When I first heard the concept behind The Guild of Merchant Explorers, I was expecting it to be a flip and write. Laminated personal maps comprising little hexes. Common scoring objectives. Territory building. Moving in Patterns. Networking. Expandable player counts (with extra sets)……the foundations of many a pen and paper game. And then when I saw initial photographs, my presumptions did not falter. Awesome!! I thought, because I love roll/flip and writes.
But I quickly noticed that there was a distinct lack of pens. No markers. No felt tips. Not even a stubby, rubber chewed pencil. Then I spotted the wooden cubes. And that’s when the penny dropped and the excitement amped up even more!
The Guild of Merchant Explorers by Matthew Dunstan (also of Elysium, the most excellent Next Station London, and others) and Brett Gilbert (Elysium, Mandala, Great Plains, and more) is a fast playing, super smooth, elegant, exploratory, territory building and trade networking game for 1-4 players.
Strictly speaking, you are tasked with re-mapping forgotten regions over 4 rounds (“Eras”) at the behest of the Queen. There are 5 maps included in the game, each with their own rule tweaks and layouts.
At its most basic, your path to victory is to collect the most money by the end of the game. And you earn your coins by placing your explorers in the most optimal locations each turn to build villages, unlock special moves, gain immediate cash bonuses, and access valuable sunken treasures.
In classic multi-solitaire bingo style play, the deck of Explore terrain cards are flipped over one at a time and placed on the main board. After each card is revealed, everybody simultaneously places their explorer cubes on matching hexes of their choice on their own map.
Some territory types (like the sea and the mountains), require your explorer cubes to be placed adjacently from a single village or your central city or an existing sea cube. Others (like grassland and deserts) may be split up and sprinkled around the map so long as they are each adjacent to a village, your central starting city, or an existing explorer cube.
Spaces with coins will reward you instantly, as will lost ruins spaces (treasure chest bonus) and discovery spots – building towers is a great way to earn coins as is establishing new villages. Their value increases each Era and they give you new spots from which to begin your explorations!
What’s Going On Era?
Whenever an Era card is revealed in the Explore deck, you’ll get to pick from two randomly shuffled unique Investigate powers. These remain with you for the duration of the game and are each activated whenever the matching Era card is revealed in the Explore deck.
There are also scoring objectives that reward 10 coins for being first and then 5 if you still achieve it after another player pips you to the post.
At the end of each Era, all your cubes get removed from your board. But don’t remove the villages. As mentioned above, these form new spots from which you can set off exploring in subsequent Eras!
Like swimming in a sea of warm yoghurt, this game feels silky smooth and intensely satisfying. It’s a relaxing dip that feels good. And that sensation is there whether you’re exploring alone or with other players. I say with rather than against because, although it is a competitive game, the challenge to do well feels personal.
What other players do or do not do doesn’t really feature in my own strategy. It’s not an interactive game in that sense. I can’t mess with their routes or steal their bonuses. And I’m always striving to achieve all the scoring objectives as soon as possible. Similarly, I want to connect trade routes, find treasures, and construct as many villages and towers as my own placement decisions permit. My opponents’ choices are only really relevant in the end-game totting up phase when the profits of their own decisions are counted and compared to mine. Until then, the challenge in The Guild of Merchant Explorers is going on in my own head.
Seeing your network spread out across your map at the end of an Era feels like an achievement. And as the villages pop up across the hexes, your options simultaneously increase and become more limited. Where you can explore from expands from Era to Era. As such, you can reach further flung lands and the goodies to be found there. But, as your board fills up and spaces become blocked, what you can do also becomes more of a compromise.
And compromise is key in this game. With only 5 basic terrain moves in the Explore deck, you’ll need to make choices. Build a village to secure a scoring objective now? Build a tower to gain more points but stunt options for exploration? But because you know which cards have gone before, you can begin to plan ahead. This doesn’t mean outcomes are guaranteed, of course. Unless you are flipping the final card in a given Era, the order of the moves will be subject to lady luck. And for once, being at the mercy of the draw is great. By knowing what will come up but not when, your game plan will be kept fresh and flexible. What you target on a turn will twist like a sailboat catching a strong breeze. Not far, but sufficiently to make you rethink the next few turns potentially.
Plus with about eleventy billion special Investigate cards, every round is going to throw up a mixture of old and new placement opportunities. All of which you are going to need in order to score optimally! And the cards we have played so far seem evenly matched in terms of the special powers they give. I certainly factor them into my strategy as soon as I receive my first one as I know I am going to be able to use them in each Era.
But with so many ways to score points, your strategy can bend like a mast flexing in a stormy sea. I’m usually wary of games that are too generous in their point providing possibilities. It can sometimes make for a lack of tension or purposeful decision making.
But in The Guild of Merchant Explorers I am pleased to report that is not the case. Knowing you can get points in all sorts of ways presents its own form of delicious dilemma – have you chosen the route that will lead to the most points? Could you have squeezed more out if you had done something differently? Plotter’s remorse can quickly consume if you’re not careful!
I think the designers have done a great job with the styling and theme. The oldy-worldy muted maps feel like something you really could find curled up on an old ship. And their different layouts and added challenges amp up the replayability and challenge effectively. Plotting routes and making connections on the map feels complimentary to the setting.
The components are also really nice – the icons and text on the cards are clear and everything works well together. Okay, so the coins aren’t the best – their value is only shown on one side in an attempt to keep players’ growing riches secret. And with some much coin earning, finding the right values can be fiddly. But I’m honestly not interested in what others are doing in this game from Era to Era. I just want to make my map the best I can based on the decisions I make. I don’t really care how much money others are making….well, until the very end, that is!
I did wonder whether taking the cubes off at the end of each Era would be a fiddly job. But this isn’t RISK. There are never that many on the board at once. And being able to refresh my player space whilst simultaneously benefitting from what I have achieved previously gives a real sense of potential development.
I should mention there is also a specific BYOS solo mode. And this is great because the only difference in game play is that you must satisfy all 3 scoring objectives by game-end or else you lose. The race to complete them becomes a precondition to victory and that really helps to keep my mind focussed. The designers have achieved minimal rule re-learning for a really excellent single player gaming experience.