Certain names get certain reactions, and that is definitely true in the gaming world. Reiner Knizia apparently does not do theme (not true), Ignacy Trzewiczek’s games tell stories (true – I could tell you a tale or two about how they have broken me as a player), and Stefan Feld – yes, admit it, you thought “point salad”, didn’t you? What a terrible phrase. “Oh, Stefan Feld,” they say in the Closed Circle Of Airy Pronouncers, “he just does point salad.” And then they move on to their next airy pronouncement made of the opinions of others. Well, I like a bit of greenery in my gaming, for one gamer’s point salad is another gamer’s multiple routes to victory, and the possibility that these different avenues might balance each other out in the long term means that you have to plough your chosen furrow quickly, effectively and for the win.
Besides, I like Feld’s The Castles Of Burgundy, think it is a great game and certainly in my top ten. I love how it balances the strategic and the tactical, how I decide before the game that I am going to go for animal husbandry, but then have to change tack because of a shortage of livestock. The challenge is how to make the best of what is there, how to eke out those extra points or, more astutely, when a sub-optimal move made now has a decent chance of paying off later. I also own Arena: Roma II, a completely meaty Feld with barely a leaf in sight. In any case, this is only half the story, because there are two names on Merlin’s box, and the second is that of Michael Rieneck, a designer whose work is new to me, but who has some decent successes to his name. So is this dynamic duo the Arthur and Merlin of game design or is this box more Del Boy and Rodney?
Apples in your point salad?
In the box? There’s a Came-lot of stuff!
Merlin is a new publication by Queen Games, and to see Stefan Feld teaming up with them was something of a surprise, because Queen tend to aim their games more at the family end of the market, while Feld is certainly more of a gamer’s designer than I would expect to see printed on this particular cover. Opening the box reveals that the expected quality of components is there, but also a staggering quantity as well. There are dice and knights and henchmen and boards for each player, and then there are flags and influence counters and traitors and staffs and apples, even Excalibur and a build-it-yourself Holy Grail. Let’s be clear about this – the Holy Grail has been safely locked up since Indiana Jones got it, but a cardboard representation of what Arthur and his knights might have imagined it to look like is a good touch. It’s classic Queen component quality.
Then there is the central board. Upon first glance this seems like a circuit diagram for a Tesla, or at least an indication that my cat has had some kind of accident, but once that initial horror has subsided it reveals itself to be a top-down representation of the Round Table, with views out over the six principalities, and storage in the corners for all sorts of gaming bits. Right there in the middle, so small you could nearly miss it, is the circuit around which the knights and Merlin will travel, rolling the dice to see how far they move.
Grail, crown, Excalibur, Merlin – lovely!
Roll and move? In this day and age?
Whoa – take a deep breath and read that last sentence again. Yes, it says that players roll the dice to see how far the knights and Merlin travel. Folks, Merlin is a roll and move game, a genre so mired in the past, and with so many horrific memories of interminable games of you-know-what from players’ childhoods that it is akin to putting a curse on your new product. And yet Merlin bears the name of one of the most respected designers of the modern age, so it is a fair assumption that this is unlikely to be just a simple case of rolling a die and progressing that far along a track.
That assumption would be correct, because once the game is set up, which takes some time even if you have bagged everything separately in the insertless box, it becomes clear that Merlin, like many other Feld games, is about the results the dice grant you, but also how you mitigate those results or minimise the damage. The board is set up with apples, Excalibur, traitors and cards, and players receive their own individual board, henchmen and dice. Three of the dice are in their own colour while one is white, the former being used to move the player’s knight clockwise, the latter to move Merlin himself in either direction.
Set up takes ages, but it looks fantastic when it’s good to go.
Snakes and ladders? Traitors and manors!
Players take turns to choose one of their dice and move the associated figure, activating the space on which they land. These spaces allow for the placement of henchmen, the procurement of building materials, the construction of manors (on a side board), and many other things besides. Naturally, these all bring points, and those points arrive at the end of rounds two, four and six, with each set of four dice activations representing a complete round.
Mind your manors!
It becomes clear in the very first round of the game that the order in which a player activates their dice is of crucial importance, and that Merlin plays a key role as the only figure who can usually be moved by all the players. The rules also build in some flexibility of choice, especially in the fact that an initial roll of three or four of the same number requires a reroll of all the dice, and players will quickly come to realise that plucking apples where they can is a very useful thing to do, for these wonderful fruits allow for any one die to have its result changed. The workers and knowledge tiles in The Castles Of Burgundy do something similar (and more elegantly), but the mitigation included in this game is just enough to prevent things becoming too constricted, not too much as to make it a free for all.
Unfortunately, those same dice mean that it can be very tricky to follow a coherent strategy all the way through the game, and the scoring system reflects that. There are points for repelling traitors, for owning Excalibur, for building manors, for fulfilling contracts, for having influence, and at the end there are extra points for apples and building resources as well. They are everywhere you look, and whereas in something like Burgundy a player can see their way through the confusion to what might be the best move, here their choices are fenced in in a gentle but firm way by the whim of the dice.
Components for just one player. Pretty much all of these can be used for points.
Let’s interact! But only a little…
It is also slightly problematic that players interact with each other only in a very limited way, so it is not as if you can mess with another player to balance out what the dice gods have dealt you. Yes, your henchman can push out another player’s henchman, but only if you can engineer landing on the correct space, and Merlin belongs to all the players, prompting decisions over whether to move him early or late, but other than that these knights go on their individual peregrinations without much more than the occasional “What ho, Sir Robert!” when they land on the same space. Did I mention that any number of knights can occupy the same space, so there is no blocking in the game either?
What ho, Sir Robin!
The game progresses through its rounds happily enough, but what a player does is often decided on the fly in an “I might as well do this” kind of way. Land on a manor space and have the right material on your board? Build a manor! Land on a flag space and have enough materials to fulfil a contract? Fulfil a contract, which, oddly, does not require you to spend those materials. All of this gives Merlin an odd atmosphere of coping with randomness in the most efficient way you can and then adding up the points at the end to see who has done it best.
Points are everywhere. Here are some contracts.
Don’t like it? Play it again!
For many gamers Merlin is going to be a classic one-and-done game, a swift play of this wondrously colourful but slightly scattergun design followed by mutterings about dice and randomness and salad. Well, all that stuff is true, but Merlin honestly and genuinely does get better with a few more plays, does reward those who are prepared to put in just a little more effort to discover how skill can outweigh skimmed choices. Throw in the extra module included in the box (so very Queen) and Merlin becomes even more of a game of short-term risk versus long-term reward. Just remember that your investment may go down as well as up and you may not get back what you invested.
The extra module brings better play, but more icons.
I would be very hesitant to say that Merlin holds up well after those initial plays, though, partially because The Castles Of Burgundy is out there and is simply so much better, but also because it is borderline impossible to come away from this game and think about what you would do differently next time. Truly great games all have that quality of sitting in the back of your mind, asking you what might have happened had you gone this way instead of that, pursued this strategy instead of the other one. That is impossible to do in Merlin because you just cannot tell what will be thrown at you (or what you will throw) in the next game. In that way maybe it is a little like curling, in that you work furiously to effect only small adjustments to the outcome.
Is it welcome to the collection? Or good knight?
Merlin is a valiant attempt to drag the roll and move genre kicking and screaming into the twenty first century, and it gives it a really good go, but those attempts leave it too random for serious gamers and too complicated for newbies. It therefore inhabits a tricky and unclear middle ground, because there is enough game there to keep serious players amused for a short time, but not enough for the long run. There are definite similarities with other Feld games, even if Merlin tends to come up short by comparison, but what it does have going for it is that it plays up to four relatively easily and quickly, and without too much of the analysis paralysis that can bog down some of its stablemates. The production is seriously good as well, and Merlin is definitely a game to drag in casual observers purely with its table presence, colours and items and cardboard all there for your delectation. Even so it never quite manages to shake off that nagging feeling that you are just doing what the game tells you to do rather than what you would like to do, and that feeling is rammed home when your player board begins to look like a building site, full of flags, counters, cubes, henchmen and dice, and pretty much everything worth a point or two.
Flags, traitors, henchmen – player boards get really busy, and this is only one corner…
Maybe roll and move is like Arthur himself, tucked away with Merlin in a cave somewhere, waiting for the right moment to emerge and save gaming from the Cthulhu Legacy hordes, but this is not the box to bring that great event to pass. It is a good effort, and a valiant effort too, fighting to the last in some kind of gaming Battle of Camlann, but it is not the real deal, although that is not for the lack of trying. Instead it is more like that chap who turns up at Stonehenge of a solstice – bright, colourful and entertaining but not quite the genuine article. On the upper end of 7 out of 10 it sits.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.