|Interaction||Components & Design|
Catan Histories: Merchants of Europe is the title of Mayfair’s English edition of Die Siedler von Catan: Aufbruch der Händler. The German edition that this review is based on has been available since last year, but there’s no reason the Mayfair edition, scheduled to release later this year, should be any different except maybe with different art.The Settlers of Catan have come a long way from their origins on the titular island in 1995. There have been expansions, sidetracks like the card game series and the Catan Adventures (Candamir and Elasund) and the occasional game that takes the original mechanics and sees how far it can run with them and still be recognizable as a Settlers game. One success from that branch of Catan was Settlers of America: Trails to Rails that then crossed back to Europe with some changes but the mechanics intact.
Enough prelude, lets talk about Merchants of Europe. With that title, there’s no surprise in the fact that it’s set in Europe. More specifically, it’s set in late medieval Europe, the time when merchant families established trade networks and economic empires all across Europe. And leading one of those houses to fame and success will be your job as a player. Success for a merchant house is measured in the amount of goods they deliver, and that’s exactly how you measure success in Merchants of Europe: the winner is whoever delivers their stack of goods first: between five and ten depending on the number of players and whether you’re playing the short or the full game. Just like in Trails to Rails, you cannot just race around and distribute your goods. You have to build branch offices to deliver the goods from, streets to transport them – and already it sounds like a Settlers game!
You start out with some offices and the beginning of a road and a wagon meeple with each office. (I really wanted to come with a witty expression for wagon meeple, but I couldn’t. There goes my bonus for the year.) If you have ever played a Settlers game, you’ll get into the basics as easily as into your favourite pair of socks. I won’t go into details about the rules that are unchanged from the original Settlers, 90% of you would be bored before this paragraph is over and the remaining 10% can read about the original if they feel they’re missing the point. Each turn still starts with picking up resources: roll two dice, every player takes a matching resource card for every office adjacent to that number. Rolling a seven still lets you move the bandit, disabling production for the field he goes on and letting you steal a card from one player. There are however, two differences: the first is that you now have salt as a resource instead of the bricks. The second change is that you take a gold coin every time you don’t have the number rolled. That doesn’t work if your production is merely blocked by the robber, though – he’s the most hated man in Catan and now Europe, the embodiment of stealing, he wears all black. He’s not in the habit of giving out consolation candy.
Gold coins are very handy in phase two of your turn because two of them buy you any one resource card, that’s a better rate than the usual three-for-one when trading with other resources. You can still trade freely with other players, too, but that’s one thing I dislike about Merchants of Europe and especially about gold coins: you rarely do. Gold coins are not exactly hard to come by, their exchange rate is good and, because of the victory conditions, all players need pretty much the same resources. There are no strategies that need more ore and grain, for example; you can play different strategies of course, but you still need all the resources in approximately the same amounts. So trading between players is much less attractive than in other Settler games, and I do miss the bartering. And the wood-for-sheep jokes. You can still ask who has wood for sheep, obviously, but the answer is often a deafening silence.
Resources are still used for building your empire, but that’s where things start being different from older Settlers games. The most familiar things to build are roads. They are built the same way they always were, but they now have the pleasant side effect of giving you money when you’re the first to connect a previously isolated city. Actually, not only you but every player who has a part in the whole connection, but that’s still a good deal. The reason to build roads is not so you can build settlements along them, their only reason to exist is now to move your wagons along them. To move your wagon trains, you pay one card of salt and move up to three roads along. You can even use your opponents’ roads, but then you pay a toll to them. When your wagons reach an opponents city you may immediately unload one of your goods chips there, if that city didn’t already take one and if you have built enough offices: your goods start out with your offices stacked on top, and to be able to deliver them, the office needs to be built first.
Building the offices is not as straightforward as building anything else. You don’t just go and build an office, what you do is you train a wandering meepchant, and then you send him a-wandering. (A meepchant is a meeple merchant. I may have lost my bonus, but I still take pride in my job.) Instead of salt you pay his movement in grain, and he doesn’t need roads to go anywhere. When one of your meepchants reaches a city without any offices he is afflicted by a horrible curse. Or maybe a mutation. But I think it’s a curse. Either way, the poor guy turns into a house. Or maybe he settles down, opens a small branch office, raises a family and becomes comfortably wealthy, but I prefer the curse explanation. Either way, you remove your meepchant and place an office in his place, freeing up the next goods chip for delivery. Some landscapes in Merchants of Europe don’t receive a dice number in the beginning; if you build an office next to one of them you may pick one of the spare number chips of the right color and place it there. If those are out, then you get to have even more fun and steal a chip from somewhere else on the board, drying up your opponents’ resource supply. Quite unfortunately, when you play the short version of the game the option of stealing number chips has next to no relevance. When you’re founding an office that only has one or two tiles adjacent to it you even get a little money to make up for the loss of resources.
Finally, you can still invest your resources in development cards. They still do useful things like move the bandit, build free roads or move your wagons and meepchants for free, speeding you along on your way to victory. Victory that can be achieved in only one way: delivering your goods. Now, I’m usually on the contra side of arguments concerning victory points, they just seem sort of lazy as a game end condition sometimes, but their big advantage is that you can have infinite ways to get them. There is only one way to deliver goods, and that forces you build certain things and do certain things and … I’m not saying you don’t have more than one viable strategy in Merchants of Europe, but you’re more limited in your decisions than you are in Settlers of Catan. On the plus side, there are no surprise victories here from someone suddenly revealing four points in development cards, you always see how far everyone is from victory.
Component-wise, Merchants of Europe is just the way we like our games: the illustrations are great – really a long step up from my 1995 edition of Settlers of Catan – the game pieces are real wood and there are meepchants. The gameboard is sturdy, good-looking and two-sided for the short and full game. The two maps are pretty much the same, but the short game map doesn’t let you play in England or west of the Lyon-Paris line, but stretches all the way to Saint Petersburg in the north-east. You also have less offices to build and less goods to deliver, bringing the game time to a solid hour. The full map is not so much bigger, only adding Portugal, Spain and west France to the mix, but nevertheless it almost doubles the playtime, making the home stretch, not to put to o fine a point on it, stretch a little.
When talking about reviewing games, we usually say it’s not fair to compare anything to Settlers of Catan because that’s the game that started the international boardgame craze. But we still do. So it’s probably unfair to compare Merchants of Europe to Settlers of Catan, but I still will. It doesn’t quite measure up. In a direct comparison between the two, the good old Settlers still wins. Fortunately, there’s a lot of space below Settlers where a game can be good. That’s the space Merchants of Europe falls into for me: despite it’s two flaws – length of the full game and the lack of proper trading – it’s a good game that doesn’t quite live up to it’s name. If you know Settlers of Catan, Merchants of Europe is similar enough that you’ll get into it in no time. If you disliked Settlers of Catan, however, Merchants of Europe is different enough that you might enjoy it – especially the problem with being boxed in some people had in Settlers does not happen here. If you’re a Catan completionist, well, lets be honest here, if you are then you were committed to buying Merchants of Europe already, that’s what being a completionist means. But even if you’re not, this is a game worth looking at.