Review – Mercante

Mercante is one of four games launched as part of AEG’s Tempest line (#2, to be precise; the others are Dominare, Love Letter, and Courtier). In Mercante, each player controls one of the merchant houses of Tempest, buying goods arriving in the city by ship, and then selling them at market for a profit. Mercante is an auction and action selection/worker placement game, where the incoming goods are auctioned and agents are used to sell merchandise, improve facilities, and manipulate the market. The game has a set clock that advances every time a player adds a new agent or purchases a victory point. Mercante retails for about $40.

The Quick Take: Good. “Auction game in an pseudo-Italian city” isn’t a great theme for me, but Mercante played in a much more interesting and unique way than that short pitch makes it sound. A variety of mechanics – the shifting upkeep token, the events calendar, the slowly clogging markets – interacted very well to produce a constantly engaging experience. Also, it’s a pretty nice price for this sort of game. I was expecting this one to go for $10 more.

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Winning

Winning Mercante comes down to Victory Points, and for the most part it’s just cash = VP. But the exchange rate changes throughout the game. At the very end of the game, every 10 crowns (Tempest’s currency) is worth 1VP, but players can expend an agent to buy them at a cheaper rate during the game (the earlier in the game, the cheaper the VP). Additionally, for each VP that is purchased in this way, another VP is tossed on the upkeep marker, and these are auctioned every few turns.

The one non-cash source of VP is contracts. If a player takes and then fulfills a contract (by selling specified goods all in one turn), then the contract is worth 1-2 VP. Any contracts taken that are not fulfilled are worth -1 to -3 VP (the potential loss is almost always greater than the potential gain).

A marker is moved up a track every time a VP (or agent) is purchased – the further up the track, the cheaper the agents get and the more expensive the VP get. When the end of the track is reached, the game ends (the track is longer the more players there are). The game also ends if all of the ships have come into the harbor.

Money Makes The World Go Round

You might think that, if cash is the main way of getting VP, then it’s probably important to understand how you get cash. You’d be right. There are two ways of getting crowns (in addition to a starting allotment) – selling goods, and taking contracts.

Goods are obtained at auction from ships – every turn the player chooses which of five ships to auction, and then a new ship comes into harbor to replace it. Each ship has 1-3 goods on it, and they can be auctioned as a group or separately (whoever picked the ship gets to pick how it’s auctioned). Goods are divided into four categories – Luxuries, Raw Materials, Precious Metals, and Foodstuffs. There are four different kinds of each category (for example, in Precious Metals there’s gold, mercury, tin, and silver). Bidding goes around the table once (twice if there are only three players), so the player who chose the shipment always has the last chance to buy it, so long as he or she has enough money available (there is definitely strategy in trying to figure out how much, if at all, the choosing player wants the shipment, and therefore how much you can force him or her to pay for that Art they need).

Once goods are acquired, they go into one of the player’s warehouses. Each warehouse can hold up to three goods (you start with one warehouse and can expand one at a time up to three by paying crowns and using up an action).

Selling goods takes actions. Two actions to sell a Luxury good, one action to sell Precious Metals or Raw Materials, and one action to sell two Foodstuffs. Sold goods tokens are placed on the market board, divided into categories – the more goods in a category are on the board, the less new sales are worth, since the market has been flooded. Luxuries are worth the most, but fill up quickly. On the other end, even the most valuable foodstuff is worth even less than the least valuable slot in the Luxuries market.

The other way of getting money is contracts. When taking a contract, the player immediately receives from 6-10 crowns (depending on how difficult the contract is to fill). A contract lists a certain selection of goods (from 1-3, and with varying degrees of specificity), and is completed when the player sells all of those goods all in the same turn. Thus a player can get a charge of cash simply by taking contracts, but at the risk that those contracts will go unfulfilled, and cost victory points.

Other Actions

So, what can your agents do other than sell stuff and buy VP? You start with two agents, and can go up to 4. The action to buy an agent – Improve House Assets – is the same action used to buy another warehouse, so you can only do one or the other on each of your turns. There are two spots for buying VP, three slots for selling goods, and one spot to grab a new contract.

Another option is skullduggery and its opponent, security. An agent assigned to skullduggery lets you steal a good from someone else’s warehouse, but only if there’s at least two goods in the warehouse, and the opponent gets to pick which one you run off with. In addition to protecting valuable goods by tossing a junk Foodstuff in the warehouse, you can simply assign an agent as Security, but this only covers one warehouse, so it’s a pretty painful use of an agent.

Merc_Events_QueensJewelsSoldAn agent can also be used to Manipulate Events, so I should probably talk about Events here. There is an Event deck and the Event calendar. Events are either fleeting or enduring – fleeting events happen and are discarded, while enduring events go in the event calendar. There are three spots in the calendar, and the oldest enduring event gets discarded when a fourth enduring event is played. The lion’s share of events manipulate the markets in some way – they can reduce or increase the selling price for an entire class of goods, close the market entirely for a certain category of good, or impose  Merc_Events_Largessemore complex set of ups and downs on specific goods. Most of these market-manipulating events are Reactions (the ones that shut down markets or impose big swings on entire categories of goods are not), which means they can be played just as someone (you or another player) is about to sell, which can heavily adjust the price received, especially if a favorable event is bumped off and an unfavorable one is added. Other than Reactions, events can be played through the manipulate events action, which lets you draw an event card and then either play an event card from hand, or draw another event card.

Upkeep

I’ve mentioned an Upkeep Marker above. Upkeep happens at the beginning of the turn, but only if the player has the Upkeep Marker. During upkeep, the player gets to remove a couple of goods from the market board (slightly slowing down the inevitable reduction in goods prices), flips over and applies the top card of the event deck, and conducts an auction for the VP tokens that have accumulated on the Upkeep Marker (an extra VP token is placed on the marker every time the “buy a VP” action is taken”). Then the marker is passed to the right, so upkeep happens slightly more than once per set of player turns.

Setup/Components

Merc_House_ElmenEach player starts the game with a player board, 10 crowns (plus a couple more for each spot you are after the first player), one contract (and the crowns that go with it), two event cards, and one merchant house card (each merchant house gives the player a narrow power, often one that can only happen a couple of times a game). One enduring event starts in play, and all five shipment slots are filled.

The cards and tokens are of high quality, and I really like the player boards. First, they’re actual boards, not just stiff pieces of paper. Plus, the game plays 3-5, and there’s a different VP/agent cost track for each number of players. If you play with 3 players, there are three normal player boards and then the 3-player track. If you want to add a fourth, you can flip over the 3-player track, and find another player board on the other side. Ditto for the 4-player track. I guess that isn’t really a big deal, but I really fancy it, and I like having a smaller number of high-quality boards instead of needing a larger box or only getting flimsy player boards.

Opinions

Mercante takes about an hour to play, which is what it says on the box, and worked well for the full 3-5 player range. Looking at my “summary” of the rules above, I’d say that the game is definitely easier to grok that it sounds, although as with any auction game you probably won’t have any idea what the right amount to bid is for your first playthrough (just remember – there’s no reason to bid more than 9 crowns for a VP).

Mercante was quite good. There were enough moving parts to keep the game interesting the whole way through, those parts worked well together, and they were a distinctive set. Even at the start you aren’t too resource cramped, and the different scales slide along nicely as the game progresses – for example, agents and warehouses become more plentiful so it’s easier to sell a lot, but individuals goods sales become worth less as the market board clogs up. The events – and especially the ability to play them as Reactions – keeps players attentive to what’s going on with others’ turns after the auction, and adds some more interaction.

As a Tempest game, Mercante probably carries the least flavor, IMHO, because it doesn’t have characters like you see throughout the other games. You’ve got the houses instead, but the houses don’t really feature in the other games, so that doesn’t help much. But Mercante does get to share some of the same components (for example, using the same tokens for crowns), which I suspect helps deliver the higher-quality components at the relatively low price point.

I have to admit that, after I had played a mock-up of Mercante during a period of extreme sleep deprivation at GenCon, I was concerned that it was going to end up being too dry. But it turns out that, when I’m a functioning human being, it’s a lot of fun.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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