Game Buzz: Merchant of Venus

One of the big stories from the gaming world in 2011 concerned the reprint rights of

image by BGG user Werbaer

Merchant of Venus was originally designed by Richard Hamblen and released by Avalon Hill in 1988.  A science fiction pick-up-and-deliver game, it was a pretty big hit and earned scores of fans all around the world.  Unfortunately, it’s been out of print for years.  However, MoV-heads everywhere   rejoiced in October of 2011 when Stronghold Games announced that they had secured the rights and would be reprinting it.

The next day, Fantasy Flight announced that THEY would be reprinting it.

What followed was an interesting case of compromise.  As it turns out, Stronghold got the rights from Richard Hamblen himself, while Fantasy Flight secured the rights from Hasbro/Avalon Hill.  After months of negotiation, Fantasy Flight and Stronghold reached an agreement where they would co-produce the game.  On one side of the board would be the typical Fantasy Flight reimagining of the property.  The other side would be the classic game, as sponsored by Stronghold.  Both companies earned praise for their handling of the situation.  And now, a little over a year later, we finally have a product:

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Merchant of Venus is playable by 1-4 players (down from 6 in the original), and takes three hours to play.  You take the role of a merchant roaming around the galaxy, discovering new civilizations, finding out what they want, and selling it to them for big money.  There’s a lot of exploration and a good amount of luck mixed in with some strategy.

A few things before I get rolling with the overview.  First, I have never played the original game, so I can’t make comparisons.  Eric Summerer of The Dice Tower is a big fan of the game, and he’s done a pretty comprehensive comparison of both, so check that out if you’re interested.  Second, this overview is only going to cover the reimagined, or “standard” game.  I’m not looking at the classic.  Finally, I was involved in the playtest process for this game, and though I’m not affiliated with Fantasy Flight in any other way, I mention it in the spirit of full disclosure.  I’m not going to talk about the playtest process, just the final product.

Merchant of Venus comes with 4 plastic merchant ships and stands; 4 dashboard sheets with the patented Fantast Flight dials; a double-sided game board; 8 ship class sheets; 42 encounter cards; 78 small cards (challenges, first contact, first player, missions, pilots, and rewards); 534 tokens of different types; a round marker; amd five six-sided dice (4 white speed dice and a purple effect die).  At the start of the game, one first contact card is placed in each of the fourteen systems on the board.  Each player takes a color ship and a pilot (Human, Eeepeeep, Whynom, and Qossuth), as well as a face-up mission card.  Players get credits based on the number of players and turn order (basically 20c times the number of players, plus 20 if you’re player #3, plus 20 more if you’re player #4).  You’ll set your laser and shield dials to either one or two (one of them set to one, the other to two).  A passenger is drawn and placed on its starting location, and all merchant ships are placed on the Galactic Base.

MoV lasts for 30 rounds.  In each round, each player will get one turn.  A round could begin with a new passenger being drawn and placed, or players retrieving drill tokens and redeeming them for money (this changes from round to round).  On your turn, there are four phases: movement, first contact, transaction, and merchant spaceport.

MOVEMENT (may be skipped): The first thing you do here is declare your heading – point your ship in the direction you want to go.  You’ll then set your speed by rolling three dice.  This total represents how many movement points you can spend on your turn.  You can choose to assign a rolled 1 to the throttle to roll one more die.  You can also assign one to navigation, so you can move through a navigation space in the direction you want to, or to a specific telegate.  Additional abilities may be added as the game goes on, but the total on the dice is always used for movement.

After you’ve assigned dice, you can move.  You may encounter telegates, navigation spaces, hazards, pirates, and other things that change your course.  Movement ends when you’ve either moved the entire total on your dice, or if you land on a planet, or if you dock with a spaceport.  If you land on an asteroid, your turn immediately ends.

FIRST CONTACT: If you land on a planet or spaceport with an undiscovered culture (face-down first contact card), flip the card over.  This will reveal a culture that occupies that system.  It also gives you an IOU value, which is money you can spend at any time, though only with that culture.  The revealed culture’s market tokens are placed in a shuffled face-up stack, and any passengers in the culture supply area are placed in the market area.  The culture’s goods tokens and racial tech tokens are placed in their spots.  You may then take up to three buy and three sell actions with that culture, rather than the one and one you’d normally get.

TRANSACTION: Here, you may buy goods, pieces of equipment, or racial technology (though only one if you land on the surface city that turn).  You could also sell goods at a culture that buys the particular type of good (again, only one if you landed on a surface city that turn).  The market price for goods changes after you’ve made all of your sell actions for the turn.  You could also pick up a passenger (as long as you have room in your cargo holds), or drop it off at its destination.

MERCHANT SPACEPORT: If in a surface city, you can spend 200c to build a spaceport on an empty orbit space.  If you do, you can trade there instead of landing.  Anyone can trade there, in fact, they just have to pay you 10c for the privilege.

Your turn ends here, though it could end earlier if you fail a hazard check, have an encounter that ends your turn, or end your move on a space that is not a surface city or spaceport.

The game ends after 30 rounds.  You get 200c for each spaceport you own on the board.  You total up your fame (you must have more than 0, or you can’t win), and receive credits equal to your fame times ten.  The player with the most money (not including any unspent IOU money) wins.

From my one play of this game, I can say it’s a really fun experience.  Not the deepest strategic game, perhaps, but definitely thematic.  We’re talking pure Ameritrash here, folks.  Lots of randomness, conflict, and unpredictability.  Part of it is a race across the galaxy to meet certain objectives, part of it is just exploring the board.  I had fun with it, though the game is really long.  There’s not really anything to do when it’s not your turn, and turns can take a while.  I think we only played about half a game, which was more than my wife could take.  For me, I really enjoyed exploring and trying to establish trade routes.  I’m looking forward to giving the final product a shot – I think some people in my game group just got their copies, so maybe I’ll get to play soon.  Thanks for reading!  Oh…and happy Thanksgiving!

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