MADICON REPORT: Merchant of Venus

Monday , 2, May 2016 3 Comments

This venerable game has a great deal of cachet– and not just from nostalgia, either. For one of these ancient Avalon Hill Bookcase Games, it gets a surprising amount of play out in the convention scene. A game that has held up under punishing tournament conditions this long has surely stood the test of time. Lucky for me I didn’t have to slog through it on my own– I got the chance to learn it from a seasoned gamer at the local sff con!

Before getting into the details of how this one plays, I should note that space trading games are a genre that has caused me no small amount of frustration over the years. I’ve had mediocre experiences with several:

  • Greg Costikian’s Trailblazer from MetaGaming — This one is really neat even if it’s all but impossible to find opponents with it. You run an entire fleet of ships and the price of the goods is determined by how many are currently being sold at a world on a given turn. Yes, you have to manually keep up with spreadsheets of data to play this and it’s slow as heck, but the genuine supply and demand mechanisms engineered into the charts is fascinating.
  • Firefly: the Board Game — This game has a following and it has been praised by Lewis Pulsipher as a great example of how to incorporate large amounts of theme and setting detail into a board game design, but this one really drives me crazy. Oh yea, a whole lot of people enjoy this one… but the lack of player interaction leaves me cold. And by the time I get a crew put together with some decent equipment, the Reavers show up and take it all away from me. The many decks of cards that model the patrons and the local scene of the various worlds are loaded. Unfortunately the gameplay doesn’t give me any reason to care.
  • Star Trader — This one is from the eighties when (strangely enough) Steve Jackson Games tried their hand at making an Avalon Hill style game. (And it’s wild to see Isaac Asimov with Steve Jackson on the back of the box, too.) The galactic map makes for some interesting terrain to cruise around on. And players can build stations at the various world to improve their ability to get around and also to gain extra sources of income. The central mechanic of moving varying cargoes from point A to point B is more cleanly expressed here than in Firefly– and the fact that there are fewer cargoes on the table than players mean that the players will interact here. Although people today will still play this in spite of its production values, the end game tends to devolve into a brutal exercise in “stomp the leader” that will be familiar to anyone that’s played Illuminati or Munchkin. That said, the combination of a social and political dimension with a very clear end game is a welcome contrast to the other trading games I’ve mentioned so far.

Well, it didn’t take very many turns for me to see that Merchant of Venus is the space trading game I’ve been waiting for. Just the terrain makes for a far more interesting game than the other three I’ve mentioned. When you roll your 3d6, you can’t always go where you want. There are spaces on the board that are marked with navigation numbers– if that number didn’t come up in your throw, you can’t go in the direction it’s pointing! This can leave you making the best of a less than ideal die roll, but if you really need to take a certain shortcut it can give you good reasons to hang around and wait for just the right number to come up. I really felt like I was on the horns of a dilemma on just about every turn thanks to the this aspect of the design.

But there’s more. Every time someone sells a good, a demand tile is drawn from a bag in order to add additional monetary incentive for delivering a particular good to a particular world. Unlike Star Trader where there is an artificially limited number of trading opportunities, here there are several different races going on at once. Yes, being at the right place and the right time and getting the die rolls you need can make a difference in your ability to capitalize on these opportunities. But players can also buy factories on worlds, giving them a better margin when they deliver the special good that becomes available when they make the investment. When sold, these tiles go back in the bag– so you don’t know just when these special goods will come back out on the board. Taken with the other elements of the design, you’re just not going to find a single sweet spot on the board that you can go back and forth on for much of the game, as in the classic BBS game Trade Wars. It’s a really dynamic environment and while reading the board to see what you can do is straightforward, choosing the thing to do that will make you the most money the fastest is invariably a challenge!

One last thing makes this an especially good game: just as in Firefly and Star Trader there are multiple paths to victory and it’s not obvious which is best overall strategy. In my game, one player upgraded to a clipper ship in order to get a fourth die they could roll for movement. They bought space stations so they could do unlimited trading when they arrived and tended to load their cargo holds with identical goods in order to leverage their investments. I tended to keep two different goods in my holds, bought up anything that was in demand, bought from my own factories, and even bought from other peoples’ factories in order to deny them the bonus. Though I wanted to improve my ship, chasing the next big sale often ended up being a higher priority for me. I couldn’t help thinking that this was a sub-optimal approach, though.

There’s more to this game than what I described so far. There are artifacts scattered around the board that give you various perks for instance. Also, discovering a world gives you some free money to spend there that can shake things up a little. But on the whole, it’s the unusual space terrain combined with the wealth of trading opportunities that make this game so compelling. This is perhaps more of a gamer’s game than Firefly, but the fact that this really is a masterpiece of design makes it (in my opinion) worth going out of your way for.

(Note that I played the new edition under the classic rules. The new version of the game contains two different versions of the game, which makes setting up a bit of a headache because it’s not easy to figure out which bits should be in play. That combined with the fact that the PrezCon tournaments still use the original Avalon Hill edition of the game makes this one of those rare cases where tracking down a vintage copy is maybe worth the hassle. But the steep prices for those vintage editions will have a lot of people making do with the newer one.)

  • Merchant of Venus has been on my wishlist forever. The closest I’ve ever come is watching other people play it at BoardGameGeek.con. Someday I want to give it a try.

    • Jeffro says:

      I would definitely sit in with some experienced players if I could get a seat with them. Excellent game, though… maybe a bit longer than Firefly.

  • Littlest Hellhound says:

    The Fantasy Flight edition of Merchants of Venus also has a great solo mode. It’s a pig to set up for a solo game, but well worth the time if you have no other players around and an afternoon free.

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