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Subject: Merlin - Has Feld lost his magic? rss

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Carlos Brito
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A picture of one of my Merlin games - I don't know about you, but I found the game very very beautiful

Merlin is a game where Feld (now for the first time working with Michael Rieneck as co-autor) returns to his usual almost-abstract-point-salad-game self after the not-so-warm reception to his previous game, Oracle of Delphi. Merlin was born under a strange star, with a kickstarter campaign somewhat polemic and retail distribution to most of countries in the world still being a cloudy question. As I write this review I believe the owners of Merlin are the kickstarter backers and people who bought the game where Queen Games allowed retail copies to go to the shops, like France.

I played the game 4 times so far. 3 times with 3 people and one time with 4. I only have the 1st Queenie expansion (I received an e-mail from Queen Games saying the others were already shipped but I still haven't received them) and played all games with it.

As this review points out some negative aspects of the game and can be seen as a negative review, what is always potentially troublesome with the fans of the game, I apologize in advance if my opinion is somewhat hurtful for anyone. But please have in mind that my aim is just to put my own subjective opinion about the game - it's not an absolute truth at all - and everyone is more than welcome to disagree.


Short Description of Gameplay


Merlin is a mix of rondel game with a dice game with many area control elements. The game is played in 6 rounds.

Basic mechanics - The rondel, the dice and the environs board

The basic mechanics is simple. Each player controls a knight, that is a token that is placed on a random start space in a rondel. You move your knight in clockwise direction in the rondel and so your knight ends in an action space, and then you execute its action. There is an additional white token on the rondel that can be moved by any player - the Merlin. The Merlin can be moved either in clockwise or counterclockwise direction.

Different from the Mac Gerdts rondel games I know - where you can move freely your token choosing one of the next spaces that are close to it (a certain range being the only limitation), in Merlin you are not totally free to move your token. Its movement is ruled by dice. At the beginning of a round each player rolls 4 dice. 3 are of his/her own colour and the 4th one is white. The players take turns choosing one die and moving either their knights or the Merlin a number of spaces given by the number on the used die. The white die must be used with the Merlin, the other 3 dice with your knight. So each player has 4 turns in a round.

The rondel is large (it has 24 action spaces) and I will not discuss all available action spaces. Many of them give points by things you have. I'll comment only what I consider the 2 "main spaces" in the game.


The board showing the detail of the rondel and its action spaces

Principality action - There are 6 spaces like those, one associated with a specific colour. When you reach this space, you must choose one of your 4 henchmen, that are wooden tokens that initially rest on your individual board, and put the choosen henchman in its correspondent space on the principality. Each henchman gives you a different element in the colour of the principality. You can get either (1) a cube, (2) a flag , (3) a shield or (4) you can put an influence marker of your colour in the principality. We'll see below how to use those elements. Some of the other action spaces in the rondel give you alternative indirect ways to use principality actions, such as moving a henchman to an adjacent principality or moving a henchman to a principality where you have influence markers.


Merlin board showing the detail of the orange principality. The green knight is on the action space that triggers an action in that principality. So green moved a green henchman - in this case the lady-in-waiting - to her proper place and so put a green influence token on its place in the center of the principality. Above the influence token there is a stack of orange flags, at its right side there's a stack of orange shields and at its left side orange cubes can be seen. There should be a sticker on the henchman token with the image of the lady-in-waiting but my copy came without the stickers. I already wrote to Queen Games in November but so far I have no answer and no stickers. Directly on the left of the green knight the action space to build a manor can be seen.

Build a manor in the environs - the environs are a separate modular boardgame assembled using hexagonal tiles in 3 colours. The result is a random hexagon grid divided in coloured groups of hexes that form regions of hexes in the same colour. With this action you spend a cube (that's the purpose of the cube gained in the principality) and build a manor in your colour in an hex. Though the main function of the manors are to give you points during the scoring (see below), certain hexes give you a one-time bonus. In the base game most of the hexes give you nothing, but certain hexes give you either a shield or a flag of any colour or the right to put an influence marker in any principality. The Queenie 1 mini-expansion replaces the hexes that give you nothing with new ones that always give you something. There are many kinds of bonuses. This is a nice addition to the base game.


The modular environs board assembled for a 4-players-game. You can see that in the lower 3rd hex from left to right the green player has already built a manor. This board contains the hexes of the mini-expansion with several special bonuses. In the base game the only hexes with bonuses are the ones with a the image of a tower. All others are "empty" hexes like the 3 isolated hexes that can be seen at the left of the board

Mission cards

Each player may also fulfill a single mission during his/her turn. A mission is a card (you begin the game with 4 cards in your hand) that requires you to own certain things (that you don't need to spend anything, you merely have to own the items required). Those things are flags/shields/cubes of specific colour or henchmen in certain positions on the board, i.e., things that you get activating principality actions. When you fulfill a mission you discard the card and draw a new one. This new card can be one of the 3 open missions that are open on the table (there are always 3 open mission on the table, when you take one you reveal another from the stack to take its place) or a closed random one. Fulfilled missions give you VPs (between 1 and 3 VPs). You can forfeit the VPs given by a fulfilled mission to gain certain powers that will remain valid to you for the rest of the game. Those powers are marked by each player in an individual separate board. You can activate a maximum total of 4 powers in the game. After this you can only score VPs for your missions.

Each mission card has the drawing of a henchman. The powers given by the mission are associated with that henchman. Level 1 missions give you the power to score 1 additional VP whenever you fulfill another mission with the same henchman drawing. Level 2 missions give you the power to move that particular henchman to any other principality on the board instead of the one where your knight is when you resolve the principality action. Level 3 missions give you strong singular powers (depending on the henchman drawing) that can be activated only once in every 2 rounds. All those powers are very nice and it's a sound decision to use your initial mission to acquire as much powers as you can.


Picture showing 4 random mission cards. On the upper right side you can see how many VPs are earned by fulfilling the card condition. On the upper left side the condition to fulfill. The 3 VP card, for example, requires that you have a blue flag, a violet cube and an orange shield. The 1 VP card requires that you have 2 specific henchmen on the board - the lady-in-waiting and the builder. On the lower left side the image of the henchman associated with the card can be seen.

Scoring

There is a scoring phase at the end of rounds 2, 4 and 6. Here are the elements that you score.

1) Traitors - At the beginning of the game you draw 3 random traitors. Traitors are tiles that come in the 6 colours of the principalities. You lose 3 VPs for each traitor that you don't repel. You repel a traitor if you have a shield in the colour of the traitor (and that's the main function of the shields). When you repel a traitor using a shield you also discard the shield used. At the end of the scoring phase in rounds 2 and 4, you discard all traitors, repelled or not, and draw 3 new ones. So you have to deal with a total of 9 traitors along the whole game.

2) Excalibur - you gain the excalibur token in a specific action space in the rondel. When you gain excalibur you can get rid of a traitor at once. The player who keeps excalibur at the time of the scoring phase, gains 3 VP.

3) Henchmen - you gain 1 VP for each henchman that is placed on the main board.

4) Manors in the environs - You score each region in the environs. Each region gives a number of VPs that is equal to the number of hexes in the region. The player who has most manors in each region scores those VPs.

5) Influence markers in the principalities - You score each of the 6 principalities. Each principality grants VPs equal to the total number of influence markers in the principality. Those VPs are gained by the player who has more influence markers in the principality. At the end of scoring all players must remove all influence markers but one in each principality.


Individual game board for the green player showing the place to put the 3 knight dice, the merlin die, and spaces for cubes, apples and influence tokens on the lower left side. At the left in the middle there is space to store the 4 henchmen tokens. At the top there is space to store the 6 kinds of shields. Above the shields there is space to put the traitors. You can see that the player of the picture has 3 traitors - one black, one blue and one orange. Below the main individual board there is a secondary individual board where the players put tokens to register the powers they may acquire by forfeiting the VPs of a fulfilled mission. At the left side of the individual boards a white Merlin staff can be seen.


Mitigating luck: Flags, apples and Merlin staffs

A flag gives you a power that you can use anytime in your turn discarding the flag. 4 of the 6 the flags allow you to perform an alternative movement/action with your knight, different from the one allowed by the used die and are the main elements of luck mitigation in the game. Here are the powers of the 6 flags:

a) you can move your knight in counterclockwise direction

b) you can turn a die to its opposite face (a 2 to a 5, for example)

c) you can use the action space where the knight of another player is instead of yours

d) you can move your knight to the opposite side of the rondel

e) you can fulfill 2 missions in the same rounds and score 2 additional VPs

f) you can repel all traitors of a single colour

In addition to the flags, the apples are another element that helps to mitigate luck in the dice roll. Each player begins the game with an apple token. If you discard an apple token in your turn you can change the face of a die to any other face. Each unused apple gives you 1 VP at the end of the game. Apples are very powerful but new apples are hard to get. There is a single place in the whole large rondel where you can get one (1 place in 24). The Queenie 1 expansion for the environ tiles adds some hexes that give you an apple as a bonus.

Another minor element of the game are the Merlin staffs. Each player begins the game with 3 of them. In your turn, you can discard one of them while using the Merlin die, to perform the die action twice. Unused Merlin staffs grant you 2 VPs at the end of the game. New staffs are granted as a bonus in certain hexes in the environs for the Queenie 1 mini-expansion.

My opinion

Components

One of the positive points of the game are the components. The components are of very satisfatory quality. Each colour in the shields and flags are associated with beautifiul shield of arms. The cards are nice. The board is very beautiful in my opinion.

A negative point that affects my copy in particular is that to identify your different henchmen you have to fix stickers on the wooden tokens. In my copy the stickers were missing. I wrote to Queen Games. Queen's customer service is now a web page where you fill a form and after that receive an automatic e-mail merely acknowledging that you filled the form. A month after I did that I received no other e-mail and so far I have no stickers. Mail service to Brazil is slow, it's too early to complain, I presume I'll receive the stickers eventually, but it would have been nice if at least I could have gotten an e-mail saying that my request had been granted and that the stickers had been sent.

Duration

It's not a long game, but it's not a short one either, a game taking more or less 2 hours with 4 players. In the first turn of every round you have to think a bit because you have to decide what is the best order to use your 4 dice plus any flags you might eventually have, so you have to simulate mentally the results of a few order combinations. It can take a minute or two. After that your turns usually run quickly.

Replay value

The game has so many random elements, the cards, the dice, the traitors, the environs modular board, that each game can have a very different feel, so though it's hard to get with so few games, I presume the game has a high replay value.

Theme

As it's usual with many Stefan Feld games, the game is very abstract. Like in Trajan, Notre Dame, Castles of Burgundy, etc, the theme is a mere excuse and there is no clear link between the "official" theme and gameplay/mechanics. Not that it bothers much Feld's fans that are already aware of the designer's style.

Complexity

Although the game has many different elements (many roundel spaces, many different powers you can get with your missions, many bonus for the environ hexes - at least with the mini expansion, many different effects for the flags), the basic mechanics is very simple and any complexity in the rules lies with details linked to those secondary elements.

Strategically the game is also simple as I'll discuss in the next topic. So I classify the game as a light-to-medium game.

Interaction

The game has a good degree of interaction. First 2 out of 3 of the main scoring elements of the game involve an area control mechanism, what always implies much interation. Second, as all players can move the Merlin token, the movement of the Merlin token done by one player has a strong direct impact on what the others will do with their white dice. Third, when you move your henchman to a space occupied by another player henchman you displace that henchman, that is returned to its owner individual board, and, as we have seen, henchmen on the main board score points.

It's important to point that out because many Feld games are accused of having almost no interaction and here this is not the case.

Strategy and Luck

The 3 main ways to score points in the game are influence markers in the principalities, manor in the environs and mission cards. The only strategic decision in the game is if you'll try to invest more or less in one of those elements - and then pray to the dice gods that they help you to follow your plan. I have not played enough times to determine if one way is better than the other. I suspect they may be equivalent but it's hard to find out anyway because the dice will force your hand in one direction or another. You'll also have to keep an eye on your traitors and use part of your actions to repel them, because they give you many negative points and you cannot neglect them. The flag that allows you to repel all traitors of the same color is particularly useful if you get more than one traitor in the same color. There's also a special level 3 power given by a mission card that allows you to eliminate a traitor every 2 rounds, that's also very useful if you manage to get it before the first scoring.

Of those 3 scoring elements, 2 are area control elements. The large regions in the environs seem to me particularly compelling because you can get many points with a single "build a manor" action and still get the extra bonus when you build the manor. However the other players will seldom allow you to take undisputed control of a single large region. Large regions naturally will attract competition. Most of hexes give no bonus in the base game and the Queenie mini-expansion changes this. So either in the base game the manors were a weaker path to victory than the others, or it is stronger than the others when playing with the expansion. This in itself seems to mean that either the base game or the expansion has an ill-balance issue, what is a problem. I suspect the first option is true, what would force everyone to get the expansion.

The influence markers in the principalities initially are interesting because there are many action spaces that allow you to get a principality action where you have influence markers, what gives you more flexibility with the dice. As more players put influence markers in the principalities, the more valuable the control of the principality becomes, what may lead to very hot disputes for majority. The setback here is 1) if you lose the dispute you score nothing and all your effort is wasted and that 2) all your influence markers but one in each principality will be removed after each scoring, partially undoing what you have done - what is no problem in the final 2 rounds. This way to score points is particularly important in the last scoring when many influence markers are already on the board, making the control of the principalities more valuable. As it's one of the main methods to score points I find the power (acquired by mission cards) to use your henchman to put influence markers in any principality particularly useful. This way you can easily and surgically insert an influence marker to gain control of a particularly valuable principality.

Before using your actions to try to gain control of a principality/region in the environs you have to keep an eye on other player's dice to see if other players may take the control from you to prevent your actions to be wasted and giving points to others, especially in the rounds that precede the scoring.

Luck in the dice

You begin the round with 3 dice in your colour. If you don't have flags or apples to change them - what's normally the case - you merely have to decide the order in which you'll use those dice. Only six combinations are possible. Not a very high level of meaningful strategic decision. And the final position for your knight is 100% predermined by the dice roll, since in the end it will move in clockwise direction a number of spaces that is the total of your 3 dice. So for your 3rd die in most of the cases there's no decision at all to be made, you merely have to decide 2 intermediary steps for your knight's path. It's very common that you find that your knight will be forced to stop in more or less useless action spaces. Many of those exist, especially at the beginning of the game, because most of the game runs around executing the principality/build a manor actions. There are 6 direct spaces of the 1st kind and 3 of the second in 24 action spaces. So, it's not a game for deep strategic planning. It's a mostly tactical game where you react to get the best of your dice roll, but has not many options to choose in most of the cases, since the elements to mitigate luck are rare and often not all-powerful.

Other Feld games that have dice have elements that mitigate luck, like workers in Castles of Burgundy. Here we have the flags and the apples. However apples are very very hard to get. Flags are a bit more easy to get, but not that much. Basically, unless you need that flag to fulfill a mission, you sacrifice exactly an action to get exactly one flag, that has the potential to save you another action later. The sad thing is that, though the flags give you more options to play, they do very specific things that may not help you much in the specific situation where you are. It can also happen that the flags can adjust the result of a single bad die, but then due to the use of the flag the remaining dice become bad die too. It's not rare that you end the game with unused flags.

If the movement of the knights is mostly independant of what the others do, the white die requires a bit more of attention on the part of the players. You have to look at the white dice of the other players to figure out what they'll do with their white dice and choose the best moment in the round to use yours, either to disrupt a powerful action of another player or wait for another player to put Merlin in a position when the use of your white die will become more effective . Besides, as you can move Merlin in both directions, here you have more flexibility and the chance to waste your white die in a weak action is very much reduced. Besides, you have always to consider the best moments to use your Merlin staffs. So the decision related to the use of the white die is much more meaningful.

Another thing that makes this game worse when compared to some other dice games designed by Feld is that here you don't use many dice along the game. Disregarding the white die that usually gives you something useful, you play 3x6 = 18 dice in the whole game. Much less than in Oracle of Delphi and the 50 dice in Castles of Burgundy. With less dice actions in the game, wasting one can be much more damaging.

Luck in the missions

As mentioned before, missions are one of the main sources of VP in the game. What the missions require from you are elements more or less random. If you can fulfill more than one mission with the same elements that's nice, so it's highly desirable to combo missions - if you manage to do that, because when you fulfill a mission you only has 3 open cards to choose a new mission. Not much of choice. Besides, you have no choice at all for your initial hand of missions, that is totally random. Another desirable combo is to get a mission card that requires shields that you already need to repel a traitor you have. Missions that require flags are also very nice, because you can use the flag to make something useful after you fulfill the mission. But the chance to get combos like those is almost purely governed by luck. Also you have to get missions that require elements that you already have or that are easy to get. But once again, the chance to get those is purely random.

Another element linked to luck is the solid strategic decision to activate the power that gives you an additional VP if you fulfill a mission of a particular henchman and focus on the missions with the drawing of that henchman. But then to use that power to its full extent, you have to get a steady flow of mission cards of that henchman kind and with requirements that you can fulfill easily. This is something you can be lucky enough to get or not.

Summary

Merlin is a relatively light game where Feld returned to his usual self of scoring VPs in some different ways, that many people tag pejoratively as "point salad", after trying something very different in The Oracle of Delphi. It is not a bad game, but its design is not among Feld/Rieneck's brightest moments. I agree with the opinion expressed in other threads that the game is very luck dependant in relation to the use of dice and mission cards. The inability to use your dice as you'd like in key moments in the game may be frustrating. The elegant elements that allow luck to be mitigated in other Feld dice games here are hard to get and often uneffective. Unless you put those elements to use, you merely have 6 options of dice combinations in the whole round and no choice at all for your last die action in the round. It's a game where the limitations imposed by the random elements give you a low margin for meaningful strategic decisions and it's maybe a bit too long for what it is.

Before anyone begins to accuse me of prejudice in any form, I want to say that I am myself a great fan of Feld and Rieneck games. I greatly appreciate the other 4 games I know from Feld that involve the use of dice - Bora Bora, The Castles of Burgundy, Macao and The Oracle of Delphi, and I wrote a positive review about this last one. The very title of this review - that I chose only because Merlin and magic are things closely related - implies that I find many previous games from Feld to be magic.
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Andrew Shegda
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I blame Queen games.
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baboon baboonov
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Admittedly haven't played the game, the the expansion sounds like it detracts and unbalances the whole game.
Everything would seem to become easier and more abundant; from my experiance - all queenie modules are almost always unbalanced.

Maybe try it without?

Also, you didn't play it as a 2 player game (which appears superior to me )
 
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Carmel Jones
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baboonov wrote:
Admittedly haven't played the game, the the expansion sounds like it detracts and unbalances the whole game.
Everything would seem to become easier and more abundant; from my experiance - all queenie modules are almost always unbalanced.

Maybe try it without?

Also, you didn't play it as a 2 player game (which appears superior to me )


imo the expansion makes the game a lot better.
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Andrew Young
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And if you never have, you should. These things are fun and fun is good.
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Field lost his mojo a long time ago in my opinion. The point salad games are ruinous and boring.
 
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Wil
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babydog wrote:
imo the expansion makes the game a lot better.


I'm with you 100%.

You ultimately have a chance at getting more stuff, and with more stuff, you have additional options and ways to choose your own path, as well as better manage the luck aspects.

I personally always play with the included advanced board, and the Queenie expansion. I'd be surprised to find out that both of these expansions/variants weren't the original intention of the game, and ended up getting split out by the publisher.

Fun game and shelf worthy to me.

FWIW: My favorite Felds are Castles of Burgundy, Notre Dame, Macao, and now Merlin.
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Carmel Jones
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Yes I have a feeling Queen probably "created" the expansions.
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Carlos Brito
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I apologize because this review was published a bit too early. I pressed the "submit" button by mistake instead of the "preview" one while I was still checking it. The main problem is with the pictures. Many were misteriously uploaded upside down and one was not uploaded at all. While the review was out for approval I was not allowed to change it and in the meantime I had to travel for the New Year holiday and now I am in a place with very limited internet connection. I'll try to correct the problems when I return home, probably tomorrow.

*Edit*
I have now corrected the problems with the pictures and changed a few things in the text too.
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Arthur Rutyna
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I've just recently played both Merlin (2 player) & Oracle of Delphi (3 player) twice each. Feld may be trying some different things, but NO, he has NOT lost his magic. Not in my view anyway. Merlin is good and Oracle of Delphi is VERY good. I'm not so keen on the Merlin Queenie expansion, but haven't played the game enough either.

Maybe I'm just a Feld fanboy, but IMHO he consistently designs GOOD+ games. I've played at least a dozen of his designs and don't think I've rated any of them below an 8/10.
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Brian Hughes
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It is good to see Feld and Rieneck trying new things and not rehashing old games. The magic of Merlin is that it takes a mechanism (Roll and Move)which is almost entirely luck based and very originally converts it into a system where luck plays a relatively low part. Over Xmas we played 2 games of Merlin and 2 of World without End (all 4-player)and thought that there was more luck/lack of control in the latter due to the event cards. Both very enjoyable and very good light-medium games with plenty to think about.
Brian
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Carlos Brito
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Neo_1 wrote:
I've just recently played both Merlin (2 player) & Oracle of Delphi (3 player) twice each. Feld may be trying some different things, but NO, he has NOT lost his magic. Not in my view anyway. Merlin is good and Oracle of Delphi is VERY good. I'm not so keen on the Merlin Queenie expansion, but haven't played the game enough either.

Maybe I'm just a Feld fanboy, but IMHO he consistently designs GOOD+ games. I've played at least a dozen of his designs and don't think I've rated any of them below an 8/10.


Please, note that I am myself a Feld fanboy. I own most of Feld games and wrote a positive review of The Oracle of Delphi. The very fact that I question if Feld might have lost his magic, implies that he had magic in first place.

However I have to admit that Merlin disappointed me. It's not a bad game, I repeat. But from Feld I would expect more.

What I realized in the games I played - and it happened to myself at some point - is that if you are lucky enough in one game you may have the illusion that you are in perfect control of the game and then it may look better and more strategic than it is. But then maybe in your next game everything goes wrong and nothing seems to work as it should be.
 
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Carlos Brito
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babydog wrote:
baboonov wrote:
Admittedly haven't played the game, the the expansion sounds like it detracts and unbalances the whole game.
Everything would seem to become easier and more abundant; from my experiance - all queenie modules are almost always unbalanced.

Maybe try it without?

Also, you didn't play it as a 2 player game (which appears superior to me )


imo the expansion makes the game a lot better.


I myself liked the expansion. The game without the expansion seems somewhat dull. But the question of balance stands. The build-a-manor action is stronger with the expansion, what makes the environs-strategy stronger. Either it is a weaker strategy than the others without the expansion or it became stronger than the others with the expansion. And balance in a game with several paths to victory is something very much important.
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Steve Duff
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My suspicion is that this is a Rieneck game, with Feld tacked on for marketing purposes, like those "Joe Schmoe and Stephen King" novels you see.
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Tiago Soares
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
My suspicion is that this is a Rieneck game, with Feld tacked on for marketing purposes, like those "Joe Schmoe and Stephen King" novels you see.


Although you see a lot of Feld in Merlin, I tend to agree with this sentence.
 
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ozzy perez
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babydog wrote:
baboonov wrote:
Admittedly haven't played the game, the the expansion sounds like it detracts and unbalances the whole game.
Everything would seem to become easier and more abundant; from my experiance - all queenie modules are almost always unbalanced.

Maybe try it without?

Also, you didn't play it as a 2 player game (which appears superior to me )


imo the expansion makes the game a lot better.


Agreed. I have mixed both the base game and queenie environ tiles together and it has yielded some cool combinations. The queenie is essential to open the option space a bit imo.
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Nelson Cox
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Both expansions feel balanced and make the game somewhat better though they are a little less interesting to me than the advanced board included in the base game. The second Queenie specifically addresses turns where you feel you have nothing useful you can do.

Many Euro games have a lot of ways you can score points. Five tribes.. Marco Polo.. Yokohama.. and many others. Multiple Paths to victory designs usually involve many ways to score points. I don't know why we started using "Point Salad" to describe many of his games that don't seem to offer particularly more ways to score than other games.

I am also not sure why Feld has become the scapegoat of all games less thematic while other Euro designers don't usually make games any more so.
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