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July 29, 2003

Favorite Games XXIV

Another out-of-print Avalon Hill fave today...

Merchant of Venus is a science fiction themed game because it had to be to sell... but it really isn't about space. The designer's notes admit that the game is closer to 16th and 17th century spice island trade than to anything scifi, but that's hardly a problem. After all, this has been done in dozens of similarly-theamed computer and board games before and since. What we get this time, though, is a delightfully quirky (sometimes downright silly) game of navigating through a semi-charted region of space, trying to discover cultures that will sell you cheap goods you can sell at a high price elsewhere. The goal is to make your fortune faster than the other traders can, because everyone will get rich here.

If the game has a flaw, it's the first thing you notice about it... it's busy. The board is covered in icons, and to those you need to add dozens of cardboard chits to randomize the locations of alien cultures and of numerous navigation hazards/lost relics/etc. Learning to read the board and work out just what your move rolls will allow is the steepest part of this game's learning curve. Once you get your head around the many symbols and their meanings, the next step is counting out good routes from system to system. The board is designed to offer several inherent "triangles" if the cultures appear in the right places, and there are also "tele-gates" that appear randomly and could end up creating several more via short-cut. Of course, you won't find out which culture is where until you go there and check.

First contact is rewarded with an IOU counter you can trade for goods or equipment later, and the first chance to buy up their inventory of goods and perhaps (if you have the money) build a space station or a factory there. Stations allow one to trade in orbit (so more trading can be done on a turn, and you don't have to pay the high movement point cost of taking off from the surface). Factories allow the production of higher-valued goods. Both give their owner a "cut" and all spaceports and factories count toward winning, so it's hardly like spending at all. There are, in total, 14 cultures you can discover, which may include fragments of your own (the players are merchants from the galactic core, which did not experience quite the collapse of this sector).

Goods are stored in your ship's hold for transport, and can be sold at any culture marked on their reverse (usually the next 4 cultures of a 14-culture circle... the exception is that culture 8 sells to 5 other cultures not 4 for complex reasons of the game's structure I'm not 100% sure I understand, but it's reasonably balanced anyway). You can buy up to a larger ship for more cargo space, or down to a smaller one to move faster. If you find a nice, short loop, you can make money very quickly. However, once a good is bought and sold, it vanishes from the board into "the cup". The Cup is where random counters lie, counters that add passengers seeking transit from planet to planet or heightened demand for certain goods or, once they are sold and put there, new production of goods. So, if you sell and return too fast, you'll find there's nothing left to buy next visit (though there will be more random items scattered around the map). This keeps the game from getting too deep into a rut, and offers other players a way to disrupt a hard-to-better cornering of the market (they can buy up one critical good and jettison it into space, denying you the profits... or just hold it in a huge ship making it impossible to produce more).

And I haven't even mentioned the funky rule-bending relics, player-vs-player combat via ship weapons, or the optional (and nasty) evil space-worm Rastur race that slowly infect the board. This is no German-style trading game with one overarching bid or trade mechanic; it is a complex game made up of numerous, individually simple mechanics (many of which might be their own German-style game, one of racing along a complex map, one of exploration, one of trading...). The result is a challenging and fun game with high replayability thanks to the very randomized board (though a much too long set-up/clean-up time because of all the different counters).

Unfortunately out of print since the late 80s and hard to find... but well worth it if you can!

Posted by ghoul at July 29, 2003 06:09 AM

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I've played this one a few times; I have a thing for merchant games. Merchants of Amsterdam is another fun one (I think I have the name right; you have a bidding clock you hit to set your bid).

Posted by: Scott at July 29, 2003 08:19 AM

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away known as Staten Island, there used to be a comic (and game) store by the name of Merchant of Venus. (And yes, I recall that the game was for sale, there).

The store's partners eventually parted ways, and the store rechristened itself Forbidden Planet.

Posted by: Paul at August 2, 2003 10:49 AM

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