WBG Score: 8/10
Player Count: 1–4
Published by: Alderac Entertainment Group
It’s hard to imagine a world without maps. When driving to UKGE in Birmingham, I had a moment of uncertainty when my Sat-Nav got confused. Its system was out of date, and when I had to travel along a new stretch of motorway, I prayed it would re-sync itself. When it did, after a scary five minutes, I breathed a sigh of relief. I could relax for the rest of my journey…
But there were once an era when crews relished such a challenge of heading off the edge of the map. Cartographers filling in blank spaces on their maps. Or, sketching them afresh, as the expedition progressed. That’s what you’re doing in The Guild Of Merchant Explorers – venturing out into the far-flung corners of the kingdom of Tigomé. The Queen demands you update the maps of old. Creating new villages, once you’ve ensured the land is safe. Building and reconnecting new trade routes. Discovering mysterious towers, and investigating ancient ruins. Sounds fantastic, right? But how does the game itself flow as an experience?
The Elevator Pitch: What’s It All About?
The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a 1-4 player game by designers Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert. This isn’t the duo’s first collaboration. They’ve also created the likes of Elysium, Chocolate Factory, and Roll For Adventure. The core mechanism is network-building, as you spread out across the map and link up locations. The aim? Score points for completing various challenges – some of these venturing into set collection.
Each player gets an A4-sized player map, with cubes and Village markers in their colour. The map itself represents Tigomé as a kingdom. Terrains range from grassland to desert, mountains to open oceans. Comprised of a hexagonal grid, there’s a large capital city in the centre. This is where your expedition begins: a commissioned venture from the queen of Tigomé, herself!
The turns of the game have a ‘bingo’ characteristic to them. Six Explore Cards get shuffled, and drawn one at a time. All players react to the Explore Card drawn, in a simultaneous manner. Five of these six cards show terrains on them, such as 1x desert hex, or 3x ocean hexes, for example. Once flipped over, all players then get to explore that quota of said terrain type. Let’s look at how Exploring works first, and then I’ll explain scoring.
On your first turn of the game, you have to explore adjacent to your capital. Makes sense, right? This represents you setting off on your grand journey. To explore, you place an Explorer (one of your cubes from your supply) onto the corresponding terrain hex. Subsequent Explorers must sit next to either the capital, or fellow Explorers. Think of this like the marvellous ‘journey’ maps in the Indiana Jones movies. (You know, where Indy flew from A to B.) The dotted line – or here, your cubes – represented him travelling.
The Explore Cards are so simple, yet compelling in the challenge they present. The Explore 1x Mountain Space card tells you straight away that this is the toughest terrain to traverse and cover. It’s a slower terrain type to fill up and traverse. There’s no direct statement to which era you’re in, you can imagine the technology available in Tigomé at the time. Mountain ranges were, no doubt, dangerous and arduous to travel through.
The Explore 2x Grassland Spaces works the same as the Explore 2x Desert Spaces card. You get to place two Explorers, but they don’t have to be adjacent to one another, per se. They do have to obey ‘The Golden Rules of Exploration’, though. Players must always place Explorers (their cubes) adjacent to one of their other Explorers, or their capital, or a Village. (I’ll explain Villages, later.) These two cards allow players to spread out and explore in two different directions.
Tigomé is a fictional land, but its terrain ratios match that of our own. There’s more water than there is any other land type. This is why the Explore 3x Sea Spaces card allows you to travel so far. At some point, you’re going to have to set sail to charter those far-flung lands unknown. The catch is that the sea hexes that you explore have to form a straight line. So while you cover more ground with this card, it’s not as flexible as the, say, Explore 2x Desert card. You can always opt to explore up to the three hexes in a line, but efficiency gamers will wince at not taking full advantage!
And talking of flexibility: the fifth card grants you options-galore. This one’s called Explore Any 2x Adjacent Spaces. You can explore any two hexes, of any terrain type – even if they’re different from one another. They have to be adjacent to one another, though. The most interesting card of all though, is the Era I, II and III Cards.
Era Cards: Modular Bingo
In the first round (A.K.A. Era), you shuffle in the Era I Card in among the other Exploration Cards. Once it gets flipped, each player gets given two Investigation Cards, and they get to keep one. These are all powerful, asymmetrical exploration actions, and you get to take this action straight away. It could be something like ‘Explore 3x Mountain Spaces and 1x Sea Space, in any order’. Or, ‘Explore 5x Sea Spaces’! Or ‘Explore 1x Grassland Space, and then Explore up to 5x Spaces adjacent to this Grassland Space’.
The choices all seem fantastic, because they let you cover so much more ground! And only YOU can take this particular action. You get to keep this card to use again, later in the game. Because at the end of the first Era, all six of the Explore Cards get shuffled again. Only this time, you add an Era II Card in, too. When the Era I Card gets drawn in later rounds, each player gets to activate their Investigation Card again. And when the Era II Card gets drawn, each player receives another two Investigation Cards; once again, keeping one.
There’s an Era III Card for the third round, too. In Era III you’ll get to play your Era I Card and your Era II Card again, plus pick another Investigation Card. In the fourth and final Era, you don’t gain another Investigation Card. Instead, another Explore Card does get added, but it’s a I/II/III Card. When drawn, it allows you to pick which of your three Investigation Cards you want to play. It means in Era IV, you’ll get to play each of your Investigation Cards, and one of them twice!
These Investigation Cards are amazing for not only providing mega-boosted turns. They also inject a true modular layer of discoverability for all players. There’s always the potential with simultaneous ‘bingo’-style games that players can copy one another. That goes out the window as soon as players gain unique Investigation Cards. You explore in radical, polarised ways, and that’s crucial for competitive and compelling gameplay.
So… How Do I Score?
The aim of The Guild of Merchant Explorers is to earn the most coins over four rounds. Some hex spaces provide a stated quota of coins for exploring them. When you cover the space, take the stated number of coins from the supply.
The map’s split into a series of regions – a region being a contiguous section of the map consisting of the same terrain type. Once you’ve Explored an entire region within one Era, you place a Village within that region. You remove one of the Explore cubes (on a blank, non-coin hex) and replace it with a Village token. When you do this, you earn coins in accordance to the Era you achieved this. So in Era I, you earn 1 coin for each Village you place. In Era II, you earn 2 coins for placing a Village, and so on.
A Little Bit Of Brass
At the end of the Era, players return all their Explorer cubes from their map back to their supply. You leave only the Villages. In the next Era, when Explore Cards get revealed, you place Explore cubes on your map, adjacent to either your capital, or a Village. Did designers Dunstan and Gilbert take an inkling of inspiration from Martin Wallace’s Brass with the Villages aspect? (Or even Blue Lagoon?) This reminds me of the lower-level Industry Tiles in Brass getting removed after the Canal Phase.
This is a brilliant rule. If you’re not careful, it’s not just points you’re missing out on if you fail to complete a region before the Era’s finished. It’s also a vital launch-pad for exploration for the start of the next Era. You can’t afford to start each Era out of your capital each time! You can re-explore the same hexes in later Eras. (And often, you have to; you can even re-explore coin spaces, earning the coins all over again!) You cannot earn the reward for completing a region a second time, though. In that regard, it’s a waste of Explorers.
There’s also four Discovery Spaces on your map, which tend to be in the four corners of Tigomé. They’re considered wild (meaning you can explore them by any terrain action). When you explore them, you place a Tower on the space. You gain coins every time you discover one of these spaces – 6 / 8 / 10 / 14 coins. So if you can Explore all four of them, that’s an impressive 38 coins!
Various Ruins sit scattered across the kingdom. Some are shipwrecks, others as spaces within desert or grassland. If you explore a Ruin, you place a Treasure Token underneath it and draw a Treasure Card. These are all beneficial bonuses, ranging from extra coins, or getting to place an extra, wild Explore cube. That’s often key to a good turn! So often you can fall one Explorer short. Other Treasure cards offer end-game scoring, thus incentivising you to Explore in certain areas or manners. You can only get goodies from a Ruin space once – you can’t ransack it a second time! You’ve already nabbed the loot!
Last of all, there are various Cities across the map. They’re waiting to gain re-connection with the wider kingdom of Tigomé. If you can link up two City spaces in the same Era, you’ve created a trade route between them. Each City has a value of 2-5. You multiply the two City’s values together and earn that many coins. The you cover up one of the Cities, meaning you can’t use it for another multiplier, later in the game. (But you can still use the other one.)
A Flip And Write – Without The Write
The scoring methods all feel positive, because often you’re picking up coins every other turn. (If not more often so, especially during the latter Eras.) The way in which you earn points for completing regions feels akin to the scoring involved with completing sections in Castles of Burgundy. One could argue that Stefan Feld is a master of ‘point salad’-style games, and Guild of Merchant Explorers also provides this. However, the simultaneous bingo nature of it and the network building has a strong a flip-and-write vibe. Only there’s no ‘write’ in this game; it’s more like flip-and-place.
Because of that, this is very much a heads-down, multiplayer solitaire experience. You are at risk of some players cheating with regards to taking coins, because you’ll never pay attention to their map. (Of course, the best way to tackle cheats is to not play with them again!) It can be tricky to keep on top of your own scoring though, especially when you achieve multiple things in the same turn.
There are public goals for players to shoot for, with rewards for completing them first. That’s often a trait seen in other roll-/flip-and-writes, such as Welcome To… and Demeter. For some gamers, they’ll see that as a negative feature. Others will revel in the fact that the solitaire game they’re playing is an enthralling one. They’ll be too busy enjoying solving their own puzzle to care.
The puzzle is, of course, trying to complete certain goals in time before the end of each Era. You can – and will – card-count, with regards to the Exploration Cards. You’ll come to know which ones remain to flip; you don’t know which order they’re in, though. So a big part of the conundrum is figuring out how best to cover as much land, given the cards still left to play. This is especially the case for cards such as the Explore Any 2 Adjacent Spaces. The flexibility involved means you can attempt to plan ahead for multiple scenarios. But don’t rely on a shuffled deck of cards coming out in the order you need!
Pastel Maps You Want To Explore
Art, as always, is subjective. Some folks might take one look at these maps and find them dull. To my mind, there is beauty in artist Gerralt Landman’s pastel tones. The maps have clear boundaries and texture between the terrains. There’s reminders for how regions/Villages and Towers score along the bottom. The drop-down view of the kingdom gave me similar vibes to seeing Dungeons & Dragons maps. This isn’t a Red Raven Games kind of set-up, though. (It’s not like Near & Far or Sleeping Gods, where there’s mini Events waiting at every set of Ruins.) You’re not going to discover what or who lies inside within the Cities, Towers or stretches of terrain. This isn’t about narrative opportunities.
Theme-wise, they might have missed a trick here. But you have to assume an expansion is on the horizon, and if Dunstan and Gilbert could inject a series of Events, then wow. This would open up Guild of Merchant Explorers to a whole new audience! As it stands, this has a powerful appeal to those who adore pattern-building games, with weak theme. I’m excited about the potential for how this can grow, though…
There’s also four different maps available (they’re all double-sided). They’re a glossy thin cardstock, with each map providing with it tweaks on gameplay. The Kazan map, for example, has volcanic regions which players cannot explore. These act as obstacles, forcing cumbersome movement and therefore smarter in-game decisions. Each map has with it six public goal cards, and you play with three each game. So in that regard, there’s a healthy dose of replayability here.
Final Thoughts On… The Guild Of Merchant Explorers
The game says to keep coins face-down throughout, and reveal your total at the end. However, I found this a little too fiddly, seeing as most of the time you’re earning 1-4 coins. The coins are all identical on their backs, which I understand is mean to create a Big Reveal at the end. Most of the time I ended up keeping my coins face-up and swapping them for smaller change most turns. Five 1s for a 5, five 10s for a 50. When you’re looking to score over 100 points in coins, you can’t be taking 100 coins over the game; that’s not practical!
The Villages and Towers look great when they start to spread out across your map. Their silhouetted presence provides a pleasant view. It’s something of a contrast to the bland Explorer cubes. Standard meeples would be too big for this scale. I also appreciate small components would become too awkward. Cubes, while not exciting, are at least practical. They’re mere pawns in the grander scheme of things. They’re clear to digest at-a-glance. But if you’re used to custom meeples, then you might feel underwhelmed with these.
You can also solo this in 30 minutes and marvel in every second of it. The solo mode is an inflate-your-ego goal, where you aim to get a high score. There’s no real AI opponent… But then, that mirrors the multiplayer game, too. It’s a way to learn the game, before you introduce it to others. Due to its short length and gratifying gameplay, it is an addictive experience, though. You’ll want to play it again and again.
Overall, there’s plenty of tasty decisions throughout, regardless of which map you play. (Avenia is, without doubt, the easier ‘beginner’ map.) The Guild of Merchant Explorers never feels overwhelming, but boy, is it one heck of a satisfying chin-stroker. You’re exploring to cover the map, rather than discovering what’s there. As it stands, I love the efficiency challenge that Guild… presents. But if it could toss in a narrative to show what we actually uncover when we visit these locations, though? That would be phenomenal.