The Half-Clockwork, Half-Human Merv
Sometimes a single idea elevates an entire design. Take Fabio Lopiano’s Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road, for instance. Viewed from a distance, it might look like a boilerplate modern euro design, crammed full of bells, whistles, and intersecting means of accumulating points. It isn’t until you dig into its heart that the truth becomes apparent. It’s still a boilerplate modern euro crammed with bells and whistles. But it’s a boilerplate modern euro with one heck of an action selection system.
With a lede like that, there’s no procrastinating the good stuff. In particular because Lopiano’s idea of action selection is genuinely interesting, touches even the game’s farthest corners, and even manages to provide some minor interaction between players.
Explaining it will take some time, so let’s begin with the rough outline. The center of the board is dominated by Merv itself, the junction of the Silk Road that was so enriched through trade that it became one of the world’s largest cities until someone in local government got the bright idea to open the gates to Tolui Khan and let everybody get massacred. Lopiano’s version omits that final part, although the Mongol threat lingers off-board. We’ll come back to this. For now, this is the story of the city’s ascent rather than its abrupt decline.
The city itself is arranged into a grid of building sites, assembled at random, with each tile offering one of a handful of actions. Over the course of a single year, players take four successive turns, each oriented from the perspective of one of the city’s four sides. For your first turn, you’ll be approaching that grid of buildings from the north; for the second, from the east; and so forth until the entire city has been circumnavigated. Landing on a column or row lets you choose any of the sites in a straight line. Early on, this means selecting a single site, plopping one of your houses onto it, earning its resource cube, and then taking the corresponding action. The play is fast, the trickle of resources is slow.
It isn’t long before that last phrase is inverted. As more building sites are adorned with player houses, your ability to act doubles, then triples. This is because visiting a row with houses already built on it lets you visit every house of a single color. As early as your second turn, you can plop down a house on the same row as your first one. Now you’ll earn two resources instead of only one. Later, rows of three or four houses produce that many goods. Or more, if you’ve begun adding upgrades that make houses spill out an extra cube or perhaps even a wild resource.
Oh, and it’s also possible to visit other players’ rows. In fact, it’s often in your best interest to do so. For one thing, you’ll gain access to actions you might not otherwise have cornered. More importantly, by establishing attractive rows of your own, ideally with choice actions and a few resource upgrades — and then by not blocking those rows by visiting them yourself — you’ll lure other players into your portion of the city. This spills out a few extra resources for you. Now the trickle has become a flood.
Let’s not oversell this point. Lopiano’s action selection system is innovative, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. At times it even becomes frustrating, especially if your high-value rows aren’t frequented. There are a few reasons why this might happen. Sometimes you’ve failed to fill them with enticing upgrades. Fair enough! There’s probably somewhere more appealing for your competition to visit. But other considerations feel more gamey or even unfair. Maybe you appear to be in the lead and nobody wants to hand you extra cubes to churn into victory points. Maybe two players have forged a pact to always grant each other resources — the problem of playing with married couples who cannot find it within themselves to compete. It’s even possible that the hue of your buildings isn’t as vibrant as those of a competitor, your tiny black houses not quite as eye-catching as yellow or red. Whatever the reason, Merv’s action selection can be as limiting as it is clever. It encourages swaps, but isn’t exactly cooperation. It rewards those who bring their row to the table’s attention, but doesn’t function as negotiation.
Either way, careful placement and engagement with Merv’s building sites is an important step toward ensuring you have more cash on hand to spend on the actions that take place beyond the city walls.
The actions themselves are the game’s toughest element to internalize. There are just so many of them, with so many functions. This is aided by two details: Ian O’Toole’s crisp iconography, and the fact that each action is distinct and varied. Unlike some of Merv’s cousins, nothing feels like it’s there to check off a box. The closest is the library, where you can swap non-matching cubes for scrolls, a minor resource that helps fulfill contracts, one of many ways to obtain points. Yet every pair of scrolls also bestows a little bonus. These are highly desirable, including discounts on common actions or transforming one cube color into a wild resource for you alone. This elevates the scrolls from an occasional necessity to something you’re likely to chase early on.
Or you would, if everything else weren’t so tempting. Caravans award spice cards, endgame points that also use the “little bonus for every pair” thing to make them more immediately useful. In this case, those perks aren’t quite as powerful as the library’s. They’re just enough to keep you coming back for more. Meanwhile, the market sees you establishing outposts and spending camels to bring home trade goods (also necessary for fulfilling contracts), visiting the palace lets you set up recurring scoring opportunities, building walls protects from Mongol invasions that might otherwise knock your buildings down, and moving along the mosque track awards a little bit of everything. Running through each of these are smaller economies, such as camels, influence, and soldiers, which incentivize protecting your competitors’ houses as much as your own. Some of these micro-economies are more entangled than others. Camels are the clear breadwinner, able to manipulate turn order and purchase perks from the city’s central market tile as adroitly as they permit the buying of better spice cards or trade goods. Watch out: they spit. Also, they have a tendency of appearing in other players’ hands whenever you use them.
The degree to which every element touches every other element is as intermeshed as we’ve come to expect from the genre that was once called the Eurogame. It’s a sight to behold and decode. Emphasis on the decode. Efficiency has always been one of the hobby’s principal watchwords, and that’s the case here as well. With only sixteen full actions per game, some optimization is in order. It would be insulting to say that the pressures of efficiency could be sleepwalked into a game at this point, even as plenty of designs shamble through the same steps. Here, at least, Lopiano gives his steps a skip.
More to the point, Merv continues the recent tradition of wrapping its score-chasing within a puzzle box. This is where “decoding” comes in. Whenever an exemplar of this genre hits the table, the question isn’t how to outperform one’s fellows. It’s how to out-solve the puzzle we’re all wrestling with. What makes Merv so interesting — and at the same time, slightly frustrating — is that Lopiano understands the need to have players do more than interface into a parallel circuit with a gearbox. Here, players may reach out and touch one another. Awkwardly, yes, with only a fraction of the fluency or intimacy that other game genres have been conversant in for many years. But there are significant inter-player decisions to be made, complaints to be lodged, exchanges to be negotiated. They just happen to be muted, yet again, beneath the Borg implants of the puzzle.
When I began, I called Merv “boilerplate.” That isn’t entirely true. It’s a boilerplate game on the cusp of stepping into finer form. Call it a development, call it a throwback; either way, I hope this trend of focusing on human interaction continues, because I would love to visit a version of Merv that deals more closely with the tensions and terrors of Mongol-beset silk traders.