Looks like it’s time to update the Kingdom’s Maps! You and a few others have been subcontracted via The Guild of Merchant Explorers in order to survey the kingdom, near and far. Payment will be based on objectives, and the better your maps, the more you will earn! Don’t be afraid to do a little bit of trade on the side to supplement your income. Finally, make sure to establish some outposts on your way, as the Capital’s archives are notoriously bad with losing maps, and you might need to start again 4 or so times!
1-4 Players | 1 Hour | Designed by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert
The Guild of Merchant Explorers was developed during the pandemic Era and is advertised as being compatible with remote play. Brought to us by AEG, the design is a roll-less, write-less, ‘roll-and-write’ game, or a flip-and-place-cubes game, kind of similar to Tiny Towns in concept and execution. I personally like the ideas and mechanics from roll-and-write games leaking out into more traditional format games, freeing us from the mechanical limitations of indelible ink on paper.
How does it work?
The Guild of Merchant Explorers is an iterative map exploration game with a vaguely Bingo-esque main mechanic. Players all start with the same map and will explore it over 4 Eras, earning coins by forming trade routes and completing objectives, ultimately hoping to make the most money (and therefore win, as money is points).
Each round of the game consists of playing through the deck of terrain cards. On each turn, a card is revealed from the top of the deck. It will contain some criteria e.g. ‘explore two plains’ or ‘explore 3 sea spaces in a line’. All players will simultaneously carry out this action by placing cubes on their board to mark where they are choosing to explore. You must explore adjacent to already explored spaces, and the game begins exploration from a single space.
Certain spaces on the map will reward coins, and filling in regions will allow players to found villages. There are also ruins on the map to explore that reward treasure cards (which contain a combination of instant bonuses and end game scoring cards). Players will also be aiming to complete trade routes by linking towns on the map, which will also reward money based on the towns linked.
Sometime during each round, an Era card will be revealed, allowing players to gain special explore powers unique to them. This could be something like ‘explore 5 sea or grass spaces in a chain’ or ‘explore 4 water spaces and receive double treasure for any ruins explored with this action’. Every player will get different cards for these special Era actions, so this is where the game will diverge for players.
After a round is complete, players will clear their cubes (but not villages, discovered towns or ruins), and a new round will begin. New cubes in subsequent eras can be placed from the starting spot, or from any villages discovered on the map, so villages act as checkpoints. After the fourth round is complete, players will tally their coins to see who won!
What do I think?
I’ve played The Guild of Merchant Explorers several times now, with all player counts from 1 to 4. The game is more or less the same regardless of player count, however with more players there is obviously competition for the objective cards. As the game has simultaneous play, each turn will be as fast as the slowest player, but I’ve generally found games to be quick, usually about 1 hour.
The Good Stuff
- I can’t stress enough how much I’m in love with the art style and the art in this game. Artist Gerralt Landman has brought this game to life with stunning art that for me, really evokes the purest essence of fantasy map making. This particular cartoony yet whimsically realistic style of art (seen in Adventure Time, and the game Feudum, for example) is probably my favourite style.
- The Guild of Merchant Explorers is really simple to learn and teach. There are a few core rules to mention, and most everything else is intricacies of ways to earn coins. It’s definitely very accessible in this respect.
- There is a great variety in the box. 4 maps are included however I’ve found even just playing the two more basic maps to introduce new players still provides really interesting games. It’s impossible to stick to a fixed strategy, games will always be very different.
- I think this is a good implementation of ‘multiplayer solitare’. I like games where I can do my thing without others interrupting, but I also like to have something to keep me engaged with other players at the table. I think this game offers that through the objectives, and also players discussing how this card or that card was terrible for them, or allowed them to do something very beneficial.
- I think the game has great tension from players waiting to see what the next card in the terrain deck will be. Very often players are really keen for particular cards to come out in particular orders to benefit their strategies, and there can be a lot of suspense to see the next card!
- I found the puzzle of playing to the strengths of your explore cards is interesting. Because you don’t know when your special card will be activated (when the Era card comes out of the terrain deck) you need to be prepared to make the most of it at any time. Often you can be planning to set it up for most profitable use, but it comes out too early (or too late) and you need to pivot.
- Additionally, the puzzle of remaining flexible to the general card order is also very interesting. In my later games, I found myself considering what was bound to come up later or next when selecting places to explore. The game makes this very easy to figure out without the need for card counting thanks to the board showing what cards have been drawn so far. I really like this design decision as I totally dislike ‘open information’ being hidden in a discard pile – basically an advantage to players with a good memory.
- I found the scoring to be a really fun part of the game. Do a thing? Have some coins. Do another thing? Have some more coins. Do a special thing? Have LOTS of coins!! Everything feels really rewarding when you get paid for almost each turn you take.
- Just in a broad general sense, this game is Satisfying!
The Bad Stuff
- It can feel very frustrating when cards come up in the ‘wrong order’ for you, and you are kind of pigeon-holed into taking some dud turns. I guess this is just the nature of these sorts of games, but no amount of planning can mitigate this.
- The Treasure just seems kind of not worth investing into to me. The only time I found it worthwhile was when I was getting double treasure from my explore cards. Otherwise it feels like a couple of incidental end game points and a few minor bonuses throughout the game.
- I’m not really sure about this one but it felt like the Rulebook I got in my copy was an out of date draft. There was a bunch of mistakes throughout it, including very inconsistent terminology (e.g. Village and Settlement used interchangeably), and even incorrect treasure cards pictured. I think it didn’t affect me learning the game, but it was pretty obvious and not a great look.
- There wasn’t enough coins for a 3-4 player game without CONSTANTLY making change, and the coins are all too similar looking. Maybe a small screen per player and more varied coins would help with this?
- For someone with big fingers, the small cubes can be hard to place and especially hard to clean up between each round. It’s so easy to knock things that need to remain on the board. And for some completely crazy reason, the finish on the maps is extra slippery! They could have easily been a matte finish for some extra grip, or even something like what’s used on the Tapestry player mats that is extra grippy.
- Could there have been more players included in the box? 4 players is a ‘standard’ amount but this game could easily scale to 6 or 8 with no more downtime as it’s simultaneous play. AEG if you are listening … maybe a ‘standalone expansion’ could use different colours and have extra base game maps.
- I would have loved for the game to have overall larger boards to help with the fiddlyness. I suppose then they would have had to be folding as they are already the same size as the box.
In terms of gameplay, I really only have a couple of complaints, and the rest were about the production, which I think could have been improved in some areas with better (not necessarily more expensive) decisions. The rest of my gripes are basically asking for a Deluxe version of this game, and I would almost certainly happily buy it. This is a great game that satisfies the needs of varied levels of gamers, as it provides a simple rule set but the scope for more complex and interesting strategic decisions is there in that framework. I was certainly excited to dig into this one and it did not disappoint at all. If you like Roll-and-Write style games I am pretty confident you would like this and I recommend it! If you are interested in learning more about the game or picking up a copy, check out it’s website or your local game store!
The copy of The Guild of Merchant Explorers used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by AEG