Dale of Merchants is currently running a Kickstarter campaign. I backed it, because the game looks interesting, has nice art, was cheap and is Finnish – plenty of reason to back a game, that is. Since I’m something of a big name in the Finnish board game scene, the designer asked me if I’d like to get a set of PnP cards for the game so I could try it out, and I agreed. Thus, if you care about things like that, yes, I’m rather biased here.
The game: Dale of Merchants by Sami Laakso, published by Snowdale Design in 2015, hopefully (if you wonder about all those dales, “Laakso” is “dale” in Finnish).
Elevator pitch: Quick and easy-going deck-building game (but not a Dominion clone!), where you have to sacrifice cards from your deck in order to win.
What’s in the box? There’s 110 cards, a small board and a die. The board is not essential, you can live without it if you prefer portability. The card art is also by the designer, and while that often is not a good thing, in this case it is: the art is lovely, for the most part. The card design is also clean and easy to use.
Since all I have now is a PnP version, I can’t speak of the quality, but the Kickstarter campaign promises heavy cardstock with linen finish.
What do you do in the game? The goal is simple: whoever first builds eight market stalls wins, right away. The stalls are sets of cards with values 1–8 in ascending order. Each stall may only contain cards of one colour (each colour is a type of animal, and in each game you choose n+1 animal types to include in the game; there are six in the set and if the game is successful, there’s more to come).
On your turn, you do one action: buy a card, create a stall, play a technique card from your hand or discard cards from your hand. Then you do not discard the rest of your hand, but instead just draw up to five. Also, when you buy a card, you take it directly to your hand.
Cards are bought from a market queue of five cards. First card bears no extra price, next one costs +1, the third one +2 and so on. Cards have a value, which is both the price and their value as currency or in a stall.
There are three kinds of cards: technique cards that do something interesting (and may grant you another action), passive cards that let you bend the rules by just having them in your hand and advanced action cards that also let you bend the rules, for example to create a stall that has mixed colors.
So, in order to win, you need to acquire helpful cards, then create stalls out of them. That empties your deck, so you need to acquire more cards and so on. There’s a plenty of combo potential. The actual flavour of the game depends on the animals chosen: for example the Thieving Northern Raccoons have lots of cards that let you mess with the other players, so the game will feel very different whether the Raccoons are in play or not.
Lucky or skillful? Dale of Merchants is a light card game, so of course there’s plenty of luck. However, there’s also room for skill, as you must consider timing, come up with combos and so on. I’d say the skilled player will most of the time, but not always. If you include the Lucky Ocelots, the level of luck and chaos will jump up.
Abstract or thematic? The animal art is cute. The game would feel a bit abstract, but since the different animals have very different styles of play that gives the game some thematic flavour. A bit like in Blue Moon, really.
Solitaire or interactive? Add the Raccoons, and it gets really interactive. Without the Raccoons, there’s less direct interaction, but given the sudden death ending, pacing yourself with the other players is crucial. Solitaire-ish, but you have to keep an eye on your opponents.
Players: 2–4, and based on my experiences with two and three players, I’d say the full scale should work just fine. I’ll probably prefer the smaller games myself.
Who can play? Age recommendation is 12+, but that’s too high. My son who is nine plays this without problems (well, would play, if the cards were in Finnish), so I’d say 8+ for experienced gamer kids, 10+ for others. Were the cards in Finnish, I think my son could play this with his friends without my help.
Length: 20–30 minutes, this is not a long game.
What’s to like: Lovely art; simple, yet interesting game mechanics; new take on deck-building; variability from the animal decks.
What’s not to like: Light; lucky.
My verdict: I wasn’t disappointed. I like deck-building games and don’t mind lighter games. For gamers, Dale of Merchants is a filler, but it packs quite a bit of game in a small package. I like that, and the game has certainly enough interesting decisions. It’s also good that it isn’t a Dominion clone.
I’m really hoping the Kickstarter campaign succeeds, because I think the game is fun. I also hope it’s successful enough so we can see some additional animal packs – the basic structure of this game is built to be expanded, and ideas are already running fast on BGG forums.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Dale of Merchants gets Suggest from me.