MERLIN a 2-4 Player game for 14 Year olds and upwards
Designed by the effervescent Stefan Feld and the accomplished Michael Rieneck (both well renowned for so many wonderfully enjoyable Euro games)
Graphics & Artwork: Dennis Lohausen
The first thing noticeable about MERLIN is the number of components - there are a good couple of hundred Tiles, Counters, Markers, Dice etc including a 3D Crown for the 'Start' player and 2 small 3D pieces, Excalibur and the Grail, for scoring purposes.
The second thing we discovered before playing our first game was that the rules are too complex to understand and take in fully in just one read through; we found that we were constantly stopping to discover the various details and requirements and so after our first game I went online to Boardgamegeek.com, found the pdf of the English rules, determined which pages were the most informative and used during the game (4-12) and printed them out. From then on when we played we had two sets of much needed reference sheets - the ones in the booklet and the newly printed pages #4 to #12 inclusive; this made the game flow much quicker as we were no longer passing one set of rules around between the four of us. I should point out here that if you are using an inkjet printer there are many different colours in use and each page has a coloured background so be prepared to use a fair amount of ink. Lasers are slightly more efficient but still use a huge amount of colour toners. I'm saying it may cost you a little more than you bargained for but having at least one reprint of pages 4-12 inclusive is a must, if you can afford to print 4 copies (one per player and to preserve the rules booklet's wear & tear) it is a much better option. It would have been nice for the designers to have thought to include player Reference Sheets, and, at the same time, include ziploc bags for the myriad of small pieces.
The game is built around King Arthur challenging his Nobles (the Players) to a series of Actions and Missions (Quests); the Player who utilises their pieces and abilities the best to become Arthur's successor. To this aim the players have a personal Knight who moves around the central Rondela of Camelot searching and bargaining for resources and Influence. Also to aid them in their quests the Players may move the mighty Mage, Merlin, once per Turn, his Action determined by the Roll of the White Die and possibly the use of one of (each player has three) Staffs of Merlin (Staves of Merlin ?) The inner Rondela has 24 spaces, each of which relates to a possible Action, and around which Merlin and the Knights are moved. Around the outer edge there are six Castles, all with a different coloured top of their Keep from which flies their Principality Flags - these Flags depict not only the colour identification of the Castle but also each has a different speciality effect that the owner of the flag can use during their turn. Knowing what the flags mean is part of the learning curve of the game and is something the players need to do early in the game as they can play important parts in the chosen Actions. By this I mean if you have collected a Flag or Flags then you can use them to your advantage during your Turn (but you have to discard them back to from whence they came after such usage).
I have heard some people say they are not keen on MERLIN because it is a Dice-based game and to those people I say "You cannot have played it, or at least you cannot have played it enough". Yes Dice are important, but not in the Roll-A-Die to win a combat or defeat a Dragon etc. Dice are used for Movement around the Rondela and each player rolls three dice of their own accepted ID colour and one White die (the latter being known as the 'Merlin' die). Play is in Turns of Four Rounds each over 6 Game Phases (noted on the board by a Sun Marker), with each player taking One Turn before the next player clockwise so that all four Turns of a player are individually taken. Players can use any of the three home-colour die results they have rolled to move their Knight and the White die result to move Merlin. There is no specific order in which the dice are used, but as each is chosen it is placed on the Round Table and cannot be used again this Turn. Knights move clockwise on the Rondela, Merlin moves either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Knights are not in conflict with each other and thus can happily share the same space as other Knights.
There are many decisions to be made during play. One of which is the use of the four Henchmen; the BUILDER - collects one resource from the Principality he is placed into. The SHIELD-BEARER - claims a Shield from the Principality he is placed into. The FLAG-BEARER - claims a Flag from the Principality he is placed into. LADY-in-WAITING - the Player places an Influence counter in the Principality she is placed into. Resources are required for several Actions during play, including building a Manor in the 'environs' (these being a separate board of hex based areas of different terrain - some containing Towers). Shields are necessary to defeat traitors (one Shield per Traitor) who would otherwise cost the player a hefty 3 VPs. Flags are attached to the player's 'Castle Board' and are used (discarded) for their special effects to be taken into account. Influence gives players more options and possible VPs. All four Henchpeople should be used thoughtfully which takes up a little time as players need to weigh up their options each Turn. Once positioned in a Principality Hench-people can be relocated by their owner or sent home by opponents but whilst in a Principality they are useful for gaining influence etc.
The 'environs' is a clever way of gaining VPs by creating unbroken lines of Manors (up to 7 per player). To construct a Manor in the environs you need only one resource which is quite unusual for any game where resources are required for buildings. Six resources are shown printed around the environs board. When you pay one Resource you draw imaginary lines from the chosen resource on the environs board through the hexes and select an empty hex into which you build your Manor, only one Manor per hex, but you can trace your path through other player's Manors.
There are so many different aspects of this game that to explain them all would break my 'brief review' rule but I have to mention Apples. Player's begin with a single apple as part of the setup and are gained by the player owning the Grail during play. Apples can be spent to change the face of any one die (per apple spent) to any result, thus allowing you to land your Knight or Merlin on a desired space on the rondela (as long as the desired space is 6 or less moves away) to allow you to perform the associated Action. Merlin's Staff tokens can be used if the player moves Merlin in their Turn, it allows them to perform the Action of the space again immediately - this sounds extremely helpful and each player has three of these tokens, but funnily in all of the games we have played there are always players who have not taken full advantage of them.
I mentioned Traitors earlier so I better expand on them a little. Each player begins with three Traitors (can be duplicates) that are fixed to their Castle's crenellated walls above their matching shield illustrations. To get rid of the Traitors players have to gain shields that match the one's on the Traitors (I think I said that already but I failed to mention that owning Excalibur will dispel ALL Traitors and give you a VP bonus). New Traitors are attached to the player's Castles at the beginning of each new Round - repelled Traitors are discarded non-repelled Traitors remain.
The game box is stuffed full of components and those components meld together to create a bubbling, effervescent, colourful, if not totally authentic to the Legend of King Arthur, most enjoyable board game.
Of the many man-management, resource management, die-rolling euro-style games MERLIN is definitely in the Top Ten of this century and very near the top of that list. There is little or no player participation, none actually unless you count replacing an opponent's Hench-person with one of yours, but for once that doesn't matter as the game has so much going for it even though the setup is almost constant - the placement of the Knights (according to the players Starting Cards), the dealing of Mission cards (these are ways of gaining additional VPs and can be resolved by the players in their Turn (one only per Turn) and the rolling of the dice being the random elements. Each games plays out similarly, of course, but they do not play out the same and to date we have found no definitive way of guaranteeing a win no matter what strategies or tactics we have tried, and we have tried.
MERLIN on Amazon is £48.00 UK and $88.00 USA I am surprised that 67 copies have been sold through the Boardgamegeek marketplace from $35.00 - $72.00 and can only assume that the majority of these are by traders as the game is too good not to keep hold of. In North London's 'Leisure Games' it is £54.99 and currently sold-out (I can understand why too). I found it advertised on the websites online of: Games Lore Telford £43.99 and GameQuest Bordon £46.99.
You can also check out your local games store to find a copy LOCAL GAME STORES FOUND HERE