Who is Merv? I’ll Do You One Better: WHAT is Merv?
Sometimes my ignorance is shocking. When I first heard of a new game called Merv, I was confused. Was this a game about the 70’s US talk show host Merv Griffin? Or perhaps about the previous Bank of England governor Mervyn King. And then I got myself some education. Apparently, Merv was at one time the largest city in the world, with 1 million inhabitants in the 13th Century in what is now Turkmenistan. Fascinating. And the game is about trading on the Silk Road. Hey, where are you going? Get back here and sit down. This one is special, this is Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road.
I Like to Merv it, Merv it
I’ll spoil this review upfront by saying I think Merv is a bit of a masterpiece. First, let’s get the art and illustration out of the way. Artist Ian O’Toole and Osprey games did a beautiful job on this. The box art is striking and the game board is the most attractive I own. Its a joy to look at, screaming with colour, brilliant graphic design, awesome wooden walls and crystal clear iconography. And this clarity of illustration is critical because there is A LOT going on in Merv.
This is Your Brain on Merv
I can imagine Morpheus from the Matrix saying: “What if I told you there was a game that took about 90 minutes, where you only had 12 turns, made you feel like your soul had been punched out of your body by the Ancient One, yet was astoundingly fun?” Merv’s BGG complexity rating is about 3.5 which is on the high end: a solid mid to heavy Euro.
My first game had me regularly mopping my brow trying to hold the interlocking pieces in my head. But I saw something special glimmering on the horizon. My second game was glorious as it all suddenly made sense. I felt like Ant-man doing parkour inside a swiss watch. Despite the depth and complexity, the game flows so smoothly and there’s barely any analysis paralysis. This game is very strategic and there is virtually no hidden information (apart from some unrevealed cards in the Caravansary).
A Bird’s Eye View
The Merv board is composed of 6 action areas: the Mosque, Marketplace, Caravansary, Palace, Walls and the Influence track. These surround the city of Merv itself: a 5x5 grid of tiles that are randomly placed during set-up, providing high variability and replay value. Over the course of the game, your master meeple will travel around the city perimeter 3 times signifying 3 years in the history of Merv. Each time you complete a circuit/year there will be a scoring round. The worst part though is the Mongol invasion.
Genghis Kahn was a Jerk
I think the main reason I had never heard of the real-life city of Merv is that it no longer exists. As explained in the manual, in 1221 the Mongols wiped out the population and destroyed the dam that supplied freshwater leading to the complete abandonment of the city by the 19th century. In the game, this is represented by two attack waves at the end of the 2nd and 3rd years. The attacks come from North, South, East and West. Any buildings unprotected by soldiers or walls built during the round have only one last hope: ransom. If you can afford to pay the ransom, your building will survive the wave. Any buildings that cannot be saved in this way are wiped from the board.
The Core Mechanism
Each round all players start together at the same corner of the city. On your turn, you will choose one of the 5 spots along the edge of the city perimeter. When you land on a space on the perimeter, you choose to activate a tile in the row/column you are facing. The tiles vary in two key ways: the colour of the resource they produce and the action type: palace, marketplace etc.
When you activate a free tile, you will place down one of your buildings, claiming ownership of the tile. You then get resources based on all the tiles in that row with your buildings on it. This is where you build your engine in Merv. You then do the action of the tile you activated. You can also activate your opponents’ buildings, but doing so gives them some of the resources too. In general, its something you want to avoid if possible.
The city grid mechanism is vaguely reminiscent of the classic 2-player game Targi. You are trying to construct multiple buildings in the same row or column so that when you activate a building, you hit a kind of Silk Road piñata and resources come pouring out. But your opponent will try to block you at every turn. Each round ends with some important jockeying for player order at the next corner, using camel meeples earnt throughout the game to queue jump if you need to.
I don’t have space here to go into all the details of how to play Merv, so I’ll limit myself to a fairly superficial description. Merv can be viewed as a game of multiple interlocking feedback loops. To do well, you’ll want some combination of scrolls, spices, goods, mosque progress and contracts. Acquiring many of these increases your ability to acquire the others. There’s a kind of giant Venn diagram that links these via two more ethereal substances: influence and favour. Influence is gained by building walls and placing soldiers. Increasing influence allows you to fulfil contracts and get more spices, each of which in turn gives you more bonuses to help you gain … you get the idea. The other side of this is favour.
Be Friends with the Sultan, They Said. It’ll Be Fun, They Said.
You may have lots of spices, scrolls or goods. But they’re not worth much if you don’t have the ear of the Palace. To gain victory points from these items you first need to invest in courtiers at the Palace. And then to cash in those points you need to spend favour. And opportunities to gain favour are scattered throughout the game and you will be constantly scrabbling for it. The idea of being in control of what you score for and simultaneously having to pay for it is fascinating. There are gears within gears. Poke this button, push on this lever and strategies start to pop out the other end.
At first, it's overwhelming, but when you get the hang of it, the long dry traipse along the Silk Road becomes more like surfing across the desert on a spice-laden hoverboard. OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic. But its darned good.
A Day in the Life of Merv
Here is an example thought process on a turn: I need to start collecting a range of spices for end game scoring. To do this I need multiple identical cube colours and get my influence score up. I could build some walls to give me influence. I’ll get even more influence if I protect my opponent’s buildings. But I’ve only got different colour resources...Aha, I’ll use them at the Library to get some scrolls. That will open up some powers I can use to place soldiers down. Those can protect my own buildings from the Mongol horde, and give me the influence I need to complete those contracts for victory points AND give me the extra favour at the palace that will let me score my scrolls at end of the year. Phew.
Time for a sip of tea...maybe with some whiskey in it. That’s why there are only 12 turns in the game.
As you can tell from the above, this is no gateway game. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know if this game is for you. This is currently my favourite medium-heavy Euro. I’ve heard some complain that the theme is weak due to the unnamed coloured cube resources. Ian O’Toole addressed this in some forums explaining that originally everything had a thematic name. Given the amount going on in the game, they decided that clarity of play experience trumped thematic representation. And I fully agree with this decision. Besides, you get to put actual 3D wooden walls around the city!
The two-player version of the game works really well with a 3rd master meeple called the High Courtier. Note, this isn’t your standard ‘dummy’ player. Instead, the first player gets to decide which row/column the Courtier will activate, and the second player decides which tile in the row/column he will activate. This is a far more interesting blocking piece controlled partially by each player. There is also a rather in-depth solo mode with its own automa style deck of cards. I haven’t tried this yet, but opinions on it are mixed. Check out the BGG forums for more on that.
The designer Fabio Lopiano has several well-received games under his belt including Calimala and Ragusa. But I think Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road is by far his best yet and I await his next cardboard creation with eager anticipation.