Reviewed by Herb Levy

MERCHANTS OF EMPIRE (Hexagames; 2 to 4 players, about 1 hour; Free)


There seems to be no end to the treasures you can find on the Internet. And we found one right here in a self-published game of trade and power called Merchants of Empire (Marchands d’empire).

Merchants of Empire is a Régis Bonnessée design. Unlike the games we regularly feature in our pages, this game does NOT come boxed. Instead, you’ll have to do a little work on your own. Turn on your computer and go to and download the map, action markers, rules and the rest of the components. Once you supply your own 20 sided die, one-minute timer and two draw string bags, you are ready to begin.merchantsemp

The game board is a map showing 20 cities (numbered 1 through 20) of varying size: small city valued at 1, medium city at 2 and large city at 3. (The capital is the large city in the center of the board without a number.) The cities are linked with a network of roads labeled by letter (a, b, c, or d). These roads subdivide the land into eight regions (denoted by Roman numerals ranging from I to VIII). Resource markers (representing the five commodities in the game – coal, bronze, silver, gems and gold – in rising value) are seeded onto the board with one group of four placed on the Capital and four other groups of four placed on the cities that correspond the number rolled. (If the same number appears, the NEXT city in line gets the commodities.) The same is done with contracts with five rolls seeding five contracts on the board. Finally, each player rolls the die and high roller places his starting marker (called a “caravan”) on any city (except the Capital) regardless of whether or not a contract or commodities are there. In clockwise order, the remaining players place their caravans on the board (only one player per city) and play begins.

Each turn follows a set procedure. First, the turn marker is advanced. This is important because at the end of turns 3, 6, 9 and 12, “monopolies” are determined. Next, players plot their moves.

All players have six “Action markers”. On one side, these markers show the letters A, B, C and D. On the flip side is a big “X”. Simultaneously and secretly, all players program their moves by using their markers. The topmost letter of a marker indicates which road that player’s caravan will travel. An X indicates a “Transaction” which means that at whatever city the caravan has stopped, either a commodity or a contract will be claimed.

When claiming a commodity, the caravan takes the LOWEST valued commodity at the city. You may only take one commodity per city but you may take more commodities if you travel to additional cities. Resources acquired are hidden behind a player’s screen; contracts are fulfilled by those resources.

Contracts indicate a value (ranging from 2 to 9) and depict the commodities needed to fulfill the contract. When getting a contract, the player must return to the commodity bag those resources required. (If, for example, the contract calls for a coal and a silver, then one coal and one silver from that player must be returned.)

Once a player completes a contract, three options are available to him. He may KEEP the contract and claim the number on it as Economic Points. He may build a Temple on the city to exert Religious Influence. He may place Electors, face down, in the city’s surrounding regions for Political Influence. However, he may only do TWO of those three actions.

If a city has been emptied of resources, another die roll creates a new cache of four. If the Capital is empty, the Capital ALWAYS gets refilled first. If a contract has been fulfilled, another die roll brings another contract into play.

As mentioned, at the end of turns 3, 6, 9 and 12, “monopolies” are determined. Players “bid” the number of each specific resource. The person with the most of a commodity gets a “monopoly” chit for his “plurality” which equates to 3 Economic Victory Points.

At the end of the last turn, players examine their religious, political and economic influence to determine the winner.

The winner is determined with a clever variation on the “Last Man Standing” syndrome. First, religious influence is determined. Each temple built is worth either 1, 2 or 3 points depending on how large is the city in which it is standing. The player with the LOWEST score is eliminated! (Also eliminated is any of his political influence on the board!)

Next, political factors are turned face up and counted in each region. For every region where a player has the most electors, he receives one point. The player with the FEWEST points is eliminated!

Finally, the remaining player with the MOST Economic points through fulfilled contracts and monopolies wins the game!

Unlike many games where players determine a specific course of action to the exclusion of any other option and follow it to victory, Merchants of Empire is a game where diversity is the key to success. A player cannot win unless he is strong in all three areas – religion, political and economic. Since you can do TWO of three actions when fulfilling a contract, players must carefully choose which two. Do you keep a hefty 9 point Economic contract? Or do you give it up to shore up your weaknesses in the religious and political spheres? Remember: you do NOT have to be first in the religious or political areas. You only have to be sure you are not last!

The flaws to the game are merely cosmetic ones. The roads are marked a, b, c and d in a font (particularly the a and d) that make them harder to distinguish than should be the case, especially since charting your course is timed. A mistake here can wreck your entire strategy! And the size of the cities should be more easily discernible, perhaps using different colors or flags to more clearly indicate different sizes.

Finally, it should be noted that for those of us who do not want to go to the trouble to download, cut and paste to be able to play this gem, the author is prepared to make games upon demand (at the very reasonable cost of only 10 Euros) although we’re hoping that an established company picks this up and gives it the first class production treatment it deserves.

Merchants of Empire is a strong game that deserves wider circulation. The game is challenging, competitive and smoothly crafted. A very pleasant surprise at a price hard to beat. Highly recommended. – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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