of my favorites is the different Junk for Dale of Merchants 2, but I also like the flavor text building out the world and connecting some of these animalfolk back to the original game. It’s just a well-designed game.
- I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a bit sore about there being no penguinfolk in this set. Penguins are one of my favorite animals, they were a potential stretch goal for the Kickstarter, and we didn’t quite make it to the stretch goal, so it didn’t happen. It’s no fault of the game, but I’m a little sad every time I think about it. Oh well. I always have Ice Cool.
- Some cards just seem objectively “good”, regardless of situation. I think it’s fine to have cards that are situationally good, but if the situation is “always” it can make the game feel tilted towards the player that gets that card, especially if it’s in short supply. I feel like Glue (Platypus 5) is one such card. I will always buy it if I can afford it, and I will always stall it as late as possible. If you find situations in which it’s not as good as I think it is, let me know in the comments!
- Still lacks a catch-up mechanic, I feel. I think the Crocodiles are a marked improvement there (since they can make it harder for players to buy cards or build stalls), but that requires you to get those cards and there aren’t a ton of any one card in this game. I’d be interested to see a more destructive animalfolk in Dale of Merchants 3 in some aspects, but I also worry that being able to destroy another player’s stall would make the game take an unimaginably long time. I think a lot of this game is that if you get to a runaway leader, you made some critical errors around building your stall and deck previously. It would be nice if there were something you could do about that, though. Maybe cards that give you extra bonuses if your opponents have X more cards in their stall than you? This also isn’t an extremely fair critique, since I had the same problem with the original game and I reviewed that after this one had already come out.
Overall: 8.25 / 10 (7.5 for the Beavers expansion)
Overall, Dale of Merchants 2 is great, just like the base game, but I do like it a bit better! I think the art is incredible, the new animalfolk are great, and it’s advancing the quality of the series enough that I would say Dale of Merchants 3 is almost certainly a must-buy for me. I’d like to start mixing the two games together and seeing what I get (since I know I have favorite animalfolk in each — probably the Chameleons in the original and the Owls or the Platypuses in 2), and seeing how they synergize or what comes of those games later. If you’re looking for a simple, portable deckbuilder with a cool race mechanic, look no further than the Dale of Merchants series — it’s great. The Beavers add a cool additional animalfolk to the game, and I’d recommend picking them up if you’re chomping at the bit for more Dale of Merchants. Either way, looking forward to the next game from Snowdale Design, especially with that art.