Merit Board Game Preview
This is a prototype version sent to us for our thoughts. No money exchanged hands.
There are a lot of two-player fighting games on the market. We have played and covered a lot of them here recently. Are skirmish games the new roll-and-write in terms of being the new hit mechanic? Well, first-time designer Andrew Swan from Shrine Games, thinks so and is releasing Merit, a new skirmish game for two-to-four players, coming to Kickstarter in May 2023. For more information, head here.
Considering how popular they are now, Skirmish games need to be excellent and offer something new. I would suggest Merit achieves both of these goals. The majority of fighting games I have played use cards. Cards work well either in a deck cycle capacity such as Disney's Sorcerers Arena, combining the cards with dice throws like Dice Throne, or utilising them in a programming-based way such as Kickstarter success, Fatal Knockout . Some have mixed the genre with other mechanics, such as Vengeance Roll and Fight, which incorporates roll-and-write elements into a more solo, point scoring fighting experience. And I like how games like Godtear and Funkoverse make the characters all completely different with hugely asymmetric powers. (Told you I covered a lot recently). Merit though, has no cards or Dice. It chooses a different system closer to an engine-builder that is a little like Heroes of the Shire where each fighter has different abilities that can be unlocked as you develop. But where in Heroes of the Shire these abilities develop over different missions, in Merit, they develop over each game.
To set up the game, players will choose their fighters in turn. Starting with the first player who picks one, then the second player who takes two, before the first player takes two more and the second player takes their final third fighter. Each fighter comes with a hero board, health dial, and some have secondary appearances, a little like skins in video games. These have no affect on the game. On the hero board, each player will place a cube on their maximum energy, they will then roll dice to determine starting positions on the board, and play can begin.
How to Play
Each round has three simple phases. First, the level up phase where players can unlock one ability on one of their heroes for each realm stone they control. (I'll explain this later). This must be a level one ability at first, but then in later rounds, can be a level two on a hero with a level one ability unlocked, and so on. Any beginning round effects will also occur at this stage, but in round one, this will not be the case. But later in the game, various boons and powers could kick in.
Second, is the main turn phase. Here, players will take it in turns to use up to three energy. Each player will have three turns to do this. You can spend the energy all on one fighter, or spread it around your three characters, it's up to you. The energy can be used for three main actions. Moving. Which simply requires one energy and then each hero can move up to its own movement limits. Influence a Realm stone. Which means either placing one of your three dice on one of the three realm stone spaces when you are adjacent to a realm stone space, increasing an existing dice by one to increase its power. Or reducing an opponent's dice by one. And using an Ability. Each ability is clearly explained on your character board and will cost one to three power to activate. There are some abilities that need zero power, but these are more passive abilities that are always active.
Finally, there is the reset phase where all players regain their maximum energy for all fighters still in the game, and any end of round effects occur. Players will continue to play, in turn, round by round, like this one of the players triggers one of the two end-game scenarios. To win the game, players must either eliminate all of their opponents characters, reducing their health to zero. Or finish a round with all three of their dice placed on a realm stone space. The mix of area control and fighting is another reason this game feels fresh in a crowded market. Most games I have played have felt like they were going to end with one player losing all their fighters, but in fact, the majority of games were decided by the realm stones. If you can manipulate your fighters to be in the right spot, with the right energy, then you can control the realm stone spaces and make it impossible for your opponent to stop you. Especially if you are acting second in that round.
Is It Fun?
Playing Merit feels fresh. I have played A LOT of similar games recently but this felt original and full of new ideas. I love the characters in the game. They all feel completely different to play as, and offer interesting asymmetric powers. It has been a lot of fun working out which ones work best with each other, and against what other combinations. The game is clearly expandable in this area. Any new or additional characters would be very welcome.
The one area I would like to see developed in this game, or games like this, is to find a way to make movement more useful throughout the game. The Unmatched series currently does this best for me. In Merit, and most fighting games, I find there is an initial rush to get into the best sparring positions, and then players just bash each other for a few rounds. Of course, there is a bit of shuffling around, and the realm stone make for a very interesting element here. But as movement cost energy, and you need energy to fight, I find that most games have minimal movement after round two.
I sense this is due to players not wanting to waste their energy on movement as I say, and the easy fix for this would be to allow one movement for free each round. As many of the attacks relay on specific position on the board, this would be advantageous, and stop players using the same attacks each time. however, as I became a little more accustomed to the characters, and learnt how best to upgrade them, I found I did begin to move around a little bit more to utilise by actions in a more efficient way. So, in part, this is also just about learning the game. But it was still minimal.
However, this does not deter the fun of the game. Playing Merit is an absorbing experience. You feel captivated from turn one. It all looks wonderful, despite being in porotype form. And the mechanics, ruleset, and characters are all beautifully fine tuned. But the two headline acts here are the upgradable characters and the effects. Being able to develop your character and use new powers and abilities each round makes paying Merit feel such a voyage of discovery that never ends.
There are a lot of tokens in this game. But they are all clearly explained on this handy reference sheet that you can leave out on the table for both players to check when needed. Clever use of these effects will be vital if you want to win the game via the first method of defeating your opponents characters. The bleed effect can be especially powerful, more so when up against an opponent with high armour.
I would highly recommend checking out this game when it comes to Kickstarter if you enjoy games within this field. I could see this game becoming very popular on the tournament circuit, and I would love to develop my understanding of more characters if that was something designer Andrew Swan wanted to do. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this prototype and will watch the Kickstarter with avid interest.