You’re savvy and know that you don’t make money selling products, you make money buying products for cheap in one place and selling them dearly in another. The most successful merchants are also explorers, seeking new trade routes and exotic goods. Imagine being the exclusive merchant for the next big trend. It’d be glorious! No wonder you joined The Guild of Merchant Explorers. Now the Queen is asking all Guild members to help explore the far corners of the Kingdom of Tigomé it’s time to spring into action in the fun, lightweight strategy game The Guild of Merchant Explorers.
The game has the soul of a roll-and-write but is played with high-quality components, no pen required. Published by Alderac Entertainment Group, it’s designed by Matthew Dunstan & Brett J. Gilbert. You can play solo (as I do in this review) or with up to four players, targeting ages 14+ but I would say any younger gamers with some level of sophistication will easily understand and enjoy the gameplay. In solo play, the game lasts about 20-25 minutes and is a delightful solitaire worker placement puzzle with a variety of different strategic goals. The ultimate victory is based on accumulated wealth, entirely appropriate for a game about merchants.
THE GUILD OF MERCHANT EXPLORERS COMPONENTS
While the components are all created with a modest autumn color palette, everything looks and feels great, offering a nice kinesthetic dimension to gameplay. There are four regions to explore with four copies of each map, along with a shared exploration board. Yes, each player explores the same region but on their own map, so there’s really almost no player interaction or vying for optimal locations, making the multi-player game a bit like parallel solo play with shared bonus goals.
Maps offer a hexagonal layout with four types of terrain: mountains, deserts, plains, and seas. As you can see in the below photo, some sectors offer a reward for exploring (a coin), some are city spaces with a numeric value, and there are also ruins (you can see one on the top left):
When you explore every space of a particular terrain type, you can place one of your own villages on one of the spots. Above, the placement of the two explorer cubes would mean I’d explored the entire mountainous region and allow me to place a village in either, for a small coin bonus.
The game is played across four eras, each of which involves randomly chosen exploration cards along with Investigate cards you collect as the game proceeds. Here are a couple of the Explore cards that detail what you can explore in the current round:
The leftmost is two non-contiguous grassland spaces (though any space you explore must be adjacent to a space you’ve already explored so you can’t just airlift your team to remote corners of the map. The middle lets you explore any two adjacent spaces, whether it’s a sea and a mountainous region, two grasslands, or any other combination. The third card allows you to explore up to three contiguous sea spaces in a straight line.
The board above is the Exploration Board and it tracks each era, as shown on the bottom row. Clockwise from top right are the remaining Explore cards, the Investigate cards (with the sextant on the back), the Treasure cards, then the three randomly selected Goal cards for this game. Notice also the five small Era tokens; those are only used for solo play and cause goals to be withdrawn as the game proceeds. Consequently, it’s important to try and attain goal conditions left to right before they vanish entirely. You can also see that being first to attain a goal is worth 10 coins, quite a lot for a game where 100 coins is considered a good solo score.
SOLO SETUP WITH AVENIA MAP
Including trading post tokens, coin tokens, discovery towers, and the individual player map, here’s my starting table setup:
Notice along the bottom of the map card there are two ranking sets of coin rewards. Villages are worth more coins in later eras, up to 4 coins per placed village (and remember, every time you explore all spaces of a terrain region, you earn a village). The right side are Discovery towers, the tall, skinny tokens on the left that are placed when you reach a corresponding map edge space. The first is worth 6 coins, but if you place multiple, they quickly become worth quite a bit, up to 14 points for the last Discovery tower placed.
Okay, it’s not quite ready for solo play above because I haven’t yet picked out the three goal cards out of the six that correspond to Avenia, the current map. That’s the last step, then it’s time to get started exploring and building trading routes between the cities we discover and then transform into trading posts.
Each era you shuffle in one or more era cards to the Explore deck; when that card appears, you then get to choose two Investigate cards, pick the one you think is more advantageous, and immediately perform the specified exploration. In the below, you can see that the card is greatly advantageous given our current exploration on the map:
In fact, it’s a great result because it will explore a 2-coin space (money!) and the four will completely cover a region, meaning that I can also then convert one into a village and gain a third coin as a bonus. This Investigate card is placed to the side of the map and in subsequent eras when the matching era card appears in the Explore deck, I’ll get to take this action again. These are quite important to the overall game strategy.
LATER IN THE GAME
One of the most important tasks for any merchant explorer is to create villages as far away from the starting city (the castle with the departing sailboat below) because all explorer cubes are returned to your inventory at the end of each era. Subsequent explorers can start at any of your villages, so you can see that the below is a smart strategy to ensure I can quickly further my exploration along the top of the map:
This is where connecting cities is going to prove important too. I have already explored the 3-point city on the left side, so once I place an explorer on the other 3-point city on the right, I can establish a trading route, which earns me points x points 9 coins. It also helps attain one of the Goals: Place 2 Trading Posts on Cities of Value 3 or Higher. When I attain the second trading post I could foreseeably earn 9 points for the trading post itself plus 10 more points for attaining the goal. Not too shabby.
Making that a challenge in solo mode is that each time you draw an Era card from the Explore deck after the first era, you place the matching small tokens to cover available goal spots, making them unattainable if you haven’t achieved things quickly enough. Nonetheless, you still have to attain all three goals by the end of the game for it to be considered a win. Earlier I said it’s all about coins, but in the solo game, it’s about goals and coins both.
That’s why the first spot on the first Goal card above is blocked by the “II” token. When I attained that goal, I earned 5 coins, instead of 10. The three goals were surprisingly well aligned, however, so it was early in the overall game that I also attained Discover villages on 3 different lands and Discover a village on a region of 5 spaces or larger. 25 coins across the three goals I need to achieve anyway, so not too bad at all!
Almost done with the game, here’s how the overall Avenia map, Exploration Board, and table appear:
To note in this picture are the three Investigate cards on the left side of the map, one per Era.
A few cards later, I finish up the fourth and final Era. Since it includes four bonus moves, all based on Investigate cards, there are a lot more explorers deployed than in the first era:
The tokens on the map denote cities that have become trading posts and ruins or shipwrecks that have been explored (when you explore a ruin for the first time, you earn a Treasure card). Also note the three Discovery towers I have placed, for a total of 24 coins (6 + 8 + 10). In fact, my final coin count is pretty solid:
Count that all up and you’ll see that, including the Urn Treasure Card, I earned 128 coins. According to the game designers, that’s better than normal, but not exceptional. Whatevs. Still feels like a good accomplishment!
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE GUILD OF MERCHANT EXPLORERS
While the game looks a bit daunting, it’s surprisingly easy to learn and get into the rhythm of play through the eras. It’s quick to set up and a solo game once you’ve mastered the basics goes quite quickly, maybe 20-25 minutes. It’s also really fun and The Guild of Merchant Explorers has moved up to be one of my favorite solo games. There’s a logical progression for how things advance and once you realize that placing your villages as far afield as possible is a key tactic, it’s great fun to see how far you can explore as you also seek to maximize coins, one goal and one coin space at a time. Definitely recommended.
The Guild of Merchant Explorers, published by Alderac Entertainment Group. 1-4 players, ages 14+. $44.99.
Note: it’s currently $38.95 at Amazon.com but I am unsure how long that’ll last. Here’s a link.