The Guild of Guilt-Free Explorers
Despite containing no pencils, dry-erase pens, pads of paper or laminated cards, Matthew Dunstan and Brett Gilbert’s The Guild of Merchant Explorers is as much a flip-and-write game as any other. It’s the feel that counts. A single card is flipped. Everybody uses that card to fill in spaces on their personal map. Everybody suffers or profits together. At least initially. After a few cards, whether any given flip helps or hinders your expansion is a function of planning and foresight rather than mere chance.
What sets this title apart from its peers, though, is the way it resets between eras.
Before we get there, let’s set the scene.
Every play of The Guild of Merchant Explorers begins at your capital city. Grand! Accessible! Conveniently located! Your goal is… well, properly stated, your goal is to earn as much money as possible. However, there are plenty of ways to do that. Maybe you’ll unearth sunken treasure ships for special cards. Or found towns in distant locales. Or connect trade cities for a significant but high-investment downpour of cash. Or discover the lost towers at the map’s farthest corners. These goals are all alike in two respects. One, they award money. Two, you’ll have to reach them first. To reduce your goal to its simplest expression, you’re spreading cubes across the map to connect with distant locations.
The methodology for accomplishing this couldn’t be simpler. I mentioned that you flip a card. As is the case in many other flip/roll-and-writes, everybody shares that same input to place cubes on the map. We might, for example, flip a card that shows two desert hexes. There you go: place cubes on two desert spaces. Instead, maybe we show a line of three sea spaces. Same basic concept, except we’re placing those cubes in a straight line. As long as your cubes connect to something you already own — another cube, your capital city — the placement is legal.
Except here’s where it gets clever. The game is played over four eras. Each is mercifully short, only lasting six to nine flips. In between each era, all your cubes are removed from the map. Uh oh. That’s a problem. Because six to nine flips isn’t nearly enough to cross the map, let alone connect its trade cities, gobble up its loose coins, or collects all its treasures. What’s a merchant explorer to do?
Found towns, of course. Remember, you can connect a cube to anything you own. That includes towns, which persist across eras. Whenever you fill in a contiguous region of grasslands, mountains, or deserts, you’re allowed to mark one of those spaces with the aforementioned town. These provide some cash, albeit a meager amount. Their function is more critical than scoring. Towns are your home bases in future eras. They’re your springboards for further expansion. The instant the next era begins, you’ll probably ignore your capital city altogether. Why bother? You’d have to cross the sea again, and that’s after dealing with the piddly neighboring territories. Instead, you might as well start at your most far-flung outpost. Instead of needing four or five flips — and lucky flips at that — it will only take one or two to reach the nearby tower or trade city or whatever other objective you’re pursuing. By founding towns around the map, you’re giving yourself a crucial head start for the rest of the game.
In the parlance of colonialism, towns are mercantile factories and ports. They’re the sovereign fortresses that house your goods and vessels and soldiery, letting you cut deeper into foreign territory. Not that Dunstan and Gilbert call them that. They’re way too savvy.
It’s been said that colonialism makes such a ready topic for board games because its processes are so easily gamified. It’s a simplistic statement, but there’s a point there. Conquest is easier to model than insurgency for the same reason that it’s far simpler to declare victory in battle than in the struggle for a nation’s soul. Resource extraction and capital accumulation make for tangible components that can be passed around the table, bartered, traded, or stolen. By contrast, very real social concepts like patronage, family ties, or simple human empathy are hopelessly ephemeral, making them far harder to replicate within ninety minutes. To draw another, more telling parallel, many board games are rewarding for the same reason that gathering resources and money is rewarding: our survival-hungry brains love amassing stuff that will help us stave off death. The problem is that we don’t know when to quit.
With The Guild of Merchant Explorers, Dunstan and Gilbert hand-wave the problem. According to the introduction, you aren’t exploring new lands. There’s no terra incognita to parcel out. Nor are there locals to relocate to make way for your ambitions. You’re exploring lands already known. This is all territory that’s rightfully yours. Somewhere along the way, this big kingdom became so prosperous that its distant shores got lost in the jumble, like lines in a ledger getting smudged. Hence the need for you, a noble merchant explorer, to retrace a line between its major destinations.
“Wait,” you’re probably saying. “That isn’t how it works.” And you’d be right. That isn’t how it works. Prosperous nations with robust domestic trade do not, in fact, forget how to reach their own trade hubs. That’s the equivalent of me forgetting the difference between my kitchen and bathroom. When that happens, nobody will be in a hurry to declare me of sound mind and body.
But don’t mistake this for criticism. I appreciate the effort. Even more so because The Guild of Merchant Explorers does such a bang-up job of depicting why colonial enterprises established all those ports and factories in the first place. We often approach colonialism with the mental image of Europeans floating everywhere on ships. It’s easy to forget that most of the legwork was done locally. Trade goods needed to be collected, moved, and stored. Ships needed to be maintained, repaired, and resupplied. Men needed to be mustered, organized, and refreshed. All of the above needed protection, which in turn needed supplies and men and defensible positions, and so on. In the game, the easiest way to earn money is by placing a cube on a space that shows coins. Near the end of an era, when the more lucrative offerings have been claimed, it isn’t uncommon to put your final cube to use by collecting the coins on a hex neighboring one of your towns. There you go. A perfect example of why European companies believed it so profitable to seize local control. Proximity makes extraction so effortless that it can be done as an afterthought. The oppression practically handles itself.
But while The Guild of Merchant Explorers makes a cogent point about why colonial enterprises historically default to oppression rather than a libertarian’s fantasy of noncompulsory exchange, it’s an incomplete model. Its largest omission is the same chalk outline found in countless other games about colonialism: local agency. At no point do the locals say, “You know what? We’d rather not let you found a town on the cape between our continents. And while we’re at it, our trade cities will shut their gates against your merchants. Those towers? You constructed them so very long time ago. They’ve since been seized. Those sunken treasures? Rusted, mostly. Or plundered. Even if they haven’t, why should they should belong in your museums rather than ours? Now brace yourself for a rebellion or two, because forcing us to learn your bad sports was the last straw. Cricket? Come on.”
That’s why I’m willing to take Dunstan and Gilbert at their word. True, a city isn’t a dime slipping through a hole in your pocket. But in this world, well, they go missing anyway. The fantasy realm of Avenia is famously forgetful. They’re always misremembering where they put things. Who among us hasn’t lost our keys, or a hat, or San Francisco? Furthermore, I get it. Colonialism is a fraught topic. But it’s also such an integral part of our history that certain aspects can be difficult to sidestep entirely. The Guild of Merchant Explorers proposes that exploration, cartography, and trade can make for a thrilling board game, especially when plainly and clearly removed from the horror of real-world atrocities.
And the result is thrilling. The gradual crawl of blocks across the map creates an artifact that represents a dozen smaller adventures. Like holding an old manuscript in your hands. Or a map. Dunstan and Gilbert even have the good sense to know when to depart from the formula. Every era, you draft a single powered-up placement card. That card is yours for the rest of the game, granting a unique means of journeying into the wider world. Maybe your guild is proficient at navigating mountains, or salvaging treasure, or contacting trade cities across the sea. As the game continues, it isn’t only your map that takes on its unique shape, but also your method of traversing it. Like the best roll-and-writes, minor permutations soon become major swings. And because you can always see which cards have been played and which are yet to appear, there’s room to plan ahead. On occasion, someone may bellyache about having a dud turn. Womp womp. They have only themselves to blame.
I’ve mentioned before that the roll-and-write genre is a moment awaiting its talent, which is my tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the things are everywhere but that most of them aren’t very good. The Guild of Merchant Explorers is good. It’s a game that understands its pedigree, both as a plaything about circumnavigating the globe for exotic resources and as a game about shared inputs leading to wildly divergent outcomes. Sure, it helps that blocks are more tactilely pleasurable to handle than a dry-erase board, but that’s not the whole story. This thing would be good no matter what it was played on.
Here’s the takeaway: Dunstan and Gilbert have crafted something truly worthwhile. The Guild of Merchant Explorers is excellent.
A complimentary copy was provided.