As a huge fan of all things Stefan Feld (I purchased In the Year of the Dragon while at Gen Con 50 from the Cool Stuff Inc. booth because I needed it for my collection but also because it was only $26), when I heard about his new design Merlin, which is centered around the Court of Camelot and Arthurian Legend, I knew I had to try it out at Gen Con.
The basis of the game is that King Arthur has enlisted the aid of his most trusted advisor Merlin to help him find the most worthy knight to be his heir from among those seated at the Round Table. Players are tasked with moving their knights or Merlin around the action rondel using the pips on their dice that are rolled each turn in order to take the actions that are most needed at that time. These actions include gaining resources, flags of support from the various surrounding counties, building onto your manor house, etc. The players can only directly move their own colored knights with their three dice but also have access to move Merlin around the action ring with their one white dice. This was a really interesting part of the game as you had to really jump on using Merlin when you know you can get something that you need or it will be moved by others and may not help you as much.
The game really is focused on the manipulation of your dice to gain the actions that you want to take to score the most points in the end and be chosen as the heir to King Arthur. But, like most Feld designs, this game has a lot to focus on and there is a lot going on around you. Not to the point of distraction, but you have to be awake or you will miss something that you were supposed to accomplish and it will end up hurting you in the end, such as not defeating the attacking traitors.
The castle board holds all of your dice, your 4 henchman, 6 influence counters (the hex cylinders), construction materials (cubes), apples (which are used for influencing your dice rolls), flags, shields and Merlin’s Staffs (not pictured).
As with any good Feld, this game is a point salad and you can score in many different ways and at different times. The multiple ways to score victory points include defeating traitors, building manors in the surrounding area, which is represented by a second board that unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of, and increasing one’s influence in the 6 counties surrounding the rondel by placing your henchman. Additionally, players can fulfill mission cards, once during each of their four actions phases to get more victory points. With lots of ways to score, you have to have a plan or you will quickly be left behind by the other players.
I really enjoyed the mission cards (shown in the picture below) as they offer an option for long term planning as you can look at what is required and then simply try to go about collecting those items over the course of your turn. The really cool bit is that when you satisfy the requirements of the various missions, you don’t have to expend those resources but can hold on to them and use them to satisfy other missions later on. There were a few times during our demo that I was able to satisfy two missions during the same turn, but as the rule is that you can only satisfy one per action taken, I had to wait till my next action to complete the mission. This part of the game is about efficiency and trying to gather many different mission cards that all have the same or similar requirements. One of the players at our demo, must have completed 6 missions in our 2 round demo, but this required a lot of his focus so he didn’t score points in other areas and didn’t seem to get a large lead. In fact, after 2 rounds, we were all within 4 points of each other.
Let me share a little bit about the various actions that are available to the players on the rondel as this is the central part of the game. First, there are six different principality spaces that are identified by a color (black, gray, blue, purple, orange and brown) and with a specific symbol (a dragon, a bird, fish, a snake, a fox and an eagle). When players move their knights around the rondel, they will land on a space and it will be identified with an icon that explains the action that can be taken. If a knight lands on one of the colored spaces on the rondel, it will allow them to access the actions in the principality where they can place one of their four henchman (Lady-in-waiting, Shield-bearer, Flag-bearer or Builder) to take that type of action. If there is already a henchman of another color in that space, the player will bump that henchman back to the castle board of the player and take that space. This is important because you will score points at the end of each identified scoring round based upon the number of henchman located in each principality (remember this is a Feld and everything scores). Depending on the henchman, the player will take the actions, or I think it was referred to as “doing your duty”, associated with the spaces. Here are the options for each henchman:
Builder – take a construction material of that color (either orange, black, gray, brown, purple or blue) that can be used to build onto your manor house.
Shield-bearer – claim one shield from that principality and store it in the appropriate shield space on the castle wall on the castle board. These are used to defeat traitors.
Flag-bearer – claim one flag from that principality and attach to your castle board. These flags are used to perform additional actions on a player’s turn.
Lady-in-waiting – place an influence counter (hex shaped cylinders) in the principality which will score points for the most counters at the end of certain rounds.
One other neat element in the game, was that each player has 3 staffs that belong to Merlin and can be used to allow the player to take an action 2 times in one turn. When used, these staffs are discarded so you have to be judicious with them. If you hold onto them at the end of the game, they are worth 2 VPs each.
Scoring will take place at the end of round 2, round 4 and again in round 6 which is when the game will end. Remember that scoring will come from one of four areas including the traitors that you have defeated (or not defeated will lead to negative VPs), the manor house area that you have constructed, your influence cylinders in the principalities and your henchman in principalities. Lots of ways to score and I would say that it is wise to not totally ignore any one area but again it is hard to focus on everything at once.
Overall, I really enjoyed our demo of Merlin and would say that it is definitely a classic Feld design with lots of choices, lots going on at the same time and lots of ways to score points. I would also warn that the game relies heavily on iconography, so if you or your group don’t like games like that, this one will be one to steer clear of. But, all in all, I thought the icons were mostly self explanatory and could be deduced from the picture. There is a good listing of the icons in the rulebook so it will simply take a few plays to understand the symbols. I also wanted to point out that the copy that was used for the demo was not in its final form so don’t judge the game on those components. Overall, the board is really cool to look at, and I love the central rondel and its various actions. The colors are bright and it is a really nice game to look at.
I actually liked Merlin more than Oracle of Delphi, which debuted at Essen last year, so I will definitely be looking to get this game when it comes out. Unfortunately, I am not sure when that is.