Dale Yu: Review of Merv

Merv – The Heart of the Silk Road

  • Designer: Fabio Lopiano
  • Publisher: Osprey Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 90 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Osprey Games

merv

Merv. Not Griffin, but the city.  “A gateway between the East and the West. A hub of scholarship and trade. The greatest city in the world.”   Wikipedia seems to confirm this – “During the 12th–13th centuries, Merv, known as “Marw al-Shāhijān” (Merv the Great) at the time, was the world’s most populous and largest city, with a population of as many as 500,000 and preceding such medieval metropolises as Constantinople and Baghdad. Within this period Merv was often termed “the mother of the world”, “chief city of Khorasan” and the “capital of the eastern Islamic world”. According to Yaqut al-Hamawi, the city and its remarkable structures were visible from a day’s journey away.  In 1221, the city opened its gates to an invading Mongol horde; the resulting destruction of the city proved totally devastating. Historical accounts contend that the entire population (including refugees) of a million people were slaughtered in one of the bloodiest genocides in world history. Though partly rebuilt after the Mongol destruction, the city never regained its full former prosperity. Between 1788 and 1789, the city was razed for the last time and its population deported. By the 1800s, Merv was completely deserted. Today the site is preserved as a state historical and cultural park. It is the oldest and most perfectly preserved of the oasis cities along the historical Silk Road. A few buildings and structures still stand today, especially those constructed in the last two millennia. UNESCO has listed the site of ancient Merv as a World Heritage Site

This game is set around the time of the Mongol invasion (starting around 1219) –  players are vying to amass power and wealth in the prosperous heart of the Silk Road. Through careful court intrigue, timely donations to the grand mosque, and favorable trade deals, players attempt to redirect as much of that prosperity as possible into their own pockets. Meanwhile, beyond the city walls Mongol hordes approach. If you help construct the city walls, you give up on precious opportunities to build up your own stature, but leave it unprotected and you will burn with the city. Every decision is weighty and the consequences of each misstep are dire. Will you rise to prominence or fade into oblivion?

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The board represents this great city. In the center is a 5×5 grid with a camel market in the exact center and 24 other buildings randomly filling in the grid.  There is a score track that encircles the board, an influence track found near the top and a favour track in the bottom middle.  The library is in the lower right and the scrolls are stacked nearby off the board. Above this is the silk road diagram showing how Merv connects to the other cities in the region.  The left of the board has the Mosque of the city.  The Marketplace cards will be set up on one side of the board and the Caravansary cards on the opposite side. Finally the Walls of the city are seen just above the 5×5 grid of buildings.  

The game is played over 3 years, with 4 rounds in each year.  So, players will have to maximize their efforts from the twelve turns they get in the game.  Each round follows the same format: choose an action slot, choose a site, generate resources, perform an action, complete contracts.

First, to start a round, each player must choose an action slot – this means, they will choose a row or column to use this turn.  All of the action markers start the round in a corner of the city. Starting with the player furthest ahead, the action marker is moved along the next side of the city, always being placed in an empty slot.  Once you have chosen the row/column, then you choose one of the building sites – if there is no building in the chosen site, you must place one of your buildings on it – though it is OK to choose a site that already has a building.

Once activated, the building site you activate along with any building sites in the active row/column with buildings of the same color will generate resources. If another player’s building is present, they also will receive resources for the buildings and upgrades (but not for the site itself).  Also, if you have chosen the center slot, you have the opportunity to trade at the camel market.  You can either take all the camels in the marker or place a camel into the market to gain a reward.

Then, you do one of three action choices. 1] Perform the action shown on the board for your chosen building site, 2] gain favour – advance one space along the favour track, 3] deploy a soldier – place a meeple onto a building site with a building; also gain 1 influence (2 if you placed a soldier on an opponent’s building).  The possible board actions are detailed below

  • Caravansary – take spice cards from the caravansary area.  You can take as many as you like as long as there are camels on the cards; you can add camels from your supply to cards.  You are limited to how many different varieties of spice based on your influence track position.  For each pair of spices, you get the associated boon

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  • Palace – place meeples into the Palace halls.  The cost is one resource for your first in the game, 2 resources for the 2nd, …  (the cubes must match the color of the hall) Each of the four halls scores differently based on certain game criteria.  Note that the first meeple in the game to enter each hall will get a bonus favour.
  • Library – spend up to 4 resource cubes of different colors; for each spent, gain a scroll.  You make a scroll breakthrough for each second scroll you gain (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th).  There is a bonus associated with each breakthrough – choose an available card for that breakthrough and keep it in your area

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  • Marketplace – place a trading post disc in a city (must start with an inner city).  Then you may buy up to one good from each city where you are connected by spending the resource shown to get the good shown.  You must either have a trading post in a city or connect the city to Merv with camels.   Once you have purchased goods, any placed camels get moved to the cards on the caravansary.

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  • Mosque – there are 4 paths here which you must choose from, but the converge into a single path at the end.  Pay the cost in resources to move along a path, then take the boon of where you move to.
  • Wall – build any number of walls and gates, paying the resource cost next to each, then place the walls/gates onto the outsides of the city. Note that the gates can only go into the center row/column.  Gain influence for each thing you build and place.

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At any point in your turn, you can complete a contract, the cost of which is shown on the contract.  You must also have reached the influence level required for the contract (on the influence track).  You must spend a resource cube to take the contract and then place all the desired goods on top of it.  These goods are now locked in, and cannot be used for other contracts.

Once all players have taken their turn, you set the turn order for the next round.  Starting with the meeple that is closest to the previous line, move that meeple to the rearmost open spot in line (which means they will go last next turn).   They can elect to skip a spot in the turn order queue by placing a camel on each space they wish to skip.  Once this meeple is placed, the next meeple in the action row is placed in the same manner.  If a meeple takes a space that has camel(s) on it, that player collects all the camels from that space.

PXL_20210906_012109813.PORTRAIT

If this is the second or third year, then there is an invasion phase. Mongols will attack the first two building sites on each end of a row or column, unless protected by a wall or a gate.  If a building has a soldier on it, it is protected. If your building is attacked, you return it to your supply unless you pay the ransom – which is one resource which the building produces.  When the attack is done, remove all ransom payments and all soldiers from the board.

Finally, the round ends with a scoring phase. For each of your courtiers in the four halls of the palace (at the bottom of the board), you must spend 1 Favour.  If you do not have enough, spend all the Favour you can.  For each Favour spent, score a courtier based on the criteria of the hall it is in.  It is possible that you score nothing (but you still must spend the Favour if possible).  You then score 1 pt per building in the city, score 3 pts for each building that matches your scoring tile, and a mosque bonus if you have reached the end of the mosque track.

At the end of the third round there is a final scoring of the caravan cards.  Construct sets of caravan cards, with each set consisting of unique cards.  Score 1/3/6/10 points for each set of 1/2/3/4 cards in size. Score all the sets you can create.  The player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of the player with the most Favour.

The rules also offer 2p variant and a solo variant – each of these includes AI players (The High Courtier for 2P and the additional Corrupt Magistrate) to provide enough competition for building sites.  The solo rules are fairly robust, with 6 pages of the rulebook devoted to it – there are multiple changes in the game from the multiplayer version, mostly revolving around how the Corrupt Magistrate AI will behave.

My thoughts on the game

Merv is a fairly complex game (as I have come to expect from Lopiano with Ragusa and Calimala as his previous releases).  Here there are a lot of interwoven mechanisms that you have to flit between.  Only having twelve turns total in the game makes each turn important, and it means that you can’t waste any actions.  However, there are so many things that you want to get done each turn, and honestly, it always feels like you don’t have quite enough time to do it all – so you’ll have to choose what you will succeed in, and pick a few areas where you’re just going to fail.  

It’s important to note that you can accomplish your goals in a number of ways.  There is usually a direct action to get where you want to go, but you can often use the benefits/bonuses of other things to achieve multiple things in a turn.  You’ll just have to look around the board and see what options are available to you on your turn.  This will take a bit of time, and if you have someone with AP, it can take a LOT of time.  There are a lot of things to consider each turn, especially if they are going first in turn order and then essentially have the entire city’s worth of buildings to ponder.  

You’ll first have to figure out which row you want to go in, because this choice (and decision of which spot) will determine your resource haul for the turn. This is important because you pretty much need to spend resources later in the turn to do most things – so you’ll have to get the right assortment of resources to achieve your later goals.  The game system kind of forces players to specialize in a certain row or column because of the piggybacking nature to the resources, but each player will have to carve out their own niche.  You could also use someone else’s area, but they get a huge bonus in free cubes.   But, then once the resource collection is done, now do you take the action of the building? Or go straight for Favor or maybe a soldier?  Perhaps you can take a building action, and in the process of moving up a track on the board, you’ll get the Favor anyways?  Or maybe buy a bunch of cards from the Caravansary, socking away endgame bonus points while also getting to deploy soldiers or gain favour?

In a 3p game, there doesn’t seem to be as much competition in the city, and all of us were able to get rows/columns with 2 or 3 of our buildings there – this led to a lot of resources being collected and very little use of the opponent’s buildings.  Sure, there were still some times when you might want to use another player’s building to get a particular action, but more often than not, the overwhelming resource benefit of choosing your own line with 3 buildings outweighed that.  Also, none of us wanted to give the other guy 3 extra cubes just because we chose their buildings – so that also stifled this action.

After a few plays, you’ll start to get an innate feel for the things you want to accomplish, and the different routes that you can employ to get there – but wow, on your first game, I’d probably just recommend doing things and seeing how they work out.  Rather than beat yourself up trying to see far into the future, just do the thing you think you need to do this turn.  And then as you see how things unfold, you’ll be better readied for your next game.

Interestingly, in my games so far, players have tended to specialize in different areas, sometimes nearly monopolizing them.  Once, James Nathan went for the mosque track, and got all the way to the top, also getting all 3 scoring meeples in the palace.  JP went caravansary heavy, and while he was behind for much of the game, the huge 10VP bonus for sets of spices nearly brought him back to the lead.  I have myself tried to max out scrolls early, trying to take advantage of the first choice of advancements.  The scoring method of the Palace seems to force players into this behavior as you can max out a good area of the board, possibly 3x if you fill all the Hall spots.  And, given the rising costs of placing meeples in the palace, it’s a big sacrifice for someone to spend cubes to block a spot – especially as this meeple will cost a Favour each turn and might not really ever return VPs.  Additionally, given that most lines of the board eventually give you bonuses in other areas, there is maybe not as much incentive to expand out past your area.

The rules are… well, not great. At least not for me.  There are a lot of rules to the game, and the organization of the rulebook did not suit me.  The framework of the rules is fit onto about 2 pages, but then a lot of the details come in other parts of the rulebook.  This made it difficult for me to learn the rules, and it makes it quite hard to look for things when you have questions.  I would rather you tell me what my action options are at the time you tell me I have actions, not make me look 5 pages down the rules for them.  I am apparently not the only one who has had issues as there are multiple attempts on BGG to re-write the rules.  For the purposes of this review, I stuck to the rulebook as offered in the box, and it was not for me.  That being said, I think it fair to say that the way the mechanisms all interlock in the game, there is always something that is going to be done out of order because it seems that literally everything interacts with each other.  (So, maybe it’s me, and not the rules?!)

The artwork is quite attractive, from the box art to the board to the components.  I have been generally impressed with the artwork from Osprey Games this year, and this is no exception.  I like the business of the central city, but some of my compatriots found it dizzying and hard to see the important information on the tiles.  

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Overall, there are a lot of interesting decision points in Merv, and the interlocking mechanisms allow for multiple strategies to be employed.  I certainly haven’t played enough to know if any one strategy is better than the other – but I have seen thus far that it is possible to win with a very focused strategy as well as with a broader one that did a little bit of everything.  Because of that, I feel like I still have more exploration of Merv in my future, and I would encourage other gamers to try it as well.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan: It was fine. 

I want to highlight what felt like two fundamental differences with Merv, that some of the other games in this vein don’t have.  First is the lack of interaction that happens, but let’s come back to that.  Second is the success of extreme specialization. There are games with 4 or 5 or 6 different sorts of modules, and they vary in how much you “need” to use each one to be successful.  Without passing any sort of judgment on it, some games reward a fairly even distribution- I spread out my efforts/actions evenly, 20% in each area, and that is most likely more successful that going 90% into one area and 10% into this second one. Maybe a game has one section that is dominant, and you can mix and match the others.  Different people like different things, and I think there’s an audience for each approach. As to Merv, I found it atypical (again, not passing judgment, just seems unusual) in the degree to which specialization was rewarded.  As Dale said above, you can sort of get the little pieces you need from the other categories as bonuses along the way.

The issue, for me, with that specialization, is that it causes the promised/intended interaction to fall out.  In a game like Calimala, or one of “follow” action games like Lisboa, these interwoven incentives abound as the things you do will grant actions or opportunities to the other players.  Here, however, it seems that the reward for triggering another player’s house is so large, that you are quite strongly incentivized not to. Moreover, they likely don’t have an action you want! Because the specialized strategies seem to be strongly rewarded, the players somewhat naturally furcate into distinct branches, and you find yourself choosing your own buildings over and over and over because that’s the best reward of resources for you, not resources for your opponents, and the actions you want (b/c of the push towards specialization).

Dan (1 play): I agree with James Nathan. Specialization seemed to be very clearly the best approach – not 100% in one area but something like 80/20 with the 20% probably being walls (at least that’s what I did, and I won). Given that, the early part of the game holds some interest since you need to set up your buildings properly to hammer on your desired actions later on, but once that’s done the rest is pretty mechanical. Which is too bad, because I thought the system was clever; with more development it might have actually played out that way.

Jonathan (1 play): I enjoyed my play, but would not seek out additional plays. The game is clearly well constructed and interlocking, but I am not sure what to think about a game where I can basically ignore half the major subsystems in the game and win. That is not to say that my approach was right or wrong. This is a cruel time for game designers because if a game does not make a great first impression, there are tons behind it waiting to get played. If Merv does have deep gameplay, I hope others will play it more and promote it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, John P
  • Neutral. James Nathan, Dan, Jonathan F.
  • Not for me… Steph

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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1 Response to Dale Yu: Review of Merv

  1. huzonfirst says:

    This is a timely review, as I got to play Merv for the first time last weekend. Overall, I liked it, but with a few reservations. In my 4-player game, we also felt the need for specialization that the others cited. But what really made the game unusual was that once the second year began, it became evident that the optimal strategy was to go all out each turn and maximize your action, using all the resources you had to do so. So unlike so many other games where resources are tight, here everything seemed to be in abundance, possibly matching the theme of the fabulous city of Merv. Players made “big” moves practically every turn, in an attempt to get the most out of their selected specialty. Even when doing so, there was almost always enough leftover resources to do the same thing next turn.

    This gave the game a different feel than expected, which is always nice. But I have to say, I prefer my games tighter and at least a little more punishing. (The Mongols were hardly any problem at all and no city was lost due to invasion in our game.) I liked Merv and would be happy to play it again, but right now, it’s not high on my list of favorites from last year. But for players who *don’t* like super tight games and like big, exciting moves, I highly recommend it.

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