Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

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You may not have heard of Merv as a city… but once, it was the most thriving metropolis in the world. Now Merv sits in ruins, faded away due to the destruction of its great dam after a Mongol invasion. But in Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road, 1–4 players compete during the 12th century, in the city’s heyday. You’re vying for wealth and power in this gateway city between the …
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Great For Two
Stunning Artwork
Dice Tower

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Intricate, interlocking mechanisms
  • Deeply satisfying when you start to unravel strategies
  • High replayability, variable board set-up
  • Great 2 player mode
  • Gorgeous artwork, illustration and graphic design

Might Not Like

  • Manual is very thorough and clear, but the inherent complexity of the game made it hard to fathom at first
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Description

You may not have heard of Merv as a city… but once, it was the most thriving metropolis in the world. Now Merv sits in ruins, faded away due to the destruction of its great dam after a Mongol invasion. But in Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road, 1–4 players compete during the 12th century, in the city’s heyday. You’re vying for wealth and power in this gateway city between the east and the west.

Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road is one of the latest designs from Osprey Games and Fabio Lopiano. (Sound familiar? Lopiano’s also designed other superb Euro-style games such as Calimala, and Rugusa.) Merv too, is a medium-weight Euro-style strategy game, and it’s interactive as it is pretty. Ian O’Toole’s artwork oozes class, as we’ve come to expect.

In Merv, your turn consists of moving around the city’s 5x5 grid, and picking to activate a tile along that row/column. You can construct permanent buildings in this location, acting as a game-long investments. Because later on, if you – or, fingers crossed, your opponents – trigger the row/column with your building in it, this tile pays out again!

There’s lots of things to chase. Gaining Favours helps you spend them to score points in the Palace. Placing servants in the Palace itself strengthens this! Deploying Soldiers helps you gain influence in the city, fulfil better contracts, and collect more spices. Claiming Caravansary cards aids towards set collection. Claiming scrolls in the Library provide unique boons. You can buy goods in the Marketplace. Donating goods to the Mosque provides additional boons. But, instead, you might want to build a wall around the city…

At the end of the second and third round of the game, the Mongols invade Merv! And that’s bad news if there are no walls to prevent them entering. You don’t want to lose any of your precious buildings! Will you thrive within the glorious city of Merv? Or will these invaders tear down the businesses you worked hard to create?

Player Count: 1–4 Players
Time: 90 minutes
Age: 14+

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.

Mechanism-Palooza

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

How to play merv

In the 12th century, Merv was a city of silk and splendour. Sitting between the east and the west, Merv had it all: a hubbub of markets, palaces, mosques and libraries. In its heyday, Merv was the largest city in the world. Today, it's an abandoned, dead city. It couldn't recover continuous raiding.

Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road takes place before those fateful attacks. 1-4 players compete for power and prestige within the once-glorious city. But watch out, because I've already told you how history unfolded. Is that the sharpening of swords I hear on the horizon?

Merv is a clever Euro-style strategy game by Fabio Lopiano and Osprey Games. Many of the actions dovetail with one another in marvellous manners. So: courtiers at the ready? Are your soldiers prepped to patrol the gates? Found your trading hat, and your economic eye? Let's learn how to play Merv!

What's The Aim Of Merv?

First, let's establish: how do you win? Merv is a Euro game, so you're competing to try and earn the most points over three 'years'. There are four turns in each year - so you take 12 turns, in total. Merv's beating heart is a 5x5 city grid. Fabio Lopiano's other games (Calimala and Ragusa, for example) have interactive mechanisms. Merv is no different, which results in players getting extra goodies in a passive means.

There's a multitude of ways for you to score points throughout the game. You'll also score points at the end of each year, so there's plenty of strategies to explore. But also, at the end of the second and third years, swathes of Mongols try to invade the city. Will Merv's walls hold? Or will the Mongols thwart your plans? Before we dive into the rules, let's set up the board.

Merv master shot

Setting Up The Modular Board

The main board looks complex, but don't worry; I'm here to explain everything. Shuffle the 24 Building Site tiles and place them into the 5x5 grid in a random, modular manner. Place the Camel Market tile in the centre of the grid. (Either side facing up, your choice.) Place the tan/teal/purple/orange/white resource cubes close to hand. Place the Common (blue) and Rare (brown) Goods nearby, too.

Put the Scroll chits off the board, near the library (bottom-right). Separate the Breakthrough tiles by colour type and stack them in the Library. Above it, place a single camel on the four cities surrounding Merv (Samarkand, Balkh, Rayy, and Nishapur). Reveal the top eight Caravan Cards, and sit them face-up, off the board, running along the right. Sit the remaining deck above them, in the top-right corner. Depending on a 2-/3-/4-player game, take two/three/four Camels, placing one on each of the cards furthest from the deck.

Place four Camels at the bottom of the Mosque Tracks (on the left-hand side of the board). Stack the Upgrade/Scoring Tiles in their designated spots up the Mosque Track. Beneath these Camels, put the Year Marker in the far-left of the three circles. Off the board, next to the Mosque, arrange the Contract Cards by their card backs. Stack each deck points order, face-up, highest on top. Put the 16 Wall Segments and four Gates in position along the upper section of the board.

Give each player their coloured pieces: one Master Meeple, eight regular meeples, nine Buildings, and 10 discs. Have each player place one of their discs on the start places on the score track. One on the Influence Track (at the top, above the Wall segments). Last of all, one on the Favour Track (bottom-middle of the board, between the Year Marker and the Library).

Establish a turn order. Place everyone's Master Meeples in the queue spots hugging the top-left corner of the city grid. In a two-player game, you add in a third dummy Master Meeple at the back of the queue. This third 'player doesn't score; neither can they 'win'. Rather, they're there to blocks spots. All set? You're ready to play!

What Can You Do On Your Turn?

The player whose Master Meeple sits at the front of the queue goes first. You move your Master Meeple to any one of the five Action Spot spaces along the next (clockwise) edge of the 5x5 grid. The Action Spot you pick corresponds to the column of Building Tiles beneath it.

Pick one of the Building Tiles in that column to activate (not the Camel Market, if you picked the middle). If it's a vacant Building Tile, place one of your Buildings on the tile. (Later on in the game, you can pick to activate a Building Tile that already has a Building on it - yours or an opponent's. I'll explain that soon.)

Next, gain resources according to that Building Site. Each provides a single Resource - one of either tan/teal/purple/orange. (None produce white cubes; they're wild, but there are other ways of earning them.) Then, you get to perform an action. This can be the action stated on the Building Tile you activated. There are six different Building Tile actions, spread even across the 24 tiles.

Or, you can forgo the tile's action and move one space along the Favour Track, instead. Or you can deploy a Soldier meeple on any Building Tile and gain movement along the Influence Track. If you put the Soldier's on your Building, you get one Influence. If it's an opponent's Building, you get two Influences. Don't panic - reasons why you'd pick this over taking the Building's action will arrive on swift wings, I promise!

Placed your Master Meeple in the central column? You've got access to the Camel Market. At any time during your turn, you can place one Camel into the Camel Market. Gain the reward you cover. Or, you can claim all Camels present in the market (emptying it). Camels are a handy currency, granting flexibility throughout.

Merv box and board

Turn Order And How You Can Manipulate It

Then it's the next player's turn in the queue. They place their Master Meeple on one of the (four) remaining Action Spots, and so on. Once everyone's placed their Master Meeple, you work out turn order for the next corner's queue. The player whose Master Meeple sits furthest back along this row moves their meeple first. It moves, by default, to the back of the next queue. You can manipulate turn order, though…

Spending a Camel moves your Master Meeple forward one place in the queue. The Camel sits in the queue, where you would have sat. (So in a four-player game, last place could place three Camels, thus becoming the first player.) Multiple players could do this, meaning many Camels sit on the latter slots. Placing your Master Meeple in a spot that has Camels in it? Claim those Camels for yourself.

Once There's A Few Buildings In Merv

Then the next round begins, according to this turn order. The first player moves their piece, once again picking one of the five next clockwise spots. By turn two, there's now Buildings present in the grid. Here's the interesting part. Now, you also get the resources of any other Building Tile(s) in that row/column, if it also belongs to the player whose Building Tile you activated.

This means you might opt to not claim an empty Building Tile. Instead, you might pick to activate an opponent's occupied Building Tile, because they have numerous other Buildings in that row/column, too. That way it generates you a lot of Resources! If you do this, that opponent also earns the resource on the activated Building Tile. (They also earn any upgrades they might have built on any tiles within that active row.) Money for old rope - you can't grumble at that! As the game progresses, this becomes a more and more appealing option.

You'll all take turns progressing clockwise around the city grid. At the end of the fourth turn, players have completed a 'lap' of the city. You should all now sit queued up back at the top-left corner once again. This stage is the end of the 'year'. Some mid-game scoring occurs at this point.

The first year eases you into the flow of the game. But at the end of the second year, before the scoring phase, there's an invasion - it's the Mongols! If the city isn't protected, Buildings could fall. Again, the gravity of this might not make sense right now. So first of all, let's look at the Building Tile actions you can take on your turn. Then I'll explain scoring and Invasions.

Actions You Can Take - Cards At The Caravansary

The Carvansary action lets you buy Caravan Cards. Buy as many cards as you like, but each card costs a Resource cube of the same colour. (Or white wild cubes - which goes the same for any action.) There's four different 'spices' in this deck. To begin, you can only collect a single spice type. You must progress along the Influence Track, passing thresholds, before you're able to collect a second, third and fourth type of Caravan Card.

You buy cards from the end of the row (furthest from the deck). You can claim any Caravan Card with a Camel on it, or if it's immediately after a card with a Camel on it. You can place a Camel on the next card in the queue, to then gain access to the next card. Likewise, if you pick a card with a Camel on it, you claim the Camel straight away. If you collect a matching pair of Caravan Cards, they provide an instant reward. Once you're done, slide the remaining cards along and replenish the Caravansary queue.

Why else do you want Caravan Cards? At the end of the game, you earn increasing points if you have a set (or sets) of different card types. A set of all four different cards scores 10VP, three scores 6VP, two scores 3VP and 1 scores 1VP. So you want to try and move along the Influence Track if possible. And how do you get Influence? Placing Soldiers is one way, and another is…

Merv marketplace goods

We're Gonna Build A Wall! (Calm Down, Donald)

Taking the Wall action lets you spend Resource Cubes to buy Wall Segments or a Gate. Walls cost one or two matching Resources; Gates cost three. You place Walls around the city of Merv, along an edge of the grid. Gates sit in middle (third) spaces. Once placed, a Wall/Gate doesn't move.

Next, check to see if/which two Buildings (on tiles) sit behind the Wall/Gate. If they are your own Buildings, earn one Influence per Building. If they belong to an opponent, earn two Influence per Building. Walls/Gates are important for when the Mongols invade.

Goodies Galore At The Mosque

Taking the Mosque action? Pay the Resource cube(s) stated on the Mosque Track to place (and then progress) your disc. You can move as far up the track on your turn as you can afford. You earn a reward every space you climb on this track. Camels, Favour, Soldiers, and so on. Progressing to the upper spaces on this track earn you immediate points, too. Others net you an upgrade token, which you can place on a Building Tile. These bring in white (wild) Resources, as well as the tile's stated Resource. This makes it appealing for both you and your opponents!

Study Scrolls In The Library

The Library lets you spend up to four cubes; each have to be in different colours. Each cube spent earns you a Scroll. When you earn your second/fourth/sixth/eighth Scroll, you earn a new 'Breakthrough'. These are permanent boons. Pick from the Breakthroughs remaining - they're first-come, first-served. Some are passive, such as gaining resource discounts during other actions. Some let you treat certain Resources to be wild, too. Others are immediate one-off bonuses, such as taking an action for free, or points, Favour, or Soldiers.

Why else do you want Scrolls? They're needed to complete certain Contracts. (This is a bonus action you can do at any time on your turn… if you meet the prerequisites.) Contracts require you own a quantity of Scrolls, Resources, and Goods. You pay one Resource, but you don't spend the Scrolls/Goods; you only need to own them. Contracts payout points, as well as a free Favour, or a free Soldier. You also need to progress along the Influence Track to complete bigger Contacts.

Buy Goods Around Merv At The Marketplace

The Marketplace action lets you visit the eight cities surrounding Merv. You gain common/rare Goods from here. The first time you take this action you set up a Trading Post in one of the inner cities. Place a disc in that city. If you're the first to do so, claim the Camel. Then, you can pay the corresponding Resource(s) and earn the associated common good.

On later turns you can set up other trading posts in adjacent (inner/outer) cities to earn (common/rare) Goods. Want a Good from a city, but don't have a disc on it? Place a Camel between the cities. Then pay the city's Resource cost, and earn its Good. Afterwards, place any Camels spent in the Marketplace onto the bottom-most Caravansary Cards. You'll want Goods not only to help you complete Contracts. They're also key to scoring end-of-round points if you have Courtiers in the Halls. And talking of which…

merv mosque track

Increase Your Courtisan Presence In The Palace

Taking the Palace action lets you place a meeple (as a Courtier) into one of the four Halls. Each Courtier you place costs Resources matching the Hall's colour. The first Courtier you place costs one Resource. The second Courtier you place costs two cubes, the third three, and so on. You can do this as many times as you can afford.

If you're the first to place a Courtier in any of the Halls, you gain one free movement on the Favour Track. This is important for end-of-year scoring. There's a space limit of three Courtiers per Hall… so don't delay!

Points On The Board: End-Of-Year Scoring

At the end of the fourth turn, it's time for end-of-year scoring. Check how many Courtiers you have in the Palace's Halls. You can spend Favour (move back one space on the Favour Track) to score a Courtier. You can score numerous Courtiers, providing you can spend the Favour.

  • Courtiers in the (purple) Hall of Knowledge score 1VP/Scroll you own.
  • Courtiers in the (teal) Hall of Spice score 1VP/Caravan Card you own.
  • Courtiers in the (tan) Hall of Trade score 1VP/Common/Rare Good you own.
  • Courtiers in the (orange) Hall of Faith score 1VP/spaces progressed along the Mosque Track.

Got multiple Courtiers in the same Hall, and you can afford the Favour cost for each? You can score that Hall's category again! You cannot, however, score a single Courtier more than once per year, even if you have excess Favour. Then, players also score 1VP per Building they own in Merv. You'll also score extra points if you've progressed along the Mosque Track, and unlocked extra scoring bonuses there.

The Sound Of Hooves And Raiders Approaching…

The first year of the game the calm before the storm. At the end of the eighth and twelfth round, there's an Invasion Phase. The Mongols attack Merv before you score anything for years two and three. They attack from all four sides, and each attack impacts the Building Tiles two-deep. Meaning: all 24 Building Tiles are under siege, except the central Camel Market tile. The Mongols seek to destroy (remove) Buildings. You can prevent this in a few different ways, if:

  • There is a Soldier on the Building Tile to 'defend' it.
  • A ransom gets paid. The ransom is the Resource type that tile provides (or a wild cube).
  • The tile has protection by two Walls Segments or a Gate. They act as a physical barrier.

Despite the raid occurring from all four sides of the city, Building Tiles only get attacked once. (You don't have to pay two ransoms.) Then, all Soldiers get removed from the city, back to the players' meeple supply. You also remove, of course, any attacked Buildings. Any bonus tokens remain on them, though. This makes the next year set-up fascinating. Now there might be some rather desirable Building Tiles back up for grabs…

Then you progress to the end-of-year scoring. Remember, you earn 1VP per Building you have in the city, so if you ignore the Invasion, that could prove expensive. At the end of the third year, you'll score as usual. The only other thing you score at the end is your sets of Caravan Cards. And, like any classic Euro-style strategy game: most points wins!

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Intricate, interlocking mechanisms
  • Deeply satisfying when you start to unravel strategies
  • High replayability, variable board set-up
  • Great 2 player mode
  • Gorgeous artwork, illustration and graphic design

Might not like

  • Manual is very thorough and clear, but the inherent complexity of the game made it hard to fathom at first