If you’re a regular reader of B3’s tabletop section, you’ll know that we’re huge fans of the Dale of Merchants series of games, thanks to our coverage of Dale of Merchants 1 and 2 and Dale of Merchants Collection. This May, Snowdale Design is bringing the series back to Kickstarter for a third (or fourth, if you count Collection) instalment, but we’ve already got our hands on a pre-production copy.
The new game fits the same small form factor that each of its predecessors had, meaning that the box is among the smallest in my collection. The game has also been designed to fit directly inside the Collection box, with the appropriate inserts and everything. As always, there are six decks, a board and a manual, as well as a dice that relates to one specific animal folk deck.
The prototype version we received lacks flavour text on the cards, doesn’t have a manual, and comes with a board from Collection, rather than the final Dale of Merchants 3 board, which I expect will be unique in the same way that it is in each other version. The dice also includes stickered faces, but crucially, the six decks of animal folk cards appear to be final in terms of rules and text.
The objective of each game of Dale of Merchants is the same regardless of the version, and that is to assemble eight ascending stacks of goods on your stall. The first stack will have a value of one, then two, then three, and each stack will comprise of animal folk cards from the same set.
To assemble these stacks, each player will begin the game with a single card from each of the decks they’re playing with (three at two players, four at three players and five at four players) and then a number of junk cards to make a total of ten cards for each player. With these cards, players will invest in adding cards from a market to their deck, and use abilities printed on the cards to further their own schemes, sometimes at the cost of their opponents.
There’s no doubt that the mechanics at play in Dale of Merchants 3 are essentially identical to those of the previous iterations, but once again, designer Sami Laakso has worked hard to make each animal folk deck feel unique. Adding the six from Dale of Merchants 3 to your existing collection (if complete) would take you to just under thirty decks, depending on promos and such.
What I really love about this whole series of games is how it’s possible to mix and match the decks from one game with another to create completely different experiences. Some decks (including one in the new game) focus on very interactive and often mean elements, whilst at least one deck in each game (again including Dale of Merchants 3) use dice to introduce risk and rewards.
The new mechanic this time is Store, which allows a player to place one of their cards that has this keyword in front of them, and to store a number of cards on top of it for the next turn. This, essentially, allows a player to expand their hand size for the next turn, at the cost of having fewer options for this one.
As always, these tweaks and changes are fairly subtle. In no game of Dale of Merchants 3 or either of its predecessors have I had to refer back to the manual to understand what was happening, or how a new rule would interact with an existing one. Everything is just clean, logical and fun — yet deeply strategic.
On your turn, you may simply spend a number of cards for the value shown on the top left, in order to buy a new card that is added to your hand. But as your deck expands, you’ll see Technique cards that show a plus symbol. These allow you to chain actions together — performing several Techniques in a row, and then a normal action such as buy or place a stack.
These Techniques can be powerful, but you’ll also be using the same cards to form your stacks — and once cards are placed in a stack, they can no longer be used to buy other cards or as Techniques. Like the very best deck-building games, Dale of Merchants asks players to first build a deck, then to dismantle it again, all the while without taking sight off their overall objective.
It’s very easy to invest in stacks too early and run out of steam, or indeed with some cards, to trash all your low-value cards and simply run out of cards to throw easily into your discard pile in order to buy new ones. This is a game of two halves, with a distinct build-up phase and then a tear down one, where everyone rushes to build out their stacks, hoping to find a way to make those expensive seven and eight stacks before their opponents.
With each game taking between thirty and sixty minutes, Dale of Merchants 3 never overstays its welcome and the art, as always, is unique and joyful to look at. If you enjoyed the previous games and are collecting anyway, then you must add this third instalment to your collection.
For those not yet invested, I’d expect the Dale of Merchants 3 Kickstarter to include options to buy the previous iterations and Collection, and for me, these games are among the cornerstones of my own game library and I couldn’t imagine not having them. The completionist in me is excited to add more decks, but I suppose I would concede that the level of variety is now starting to slow down slightly.
Check out the Dale of Merchants 3 on Kickstarter.