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KASHGAR: MERCHANTS OF THE SILK ROAD

Reviewed by Herb Levy

KASHGAR: MERCHANTS OF THE SILK ROAD (Grail Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 60 minutes; $39.99)

 

Several years back, at the gaming convention known as The Gathering of Friends, I had the pleasure of playing a game about merchants leading caravans, travelling and trading on the legendary Silk Road. It was the highlight of my time there and I couldn’t wait to get a copy for myself. But I had played a “mock up” of the game, sleeved with English paste-ups because the language heavy cards were totally in German! No matter, I thought, surely the game will appear in an English language edition soon. Well, soon has turned into years but to the rescue has come Grail Games with their English language edition of Gerhard Hecht’s Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road

All players begin with a player board which tracks the five spices in the game – ginger (tan),  cloves (pink), pepper (black), star anise (brown) and cinnamon (red) – as well as the gold and number of mules a player has. (At the start of play, all of these begin at 3.) But Kashgar is, in essence, a card game and several decks of cards power the action.

Everyone gets 3 identical “Patriarch” cards which are placed side by side. A set of 12 “Starting” cards is shuffled with three randomly dealt to each player. (Any remainders are removed from play.) One Starting card of a player’s choice is placed behind each Patriarch. These three rows, in game terminology, are called “caravans”.  The deck of “Standard” cards depicting characters that may join your caravans is shuffled and placed between players. A deck of “Special”  characters (generally more powerful and/or valuable) is shuffled and placed aside for now. There is also a deck of “Orders” and four of them are drawn and placed on display. The player with the lowest numbered Starting card begins.

A game turn involves choosing a card to play. That card MUST be the front card of ONE of the three caravans of that player. All cards have, in text, a power or ability that can be done. On a turn, a player may use the power/ability of a card, a so-called “Caravan” action. These are reusable. Other cards have a “Parting” power (identified by its reddish background) which may be used but is a “one shot”; once played that card is discarded. The third option is to simply pass, decline to use the power/ability of a card (although, two cards in the game have a ! on it, which means that card MUST be played and the passing option is NOT possible).  After a Caravan action or passing, that card is moved to the back of the caravan. Any new card recruited because of a card’s action is placed behind that! Played cards cannot be activated again until they “recycle” and reappear at the front of a caravan! Cycling through your THREE caravans is a challenge not found in other games that share this deck building characteristic. So just what do these cards do?

At the start of play, the Patriarch side is face up and is useful as this allows you to draw two Standard character cards, add one to that Patriarch’s caravan and discard the other. This is the start of your engine building but not the only way. The Patriarch card is the only two sided card in the game; its flip side is the Matriarch. Flipping to the Matriarch side can prove even more valuable as this allows you to go through the discard pile and choose ONE card to add to your caravan! (Although powerful, this maneuver will not allow you to claim any card with a “Parting” ability.) It should be noted that the Patriarch/Matriarch card is one of those with a ! so it must always be played! (For those curious, the Gate Keeper that affects gold holdings is the other.) Some cards (like the Noblewoman) will allow you to recruit Special characters to your caravan. Some characters (such as the Planter) will allow you to add to your supply of spices while others (the Debt Collector, for example) will increase gold or (with the Mule Handler) mules. Many cards require you to spend one type of resource to gain in another or will set the value of a resource to a specified amount. The choosing and managing of your caravans’ characters give the game a distinct character and keeps every game fresh. 

The goal is to amass 25 Victory Points and while some characters can provide some, the bulk of VPs will come from fulfilling orders. 

Orders come in Large, Small and Special varieties but you just can’t decide to complete an order on a whim. You need to play a card from your caravan that will ALLOW you to fulfill one. Sometimes cards specify just what type of order you may fulfill. While some characters (such as the Guild Lord) will allow you the chance to complete an order, the more common character card, the Spice Merchant, will permit this to be done – but is worth MINUS 1 VP in your caravan!

Most orders depict a number of mules. This is how many you must have to be eligible to fulfill it.  You don’t spend these, you just need to have them! Then, only if you have played the appropriate Character card AND have the minimum required number of mules, you are permitted to spend the required number of resources (reducing those amounts on your player board accordingly) and claim the order. Orders range in value from 1 to 6 VPs and are collected and displayed in your play area so everyone knows how many VPs everyone has at all times. Fulfilled orders are immediately replenished so there are always four on display. 

When someone has amassed 25 VPs, the end of the game is triggered. That round is completed and the player with the highest number of VPs get s the win. If there is a tie, then the LAST player to achieve the tied amount of VPS claims victory!

Franz Vohwinkel is credited with the artwork here so it is no surprise that it is high quality. Kudos to Grail Games for keeping the graphic excellence of the game from its original 2013 Kosmos version. Another smart design decision? When looking at the necessary resources demanded for completing an order, the resources are found in the SAME ORDER as their positions on a player’s card! This makes it easy to see what you have and what is needed. Thankfully, the colors used are easy to distinguish even though there is a tan and a brown, a pink and a red (helped by having those color tracks NOT next to each other).  

Although you have, at the minimum, three possible characters to activate each turn (it is possible to have FOUR as there is a card that allows a player to start a FOURTH caravan!), Kashgar is surprisingly quick to play and the abilities of the cards are straightforward. (Still, a Card Index is included to make things even clearer.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough decisions to be made. At the core is deciding how big to make your caravans. More cards mean more powers to harness – and more VPs from Character cards – which is all to the good. But the more cards in a caravan, the longer it takes to cycle through it. That means that powerful and critical card you want to use will take longer to appear at the front of the line so you can use it! Many cards including many of the Starting cards have VP values but they also have “parting” powers. Do you play them for their one shot abilities and lose those VPs or keep them and recycle (which, in effect, is losing a turn)? These decisions can make or break your grand plans!

During play, players tend to be laser focused on what they can do. Interaction is minimal (unless you are trying to fulfill an order before an opponent) as there is generally very little you can do to thwart another player’s plans. This is consistent with many Euros as, as a genre, they tend to shy away from direct confrontation. However, for those players who like a little “take that”, the game INCLUDES a 12 card expansion (where you will find the Gate Keeper) that does just that, offering new Characters (to be shuffled into the main Character deck) that can reduce the gold or mules held by other players, give an opponent a card worth MINUS 2 VPs (which can later be shifted onto yet another player when the card cycles so timing becomes important here, especially when a player is nearing the 25 VP total), create some havoc with carefully crafted caravan order and more! (With their brown background, these cards can be easily removed from the deck if you want to go back to the basic game.) 

Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road is a game in the vein of Century Spice Road (featured in the Fall 2017 issue of Gamers Alliance Report) and Splendor (Summer 2014 Gamers Alliance Report) with the same weight, easy learning curve and quick play of those very popular games. Both of those are excellent and worthwhile. But, if I had to pick among the three, I would choose Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road without hesitation! Highly recommended! – – – – – Herb Levy


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