Full disclosure: A review copy of Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road was provided by Osprey Games.
Every time you see a game with play time above 60 minutes, you know you’re in for a treat. That usually means I had to do something complicated, like set up the game on my dining room table and try to keep the cat away while my housemate finishes up Deathloop and I offer witty-yet-unhelpful color commentary. Did that happen specifically this time? The timing checks out, but it’s anyone’s guess. Today we’re talking Merv, a relatively new release from Osprey Games that is a bit more intense and a bit more economical than my usual, but hey, I’m allowed to try things that are a bit outside my wheelhouse! Plus, I like colorful games, and this is that. So let’s dive in.
Picture it. Merv, the end of the 12th century. The Turks rule around here, but there are whispers of a Mongol invasion potentially coming to the city. Obviously, that’s less than ideal, since that will ultimately lead to the fall of the city. But they don’t know that. Instead, you decide that while your business and your economy are important, building walls to protect your investments from destruction is probably a short-term prudent decision. But you don’t have to only protect your buildings; protecting others will give you additional Influence, which may lead to some Favor being kicked around. You never know when that will come in handy. So journey through Merv over three years as you collect resources and perform various actions at the Mosque, the Palace, the Caravansary, the Library, the Walls, and the Marketplace. Construct buildings at these different locations to gain resources and use their various actions to acquire goods, spices, scrolls, and courtiers. Even have a breakthrough along the way, if you’re lucky. By doing so, you may cement yourself as a leader of the city, for what that’s worth. Will you be able to repel an invasion? Or will you at least be able to secure your investments before it’s too late?
Player Count Differences
I think Merv is a game with many opportunities for players, and you don’t fully see that until you hit higher player counts. At lower player counts, you can almost completely ignore certain systems (Contracts, Trading Posts, even the Caravansary if you … want) without a ton of consequences; there are a lot of things for players to do and a ton of space to do them in. Having additional players can often offer a bit of constraint, forcing players to actually think about what they should be doing with their turn, rather than just doing whatever gets them the most resources. This element of constraint persists through even the choice of where to place a meeple. There are only ever five open positions, and at four players, there isn’t a lot of flexible room for players to explore alternate options. This, in turn, makes going first more valuable and keeps the market for camels churning. I like that! It makes the game feel more focused. Additionally, more players allows for a more densely-packed board, which means that players tend to see more Influence (as they place walls to protect their buildings and other players’ buildings), which can often move the game along a bit, as well. I’d end up expecting higher scores as the player counts increase, depending on how cutthroat players are. This isn’t to say that I haven’t really enjoyed the game at two players; it’s honestly where I’d recommend starting out. I just like that the game has additional layers to put players through at higher player counts, and I’d honestly say that I’d recommend Merv at any of them.
- You should avoid letting your opponents just hit the same pathways over and over again. I played another game a while ago called Dadaocheng, in which players could essentially build pathways of the same color to gain a ton of resources quickly. While not the same, mechanically, Merv has some similarities in that letting players consistently activate the same group of buildings is great for them, and that is consequently not great for you. Unfortunately, you do still give them a number of resources if you activate their buildings instead, but you can throw off their rhythm pretty badly if you cut in front of them and take their planned move. If you use a building they don’t own, then they won’t even get anything! That can really change up plans for a round. The question there becomes, is it more helpful for you to block another player or just help yourself?
- Making progress on the Mosque track can give you useful gains in plenty of other areas, including upgrades. The Mosque track is extremely beneficial, effectively across strategies. That and the Library, at least. You can use it to get points for things you’re already doing, upgrade your tiles to give you additional (or better) resources, or get camels! If you don’t have much to do or if you have an abundance of resources, progression on the Mosque track can really pay dividends.
- Don’t let your buildings burn for no reason. You should generally try to keep your buildings in good shape (and you largely can, if you plan well). Letting your buildings get destroyed is a waste, since you also don’t get the extra resource tokens from subsequent placements. Use a soldier! Place a wall! Do something to keep your stuff blocked.
- Early scrolls can be handy; you’ll want to lock down at least a few breakthroughs, especially the one that lets you use a cube color as any other color. Getting to that wild color breakthrough early can be helpful, since it can drive which spots you want to go to with your building placement. If you can use an orange cube as any other color, suddenly, you’re incentivized to just get more orange cubes. Place on tiles that get them! Get upgrades for them!
- Given that you can score contracts as a free action during your turn, you may want to avail yourself of the Marketplace relatively frequently. The Marketplace will allow you to collect different goods, which can be exchanged along with scrolls to fulfill various contracts. Those give you points and one of soldiers (which can protect your buildings between rounds) or Favor (which can allow you to score additional points for a variety of different actions).
- The Caravansary is not a bad way to get a bunch of points, especially if you can chain it together with bonuses at the Palace. The Palace allows you to convert Favor to points for various different things, including cards from the Caravansary. If you use the Caravansary, you can collect cards that will give you resources (and sometimes Favor), so you can use these two things and they dovetail nicely. More cards, more Favor, more points per card you get. Naturally, if you see someone else trying that, you should put at stop to it immediately. That’s a pretty big point grab if someone can get that combination working.
- Even if you don’t have Influence, you can still get a few of the same cards at the Caravansary for bonuses. To get cards from the Caravansary, you need to have Influence, which can be gained by building walls or playing soldiers on tiles. Higher Influence lets you take on more lucrative contracts and keep more different types of cards from the Caravansary. If you have low Influence, you can only keep cards of one or two types. These will still have bonuses for every pair of cards of the same type you can get. Using that as a quick trick to get Favor or resources can be pretty useful.
- Hitting the Camel Market can give you access to useful extra bonuses (or camels!). You should pretty much hit the Camel Market as frequently as you can. Great way to get extra resources, cheap scrolls, or barring that, taking all the camels that other players have placed on it. It’s a simple way to help bridge the gap where you don’t always quite have the ability to do what you want on your turn. It’s very helpful.
- You should have some pathway to get Favor infrequently; it can be a huge bonus for you if you can consistently score at the Palace. Favor can usually be pretty lucrative, especially if you double (or triple) up on certain categories. I usually go for “1 point per Mosque space”, but points for goods, scrolls, or Caravansary cards can be pretty useful.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- What an absolutely visually stunning game. From the box to the board to the cards, Ian O’Toole’s work here is pretty incredible. I also really appreciate that the art doesn’t take away from comprehensibility, either, so props to the graphic design work here, as well. It’s just one of the better-looking games in my collection.
- I love the different actions available to players. I appreciate that despite there being a few different systems, the core loop of the game remains really easy to pick up and understand, especially as it builds on itself. There’s a lot to do!
- There are so many different systems in the game that it’s totally possible to get through an entire game without seeing them all. I think this is pretty cool. I generally tend not to focus on the Marketplace (because I understand it the least), but a shrewd player could take advantage of that and turn that into pretty lucrative contract plays (and, in doing so, gain a ton of Favor). I don’t really think any player can take full advantage of every system in the game in one playthrough, so there’s always something new to try (and some potential combination to exploit).
- The systems of the game build on each other nicely, though, and I appreciate that. There are multiple paths to success, from using resources to build walls to gain Influence to get Caravansary cards to get Favor to score big at the Palace to using resources to make headway on the Marketplace and get scrolls to gain breakthroughs to reduce the cost of Mosque track actions to score a ton of points that way, or any combination of those things. The system is pretty modular, and it supports inputs of resources from multiple different avenues. I really like it!
- Despite it being a fairly mentally intense game, it really is pretty solidly constrained to 90 minutes, which I really appreciate. This isn’t really one of those games that sprawls out of control and ends up taking four hours when it says two on the box (even though those are sometimes fun); this is well-constrained unless players are absolutely agonizing over every decision. I imagine quick players could get through this in even less than 90 minutes.
- The semi-cooperative element of protecting your opponents’ walls to get more Influence while still making sure your buildings don’t get burned is compelling. I really like it! It leads to some interesting play near the end of the game where players whose buildings are all protected will protect other players’ buildings to gain Influence that they can either convert to Favor or use to further gain additional Caravansary cards for big points. Even in the early-game, there’s an incentive to help other people (you gain more Influence from protecting other players’ buildings than your own), and I just like games that incentivize friendly play.
- I appreciated the historical notes in the rulebook. I like learning things! It’s also nice when people do at least a little bit of research about a place before making a game of it. Calvin also did sensitivity consulting, and he’s a pretty thorough guy, so I was glad to see that they reached out.
- The rise and fall of the buildings in the city over the years feels satisfying. It’s better than just a sense of building something; it’s an engaging sense of progression. I think that Warsaw had a similar element of city building and destruction, and I really like that mechanic. It allows for players to feel like time is passing as they play, which gives the game a sense of meaning, I think. You may experience a golden age of cooperation as every player builds walls to protect their buildings and other players’ buildings, or your competitive instincts may lead to an age of decline. I think that’s a really nice element to have embedded in the game’s narrative, and it makes the end result feel like I participated in a city’s legacy.
- I also appreciate the challenge inherent in this game, as you do have to telegraph your intentions somewhat, since all of the information is public. As you increasingly build on certain lanes, it becomes kind of obvious what your plans are. That can be challenging, since that means that players can now obstruct you. You kind of have to hope that their own lanes are simultaneously good enough that they’re not interested in blocking you and bad enough that you will still prevail, even if they do that. It’s a very interesting tension, and it persists throughout the game.
- The rulebook is well-written, but it can be a bit light on information in certain parts or have the elements arranged in an order that seems confusing. I was a bit confused by the How to Play, since it pushes all the descriptions of the actions to a different section (but keeps the full information on Invasions and Scoring). This led to us making a few scoring mistakes early on, but we eventually rectified it. There are still places where the rules could be a bit clearer, I think, but it’s a fairly involved game. I’d particularly like if the Invasion Phase section highlighted what you could do to avoid getting a building razed so it’s a bit easier to skim. In general, the font is a bit small in the rulebook, so that makes skimming for certain things kind of tough.
- My copy came with a near-unbelievable amount of extra baggies. Just felt wasteful! They live on in the boxes of other games that gave me too few baggies.
- I always get a bit grumbly about games that advertise two players as a valid player count, but you have to play with a variant. It’s a pet peeve of mine, since you’re effectively playing with a dummy player who will do some subterfuge against both players with no real shot at “winning”, itself. I figure if Catan can get away with just putting 3 – 4 on the box and then having a few hundred thousand games, expansions, and other related properties get created, more games are fine just putting their non-variant player counts on the box as well. The Crew does it!
- The various actions all have fairly unique costs, which can occasionally be confusing. It’s things like the Mosque track just taking resources, the Palace taking one resource of a certain color per person already there, the Caravansary only taking resources of one color, and the Library only taking resources of different colors. They’re all distinct (other than Walls, which takes a certain number of resources of one color), but they can be difficult to keep track of. You can buy multiple cards from the Caravansary, but you can only buy one good at a time from the Marketplace per trading post that you have unless you spend camels to substitute for trading posts you don’t have. It all makes sense if you get a sense of the symbols on the board, but it can occasionally lead to players misremembering what they need to do the action that they want to do. In a game where that action economy is pretty precious, this can lead to some frustration, so plan accordingly!
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I think Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road is pretty great! Not just great, honestly; impressive. It’s always a bit tough for me to get longer games to the table, like this (hence why this review is coming out a bit after it came out), but Merv was worth the wait, for me. I think it’s part of a growing class of games that shoot to be elegant experiences and elegant presentations, like Alea’s new boxed series or some of the wooden-box games that I’ve seen coming out. Merv catches the eye in and out of the box, and it’s as striking on the shelf as it is on the table. I mean, that’s why you get Ian O’Toole, right? He’s one of the absolute best in the business (though we are blessed with an abundance of talented artists). If the game just looked good, that would be one thing, but it also plays well, too! It took me a bit of time to learn the systems, but I find their interactions extremely elegant, as any combination of them can lead to victory with the right tiles, the right players, and the right timing. Plus, you’re incentivized to help other players by getting better rewards for protecting their buildings, and I like that. It makes the game nice, and that leads to a bit less blocking and a bit less aggressive play when players feel like they owe each other. Beyond that, the resource generation is cool, the progression and upgrade tracks are interesting, and the combination of the game’s myriad elements is filtered through the rise and fall of a city, which I always love. City building is one of my ongoing favorite genres, and I think Merv allows you to experience building and destroying one in a way that’s super engaging and interesting. I loved playing Merv, and I can’t wait to play it again once I can justify the heavier gameplay to some of my gaming friends. In the meantime, however, if you’re looking for a compelling game, a beautiful experience, or you just like turning resources into resources into points, Merv might be up your alley! I’ve certainly had an excellent time with it.
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