Merv: Heart of the Silk Road

(BGG Link) Merv is a medium weight Euro game about trading along the silk road just as the Mongols are beginning to raid the city.

Players: 1-4, Play Time: ~2h, Complexity: Medium

The game is played over 3 years (with 1-4 players) during each of which each player gets to take 4 actions. After each year there is a scoring round but before this happens the Mongolians attack the city in the second and third year and raze everything that isn’t protected (or can pay ransom) to the ground. The winner is the person with the most VP by the end of the third year. It took us about two maybe two and a half hours for a first game.

Victory Points

  • During your turn:
    • on the favor, influence or mosque tracks tracks
    • for completing contracts
    • from one specific research breakthrough
  • In Scoring rounds:
    • courtiers at the palace expend favor you have gained to give you VP in one of four different areas
    • buildings still standing after the attack score 1 point each (first year has no attack buildings still score)
    • certain buildings may score additional points if you obtained the bonus tile for that type
  • At the end of the game:
    • from sets of different spices you traded for

Action Selection

The central mechanism is the action selection in the center of the town of Merv.

The actions are arranged in a random 5×5 grid with the camel market at the center and the other actions placed randomly around it. When it is your turn you place your large meeple on a row or column and choose one tile in that row/column that has the action you want to take. If the tile is empty you get to place one house in your color, if not you do not place a house. You can activate other player colors. Whichever color you activate before you take the action you gain resources (wooden cubes in 4 colors + white as joker) according to the houses in that row/column of the same color. If you activate another player’s house they gain the resource of the tile that you chose for an action.

The Five Actions

  • mosque action allows you to move up the mosque track by expending resources in certain colors. each step up has a unique bonus and at the very top you find VP
  • library action allows you to expend up to four different resources (or jokers) to obtain as many scrolls. if you reach 2/4/6/8 scrolls you gain an associated breakthrough. each player can gain each type of breakthrough exactly once.
  • the tradepost action allows you to place tradeposts and buy common or rare goods in cities where you already have tradeposts. trade goods are needed for the completion of contracts.
  • the caravan action allows you to go to the spice market to buy spices by paying a number of same resources of whatever color (or jokers). the caveat is that to buy more than one type of spice you need to have moved up influence track. there are four different spices and the sets of these score at the end of the game. each pair of the same spice that you complete gives a small instant bonus
  • wall building, walls protect buildings from the attack at the end of year 2 and 3. buy as many wall segments as you have resources for, each segment needs a specific resource and they cost 1, 2 or 3 cubes. when placing wall segments you protect certain spots from attack which gains you influence in the city (needed for both spice trading and contracts)
  • the palace action allows you to place courtiers in one of four halls that each use favor from the track to score points during scoring rounds. courtiers become progressively more expensive but as they can score points up to three times in a game they are quite valuable.

Dummy Player & Bot

In a two player game (or solo) there is a simulated third player that is very easy to manage. Player up front in the turn order chooses the column/row the “High Courtier” visits and the other player choses where to place on of the houses of the third color. The houses of the third color can be activated by players normally. And that is it for the third player simulation. There is a bot for solo that is almost as easy to manage so as solo you play against the Corrupt Magistrate (the bot) and the High Courtier is also in the game. Despite having to manage 2 NPCs the solo game is quite manageable, as the rules for the bot are quite straight forward.

My Thoughts

As every player only has 12 actions in the entire game and there are 5 different types of actions it is absolutely possible to never take a certain action. As with many euros Merv rewards you with more points if you concentrate on certain types of actions. But you always need to supplement your main strategy with bonuses from other actions.

If you manage to activate a row/column with 4 or 5 houses of the same color and possible bonus tiles it makes for a “very fine move” indeed. All actions are paid for with resources, so the more houses you activate the more powerful your action becomes–obviously one can hold back resources to take powerful action where there are fewer houses but that is a strategy for those who know the game well enough to plan ahead 😉

So in our game I went for spice trading. I ended up buying almost all the available spices in the game (there are 24) and despite behing behind by 60 or so points eeked out a two point win over my partner who had completed the mosque track, maxed out the courtiers in the palace for the track and managed to hand in a few of contracts. He had also managed to gain far more VP during the game than me.
115:113 points. If he had bought a single spice however at the right moment, he would have screwed me over easily. So after this game I definitely think there are multiple ways to win the game if only because having courtiers in the palace can generate huge VP payoffs for any of four different parts of the game.

In general I would rate this a medium-high complexity (probably a 3.5 on BGG), it probably plays best with 3 (at four I imagine the game could be come a bit cut-throat as everyone obviously clashes over the same tracks). For a Euro it has nice player interaction and I’d definitely play this with all my Euro-loving friends. The theme is stronger than in the average Euro but it’s still a Euro-theme and not a thematic game. The material is very nice although one of my camel meeples came with a broken leg (which was easily repaired). I am quite happy with my purchase.