Merchants of the Dark Road: Brave the way across Lumi [Review]

Lumi is an ice world, the universe where Merchants of the Dark Road takes place. Obviously, the sun never shines during their winter period. The landscape is shrouded by the darkness all day long. Thanks to Quartz, a precious resource which shines bright and melts ice, the people of Lumi can survive this season. During this period, the role of the Merchants is crucial — they carry and distribute the necessities while moving other travellers with them out of the capital city.

To make sure everything fares well, it is the Merchants’ duty to get accompanied by some highly intellect creatures along their journey. Thanks for their support, and the lanterns, the Merchants may be able to brave their perilous road. And by doing so, they earn their well-deserved money and fame. Whichever Merchant has successfully balanced both aspects, wins the game.

I had been waiting for this game’s release date since its 2020 campaign on Kickstarter. The components and build quality, as well as the unique follow mechanic implemented, has pulled me to back the project. I had high hopes and expectations, especially for these two aspects. Naturally, when Merchants of the Dark Road arrived, I immediately unboxed it and learnt the rulebook.

To sum it up: in Merchants of the Dark Road, all players act as merchants with their horse caravan and starting goods. Along the way, they will purchase and sell these items to some heroes. While doing so, the merchants accompany the heroes — bringing them to their destination and looking to fulfil commissions within the locals. These activities will either be rewarded with money or prestige. Nevertheless, the final points will only be calculated based on the lowest between those two aspects.

Remarks from Merchants of the Dark Road

This game has far exceeded my expectation — for starters, it’s quick to learn the rules of Merchants of the Dark Road. They are easy to understand and simple to remember. Basically, it is a pick-up and deliver that gets combined with three other mechanics: roundels, market, and follow. All players have to gather items and travellers, and then deliver them to other cities. It’s not an easy deed, since they need to make difficult decisions along the way.

The first thing we notice is the roundel, where players will encircle the five points to activate one of the Districts. Meanwhile, the number of steps a player can take depends on his/her dice. To put into deeper consideration, these dice can get depleted — and the pips shown are sometimes undesirable, either. This puzzle is the main reason why my group gets an analysis-paralysis in Merchants of the Dark Road.

Each player may choose one out of three actions during his/her turn. The actions range from: taking goods, getting lanterns for travelling purposes, as well as getting money or manipulating the market. Interestingly, all these actions are heavily relying on the dice pips available.

To put it simply: each player selects dice from the desired slot and pushes them up. The pips determine how far that player’s caravan can move. Finally, that player may only conduct the relevant action at the location where the caravan stops. This can become frustrating because, sometimes, the dice pips don’t lead the caravan to the desired location. Nevertheless, the randomness is for me a ‘necessary evil’ in a euro game. It does bring unexpected turns of event, but to the extent they won’t disrupt the whole gaming experience.

Personally, the most fun from Merchants of the Dark Road is thinking how to collect a good combination of the heroes and the commissions, and then deliver them across the cities in the titular Dark Road. It is revealed to be quite interactive between players. The more, the merrier — when a merchant decides to travel, he/she may also offer the rival merchants to fare with them. With more merchants joining the expedition, the better chance of getting better payout through the travel dice. Indeed, travelling across the treacherous roads requires luck favouring your side. Nonetheless, players will still face the dilemma to take the journey solo and become the Leader. It offers the possibility to get the Bonus Item only for yourself.

This aspect creates a good dynamic — sometimes, players want to have the opponents joining in, and by doing so, sharing the benefit after delivering the goods. On the other hand, limiting the farer by opting to travel to an area where the other merchants have low or no relevant heroes and commissions can be interesting, too. The latter one is meant to get the best payout despite lower probability to gain such thing. Unfortunately, this clever mechanism leads to quite a downtime, although insignificant for me.

Lastly, the Market becomes one of the most appealing part of the game, which brings out price variability for each Item. Consequently, players need to carefully decide which to purchase and sell to gain money and travellers. All the aforementioned aspects above are overlapping each other.

Scoring victory points (VP)

This is the focal point of the game — in Merchants of the Dark Road, players will collect Coin and Prestige. The latter one is visible, an open-information shown on the Prestige Track. The Coin, on the other hand, will remain secret until the end of the game. Hence, it’s pretty common to watch players counting their coin in their pouch often during the gameplay. Both become important because the victory points (VP) calculated at the end are based on whichever the least out of those two. Hence, keeping both of them in balance and on check every time is necessary to reap the most points at the end. The bonus VP from the Deed cards will also get added later.

Lalu di akhir game jika kita memperoleh Deed Card yang bertuliskan VP, maka tambahkan VP tersebut ke Base VP tadi.

The out-of-this-world components

Elf Creek Games has never disappointed me in terms of component. The deluxe edition of Merchants of the Dark Road has high quality printed all over it. They really deliver something extraordinary across the components, from the triple-layered player boards to the unique metal coins. These nice components bring the immersive experience into the Lumi universe — it feels good as it is beautiful. The caravans are double-layered, in which components will be firmly secured. The lanterns look like painted in transparent plastic — it’s similar to the orange-painted crystal, too.

The metal coins are the main spotlight in this game. Even in its cardboard form, the currency in Merchants of the Dark Road looks good already. Hence, when upgraded to the metal coins, the aesthetical value really goes through the roof. Something minor I’d like to raise is the design of the metal coins makes it impractical to stack. Nevertheless, we will put them in the pouch during the game, so it does not really bother us.

Some things to improve

This part is only me nitpicking on Merchants of the Dark Road, but I think it deserves to get mentioned. The poor selection of potion and instrument is being one of them. Somehow, the creator also chose two similar colours to define two different things, which rather confusing. With one coloured light green and the other only slightly darker, it becomes a huge problem, as the designs and icons are too similar and difficult to differentiate in a glance. The described items are actually the smallest and the largest goods fit in the caravan, which makes the matter worse. Imagine keeping a humongous instrument in your caravan and just forgo carrying any other good with it, just to realize that the heroes or your commission were actually requesting potions.

Other small complaint should be directed to the interconnection of the location. There are many locations which effect will impact other actions in another location. For example, I must collect a commission at Queen’s Commission — however, that commission can only then be done at Yurg’s Excursion during travelling. Many other similar instances like this, and for the first timers, this thing can be pretty confusing. In addition, it unnecessarily increases the game time, thanks to analysis paralysis — or worse, planning mistake.

The above nitpick will be prominent (hopefully) in the first play. In my experience, the second and forth experience was a breeze. That complaint should be subsiding with more gameplay, after familiarizing ourselves with the whole rule and dynamic.

Final thoughts

During and after the game, we never notice something being overpowering in Merchants of the Dark Road. Everything still makes sense, with the motto, “With great power comes great responsibility,” or in this case, sacrifice. The variable power for each Horse we pick at the beginning is also fair for each player. With their different abilities and advantages, this aspect is still well-balance.

Merchants of the Dark Road is a euro game equipped with strong theme. The deluxe edition delivers something extraordinary, which also explains the steep price tag — although it can be pretty mild for the pocket, compared to other Kickstarter projects nowadays. This becomes one of the games that we always look forward to hitting the table.

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