Full disclosure: A review copy of Merchants of Dunhuang was provided by Mandoo Games.
So, my attempt to write 10 reviews in a week was such a success that I decided to stretch a bit and see if I could hit 12. After that, though, I’m taking a break (to work on photography). This is review #11 of that push, Mandoo’s Merchants of Dunhuang! I was a little worried because Tabletopia only supported 3+ players for this one, for some indeterminable reason. We “tweaked” it to work at two, and that went fine, so I tried it again to get a review ready for y’all! Not much more to say before we actually get into the review, so let’s see what Merchants of Dunhuang has going on!
In Merchants of Dunhuang, you’re trying to make a name for yourself as, well, a merchant, in Dunhuang. Sometimes games are just named what they are. Anyways, as caravans come through town, you’re working with other merchants to, you know, supply and demand the whole thing. You’ve got bigger ambitions, though; you want to be the best merchant in town. You want the game to be called Merchant of Dunhuang, because it would only be about you. Unfortunately, the merchants you’re working with have similar desires, which means there’s only one way to settle this: a game! Will you be able to make the big plays required to make a name for yourself in Dunhuang?
Quick setup. Choose 8 characters from the 8 double-sided tiles:
Place them in a circle. Prep your Goods Cards, next:
You’ll limit your deck based on your player count:
- 2 players: Remove the 1, the 9s, and the 10s.
- 3 players: Remove the 1 and the 10s.
- 4 players: Use all cards.
Do the same for the Majority Tokens:
Shuffle the Goods cards and place 1 next to each character to form the Market. Then, deal each player 3 Goods cards. They choose one to keep and remove the other two from the game. Finally, set aside the Prestige Points and the Coins. Players should take some coins, to start:
- 2 players: 5 coins
- 3 players: 6 coins
- 4 players: 7 coins
Choose a start player and have the last player place the Camel on the character of their choice. That should be all you need to get started!
The game of Merchants of Dunhuang takes place over several rounds as players attempt to create wealth for themselves via market majorities and hand majorities. They’ll also try to collect prestige and coins to make themselves the richest merchant around. Just be careful; there’s also an instant win condition!
On your turn, you’ll do five things. The first thing you do is move the camel. You must move it at least one space clockwise, but you may spend additional coins to move additional spaces. Essentially, the first move costs 0; all subsequent moves cost a coin per move.
After you’ve moved, take the Good that’s below the Character and add it face-up to your Shop. If you now have the most of a Good or are tied for the most of a Good, take the Majority Token and place it in your player area.
You may now use the ability of the character whose space the camel occupies. If you would prefer not to do that, you can instead take 3 coins.
If, at this point, you have 4 Majority Tokens and 4 different goods in your hand (5 Majority Tokens in a two-player game), you immediately win. If not, refill the market by drawing new goods to fill the now-empty space(s).
If the deck runs out before any player wins, the game ends after all players have taken an equal number of turns. You then do final scoring. First, discard all cards in all players’ shops (but keep the majority tokens). Then, compare hands. If you have the most (no ties) of a good, keep one of that good card and discard the rest. If you do not have the most of a good, discard all copies of that card from your hand. Final scoring is then:
- Majority Tokens: 2 points each
- Prestige Tokens: 1 point each
- Cards in hand: Their printed value (you should only have one of any type of good). However, you can only score as many cards as you have Majority Tokens. If you have more cards in hand than Majority Tokens, discard down to the same number of Majority Tokens.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Careful at higher player counts; with more players, it may be a bit harder to track who’s getting close to that instant win, as more things are going on. That said, the dynamic nature of the game fundamentally lends itself better to higher player counts. At two, you’re mostly just going back and forth, taking majorities from each other until you run out cards of a certain color and cement your lock on it. That’s not bad, but in terms of two-player tug-of-war games, there are plenty that are more streamlined and hit the spot a little better than Merchants does. At higher player counts, though, since there are more turns that happen between your turn, you kind of need to make everything count. If other players suspect you’re about to win, they may both (or all) turn on you and go after your majorities, and a lot can be taken from you with two or three turns between your turn and your next turn. It’s interesting, for a quick little game. All in all, I’d probably more likely play this at three or four players than two.
- Watch other players closely. You really need to make sure nobody hits that 4 and 4 combination that they need to win. If you see someone at three Majority Tokens, you need to go after them. Plus, taking other players’ Majority Tokens helps you. That said, you may try offloading the “blocking the player who is about to win” to the player after you in turn order, but be careful! If they miss it and forget to block that player, you both lose.
- Try to keep track of who is taking what cards. You do want to know things like whether or not a player is hoarding 9s in their hand to try and score bonus points at the end of the game or if a player has taken all of the 3s, meaning that there can be none left in the deck. If you know more aren’t available, then you can adjust your Majority Token pursuit.
- There are four things you need to prioritize: the instant win condition, hand majorities, prestige points, and shop majorities. If you forget about the instant win, you’re likely to see your opponent activate it, so keep on top of that. That said, even if you block it, you still have to win the game during final scoring, so you can’t neglect anything else. Focusing on taking a bunch of cards into your hand will help both cases.
- If you’ve got a shot at the instant win, take it. Sometimes you’ve got to take the shot, but going for broke may leave you in a bad place if it doesn’t work out. Check to make sure you’re able to win the game before you go for it, because going for the victory and realizing you have the wrong set of cards or you’re short some coins to move the spaces you need to lock in that last Majority Token just puts a massive target on your back that your opponents will likely be all too happy to take advantage of.
- If you think the game isn’t going to go to the instant win, start gathering cards in your hand. Taking cards into your hand helps you a lot when it comes to final scoring, provided those cards are worth something. Getting both 2s is nice, but … it’s only two points. Keep in mind that even if you have a bunch of cards, you need a bunch of unique cards to get a lot of points, or a bunch of high-value cards.
- You have information (cards in your hand) that nobody else has. If you know what’s available, you can try and make sure that your Majority Tokens are unassailable. For instance, locking down the 1 in a four-player game means that nobody can take it from you, but if you take a 2 and you have a 2 in hand, nobody’s going to be able to get that one, either. Players may try to search the deck for it but if you’ve got it in your hand, nobody needs to know about it (unless they use a Character power to forcibly trade cards with you, I suppose).
- You also have some information around what cards were removed at the start of the game. This is pretty key, honestly, because that will throw off a lot of players’ counts. Suddenly, cards that were odd become essentially even and ties become a lot more dangerous as that balance shifts. Remember which cards you threw away; if you’re throwing away 9s, for instance, you now need less of them to get a hand majority, and that can make a big difference.
- Don’t forget to take money, occasionally. You need money to traverse the board. Without it, you’re just always moving one space and that can negatively impact your game (especially if you need a specific card or Character ability). You don’t always need to use a Character ability; try to time it such that you can get the money you need before you end up needing it too much.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The colors on the goods cards are incredible. I really like them. They’re bold and bright and compelling; the game looks excellent on the table as a result. I particularly like the colors on the 2, 3, and 10; they’re excellent.
- The game plays surprisingly quickly. Even faster if you’re not paying attention and let one of the other players win, but it’s usually done in 20 minutes or so unless players are really thinking through the consequences of their turns. Expect it to slow down a bit towards the end as players think more intensely about blocking.
- I like these kind of hidden-information majority games. I really like that you’re trying to get majorities but you’re not sure how many are in play. It reminds me a lot of Startups. While I prefer Startups (how could you not love Octo Coffee?), this title is a lot of fun, too.
- I enjoy games where you move around in circles; I just find it calming. This is just an “always” thing for me with board games, I guess. I’m not particularly sure why I like it so much, but it’s a very soothing motion and I like games that have you move around in a circle.
- There’s an interesting tension to deciding whether you should do the best thing for yourself or move past the spot that your opponent clearly wants to land on. At higher player counts, this is particularly interesting. Generally in 3+ player games, I recommend always doing what’s best for you and not worrying about your opponent. The problem is, here, they may be able to end the game and win instantly, if you do that, even if you would have beaten them on points in the long run. Taking a slightly suboptimal move to stay in the game is an interesting choice that players often have to make, and I like that the game enables that.
- Trying to prevent one player from instantly winning is also an interesting back-and-forth. I like the tension that after a certain amount of time in the game it becomes decently likely that one player will hit the instant win condition. It adds a nice tension to the normal back-and-forth for these kinds of games because one misstep won’t just turn the tide of the game against you; it’ll end it.
- Pretty portable. It’s a fairly small game. Not quite a wallet game (given how many cards you have to have to play), but it’s a relatively small-box title. Pretty easy to fit in a backpack.
- The 1 (basically a guaranteed majority) is an odd card. Not bad, just odd, since it’s essentially a Korok in the deck. You just get a bonus for finding it. No fuss, just “here’s a free Majority Token that nobody can take from you”. Odd.
- Games with abrupt instant-win conditions can be a nasty surprise for players. It’s something you really need to emphasize when teaching the game. It’s common to more focus on the scoring aspects and how they factor into final scoring, but if you forget to really dig in deep and be like “this is how a player can immediately win”, your players may be in for a bad time. Instant win conditions aren’t inherently bad (especially for short games like this one), but players tend to not like being surprised like that.
- It would have been nice if the Goods cards had been in a ROYGBIV order. It makes my photo look a bit weird, but, we all gotta suffer for my art from time to time, I guess.
- Requiring players to have a holistic view of all the characters at the same time can slow the game down at best or create a little bit of imbalance between players, at worst. I think there are two problems, here. One is that in my experience players tend to look up icons on a “need-to-know” basis, like, I landed on this person, what do they do. Unfortunately, the game is short enough and their opponents’ actions matter enough that they really do largely need to be aware of what every Character does, which might throw people off. The other issue is that the Characters are very similar to their reverse side (in terms of icon and ability), so players may make mistakes between games by not realizing the switch. It’s not a huge error, but it can be frustrating and negatively affect their strategy. Make sure you explain the Character abilities in their entirety to players before you get started with the game; they’ll appreciate it later.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I had a good time with Merchants of Dunhuang! I think it’s a relatively small-footprint game, to its benefit, because it’s quick, light, and colorful. It looks great on the table, and it forces players to interestingly balance hidden information with quick gameplay to try and make a play for winning now rather than winning later. I think that’s really cool! I think it’s probably most interesting at 3+, as the dynamic there is a bit more hectic (to the game’s benefit), whereas at 2 you’re doing more of that Hanamikoji back-and-forth. Either way, this game’s twist on that formula is having an automatic win condition to fall back on, so you can’t get complacent at any point. And I like that! The one issue that I think this game has is that it has a lot of information and tricky edges for such a short game, so where you might normally be able to just skim the rulebook and figure it out, you’ll want to take a second to sit with it and make sure you understand how final scoring works, how the instant win is activated, and how all the characters you’re playing with work. The characters in particular are very similar to their reverse side, which, while interesting, is also a recipe for confusion. Watch that part carefully. All that said, I do love a quick game, and I really like what they’ve done with the Goods cards; they’re beautifully colorful and just very nicely done. Beyond that, though, it’s a quick and interesting game, so, what’s not to like? If you’re looking for something quick you can play with three or you just want another nice-looking game from Mandoo, I’d recommend checking out Merchants of Dunhuang! I’ve certainly enjoyed it.