Review – Merkator (Lookout Games)

Merkator
Review by: Jonathan Franklin
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Artist: Klemens Franz
Publisher: Lookout Games
Players: 1-4 (solo not reviewed)
Ages: 12+
Time: 120 mins
Source: a friend’s copy

Merkator (MEHR-cuh-torr) has the lineage of a thoroughbred.  From the fertile mind of Uwe Rosenberg, designer of Bohnanza, Agricola, and Le Havre, comes a meaty new challenge, shipping cubes around Northern Europe.  It has wonderful art from Klemens Franz.  The art is both evocative and clear, given that the game’s theme is quite schematic.

There are nine very nice 3D crates filled with colorful (320!) goods/cubes around the main board.  In the center of the main board is a map of the area, with travel routes between locations shown by lines.  There are also personal mats for storing goods and contracts, a communal time track to map the game progress, and lots of cards and coins.

Overview of Rules

As you travel around Europe buying and selling goods, you accumulate contracts, which you are trying to fill with goods collected along the way.  You start the game with one of each type of good, a few contracts, and perhaps some time tokens, depending on your place in the turn order. Each active player’s turn starts with an investment phase during which you discard contracts for money and have a chance to buy bonus and building cards.  These cards offer in-game benefits of extra goods and end of game bonuses for achieving certain goals.

The second phase, traveling, is the heart of the game.  The active player chooses where to travel to, takes the goods available in the new region as well as any earned from her bonus cards, and restocks the neighboring regions.  After dealing with the goods, you need to pay or gain time tokens, depending on the time cost of your trip.  If you spent time, you return those you earned to the common supply.  If you made up time, you get tokens from the time track.  Another way to earn time tokens is if another player travels with you, as discussed below.  If the last token in the time token row is removed during your turn, the table will suffer a loss-of-goods check.  This will usually force everyone to lose one or two goods from their station or depot.

The third phase of the turn, after investment and traveling, is fulfilling contracts.  If you have one with the name of the city you are in and you have the required goods, you fulfill it, thereby earning a new contract from the top of the stack that is one level better than the one you just fulfilled.  Unlike most games, you do not cash it in!  Instead, you may continue to fill it multiple times over the course of the game.

The fourth phase of each turn permits other players to travel to the location you traveled to. They generally travel with you if you have bonus cards for that location and/or can complete a contract there. If they travel with you, they give you one or two time tokens, depending on the location.  After the end of the fourth phase, the player to the left of the active player takes her turn.  Time does not affect turn order in Merkator.

There are two ways the game end can be triggered, the 10-value contract is fulfilled or the last of the time tokens is taken.  At that point, everyone gets a final turn including the player who triggered the end game. Scoring is pretty straightforward, taking lots of things into account, but a big chunk is from the value of your five highest value contracts.

Evaluation

My favorite part of the game was the time token wrinkle.  Although we have seen the use of time in Neuland, Thebes, Around the World in 80 Days, and other games, Merkator pushes that boundary by turning time into a way to limit choices and force traders to consider the time cost of their actions.  For example, you might not be able to take the optimal path because it would consume more time tokens than you have.  If you do not have enough time chits to get to a certain location, you cannot go there.  This can destroy a plan very easily, and likely contributes to its reputation as a somewhat brain-burny game.

Due to the scoring, you want valuable contracts, which you can get by completing less valuable contracts, but it is important to have a synergistic group of contracts and bonuses, so you can use your travel patterns to routinely fill contracts at one location while getting goods to fulfill contracts at your next location.  A brutal aspect of the game is that you always get the top contract of the next highest deck when you fulfill a contract, so you might plan ahead, assuming that a certain value contract will be available on your turn, only to find that someone else swooped in and got it by completing a contract of that same level as the one you were planning to complete.

Another aspect of the game that I particularly enjoyed was that you could plan your turn while the player to your right was taking his turn.  It was harder to plan any further ahead for reasons discussed above, so fewer players is better in terms of downtime.  If people plan their turn only once they are the active player, Merkator can take too long for what the game offers.

The pathing aspect of Merkator is pretty bare, so although it is clearly a pick-up and deliver game, it won’t scratch that train game itch.  In some ways, it felt more like an economic min-maxing game with the locations providing contract and goods differentiation and the time as symbolic of the terrain between the two locations.

It might be group think, but we did not often travel with other players because, unless they were going to the optimal place for us.  It felt more efficient for us to wait and go to our desired location, rather than taking the ride to a less than optimal location while giving the active player a time token or two.

We also felt a slight sense of lock-in in that once you have spent money to improve the benefits of certain goods or locations, you want to use them as often as possible, so we could not see how to switch trade routes midgame to suit a new contract.  This led to us targeting new contracts that already fit with our existing plans.

Overall, I enjoyed Merkator and would play it a few more times, but I am not sure I will be actively suggesting it when other Rosenberg games are available.  I did not feel that the game space to explores was as large as Agricola or Le Havre, which leads me to think that subsequent plays will improve optimization and game play, but might not lead to trying totally new directions.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Rick Thornquist: (6 plays) People looking for another Agricola or Le Havre can look elsewhere – this ain’t no Rosenberg gamer-fest.  It’s more of a middle-weight game and, in my opinion, just an average one.

What makes it so average? The mechanics, which we’ve seen lo these many times before.  Go somewhere, get cubes, go somewhere else, deliver cubes.  Been there, done that!  If the game had been really innovative in some other way I may have overlooked the sameness of it all, but there really isn’t much that’s new or different.

In addition, the analysis factor can rear its ugly head.  There are just so many ways to optimize your move that if you want to really do the best thing, you’re going to have to think about it for a while (much to the annoyance of your fellow players).

I won’t even go into the pure-luck loss of goods rule.  Yikes.

Lest it seem I’m beating up on Merkator, let me say that it’s not a bad game.  Far from it.  It’s just okay.  If asked, I’d play it.

Valerie Putman:  My first play of Merkator was an exhausted evening at Essen and I liked it.  One player tried an extreme strategy–selling many of the starting contracts in order to have money early on to buy up many of the cards that let you get extra cubes when you travel.  The player didn’t win, but I couldn’t stop thinking about whether you could make it work.  It was the first game that I got to the table when I got back from my trip and my opinion of the game has increased with every play since.  While I haven’t seen anyone win with the extreme strategy yet, I’ve seen it come close.  In general, I really enjoy games that let you try to “shoot the moon” when things seem to line up.

Patrick Korner: I’ve played Merkator a handful of times and for me it’s one of the best games from this year’s Essen crop. The majority of my games have been two-player, and there I think the game truly shines. Each game was full of difficult choices – do I go for Sweden now or risk leaving it for a turn on the assumption that I’ll get to follow the other guy to France first and pick up the bonus good I need to make Sweden even more useful? Trying to puzzle out the best route forward through the Contracts is interesting and, unlike Jonathan’s experience above, we have had several major sea changes in terms of Contract mix – after all, having a pair of nice Contracts for Sweden is great, but when they’re only 4 and 5 value you’ll have to ditch them eventually if you want to fry those bigger fish.

I don’t disagree that downtime can rear its head, but have found that the ‘following’ rule tends to minimize its effects – after all, the time people take is lessened if there are things you can do on their turns too. There is certainly some luck in the game – chiefly the order in which Contracts show up-  but it’s usually something you can mitigate. The rules also specifically mention variants, including a) bribing the active player to take the next Contract down instead, leaving the one you really want behind, and b) playing with a ‘no-spoiling’ variant that nerfs the random goods loss that Rick hates so much.

Dale Yu: (8 plays) Merkator is currently one of the best games from the most recent Essen crop in my opinion.  I have played the game with 2, 3, and 4 players, and it scales quite well amongst that range.  As Rick T mentioned earlier, the heart of this game is a pick-up-and-deliver game.  You go to certain places on the board to get cubes, try to get the right assortment of cubes to fill an order card, and then go to a different spot on the board to deliver those cubes.  Yes – I know that so far I’ve probably not sold you on the game!  But unlike Rick, I think that the game does have a brilliant idea in the traveling option.  Throughout the course of the game, you can collect Time tokens — by choosing to go to specific places on your turn OR in payment from your opponents if they travel along with you.  When other players are taking their turn, you can choose to spend some of your collected Time tokens to “travel along” to that location on the board to collect bonus cubes or fulfill contracts.  Trying to figure out how to take advantage of the ability to travel along is key to the game.  It is something that took me a few games to figure out – to see how to both collect Time tokens while still doing the things that I want as well as setting up my strategy to take advantage of the extra actions that can be gained thru traveling along.

I don’t find downtime to be a significant issue – mostly because I feel engaged with most player’s turns.  Though usually I don’t want or need to go to every location on the board, but I’m usually spendng a little bit of time evaluating whether or not I should travel along to a particular place.  Otherwise, I’m evaluating my options for where to go on my turn, though this is really something that is best done when the player to my right is going (as nothing else on the board will change).  (Of course, my usual game group also normally plays games rapidly – so downtime or AP is not something that I encounter with the folks I usually play with.)

And, finally, while there is randomness in the loss-of-goods rule, the timing of it is not necessarily random.  The loss-of-goods is triggered when a complete row of Time tokens has been collected by the players (dependent on where they have chosen to take their turns).  If your strategy is such that the loss of a single cube would be devastating, you oftentimes have the ability to go to locations which would trigger the loss-of-goods, and in that way, at least have as much control as possible over the loss.

I think this is probably too complicated for SdJ, but I am intrigued by the idea of the new Gamer’s game award — which, of course, I have no idea what the jury is looking for there.  I think this stands a decent chance at that award.  I love it!

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it (4): Dale Yu, Valerie Putman, Patrick Korner, Craig Massey
I like it (4): Lucas Hedgren, John Palagyi, Brian Yu, Stephanie Kelleher
Neutral (2): Jonathan Franklin, Rick Thornquist
Not for me.. (4): Doug Garrett, Tom Rosen, Joe Huber, Ted Alspach

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Review – Merkator (Lookout Games)

  1. David Chappelle says:

    The graphics are nice and I wanted to like it, but I have to agree with Rick. It’s just the sameness of it all. And I was unhappy about having to sell down to 5 contracts, especially when you are already near the money limit.

    We played where you could pay three cubes of your choice from anywhere if you didn’t want to pay from the designated column.

  2. Anye says:

    I agreed with Rick too. I enjoyed my play of it and I’d play it if someone wanted me to but it didn’t feel particularly fresh or exciting. I far prefer Le Havre or Agricola. Using the OG scale I would be about halfway between “neutral” and “like it”, or maybe 3/4 of the way toward “like it”.

  3. Denis Begin says:

    Just as many of the reviewers said “Not for me” as said “I loved it”. It would be nice to hear some of the dissenting opinions along with the praise.

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