Dale of Deck-Builders
Perspective is a funny thing. When Sami Laakso reached out to inquire whether I’d like to take a look at Dale of Merchants — more specifically, Dale of Merchants 1, 2, and Collection — I hesitated. Not because of Laakso’s talents as a designer, but because the game in question was a deck-builder. And not a hybrid deck-builder; a straight-up, pure, honest-to-goodness cards-and-tokens deck-builder.
Why such hesitation? Because for a moment that felt like a decade, you couldn’t enter a game shop without tripping over that month’s shipment of DBGs, barely-themed stacks of wallpaper with a license slapped over the top. How many decks have I built? How many settings have gone underutilized? The answer is not flattering, either for me or the industry.
But it had been a while since I last built a deck. Doubly so a “pure” deck, sans larger strategic considerations like a map or a lootable dungeon. So I said, sure, why not. And, after a half-dozen plays, I couldn’t be happier.
If you’ve been around the board gaming scene since 2008, you’ve played a deck-builder. In that respect, Dale of Merchants is comfortably familiar. You have a few starting cards — although more on those in a moment — and there’s a marketplace of additional cards to purchase, which gradually fill out your deck with new options. If you run out of cards to draw, you shuffle your discards back together to create a new pile to draw from. Sometimes you’ll want to prune the weaker cards out of your deck, other times you’ll want to chase particular combinations, and it’s a newcomer who buys everything that looks nifty. That’s how you wind up with a flabby stack of cards that don’t do what you need them to.
I only describe the basic cycle of a deck-builder because Dale of Merchants is, as I said, comfortably familiar. It quickly settles into that old rhythm, cards added and moved and subtracted, fresh tidbits appearing in perfect harmony or tonal discordance with everything else. Even those occasional shrieks are part of the appeal, mirroring the tuning of an orchestra as new cards drown out the errant notes. There’s a reason this mechanism was ripe for shallow imitation. With only a few basics, you can tell a bad deck at a glance, but a good one? Those are legion.
Dale of Merchants is no shallow imitator, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. While its setting is also comforting, it’s somewhat less immediately recognizable. Basically, a bunch of cute woodland creatures want to be the best merchants in the land. “Like Root,” somebody might say, entirely incorrectly. How do these woodland creatures intend to ply their commerce? By using exactly the right twist.
That twist is remarkably similar to the scoring system in another deck-builder, Valley of the Kings. I have no idea whether Laakso was influenced by Tom Cleaver’s masterpiece or thought it up on his own, but, whether flattering imitation or serendipitous innovation, it’s exactly the right fit.
It works like this. Most deck-builders have a system for winnowing cards, stripping them out of your deck so the whole thing can run more smoothly. Usually this is a card ability, something for purchase that might, eventually, become useless itself once its work is complete. Dale of Merchants, like Valley of the Kings before it, takes the idea of winnowing cards and elevates it from a useful strategy (and minor trade-off) to something that’s crucial in every respect. In Valley of the Kings, your pharaoh wanted a resplendent afterlife, so your cards were gradually entombed for points, removing them from your deck — and depriving you of their abilities, hence the heightened trade-off — and earning points.
Dale of Merchants does something both simpler and more elegant by removing points entirely. Oh, there are still numbers on the cards, important for purchasing new items. But here the numbers pull double-duty. Rather than hoarding as many cards as possible, you really only need a handful. Enough to stock the shelves of your cute woodland store. You need eight stacks, but the catch is that each stack must be numbered higher than the one before it. And because cards max out at a value of five, that means you’ll soon need to pile cards together — and piles require matching suits.
I bear no peculiar grudge against victory points, but this approach is remarkably fresh, transforming Dale of Merchants into a race to assemble those eight stacks. Its decks are therefore some of the most fluid I’ve played, absorbing and stocking cards rapidly, sometimes without even using their printed ability once.
To be clear, such swift turnaround is the exception. In order to fill your store, you’ll need money, the right cards to build matches, and probably some dirty tricks to get ahead or drag at your opponents. Lots of cards, in other words, including plenty of strategic linchpins and flexible combos. But that usefulness only gives your inventory decisions extra bite. If you intend to win, you’ll sacrifice something precious. Often an entire pack of darlings will be marched into the maw of commerce. The question is how much you can sacrifice (and how swiftly) without leaving yourself floundering in the late game. It isn’t uncommon to cobble together your fifth, sixth, and seventh stacks, only to realize you need to buy more for the final push to the eighth — except your best cards are now stuck on store shelves.
This brings us to the absolute best thing about Dale of Merchants. Because while its victory chase is refreshingly different, there’s nothing quite like its animalfolk decks. Yes, plural. Rather than playing with a single set, Dale of Merchants provides a cornucopia of options. The original box included six decks, followed by six more, followed by Collection’s eight plus a handful of new, optional ways to play. Appropriately, the joys of these decks are myriad. Each is built around a central mechanical theme. Some exist for ease of use, like the Snappy Scarlet Macaws and their hand management options or the Experimenting Platypuses for drawing specific tools. More confrontational options include the Thieving Northern Raccoons and Mischievous Tasmanian Devils. Some let you roll dice. Some make investments that only pay off later. Some allow powerful abilities but must be re-purchased back into your deck. The Lively Slender Mongooses and Stealthy Long-winged Tomb Bats both use a clock, but want to nudge the dial toward their preferred time of day. My personal favorite, the Hoarding Flying Squirrels, can line your shelves with trash.
Crucially, each animalfolk alters not only the composition of your starting hand, but also the market deck at large, giving shape to the game that follows. A game with Pandas, Flying Squirrels, and Chameleons will be interactive but not nasty. But combine those Chameleons with Fennec Foxes and Dwarf Crocodiles and you’ll have a riot on your hands.
In a way, this also highlights Dale of Merchants’ few problems — and how little they matter when it’s approached in the proper light. Its cards are walls of text, but it’s a relief to not have to learn yet another hieroglyphic language. It can feel slow with four players, but more people also means more decks and weirder combos. It can seem tough to catch up to a leader, or even the first player, but that might mean it’s time to incorporate traps or special leader cards for unique abilities. It’s lighter and suitable for families, but, ah, that’s not actually a problem.
Perhaps these issues don’t dampen my appreciation because of the aforementioned perspective. With the deck-builder boom behind us, it’s been a while since I played anything quite like this, and Dale of Merchants hits its stride without hesitation. More likely, it’s because Laakso took a game I already liked, whether on purpose or by accident, and crafted it into something smoother and smarter, not to mention significantly more varied. Even after seeing all the animalfolk decks currently available — and checking to see when the final set would be out — I want to play with new combinations and new characters. That’s its appeal: Dale of Merchants is as light as it is familiar, as comfortable as it is clever, and consistently surprising in its generosity.
A complimentary copy was provided.