I grew up in the golden era of massively multiplayer online games. The biggest being World of Warcraft. It was fantastic. I lost years to the game. It also ruined the industry. No other company could come close to recreating something so irreverent and genre defining. In board gaming, Dominion did the same for deck-building. Many have attempted, but none have conquered the king. Dale of Merchants is a new challenger, and the question we must ask is: can it take the throne?
Name: Dale of Merchants
Publisher: Snowdale Design
Designer: Sami Laakso
Artist: Sami Laakso
Before we dig into Dale of Merchants. Let’s take a moment to appreciate its theme. It’s as though Sam Laakso was exploring Morrowind, saw a Kajit vendor and then decided to create a deck-building game around it. That’s selling it short. The theme in this game works because it’s accessible for all types of gamers, is awesome, and deeply ingrained into the game system.
The setup of the game has you select several of the six animal decks and shuffle them together. Each deck takes on the traits of the associated animal. For instance: the thieving Northern Raccoons steal other people’s cards and are generally a nuisance. Or the Adapting Veiled Chameleons whose cards can change to match other cards around the playing field. There are more structured decks as well, but this deck selection allows you to customise how fast, interactive or mean you want the game to be.
Players begin the game with a deck of 10 cards – 3 to 5 animal cards, and the remainder being junk. During a turn, players can either buy cards from the central market place, use a card for its technique, or create a stack to add to their stall. Dale of Merchants is won by the player who completes their stall by building 8 stacks. The first stack needing cards that add up to the exact value of 1, the second stack needing 2, and so forth. Each stack needs to be made up of cards from the same animal deck.
Stack building creates a constantly evolving puzzle throughout the game. Each time you create a stack, you’re losing cards from your deck. This creates tempo in the gameplay as at times your deck will shrink rapidly, and you’ll need time to build it back up. This opens the game for strategies revolving around how and when players will build their stacks. Whether they do it consistently throughout, rush out and create stacks quickly before running out of cards, or hoard their cards before making a sprint to the finish line.
It also adds a sacrificial, or stackrificial, element. Within the game you’ll encounter times where you have a card with a great active but need to give it up to complete a stack, or the infinity gauntlet – I’m sorry little one.
Another break from tradition – or at least deck-building tradition – is that you don’t refresh your entire hand after each turn. You draw back up to five, keeping any unused cards. In this way you need to develop your own ways of burning through your hand. Otherwise it’s going to be less and less effective as you keep the junk you didn’t want while discarding the cards you do. Additionally, cards bought from the market move straight into your hand instead of the discard pile. Speaking of, this market place is variable. At any one time, there are five cards on sale, which are replaced once bought.
Together these mechanics remove the slow cyclical engine building nature of other deck-building board games and replace it with the need to always have the right cards in your hand. As such, it requires a lot of tactical decision making to decide the right move.
The last thing we need to talk about are the card techniques. We discussed flavour before, but now let’s talk gameplay. Every animal card has a technique attached. These abilities may be passive, active, take effect when played to a stack, or when buying from the market. No part of the game is left untouched. Which creates a huge number of combos and strategies as you mix and match cards of different species.
Weeks ago, I criticised Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure Game in my review because of it’s inattentiveness to the mechanic of deck-building. Today I take the role of Anakin Skywalker and say: now THIS is deck-building. Dale of Merchants is fantastic. It brings a new innovative voice to deck-building, that manages to capture multiple levels of strategic planning delivered in a delightfully friendly package. In other words: it’s damn fun and you should buy it. You’ll be wracking your brains over what to pay, what to play, and what to sacrifice to get the best stall in town. A brilliant, well thought out, and well executed game worthy of a Roll to Review Critical Hit!
The Dale of Merchants Collection is on Kickstarter right now, adding 8 new animal decks, character cards, traps, and box to contain everything!
To answer my own question though – is it enough to knock off Dominion? That depends. In terms of theme, tactical decisions and interactivity between players; Dale of Merchants has Dominion beat. In terms of building a slow strategical engine, Dominion still stands tall. These games being so different despite using the same mechanic is why board games are so fascinating to study. It leaves the door open for people’s own opinion to determine the victor. So which one is it? Let me know in the comments below.