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Subject: Quick review of Merchants of the Middle Ages rss

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Breno K.
Brazil
Brasília
Distrito Federal
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I like pick up and deliver. I like negotiation. I'm ok with auctions. I like Kramer's games (specially his older ones). So I was automatically interested in Merchants of the Middle Ages, even before the reprint was announced. A friend of mine bought it and I was able to give it a chance.

The components look great. The game is very colorful (hiding well its cube-pushing ultimate nature), the carts are made of wood, a very solid component that is bound to capture the attention of those more component-oriented. The carts are a little bit too tall, though, so sometimes they can end up blocking the view of the warehouses when they arrive on the cities: I recommend placing them off the board near the city (and the cities are all on the edges, facilitating this) when they are to be loaded. There is some language dependant elements to it (the special power cards) but a non-english-speaking group could make a translation for them and it wouldn't get much in the way of the flow of the game.

The gameplay, well, it's a mix of auction, negotiation and pick up and deliver mechanisms. You auction off special powers and (more central to the game's mechanisms) the ownership of the cart during the loading phase: basically, you choose which goods are loaded in the cart and which are not for which players. After winning the auction that decides who is the boss, all the other players negotiate with that player trying to get their goods on the cart (paying him money, giving him some of their own goods, promising future favors, etc). One curious element is that all the deals made for future action are binding: you have to do what you said you would do. That adds some certainty in a game that otherwise leaves a lot of room for the players to balance things out (as with all games with auctions and negotiations).

Most of the rest of the game is done through simultaneous action: all players can move any cart they wish the amount they picked secretly together. There's some significant potential for screwage here, since you can move the cart in a path towards a city that will pay less for your oponent's goods (and the carts can never backtrack, they must arrive at a city if they have been placed in its path). Base market price for goods is modified every turn, a bit reminiscent of El Grande's placement of the castillo cubes after the castillo scoring: each player chooses two upward movements for goods (two goods or one good twice) And it is revealed simultaneously. If a good is on the top space of the market, it goes back to the bottom space (and it is a pretty short track, only five spaces, going from 600 to 1000 in selling price, and 100-400 in purchase price). This is the most chaotic element in the game, with a lot of groupthink and doublethink in it ("Oh, if someone ups the price for red, then I'm screwed, but if nobody does it"). It's going to bother some, but I found it to be tolerable.

Scoring is done in an interesting way (I'm sure I've seen it before, but I dunno where): You pay to go up in a VP track (prices for this movement go up as the game advances, so it is best to move up earlier), and you pay to stay up in that track (and, obviously, prices for staying up rise the further up you go) so there's a simple balance of getting points earlier and having to pay more maintenance for staying up farther.

One element of the game that I kind of disliked is the courier, that gives a secret special ability (one use only) to the player that lands a cart in his space. In my game, it seemed really really powerful and, even so, the variation of utility between these secret cards was huge: they went from kind of powerful (as in, an action that saves you around 400 money) to overwhelmingly powerful. (can save you 1800 money). I guess it can add a bit of excitement to a game that seems to have a clear winner, but since a lot of the balance is up to the players, the group can just hurt that player in the negotiations for a catch-the-leader effect. I think one could house-rule this element out of the game without much difficulty, though.

The game is clearly best with 4 players, I wouldn't play it with 3 (but I'm specially picky with perfect player counts). I liked the game, but have the feeling that it can get repetitive after a few plays. If you're going to play this once every few months (which seems to be the norm within the hobby), it's ok. It seems like it does not really withstand vigorous playing (aka, 3 matches a week for two months). Since it's a game that relies so much on the players and their experience for balance (so many auctions, so much negotiation), the game suffers a bit from it, placed in a sort of awkward position. It's an ok game, one which I'm willing to play now and then, but I'm glad I didn't buy it.
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Breno K.
Brazil
Brasília
Distrito Federal
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BTW, this is after only one game. It didn't seem like the game still had much to be discovered in it, so a review seemed reasonable. There's nothing new in this game, though it seems unreasonable to ask that from an old game.
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Paulo Soledade
Portugal
Leiria
Leiria
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Played Die Handler once and really liked the game. As you say in your review it seems to rely a bit more than needed in group decisions. I don-t like very much that kind of stuff in games but considering its age I guess it's ok - a minor guilt! Still don't see the point for new games to depend so much on that factor but that's another story.
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Breno K.
Brazil
Brasília
Distrito Federal
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I have no problem with games that rely on the players. It just means the game has a lot of interaction. Any game with negotiation and/or auctions is like this, any game with multiplayer conflict too
 
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Ignatius Jopy
Indonesia
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BrenoK wrote:
Scoring is done in an interesting way (I'm sure I've seen it before, but I dunno where): You pay to go up in a VP track (prices for this movement go up as the game advances, so it is best to move up earlier), and you pay to stay up in that track (and, obviously, prices for staying up rise the further up you go) so there's a simple balance of getting points earlier and having to pay more maintenance for staying up farther.


I recall At the Gates of Loyang has similar VP track and mechanism
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Hank Meyer
United States
Greenbelt
Maryland
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My group has mixed, but generally positive feelings about MoMA...as you pointed out, the amount of entertainment one takes from the game is largely dependent on the players' own personalities and willingess to engage in negotiation, no matter how nasty. True, some nastiness is absent because of the 'all future deals/agreements are binding'...which is probably a good thing or else the game would take hours if everyone could renege on their agreements.
We prefer to play wide open, that is, as a LoadMaster, we will cheerfully accept offers of not only cash, but future shares of bonuses, offers to move a particular wagon a certain number of spaces or in a certain direction (if possible) casting a vote on a commodity price or going on a blind date with a friend's ugly sister...whatever...but no going back on the final deal. That single inflexible rule has maintained the enjoyment from this non-stop negotiation game (kind of like Traders of Genoa...wallflowers should play 'Can't Stop' or some game in which they can remain silent most of the time..)..
We also noted the overwhelming advantages that the Courier cards dole out randomly...far too much...so we basically halved all of the elements involving monetary benefits...so the Courier cards are welcome, but not likely a game breaker.
I would not play this game too late in the evening...there is too much going on for most people; this is a game better played when everyone is wide awake!
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James Moore

Washington
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Out of curiosity, what kinds of bids do you see for wagons? We came to the conclusion that there really wasn't much room for negotiation; you bid slightly below the expected value of the wagon to you (around $16-1800) and then you were done. There just wasn't a reason to let other people load on your wagon.

The only exception we found was that when two people won an auction on the same turn, we let each other load on the opposite wagon for free. You almost certainly want your rate of return to be higher than the person you're allowing to load. Load rates should be in the $800 range, and most people weren't interested in paying that. Did we miss something interesting?
 
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Hank Meyer
United States
Greenbelt
Maryland
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We barter for movement chits (I'll let you load 2X if you move a '3' chit on this wagon on your next turn or give me $100 per X plus 1/3 of any bonus received once X arrives in city Y)
Or...'I'll let you load 2X on my wagon in exchange for a positive vote on commodity Z once the wagon arrives in city Y, along with $100 per X...or whatever...you can let your imagination create all sorts of possibilities besides mere cash.
 
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Daniel Corban
Canada
Newmarket
Ontario
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banshee10 wrote:
Out of curiosity, what kinds of bids do you see for wagons? We came to the conclusion that there really wasn't much room for negotiation; you bid slightly below the expected value of the wagon to you (around $16-1800) and then you were done. There just wasn't a reason to let other people load on your wagon.

The only exception we found was that when two people won an auction on the same turn, we let each other load on the opposite wagon for free. You almost certainly want your rate of return to be higher than the person you're allowing to load. Load rates should be in the $800 range, and most people weren't interested in paying that. Did we miss something interesting?


I've played this game twice. In the first game, it quickly became clear that there was no way to determine the final selling price, so the load cost per good settled on 200 per good and never budged. Boring.

The second time, I saw that goods were actually worth much more than that, so as loadmaster, I demanded more. My players this time usually didn't even want to pay 200 per good, so my wagons went empty. Boring.

I did see the benefit of having other players on "my" wagon, to entice them to spend movement on it in the proper direction. I allowed certain people to load for a low price due to this. I also discussed the cooperative movement. That made it mildly interesting, but the ultimate chaos of the price adjustment still makes negotiating virtually pointless.

This is not a negotiation game. You simply cannot predict the final price of goods, which makes evaluation overly opaque. It is a logistical game, and it even fails at that, since you cannot predict where the goods will be delivered.

I agree that the Courier should not exist. Despite the cards allowing its movement, it is essentially arbitrary who gets to collect a card. It distracts from the game and upsets the balance.

I also feel that the other cards should not exist, either. They take up far too much time in an already slow and plodding game, with little effect, and very little ability to evaluate their worth, even with the "stars".
 
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Lucas Smith
Germany
near Munich
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omodo wrote:
BrenoK wrote:
Scoring is done in an interesting way (I'm sure I've seen it before, but I dunno where): You pay to go up in a VP track (prices for this movement go up as the game advances, so it is best to move up earlier), and you pay to stay up in that track (and, obviously, prices for staying up rise the further up you go) so there's a simple balance of getting points earlier and having to pay more maintenance for staying up farther.


I recall At the Gates of Loyang has similar VP track and mechanism

Yes, with the big difference that in "At the Gates of Loyang" you don't have to pay anything to stay up.
 
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