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Merchant of Venus

Reviewed by: Kevin Whitmore

(Fantasy Flight Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 120-240 minutes, $79.99)

merchantvenusboxMerchant of Venus was originally released in 1988 by Avalon Hill. Designed by Richard Hamblen, players explore a forgotten wing of deep space. With the demise of Monarch/Avalon Hill in 1998, copies of this game gradually disappeared, eventually turning this game into a “grail” game. For awhile, fan made editions of this game were being made thanks to freely downloadable source files but those files were taken down as a new edition was announced. In fact, for a brief while, it appeared two different companies were on a collision course over who was to be the publisher. Eventually the legal technicalities were sorted out and Fantasy Flight Games released the 2nd edition of Merchant of Venus in 2013.

With this review I will examine the 2 different games included in the box and contrast the new Fantasy Flight edition with the original Avalon Hill edition.

Let’s get started with the physical differences:

Size – The new game is bigger. The box is bigger. The board is bigger. And the sprawl of the components makes the new board even bigger than that. BIG!

Graphic Design – The new game has chunky luxurious counters and cool plastic ships. Take a look at the different graphic styles:

Altogether, the graphic feel is very different. The new version has more information to impart and needs additional iconography.movcomp

With the new release you actually get two games. The “classic” version of the new edition largely recreates the original game with new components. The “standard” game offers a re-imagined game of Merchant of Venus. With this review, I will spend more time examining the differences between the 1st edition game and the new standard game (2nd edition). There are a LOT of differences! It is worth commenting that the new release is component heavy. Sorting all the components is some work, and configuring the game to be ready for either version will take some attention to detail. Regardless of which version you play, I strongly recommend you avoid using the play money included in either release. Instead use poker chips. This is a game that has a lot of transactions, and you will find using poker chips eases play.

In both games, you begin the game with a modest starship, a little bit of money, and an unexplored sector of space before you. In the 1st edition, you goal is quite simple, make money! First player to $2,000 wins. In the 2nd edition, standard game, you now will play 30 game turns. Making money is important but, in addition, you want to earn more fame points than your competitors. Regardless of which edition you play, the core idea remains the same. You buy goods from some cultures and transport them to other cultures who will then buy them. Profit is good, but there are quite a few bumps in the road.image002

An important portion of both games revolves around exploring the sector. At the beginning of the game you don’t know where anyone is and you will earn important funding from discovering the cultures. Each culture will sell to the next four sequential cultures. (Culture #1 sells to cultures 2 thru 5.) Each culture also sells various technical innovations that can greatly change the way you travel the board.

In the 1st edition, much of the board is used for yellow, red and blue movement dots. Several of these dots have values ranging from 10 – 40 as a financial penalty to move over them. A player can pay the fee and keep moving or he/she may stop on the dot to avoid paying the fine. In the 2nd edition, standard game, the idea of these “speed bumps” has been significantly changed. Now, there are four new obstacles to movement: Pilot Checks, Laser Checks, Shield Checks and Encounters (which will often demand one of the others).

Pilot Check – As a neophyte pilot, you have starting skill level of 3. You can pay to upgrade your pilot to a higher skill (and probably should), getting a skill level of 5. Later you can upgrade again to a skill level of 6. To move through a pilot check, you must roll a D6 under your skill level, or cease moving.

Laser Checks/Shield Checks – Each ship begins with 1 or 2 levels of lasers and shields. You may improve your laser/shields at many cultures for a fee. As with the pilot checks, simply roll under your attribute level to proceed. Fail and you either stop, or surrender one level of your laser/shields to keep going.

Encounters – Movement will be paused as you arrive at various types of encounter spaces. All of the various types of encounters will involve the use of dice in pilot/laser/shield checks. I found remembering my movement status difficult to keep track of with all the potential checks I might conduct within a move.

I find this change causes a very different feel to the game. In 1st edition, you either accepted the cost or not. But you determined where you were moving to once you had rolled the dice. With 2nd edition, you might have many occasions to roll various checks along the way and these checks might stop you from proceeding.

In the second edition, the board for the standard game is largely similar to the 1st edition. The systems are still in the same positions, and the connecting routes are largely the same. But one new navigation circle has been added to both the 2nd edition classic and the standard game boards. In the Avalon Hill edition, Colony World does not have this navigation circle that connects down to Jungle World.
In both editions, the basic sequence of play has you rolling dice to determine how far you can go, then travelling, and finally doing any transactions. The basic rule is that if you move, you may only do a single buy and a single sell transaction. One rule I quite liked with the new edition is an allowance for someone to conduct up to 3 buy and 3 sell transactions on the turn they discover a new culture.

A big exception to the one buy/one sell rule has always been for Spaceports. Both editions feature neutral spaceports, and allow players to build privately owned spaceports. The big advantage to a spaceport is the abolition of the one buy/one sell rule. Players may freely buy/sell as much as they want on the turn they arrive. I was interested to see that the 2nd edition, standard game, significantly changed the spaceport rules.movnav

In the 1st edition, all business at a privately owned space port generates a 10% commission or discount. The bank pays these commissions and discounts. (So if I sell a $50 item at Herb’s spaceport, I got all of my proceeds, but then the bank pays Herb $5, a 10% commission.) In the second edition, this has been changed. Now any visiting player to a privately owned spaceport pays a use fee of $10 per transaction to the spaceport owner. (So if I sell that same $50 item at Herb’s spaceport, I will net $40, after paying Herb the $10 fee.) Further, in the 2nd edition the construction of a spaceport blocks access to the city on the planet surface below! So if you want to sell at that system, the owner of the spaceport will get his pound of flesh!

Another notable change is how commercial transactions are conducted. In the original game a wide variety of demand markers are put in a draw cup. Whenever a good is sold, the chit is thrown in the cup, mixed, and then a replacement chit is drawn. In this way bonuses for various goods enter the game. This system was scrapped for the new standard game. Now, as goods are sold, the wares land beside the board, and slowly repopulate to the board. Each culture has three markers to indicate if they are buying at high, normal or low prices. Each time a sale occurs, the local market shifts. So instead of chasing piled up demand markers (1st ed.), players now eye which cultures are paying a premium (2nd ed.).

I did not especially care for this market change. On the plus side, it adds some variability to some goods, such as servo-mechanisms which do not have a demand marker in the 1st edition. But it also removes some of the bigger incentives that could occur in the original game. I’ve seen multiple demand markers pile up for space spice or finest dust in past games. Those situations made for a big swing in fortune, which the new edition has engineered out.

In the AH version, you win the game by declaring your net worth is at least $2,000 at the end of your turn. So in effect the original is a bit of a race to fortune. In the 2nd edition, standard game, there are 30 full turns to be played. Players have several new attributes that contribute to victory:

Ship Upgrades – In the new edition, you can trick out your ship with extra holds, powerful lasers and shields. Several fame points are available.

Mission Cards – In the new edition players can complete missions during the game. Some missions have an immediate reward for completing them. But at the end of the game all mission cards give you additional fame.

Conduct – During the game players have the opportunity to earn fame (or negative fame). Associate with criminals and you lose fame. Do honorable stuff and you gain fame.

Fuzzy Dice – In addition to the upgrades just mentioned, it is possible for a player to buy some fuzzy dice for his/her spaceship. At the end of the game you roll 2D6 and get this much more fame. BUT – if you roll doubles something even better happens! Normally all of your fame is converted to money at a rate of 10 money for each point of fame. But the lucky player who rolls doubles with his fuzzy dice converts all of his/her fame in at a rate of 20 money for each point of fame.

This rule really annoyed me. While I enjoy the swingy fortunes of multiple demand markers in the 1st edition, I strongly dislike this wild swing of fortune in the scoring of the 2nd edition game. In the former case, I see this as an opportunity available for players to strive for. In the latter case I see it as an odd stroke of luck in the scoring system.

Based on my various comments, you might imagine I dislike the new edition. Truth be told, I do prefer the 1st edition. But, I will say that in the various games I have played the 2nd edition has gained a number of fans, some of them being players of the older edition.

My concerns around the new edition are as follows: The game runs longer. Movement is interrupted with various checks and rolls, making movement much more difficult to track, and less deterministic. Ships just get better. In the old game, you made decisions around what tradeoffs you would make. The new spaceport rules damage customers. The weird fame rules and especially the fuzzy dice seem like a huge gratuitous random factor after the game is over.

Fortunately, all of the above concerns are waved away by simply flipping the board over and playing the classic game. It is included in the new 2nd edition. Comparing between the new classic game and the 1st edition is pretty simple. Almost everything is functionally the same. There is the extra navigation wheel in Colony World, but otherwise it is basically a direct port. The new edition is bigger, and will require more space.

So really, there is nothing much to complain about here. You can once again buy Merchant of Venus, and basically enjoy the original game with upgraded components. You can also play the new standard game, which is fun to play, if quite different than the original MoV. And if you are a curmudgeon and prefer the old AH edition, they should once again be available at more reasonable prices. For me, I’ve come to love the old AH edition, and it will be the edition I keep playing. But if someone asked me to play the new FFG edition, I could agree and even enjoy the standard game. I will just know going in that we are not really playing the real MoV game I have known for many years.


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