This review is based on the final retail version of the game provided to us by the designer and publisher. We were not paid for this review. We give a general overview of the gameplay and so not all of the mechanical aspects of the game may be mentioned.
First of all a huge apology. I've had Merv sit on my shelf for far too long, and while it's bright colours and enticing presentation was shouting at me to get it to the table, the number of times I've sat there with the board set out in front of me trying to make things click or even put things together, only to give in and put it all back in the box again. It wasn't even a Merv thing, it's a brain thing I think, and whether it is an age thing or just an intelligence thing, it still leaves me in the situation where Merv was sitting there undeservedly not played looking unhappy and brightly coloured. So sorry. I should have written this a long time ago, and so I'll try to make it up to you.
Secondly, regarding how Merv looks, Ian O'Toole has created something that looks wonderful on the table. Bright colours and subtle colour palettes merge together on the table to make something that the boardgame Instagram crowd will buy just to be able to take pretty pictures of the box art. A wonderful gold and jade cover art that screams to be photographed at funny angles in different light with soft and out of focus meeples in the foreground. Potentially a group of camels in some kind of caravan. You get the idea. Like most games of this nature, the iconography on the board looks absolutely confusing and daunting until you come to play it but then makes complete sense once you grasp the basics of the rules.
Merv is a fairly crunchy game, in the same way that a gobstopper is a fairly crunchy sweet, and for those who decide to rush in to learn it very quickly might end up nursing a sore jaw in their over eagerness. Merv demands that you take your time and build up your understanding of the game and enjoy the various layers as the game goes. You could argue that Merv is a worker placement type mixture of an engine deck builder that allows you to navigate further up the tracks in order to maximise your potential point scoring. You would be quite right in this explanation. However unlike a lot of Euros, Merv also relies very much on the charity of others as you build your small trading enterprise.
It's all very well to plough on ahead in an attempts to create a convincing lead, but you need to make sure you've taken the time to build protective walls and place soldiers to see off the invading Mongol hordes. Or at least hope that on of the other players has decided to take the responsibility to prevent burning of precious buildings. Yes, it's all about picking a spot in order to gain resources and place buildings, but it's also about picking one of the key areas to concentrate on for this particular game. Merv only allows twelve turns, and so you'll need to make a decision fairly early on and stick to it.
Merv doesn't allow hedging of bets and actually punishes those who try to concentrate on several tracks at once. On the other side of things, you need a bit of flexibility in case you do end up in a situation where you find yourself in the same race as another player. There is the potential for games to become the subject of awkward silences and growing grudges, which some people might grab with both hands over a normal polite Euro and for others it might be enough to make Merv a one and done for them.
There is a lot of game here, whether you be collecting and trading spices, or establishing trade routes, gaining favour and influence, visiting the palace. With so much going on, there's a good chance you'll need the rulebook on hand. This isn't to say thing are confusing, but with so many options open to you when you play, it's sometimes easier to have it there a reference just in case. There is a quick guide sheet on the back, but there are a few permutations that you'll need to keep checking until you get the hang of it, like the additional dummy players. This is a strange thing for me, because normally games aren't willing to own up to the fact that their game just doesn't work at lower player counts because as we all know, labelling a game as a three player minimum puts up all types of barriers to your potential customer base. So it's welcoming and almost brave for Osprey to admit that and actually do something about it for a change. It's not a tacked on feature either to be playing with the High Courtier or Corrupt Magistrate, and you'll get some enjoyment playing with them in tow, and it doesn't need a huge amount of additional administration. Merv wants three players, and you can see how it needs them in order to restrict choice and force errors on the board. It wants the scowling and the sideways glances across it's multicoloured feast on the eyes.
So Merv is going to sing for those who like something to chew on with their Euros, who live for building up tiny engines and scoring based on set collection. It's an afternoon type of a game, where the downtime creates uneasy silences as players try to dig themselves out of holes they find stuck in. There's enough downtime to not only put on the kettle, but sort out a sandwich sometimes while you're waiting, especially in the later rounds where things have a bigger chance to grow and cascade slightly. Watching people are cursing under their breath because you claimed that space and that action and now you keep grinning as you're trading influence for more spice and they know that's the reason why you're whistling as you sprinkle paprika on their ham sandwich. It's so pretty.
1 to 4 Players
60 mins upwards
Ages 14 +
Designed Fabio Lopiano
Art - Ian O'Toole
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