Merchants Cove Is a Game for Everyone and for No One
I’m generally not a big fan of Euro games. Many euro games center around historic, economic, or agricultural themes and while there’s nothing wrong with any of those, they rarely catch my eye. I prefer overly thematic games that I can get immersed in. Whether that means there’s an emerging storyline, pre-written narrative, or just something heavily thematic like Cthulhu Wars, I lean toward games that have been deemed “Ameritrash”. As objectively good as crunchier Euro games are, the common themes lose me pretty quickly. While that’s admittedly my own problem, it kept me from purchasing some top rated games like Brass: Birmingham until after friends forced me to play it. Merchants Cove managed to appeal to my thematic needs while providing quite the interesting and crunchy experience.
In Merchant’s Cove players each take on the role of different shop keepers looking to make a fortune island. For the most part, it’s a fairly straight forward worker placement game where players produce goods to sell to various customers arriving on this island of merchants. Color coded components and vibrant colors make it easy to read the board state and pull the attention of ADD gamers like myself back to the board. What makes Merchants Cove so fascinating is its asymmetric nature.
Merchants Cove is played in three rounds of four phases: Arrival, Production, Market, and Clean-Up phases. During the Arrival phase, players randomly draw two customer meeples from a draw bag to be placed in each of the six ships. This prepares the board for the Production and Market Phases.
The meat of the game takes place in the Production phase. During this phase, players will take turns placing their worker on the action spaces on their shopkeeper board and resolving the associated actions. Each shopkeeper’s actions will vary based on the central mechanic it was designed around but the end goal is the same; producing small and large goods to sell at the market.
Player turn order is represented by a clock on the lower portion of the main board. Hourglass icons next to each action space on player board indicates how much time said action will take. After resolving the action, the active player will advance their cog-wheel shaped time tracker one space forward for each hourglass next to the action they took. The player whose time token is the closest to the starting position will be the next one to take their turn. Any time players share the same space, the player whose token is on top will go first.
It’s a simple system, but one that I very much enjoy. Production actions typically take two hours (hourglass units of time) to complete, but there are a few one hour actions. Most of these are less impactful, small steps forward in the process of producing goods to sell. However, many shopkeepers have an action that allows them to take two hours to bulk produce goods. By taking shorter one hour actions, players can often take two turns in a row and more effectively prepare for the creation of multiple goods at a time.
Each time a player passes a space on the clock with a meeple icon, they draw a new meeple from the bag and place it into a vacant spot on a spot. If the newly placed meeple fills the last occupied slot on the ship, the active player immediately places the ship full of customers into one of the four docks, preparing them for Market.
Once every player’s time tracker has reached the market token’s position on the clock, production ends and players will have to make do with what they have on their sale shelves. While it’s called the Market phase, it’s essentially the scoring round.
Each of the docks represent a different type of good the customers on that space will purchase. The dock on the farthest left is for large goods, the one in the middle is for small ones, and the one on the right is for both. To score, players simply multiply goods from their shelf by the number of customers on the appropriate dock. In the above example, there’s only one green customer on the large goods dock. Therefore, if I had twelve points worth of large green goods, I would only score twelve points. Using the same example, if I had twelve points worth of small green goods on my shelf, I would multiply that by the two green customers on the small goods dock in the middle, earning a total of twenty-four points.
The catch is that the third dock where players can sell any type of good, requires that they also take a corruption card, risking significant point reductions later.
The last phase, Clean-Up, is the most straightforward. During this phase, players return customer maples to the draw bag in preparation for the next round. The Townsfolk are also reset by discarding the card farthest to the right, sliding the others over, and drawing a new one from the top of the deck, and placing it in the now vacant slot.
Resolving the Clean-Up phase completes the first round of the game. Players begin the cycle again at the top of the Arrival phase and complete the remains two rounds of the game.
The overall structure of Merchants Cove isn’t particularly new or innovative. Instead, Merchants Cove is a love letter to gaming and all the different ways designers let us play. While taking actions requires players move their singular worker from one space to another on their board, each player will be using different game mechanics to create the goods they sell.
There are four shop keepers in the base game: Blacksmith, Alchemist, Captain, and Chronomancer. Expansions that will soon be available via retail add the Innskeeper, Dragon Rancher, and Oracle characters, and expand the maximum player count to five.
The Blacksmith uses dice rolling and placement to create small and large goods by smelting down ore into weapons and armor. At the start of each Blacksmith turn, the player will roll their die and place them on the board wherever they can to meet the criteria for smelting them into goods. To create small goods, players combine the value of their placed die and try to come under a set value on the board. For large goods, players would need to do the same thing, but come over the board’s set value.
Personally, I find the Blacksmith the least interesting to play. It’s certainly the easiest one to begin with as there aren’t a lot of steps to the process of creating these goods and there are fewer random elements to it. But it’s also such a standard mechanic that it feels too dry for a game that otherwise offers so much interesting variety.
In my opinion, one of the least interesting game mechanics in the industry is the antiquated spinner. It’s an overly simply and dull mechanic from the 1970’s that (thankfully) modern board games has largely abandoned. Yet, the Captain was designed entirely around the concept of spin ’n’ move and is a lot of fun to play.
The Captain doesn’t so much make goods as she finds them. She commands a fleet of four ships that are dispatched across the sea to fish and search for treasure. The Captain’s player board consists of a map where players direct their ships outward from a central port, moving them one space at a time. When the ships are in the areas the Captain wants to recover goods from, she can issue the command and have each of the ships retrieve fish (small goods) or treasure (large goods) from the locations they occupy. Once they’ve searched, the ships are immediately returned to port where the goods get added to the shelves.
The challenge with the Captain is two-fold. The Captain also has to deal with the challenge of cursed coins. There are seven cursed coins on their board that they will need to draw from time to time. If they ever need to take a coin, but none remain on the board, they must instead take a corruption card, which will deduct from the player’s final score. The harder challenge (in my opinion) is that the Captain’s large goods are placed facedown on their board. This means that unlike other shopkeepers who can devise a plan, the type of goods the Captain acquires is heavily based on luck.
The Chronomancer will be immediately recognizable as an homage to Doc Brown and Marty. Players control two miniatures, the Chronomancer and his Assistant, as they move around a board of portals and travel to the past recovering ancient artifacts. The Chronomancer uses tile placement to shift portals around, as well as their cost. Calculated use of shifting tiles can make the recovery of goods most affordable.
There’s also a Time Freeze mechanic where players can collect Time Freeze tokens to gain extra points at the end of the round. However, players can instead choose to spend those tokens as the hours they would otherwise need to advance their token by on the turn clock. By spending Time Freeze tokens, the Chronomancer can gain free actions and leverage the additional time that they have to create additional goods.
The limiting factor is that the bumbling Assistant tends to get in the way of the good doctor. The Chronomancer worker figure can never move passed the Assistant. In order to get to the to the desired spaces, players will often have to spend twice as long getting there as they will first need to move the Assistant out of the way.
The Alchemist makes potions of varying sizes using ingredients in the form of marbles from a decanter. The Alchemist draws colored marbles from a sloped cardboard decanter at the top the player board to place below in various cauldrons. Ingredients come in the form of green, red, blue, yellow, and black marbles. The black marbles represent ichor that can be used in any potion recipe as wild, but are toxic if left around. If they can’t be placed into a cauldron, they would need to be placed into a toxic waste pile. If that ever gets too full, the Alchemist will need to draw a corruption card.
I enjoy playing as the Alchemist, but the nature of it is fairly random. In a game where the goal is to strategically plan the creation of goods and where they can be sold, any random elements can be a disadvantage. As the game goes on, it’s possible to remove ichor from the bag and have some influence over bag draws, but the starting setup is also random and can leave the Alchemist disadvantaged from the very beginning.
Merchants Cove has a series of expansions that add even more options in how players enjoy the game. The Secret Stash expansion adds a series of modular variants that allow players to employ new strategies or levels of difficulty. The Innkeeper character is all about attracting customers to spend the night after they shop. While the Innkeeper only creates small goods in the form of drinks, they use beds to attract customers and convert them into loyal patrons who will stay at the inn and continuously make this shopkeeper more money.
My personal favorite is the Oracle who brings roll and write to Merchants Cove. She is by far the most random of the bunch, but is rarely limited in what she can do. At the start of her turn, the Oracle tosses all five of her charms into the divining dish. Where those charms land will determine what actions she can take on her turn. She can create goods using the star chart or develop ways to alter her die results. What I love so much about the Oracle is that it feels like your actions are at the mercy of fate, yet you’re provided the tools to mitigate a bad toss. The physical actions players conduct while playing as the Oracle are the closest to that of the shopkeeper character which has left me feeling like the Oracle is the most immersive character to play as.
Lastly, is the Dragon Rancher. The character art reminds me of the silent old woman from How To Train Your Dragon and it’s hard for me not to picture her as the shopkeeper. The Dragon Rancher raises dragons and grows them into larger versions of themselves by feeding them in a Mancala-esque mini-game. Players must clear space on their small plot of land in order to have enough room to feed the many dragons they’ll raise to see at the market. The Dragon Rancher starts off with small dragons, grows them into large ones, and then eventually mega-size dragons worth far more points than any other factions goods. The tradeoff is that the dragons will poop all over the field and the rancher will have to take time out of raising dragons to clean it all up or there won’t be enough room to feed and grow new dragons.
That’s already more than enough options to decide between, but we’re not done quite yet. During setup, players will select a Rogue card that introduce an additional rule for the game. I always recommend that players start with the Thieves card as it has no additional effect on the game and provides players with an easier way to learn the game. Other cards give players the opportunity to take Corruption cards in order to trigger an effect that moves customer and rogue maples around the ship. These Rogue Card rules make the customer ships a more interactive part of the game and a deeper level of strategy to Merchants Cove.
I recognize that’s an ungodly amount of information and really gets into the details more than necessary, but with Merchants Cove I feel it’s crucial for readers to know how much is happening in this game. As much as it all sounds, Merchants Cove is a very easy game to learn and plays quite cleanly in an hour to an hour and a half. There are just so many different ways to play.
On two occasions now my group couldn’t decide what kind of game to play so we played Merchants Cove as a compromise and everyone got to play a shopkeeper with the game mechanic they were in the mood for. And that’s what I love so much about Merchants Cove. Between the range of rogue cards, shopkeepers, and modular variants available there are a ton of ways to play, only adding to the replay value. For me, that’s a big factor in how I rate the value of a game. The ability to introduce new variants and rules keeps the game feeling fresh even after many playthroughs.
Here’s my one complaint about Merchants Cove, but it is a substantial one. Despite how much I enjoy playing, it’s what you’d call a multiplayer solitaire game. Even with four or five players, there is little interactivity between players. The Production Phase is where all of the action is, but players are really only focused on their own board and are never concerned with other players. As much as there is to experience, the lack of player interaction makes it feel as if something is missing from the overall experience. If I’ve gone through the effort of putting together a game night with other people, I would rather play a game that allows me to engage with other payers more.
Teaching Merchants Cove is a mixed bag. The components were designed to be language-independent and have a lot of icons that act in place of text instructions. There’s a wide variety of icons that apply to all players that are found on the main board and townsfolk cards, but there’s also a fair amount of icons specific to each of the shop keepers on their own player board. In order to effectively teach Merchants Cove, the instructor would have to be familiar with all of these icons, even if they don’t appear very often.
The rulebook has a legend in the rear pages that’s really helpful and players each have a separate guide for their shopkeepers that provide all the needed information, but for the first game or two, players will find themselves in the rulebook a bit more frequently than anyone would like. It’s for that reason I recommend playing with the no-effect Rogue card at the beginning as it will help save time and reduce the number of items players will have to pay attention to throughout the game.
I’m in love with the level of production. There is however a fair amount of work that goes into the initial punch-out and organization of the game. Each of the customer ships are put together by folding punchboard pieces like they’re paper craft. In doing so, the cardboard will often split as it gets folded, leaving the final product less sturdy than intended. Thankfully, the insert included in the core box was well-designed and can safely store the constructed ships in a way that prevents them from getting damaged. So long as owners are careful when assembling the ships, there shouldn’t be any noticeable damage.
Otherwise, the components are fantastic. Customer maples are brightly color-coded and are screen printed with images of classic fantasy character archetypes to reinforce some of the themes and good.
Packing up at the end of the game is a breeze. Each shopkeeper has their own plastic insert and a reference guide to show players how everything fits back into the box. Taking advantage of these makes setup and tear-down incredibly fast, making it even easier to get to the table.
Merchants Cove is the most medium game I’ve ever played and to be honest, I’m undecided on where I stand on it. I’ve enjoyed every play, but it does miss the mark on some key aspects like player interactivity that are important to me. It doesn’t quite feel crunchy enough for euro gamers, nor does it feel light enough to be a gateway game. It’s a good game the succeeds in everything it set out to do, but it doesn’t quite fit into an existing box well enough to say who it’s for. This is 100% a try-before-you-buy. I will for sure keep it on my shelf and get many more joyful plays out of Merchants Cove. However, I don’t think these shopkeepers will find a permanent home in my collection but something closer to that of a short-team lease.
6 plays to date.
1 multi-handed solo play to learn the rules
1 – 4 players, increased to 5 players with any of the character expansions.
60 – 90 minutes
The core of Merchants Cove is easy to teach but the range of icons will often have players reaching for the rulebook for clarification. The vast differences between shop keepers can provide and additional learning challenge.
I love the creative ship components and the durability of the wooden tokens.
Merchants Cove has a lot of different shop keepers to play as that will help keep the game feeling new for several plays. Following that, there’s a variety of tools included to introduce twists on the rules and twist the experience from game to game.