Dale of Merchants 3 by Sami Laakso, coming to Kickstarter on May 1st 2020.
Sami Laakso was kind enough to send me a preview version of the game. I know Sami and have helped promote his games before, but I’ve also bought the published versions of all his games and will buy this one as well.
Elevator pitch: Third installment in the Dale of Merchants deck-building game series offers no surprises. It adds six new animalfolk sets to the game, opening up new combinations with earlier games.
What’s in the box? The small box contains cards for six animalfolk decks and the necessary junk cards, market board and rules to make this an independent release that doesn’t require other Dale of Merchants games.
The art is firmly in the style of the series and as usual, it’s colourful, cute and charming.
If you own the Dale of Merchants Collection, you’ve already noted that the Collection box has room and all the necessary dividers and information cards for the animalfolk in this set.
What do you do in the game? The goal is simple: whoever first builds eight stacks in their market stall immediately wins. The stacks are sets of cards with values 1–8 in ascending order, first 1, then 2, then 3 and so on. Each stack may only contain cards of one animalfolk.
On your turn, you do one action: buy a card, create a stack, play a technique card from your hand or discard cards from your hand. After that you draw until you have five cards in 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 stack. In contrast to most other deck-builders, the cards you buy are immediately placed in your hand. This, combined with the fact you don’t discard your whole hand on every turn, gives Dale of Merchants a markedly different pace from other deck-builder games.
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.
Animalfolk decks: The game comes with six animalfolk decks. In each game, you choose N+1 animalfolk decks, where N is the number of players, and shuffle those as your draw deck. I’ll go through the six animalfolk in the game:
Archiving Desert Monitors are a simple, friendly set. They’re very nice, no mean cards, but lots of useful, handy cards to manipulate your discards and to fetch cards from your deck. Their 1-card Rigorous Chronicler, which starts the game in your deck, is worth 1–3 when buying new cards, which makes it very useful in the early game.
Discontented White-headed Lemurs are more complex and chaotic, but still not mean. They’re specialized in swapping cards: you give something away and get something in return. Delightful Surprise, which lets you get the top card of the market deck has indeed generated several delightful surprises.
Scheming Green Magpies is the real deal: very complicated, very interactive, very chaotic and very mean. They have cards that let you steal cards from your fellow players, but usually you have to guess correctly. Burglary, for example, steals the top card of another player’s deck, if you can guess (or know!) the value of the card.
Sharing Short-Beaked Echidnas are highly interactive, complex and chaotic, but not particularly mean. They borrow cards and swap things without asking for permission. Umbrella lets you look at two cards from opponent’s hand and swap one with Umbrella – which means you may be attacked the next turn.
Superstitious Snowshow Hares are chaotic and complex, but not at all mean. They use the die that comes with the game, and some of their cards do different things depending on a die roll. My favourite card from them is Barometer, which has a varying value depending on the top card of the market deck discard pile.
Prepared Grizzled Tree-kangaroos is a complex, but nice set which comes with a new game mechanism keyword, Store. Stored cards are off your hand and stay safe from thieves and borrowers. Wheelbarrow for example lets you store a card and on the next round, you can either get it back or remove it from your deck. You can keep your valuables safe or cart out the junk.
As you can see, the animalfolk have varying levels of complexity, chaos, interaction and meanness. This makes the game feel different depending on which animalfolk you use. Especially when combined with the other Dale of Merchants games, you can come up with games that are super mean and interactive, or kind affairs where everybody minds their own business.
The animalfolk set here is very nice. I really like the Discontented White-headed Lemurs here – they would be in my top six of all animalfolks in Dale of Merchants.
Lucky or skillful? A good combination of luck and skill. With cards and decks, there’s always luck involved, but the choice of animalfolk decks lets you control how much chaos you want in your games, and there are things to do to mitigate randomness.
Abstract or thematic? The animals are cute and as I’ve watched Daimyria, the world of Dale of Merchants and Dawn of Peacemakers grow, I’ve become quite fond of it. The theme makes sense and is a delight.
Solitaire or interactive? The level and style of interaction depends on the animalfolk chosen. With just one box, the scope is not very wide, but when you combine multiple Dale of Merchants sets, you can get very interactive games, which may or may not be mean, or you can get games with fairly low interaction.
Players: 2–4. I prefer most deck-building games with fewer players and same goes here: I like the two-player game the most. The game is perfectly fine with the whole range, though.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 10+. There’s plenty of text in the cards and the cards need to be kept in secret, unlike in Dominion style deck-builders. Experienced young gamers will do just fine with this game, as long as they can read the cards.
What’s to like: I’ve played this game from the beginning. It has been at the backburner at times, but I’ve always come back to it, and for me, it’s a top-3 deck-building game, one of the very best in the genre. It has a unique feel to it, it doesn’t feel like a clone of anything. The art is charming and the game looks pleasant. When combined with other sets, you can customize the game experience
What’s not to like: With just one box, the scale of game experiences is eventually limited. The full experience requires more boxes. The game is too light and cutesy for some folks, and some are turned off by the race aspect of the game. With four players the downtime can be excessive and with some card sets, the game may get too complicated or mean.
My verdict: I’ve been a fan of the series since the first game, so I’m a bit biased here. I really like this game. I’m particularly fond of coming up with crazy combo potential – anything with the Chameleons from the first Dale of Merchants gets my creative mind buzzing. I know I’ll be backing this game the first day it’s on Kickstarter. If you’re a regular, I’m sure you’ll get this as well.
But for a new player? This is an independent set, so you don’t need to own other Dale of Merchants sets. The three boxes are designed so that all of them have both simple and complex animalfolks, so every one of them is good for beginners and experienced players. It doesn’t matter which set you get of the three – all will get you started equally well, and you’ll eventually want to have all of them if you like the game.
The Dale of Merchants Collection is best left last, it’s better suited for the experienced player and is most valuable when you have all the other sets as well.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Dale of Merchants 3 gets Enthusiastic from me.