Full disclosure: A review copy of Dale of Merchants 3 was provided by Snowdale Design.
I think one of my favorite things to do is to review game series. See how the game evolves and changes over time. It’s one of the reasons I liked reviewing Dominion so much, early in my review career. It was fun to see what was going on in that space and what each new expansion added. And so, it is much the same for the Dale of Merchants series! I’ve tried the first, second, and collection, so naturally, Dale of Merchants 3 is next up! Let’s try it out!
Dale of Merchants 3 marks the series’ entry into finally becoming the ultimate form of a board game: the train game. Except, instead of just … having trains, the game is about trains. You play as merchants trying to build a continental railway so that you can be named Railway Manager. It’s very prestigious. Naturally, you’ll settle things the only way you know how: a trading competition. Deckbuild and engage in some potentially shady behavior to get yourself to the front of the pack for this job; after all, all’s fair in love and trains, right?
Setup is identical to the other games in the Dale of Merchants Series, though this time around there is (as you’ve come to expect) a new Market Board:
And new cards!
Once you’ve set up and given each player their starting deck, you should be ready to play!
Gameplay is roughly identical to any game in the Dale of Merchants series, as the decks from this game can be used interchangeably with any other deck in the series. The only new things that the game has added is the Snowshoe Hares die, which corresponds to that set:
The first player to 8 stalls wins!
Player Count Differences
I think this set is pretty highly interactive, so unless you’re entirely removing the Echidnas and the Magpies, you’re probably going to see more chaos as player counts increase, especially because a lot of cards involve stealing and exchanging, so cards (and cards that steal cards) are going to be flying around with reckless abandon. The major defensive set, the Tree-kangaroos, will be in short supply at higher player counts, so you’ll all be a bit more vulnerable to each others’ machinations. At two, this mostly just means you’ll be taking hilarious potshots at each other with the higher-chaos decks, so the games may take a bit longer as your best laid plans get swapped and trashed and everything in between. At higher player counts, if you draw enough ire from other players, you risk their collective might dumping on you all at once, which might be dangerous.
- You really want to watch what your opponents are playing, in this one. There are a lot of circumstances where that’s useful, but cards your opponents play (or buy!) can really affect you. If you see them buying Magpies, you may want to start stocking up on Tree-kangaroos to try and weather that storm. If you’re getting Magpies, you may want to watch what they’re buying and playing so that you have a rough sense of where their cards are at any given time. This will set you up better to steal them in the future, should you go that route.
- Thinning your deck is generally a good idea to get rid of Junk, but if you’re playing with the Magpies you may want to have a few cards in your deck as defense. Generally, in the Dale of Merchants series, having “only good cards” left in your deck is good. But with the Magpies, who thrive on stealing your cards (or torching them altogether), having only good cards means that you’re likely guaranteed to take a loss. Having a few Junk left in your deck and hand will insulate you a bit against their wrath, if they turn their eye to you.
- A lot of these sets are about deck control and manipulation, and that can be handy, as well. Just being able to search your deck and discard for cards and add them to your hand means that you may be shuffling less and less as the game goes on. I actually went maybe three turns without drawing cards in one game, and that worked perfectly fine?
- Similarly, even the order you discard cards may matter. There are cards that let you swap for the top card of an opponent’s discard pile (hilariously) or cards that let you shuffle the top card of your discard pile into your deck. These have very different energy, but both should make you cognizant of the fact that you may want to discard certain cards in a certain order to get the outcomes that you want. Though it may be worth it, in the first case, to get them to take a mediocre card from you early so that you have two chances to swipe something of theirs, later.
- As always, don’t forget to start using the stall action once you feel like you have a good mix of cards. The biggest problem players have in this game is that they start their stalls too late, and by the time they realize, the game is essentially over. You will quite often have to take a leap of faith and hope that you have the cards necessary to finish up your stall before another player can. Or, you can keep very good track of what’s in your deck, but given the highly-chaotic nature of these sets, that’s harder to do than usual.
- This set has a lot more cards that throw away cards, in my experience, so you shouldn’t plan on getting certain things out of the market (or you should prepare to possibly need to reset the Market Deck). This is going to be a bit more ad-hoc, for sure, but you might just need to take what you can get and make card combinations work. There are going to be a lot of cards that you get and then get stolen or swapped, or you want but the Market gets cleared, or you think you might want and then they get dumped from the deck. It’s just … how it goes. But being prepared for that can make the difference between winning and losing!
- Actually, in general, don’t get too attached to cards when you’re playing with this set. There are a lot of cards that throw things away from the deck, your discard, your hand, and the Market Deck, and things end up in the trash pretty quickly. Naturally, this means that they come back around again, but if you’re waiting for certain things or you miss out on some cards, you might have to wait until the Market Deck cycles, which isn’t the quickest thing even with this many cards trashing stuff.
- Also don’t let one player get all the cards that steal or borrow cards. That will be a very bad time for you, and likely a highly chaotic one. If you’ve got a player who’s essentially bought out the Magpies set, they’re going to be able to trash cards from your hand, which is particularly aggressive. Try to split the difference (or hoard them all yourself, I suppose) if you want to make sure that players can’t foil your well-thought-out plans.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like these news sets quite a bit. They’re quirky, in a lot of ways, but they deal with fun concepts that I haven’t seen as much of from the Dale of Merchants set. Plus, I just like being able to sift through so many things for the cards I want or make pretty even exchanges. The mean cards are mean, but they’re so interesting!
- The art, as always, is impeccable. I really love the commitment to making the cards so colorful and the style so endearing. Dale of Merchants is consistently a great-looking game, and 3 continues that proud pedigree for the series.
- I particularly like the nighttime board. I know Dale of Merchants is always doing excellent color work, but I love what they’re doing here with the train station at night. It’s not bustling (but it’s still under watch), and the night sky harkens back to the best of Black Panther, Wall-E, or other productions that try to capture how beautiful the stars can be when you’re not as subject to light pollution. It’s a very striking and subtle detail that I missed in my first pass through this review, but now editing the photos I really wanted to call it out as an excellent example of the top-notch work being done in this series.
- I’m just a big fan of the Dale of Merchants series’ modularity, as well. I like that you can have a fun (albeit occasionally weird) game with every possible configuration of sets. It’s got a lot of the same energy as Sushi Go Party! or other games with this sort of modular component business. It makes it more fun for players, as well, as you can tweak the sets you use to suit your audience or playstyle. You can have low-complexity sets to help new players learn the game, high-aggro sets for players who just want to take pot shots at each other, and high-complexity sets for players who really want to dig in! It’s all there, and I think that’s great. This set offers a bit for each!
- There’s a good mix of medium- to high-complexity sets in this one. There are definitely some advanced sets in here, and I think that’s super cool. The Magpies, for instance, require a very good knowledge of other players’ decks, strategies, and what cards are available. Nobody’s going to offer you a card list, either, so you’re going to have to be creative to be successful!
- The borrowing set (Short-beaked Echidnas) is a particularly interesting one. Sometimes I find it frustrating, because it messes up my planning (and if you read these reviews a lot, I love games where I can plan and execute on a long-thought-out plan), but the idea of consistently swapping cards around as a mostly-nonaggressive form of disruption is very interesting.
- Still very fast! Dale of Merchants was, until I played Abandon All Artichokes, probably the fastest deckbuilder in my collection. That one is faster, granted, but Dale of Merchants is still a pretty quick one to play! It’s appreciated.
- As a single set, this is a very cohesive unit. It’s definitely not the first Dale of Merchants I would get for someone into deckbuilding, but it’s one that I think they would really enjoy once they get more experienced. I like the way that the various decks in this set intersect with each other. There’s an awareness of each set’s strengths and weakness and the collective overlap is strong, here. I just feel like it’s a well-put-together collection.
- If you’re relying on the dice to give you favorable outcomes, you’re betting a lot of the game on luck. Just be careful with the Hares! They’re fairly luck-based, as a set, and I’ve definitely seen players get frustrated by them. If you can’t make the rolls work for you, just use them as stall fodder.
- These cards really attack the Market Deck. This isn’t really a problem, just an odd quirk of this set. I haven’t seen this many cards just go at the Market Deck like other sets, and out of the three games I played, I think we had 1 card left, 2 cards left, and literally ran out the Market Deck in those games. It’s wild stuff. Not bad, just odd!
- Boy howdy, some of the cards in this game can mess you up. The Magpie 5 that lets you just throw away a card in someone’s hand is rude. That can potentially mess up multiple turns of planning. That said, if you have it, it’s quite nice in the end game to use against an opponent who might be about to win. If you get their 5 and knock it out (or a 4, depending on how they’re structuring that last stall), you won’t make friends but it will be an impressive move nonetheless.
- It is, largely, a more chaotic set than other Dale of Merchants sets I’ve seen. This is tough for me, because I quite like the set, but I’ll acknowledge that more chaos isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for. I generally recommend this set if you’ve already got a lot of experience playing Dale of Merchants and just want to go all-in. It’s definitely fun, just be prepared for some surprises!
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Dale of Merchants 3 is probably my favorite of the standalone sets, with a caveat! I definitely wouldn’t recommend getting this one first. I think it’s a bit more complex than the other sets, and while that largely works for experienced players, if someone were just getting started, I’d probably do 1 or 2. Naturally, I mean, if you buy the third game in a set and are surprised that 1 and 2 may have been less complex, I’m not really sure what to tell you, but it’s important for me to say this anyways. I think part of the complexity comes from this set’s thirst for chaos, allowing players to search, sift, and trash at pretty much every level of the game. It’s cool, but it comes at a cognitive cost. And that’s fine, but it’s worth mentioning. If you’re looking for something mean, 3 has it. Something simple, 3 has it. Things in between? Still here. And that’s great! I still give an edge to the Dale of Merchants Collection for introducing my favorite animalfolk (penguins) and changing the game so aggressively with character cards and the like, but Dale of Merchants 3 is another great addition to an already excellent game. 3 also does a solid job continuing the legacy of the previous games with a strong commitment to great art and colorful cards, which I appreciate. Even the box art is pleasant, which helps. If all of this compels you, you’re into modular deckbuilding, or you just want to complete your Dale of Merchants experience, I think Dale of Merchants 3 takes a lot of steps in the right direction, and I’d recommend checking it out!