The Guild of Merchant Explorers Review
The Guild of Merchant Explorers doesn’t just look like a fancy version of Kingdom Builder, it actually plays like one too. I haven’t sought out any designer diaries for it, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a flip-and-write game at some point during its genesis. Even though it would have worked as one, I’m glad it had the Alderac treatment and is delivered as a boxed game. It’s more likely to get picked up in stores, or by people not convinced by xxx-and-write games, and The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a game that more people ought to play. It’s great, but a little pricey for what it is.
The what of what now?
I’ve played The Guild of Merchant Explorers a lot of times now, and I’m still no closer to knowing what such a guild is. It feels like someone has handed an AI writer a list of board game hot words and that’s what it came up with. Regardless, each of the players is a merchant-slash-explorer tasked with venturing forth and reestablishing contact with the various cities in the realm, opening trade routes, and discovering villages which may have sprung up since the last time someone went geocaching there.
In practice it’s a pretty simple game, like many of the best games are. In each turn a card is flipped over showing a terrain type, and each player places cubes on the board in hexes which match that terrain type. Every time you place a cube, it’s got to be adjacent to an existing cube, your capital, or a village you found in a previous round. If you completely cover a region of a terrain type, you get to place a little village on one of the hexes – huzzah!
Now, there might be some of you reading this thinking “reveal a terrain type, place cubes on hexes, make routes between cities – this is a Kingdom Builder rip-off!” It’s undeniable that there are plenty of similarities, and I made the comparison myself in social media posts when I was playing the game. However, there are a few big differences between the games, and these differences create an experience which feels different to Donald X. Vaccarino’s classic.
“You can go your own way”
Thank me for the Fleetwood Mac earworm later. The biggest difference between The Guild of Merchant Explorers and that other Kingdom game is that each player has their own map board. I say board, it’s a player sheet, just like those in The Castles of Burgundy (review here) and Ark Nova (review here). Everybody starts with the same map (of the four available in the box), and starts from the same space. Everybody reacts to the same terrain (explore) cards as they’re revealed, and places their cubes at the same time. It sounds like a recipe for several identical player sheets at the end of the game, but courses very quickly diverge.
During the game you get opportunities to draw Investigation cards, which act as more powerful versions of the explore cards. Each player ends up with three different investigation cards which get activated several times during the course of the game. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those pictures of spiders’ webs when they’ve been given psychoactive drugs, but the investigations have a similar effect on the players’ expeditions across the map.
Ultimately you’re trying to make lots of money. You’re a part of the guild of MERCHANT explorers, after all. Connecting two cities earns you dollarbucks, as does discovering villages and completing the shared end-of-game goals. There are ruins around the coasts to discover treasure in, discovery towers which can earn you big bonuses if you manage to reach them all, and there are some other interesting tweaks in some of the maps to keep things fresh.
This isn’t the longest review I’ll ever write, but it doesn’t need to be. The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a lightweight game with a simple ruleset, which can be played in 30-45 minutes, tops. This isn’t a criticism, it’s the opposite. As much as I love heavy, complex games, I enjoy clever, lighter games just as much, and this is a great example of one. The solo mode is great too, and forces you to actively work towards the goal cards in a specific order.
The biggest issue I have with the game is the price. I make a point of not mentioning the price of a game unless it’s exceptionally high or low, and in my opinion, the ~£40 asking price for The Guild of Merchant Explorers is too high. For a light game which doesn’t even have player boards – just sheets – it feels like too much. Yes, the discovery tower models are cool, but if you take them out all you’re left with is basically a deck of small cards, a bag of wooden cubes, and a few punchboards of tokens. It didn’t need to be in a Kallax-size box, but competition for shelf presence is often king.
Grumble aside, there’s no denying that The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a great game. Matt and Brett keep turning out gold-standard game designs, and this is another one to add to their CV. If you’re looking for a flip-and-write that’s a little more meaty, I still rank Hadrian’s Wall (review here) as the best you can buy, but if you want something lighter, this is a fantastic choice. Nothing has really scratched that Kingdom Builder itch for me for years, and The Guild of Merchant Explorers does it with enough of a twist to make it feel fresh and interesting.
Review copy kindly provided by AEG. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can buy this game from my retail partner, Kienda. Remember to sign-up for your account at kienda.co.uk/punchboard for a 5% discount on your first order of £60 or more.
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The Guild of Merchant Explorers (2022)
Designers: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J Gilbert
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
Art: Gerralt Landman
Playing time: 30-45 mins