Full disclosure: A review copy of The Guild of Merchant Explorers was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Oh, I’ve been eyeballing this one since GAMA. It’s rare for me to play a game that I just unabashedly love, and, spoiler, this one’s one of those. I should, I guess, be a bit more coy about it, since you’re about to read a ton of things about this game to get to my overall conclusion, but reviews of games I really like are just so much easier to write. If it’s this easy for me to write, I almost feel like I owe you a bit of an easy read, as well, right? That’s probably not correct. Who knows. Anyways.
In The Guild of Merchant Explorers, your team has answered the Queen’s call to survey the many lands of her kingdom, as cities have lost contact with each other over the years and the maps are now dangerously out of date. It’s like using Apple Maps when it first launched. That joke will age poorly. Oh well; I hear it’s alright, now. Anyways. You’ll need to send your teams through many different types of terrain, master exciting technologies, and discover incredible towers and treasures to amass the wealth required to become the mightiest guild in the land. Who will prosper? And whose exploits will be lost to time?
So, all players start with the same map, but there are a few different maps to choose from:
There are even a few maps that I’m not covering in this review, because they’re part of a mini-expansion:
Always fun to include that sort of thing. Each player should get a set of 12 villages and 36 explorer cubes (usefully held in some X-Trayz, courtesy of Lucky Duck Games):
Place the Exploration Board in the center of the play area:
Of the nine basic Explore Cards, place the II, III, and the I / II / III on the board, and shuffle the rest to form the first round’s starting deck:
Next, shuffle the twenty-four Investigate Cards into their own deck:
And shuffle the Treasure Cards, making a deck of those, as well:
Place the Trading Posts and Treasure Tokens aside (these may include some Crystal Tokens, if you’re playing on the Cnidaria map):
Place the Discovery Towers nearby:
Set the coins nearby, as well:
Finally, shuffle the six Goal Cards that correspond to the map you’ve chosen; reveal three, placing them in the center of the play area:
You should be ready to start!
Over the course of four eras, players will work to earn coins, set up villages, and connect trade routes over one part of the Queen’s vast kingdom. To do so, players must master the whims of exploration and develop various skills to aid them in their journey. Let’s see how that works.
Generally speaking, an era of The Guild of Merchant Explorers doesn’t have explicit player turns. Instead, one player will reveal an Explore Card each round, and players will resolve the effects of that card on their board. The basic Explore Cards have the following effects:
- Explore any 1 Mountain space.
- Explore any 2 Grassland spaces.
- Explore any 2 Desert spaces.
- Explore any 2 adjacent spaces of any type.
- Explore any 3 Sea spaces in a straight line.
When exploring, you must place a cube on the space that matches the Explore Card’s criteria, and that cube must be placed adjacent to another Explorer Cube, a village, or the starting space. You can place up to the indicated number of Explorer Cubes in a round (so, for instance, you may only place two cubes on Sea spaces in a straight line, if you so choose). If you cover all the spaces in a given region (a group of spaces of the same type) that does not already have a village, you may add a village to that region, replacing one of your Explorer Cubes in that region. You then gain coins equal to your current Era (1 coin for Era I, 2 coins for Era II, and so on). Villages cannot be placed on Discovery Tower spaces, Ruin spaces, or City spaces, but more on that later.
Since we’re already on the subject, there are a few special kinds of spaces that have bonus effects:
- Discovery Tower spaces: These spaces have a massive tower printed on them. They’re considered “wild”, so you can explore them with any explore action. When you do, instead of placing an Explorer Cube, place a tower on the space and gain coins based on how many towers you’ve placed already (6 / 8 / 10 / 14). Once you’ve explored a tower, you cannot explore that space again.
- Coin spaces: These spaces are just kind of generic terrain, but they have coins printed on them! When you explore them, gain the printed coins. That’s about all.
- Ruin spaces: Usually, ruin spaces are in the Sea, but not always. When you explore one, place a Treasure token on that space, under your Explorer Cube. Then, draw a Treasure Card! Keep it secret, unless it’s the Treasure Card with a picture of a cube on it. If it is, you get to immediately place another cube on a space of your choosing (adjacent to an existing explorer / village / start space). The other Treasure Cards resolve at the end of the game, and can earn you additional points.
- City spaces: City spaces are particularly interesting. If you manage to connect two with an unbroken chain of explorers / villages / the start space, you form a Trade Route! A Trade Route immediately scores its value, which is the product of the two cities that comprise it. Take that many coins, and then immediately cover one of the two cities in the Trade Route with a Trading Route token, so that you don’t score it again in subsequent rounds. If you somehow manage to connect three cities at the same time, resolve the Trade Routes one at a time, so you score two total.
If you draw one of the Era Cards (I, II, or III), all players gain an Investigate Card! These cards are essentially useful technologies that give you an even better move, that is used immediately. Deal each player two Investigate Cards, and keep one face-up by the Era on your map corresponding to when it was taken, discarding the other one. In subsequent rounds, instead of drawing a new Investigate Card for Era I, you’ll use the Investigate Card you kept when Era I was first drawn. In Era IV, you’ll draw a I / II / III card, allowing you to choose which of your Era I, Era II, or Era III Investigate Cards you want to use (meaning you effectively get to use one twice, in that Era).
As play progresses, you may end up completing a Goal during a round. If that happens, once every player has finished their move, announce that you’ve completed some Goal and place an Explorer Cube on the card. If you’re the first to complete that Goal, place your cube on the 10; otherwise, place it on the 5. Once you complete a Goal, you cannot complete it again, even if you fulfill the criteria a second time.
Once all of the Explore Cards for an Era are played, the Era ends. Here’s the exciting part: all Explorer Cubes are then immediately removed from every player’s map and returned to their supply. Players start the next Era with a map that’s completely blank, save for any Villages, Treasure Tokens, Crystal Tokens, or Trading Routes they’ve previously placed. When entering a new Era, shuffle the corresponding Era Card into the Explore Deck along with all previous Era Cards.
Play continues until the end of Era IV. At that point, the player with the most coins wins!
Player Count Differences
There aren’t really any player count differences, in this one. The Guild of Merchant Explorers takes a lot of its cues from the roll-and-write genre, and one thing that’s decently common there is that players tend to play on their own maps without the ability to directly impact each other. That common trait is also present here, and so players generally don’t have any impact on each other. The most that you’ll see is players speeding along trying to get certain goals. As a result, scores might be a bit lower with more players, depending on how they prioritize goals. If the goals are evenly distributed between players, at two, each player gets about two of the goals first, and at three, each player gets one first. So there’s maybe a few extra points kicking around? Nothing too major, frankly. Beyond that, there’s no difference between playing the game at two or playing the game at eight, though you’d need two games and some more Investigate / Treasure cards, probably. Wouldn’t necessarily recommend that. I’ve had a blast at every player count, though, so no big recommendations, here. The game also includes a solo mode, for folks interested in that.
- You’ve got to place some early Villages. This was the mistake that sank me in my first game. I didn’t place any Villages until Era 2, and I was stuck essentially repeating Era 1 in Era 2, which also influenced the kind of Investigate Cards I chose, and by the time I sorted myself out, the game was essentially halfway over. That’s not a great look. Placing early Villages means that when you clear the board, you’ve got options for next round. Otherwise, you have to always start building from the start space, and that only gets you something for so long.
- Generally, it’s good to have Villages on multiple different continents; they give you a variety of places to start from. They also help you explore towards things like Towers and Ruins, which are pretty geographically distributed. If you create a good enough network in one Era, you may find yourself exploring continents you haven’t yet looked at in subsequent Eras. The Villages can afford you flexibility, though, and that’s their big utility.
- Treat your Investigate Cards like they might be the first cards drawn in an Era. This may (and should) influence where you place Villages. I generally encourage a few Villages placed near Sea spaces or borders with other regions, just so that you don’t get surprised by an unlucky card draw and forced to use a move you were hoping you could use better, later. It’s very likely that you’ll get at least one truly unfortunate card draw during the game; planning can help mitigate a catastrophe down to an annoyance.
- Goals are great ways to make some basic plans for what you want to do, but you may find that your own machinations can outpace them pretty quickly. Sometimes you can score 9 coins in a turn, if you play your cards right. That might be better than going out of your way to get 5 coins. Just keep in mind, a lot of the Goals reward you for doing other things that already get you points (Towers / Ruins / Villages / Cities), so it might be worth thinking about the bigger picture, as well.
- There’s trade-offs when it comes to Trade Routes; do you want them to be easy to get, but low-scoring? Or are you willing to risk it all for the big 10- or 20-point route? This usually influences which space you cover. For well-connected routes you’re planning to use again this Era, I’d recommend covering the low number. If it’s a one-off, might as well cover the high number so that you can maybe use the other City for a quick score on a smaller Trade Route in a later Era.
- Use map-specific features to your advantage. Crystals, for instance, score every time you explore a new Crystal space. That’s cool! Figuring out how to use those to your advantage to just keep scoring them again and again can be pretty clutch. Otherwise, some maps are a bit continental, others are Sea-heavy, and some have unusable volcano spaces. Figuring your way around them is part of the game, so, make sure you’re doing that.
- Keep an eye on what’s already been played, and use that to plan how you’re going to complete a region or something. There are precious few cards played each round, so, it’s worth keeping that in mind and planning how you’ll use the remaining cards to complete goals or place Villages or something. Just remember that a good Investigate Card can really turn things around, as well.
- If all else fails, just go for high-value spaces. Points are points. It might be going for the four-coin space or trying to hit a bonus Tower or whatever; at some level, not everything is going to always go your way. If it does always go your way, quit the game immediately and go buy some lottery tickets. But in the meantime, having a few quick and simple off-ramps are not a bad idea.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The maps are one of my favorite parts of the game. They look so nice, and they’re printed on high-quality stuff. Apparently they’re Gerrald Landman’s maps; they’re lovely. I really like the muted color palette, for one, and they just have the feel of an exciting fantasy map. I’m almost intrigued by the stories of each location and what they’ve got going on. Kind of hope that this isn’t the last game set in this land. The maps are also printed, double-sided, on pretty nice stuff, so they feel good to play on. I was worried that they’d be a bit slippery, honestly, since that would be the kind of thing that would really mess this game up.
- The maps are pretty different as well! Lots of fun complexity to the ones included in the base game. There’s a lot of different things happening on each one, and they have kind of a nice, included difficulty curve to them. I’ll have to go back and try a few more of them and see how they play, now that I’m more familiar with the game.
- I like that this game seems to capture the excitement of exploration without getting into like, colonization and stuff. It’s appreciated. Really love exploring in games, really hate colonization as a theme. They seem to have skirted it, here, and that’s appreciated.
- I love the Investigate Cards. Every game, I find different things to do with the ones I get, and I’m always excited by the ones I have and jealous of my opponents’ cards. I think they really embody the principle of good player powers, in that a good set of player powers make every player wish they had someone else’s, and these Investigate Cards are essentially super-moves that are unique to each player and their strategy. They’re fun to get, they’re fun to use, and they can really lead to big swings, if you manage to set them up correctly. It gives players a thrilling big play that they get to make multiple times each Era, and I really like them.
- The ebb and flow of the Eras is thrilling. I really, really like how the board is cleared each round, save for artifacts that persist. It feels almost like a mini-legacy game. I like that we have only a small effect on the map, each Era, and that we start developing routes over time as we place more Villages and explore certain areas. Clearing the entire board is bold, though; at first, it stressed me a little because it felt like such a big step backwards for our player progression. Now, I think it’s brilliant; it’s a big challenge for players, but players get increasingly skilled over the game (with the help of their Investigate Cards), so it also allows players to pivot and try new things and new areas. I think it really captures a lot of what I like about exploration in games.
- I like the potential for expansion here, since really, more maps is all it takes. Even a book of maps would be extremely thrilling. I’d love a map book, but there are a lot of ways to expand something like this. Even more games set in this universe would be fun.
- It’s actually really satisfying to place the little cubes and build routes? I like trying to explore different parts of the map in each Era. I think that this feels a bit like a game I really used to enjoy, Kingdom Builder? Something between that and a roll-and-write. I enjoy placing the cubes and tokens a bit more than writing and erasing, though, so that’s a plus. All the erasing would be frustrating, I think.
- There are a lot of different ways to earn points; I like that variety. I had one game where a big part of my strategy was just going down the same corridor every Era, earning 9 coins, each time. Wasn’t a big scoring move, but was one of the bigger single-card moves I could make on a turn, which was fun. I like trying to find card combos that will let me try new things, and there are a lot out there, especially since the game really adapts to your play style. There’s a lot to do, a lot to try, and a lot of ways to be successful. I like that a lot.
- I do like the Goals as a guiding star for new players to develop some basic strategy; it’s a kind way to structure that scaffolding in there. I think, from an educational standpoint, Goals are a really nice way to make “good play decisions” explicit, for new players. It’s not just that having Villages is “good”; it’s that there’s a Goal that explicitly rewards having Villages, so maybe you should build some Villages early. This is a really good example of aligning incentives so that the players learn effective strategies while playing. I do love how games teach players their strategies, and I think The Guild of Merchant Explorers does a good job, here.
- While the maps are already about as big as they can be, it can be challenging to place and maneuver some things on them because the spaces are pretty small. There’s some worry that knocking pieces around can negatively impact the game, especially since there are so many. There’s not much to be done about that beyond making the maps larger, but they’re already the size of the box, so there’s really no way to win, there.
- It took me an entire weekend to successfully remember the name of this game, and I was holding it for most of that time. I kept calling it “Guild Guild”, for a while. Unfortunately, I was mixing up the words, so I was somewhere between the “Explorer Merchants’ Guild”, the “Guild of Explorers” and the “Merchant Explorers’ Guild”. I figured it out eventually, but the name is a bit … generic. It doesn’t pop, from a product standpoint.
- There’s the possibility for some immensely dissatisfying “sequencing problems”, where having certain cards drawn before others really messes you up. This is partially a play antipattern, since really, if you get messed up by cards, you probably should have made better choices earlier (Village placement matters), but it still feels bad, from a player standpoint, especially if it ends up making your Era kind of useless. This is why I generally tell players that they should try to have played at least one Village by the end of Era I, for instance. The game can be a bit unforgiving, at times.
- Also, this game definitely benefits from having played before, so I’d generally recommend letting new players learn together for their first game, rather than teaching it to a group (and playing yourself). This is the same problem I had with Kingdom Builder, ironically. There are some subtleties to how you plan or strategize or place Villages and things like that, and I’ve found that experienced players have a decent advantage over new players, as a result. That said, the game’s fun to watch, so I wouldn’t honestly mind just letting a group of new players have at it.
Overall: 9.5 / 10
Honestly, The Guild of Merchant Explorers came out of nowhere, for me. Hadn’t heard about it, I wasn’t even planning on trying it at GAMA; I was just going to watch the game. I tried it, loved it, and haven’t really stopped thinking about why, since then. Easily the best game I’ve played so far, this year. I mean, it was even easy to write about. Listing off all the reasons I like it isn’t difficult, or anything. I do worry a bit about the name, but that’s out of my hands. I think what The Guild of Merchant Explorers does best is make a game about exploration both thrilling and personal. On one hand, you’re exploring and strategizing and making big moves and big swings! On the other, the game is fundamentally and critically about how you plan and scope your moves. Thinking ahead can really pay off, and as you watch your exploration expand and contract and expand again, that planning is either going to lead to big things or the occasional swing and a miss. I find the cycle of play here immensely satisfying in a way that I haven’t felt in a little while. And it’s so nice to play a game that I think is just, fantastic. It also helps that the game is about my ideal complexity. A little bit thinky, but not so much that I’m going to have a headache afterwards. I could easily settle into a game of this after work without too much trouble, and it’s a nice bit of strategic planning and play without being more than I feel like getting into. I just have had an absolute blast playing The Guild of Merchant Explorers, and if you’re looking for a game that’s just about the fun of exploring, or you want to look at some nice maps, I’d enthusiastically recommend this one. It’s been a delight to play.
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