Game at a Glance
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher; however, my opinions are my own
The maps of the imaginary kingdom of Tigomé are outdated, and communication between the cities has been lost. Lacking modern tools such as Google Earth and cell phones, the Queen has no choice but to rely on the brave adventurers of The Guild of Merchant Explorers to set things right. Players will send their band of explorers over grasslands, deserts, mountains, and seas in an attempt to establish trade routes between cities, all while discovering villages, exploring ancient ruins, and uncovering other lucrative secrets across the land.
The game is played over four eras consisting of turns based on a deck of explore cards. When an explore card is revealed, it is placed in its matching space on the exploration board. Every player positions their explorers (cubes) on a personal map per the card’s action, starting at the map’s capital and working outward using adjacency. Exploration can to the accumulation of victory points (coins) through the discovery of villages, setting up trade routes, completing community goals, etc. As the game progresses, players can develop their own unique actions via the era cards, setting each player on wildly different paths.
At the end of each era, all explorer cubes are removed from the maps. Other components, such as villages, stay in place. The exploration cards are shuffled together, the next era card is added to the exploration deck, and a new era begins. New explorations can originate from the capital or previously established villages, giving players opportunities to branch out even further than before. After the fourth era, the game ends and the player with the most coins is the winner.
The game is exceedingly simple: flip a card, everybody at the table completes the action on the card, then rinse and repeat. This is a common roll- or flip-and-write formula. The Guild of Merchant Explorers has ditched the pencils in favor of wooden cubes, added in a few simple yet clever design elements, and has managed to come up with something that feels fresh.
The Guild of Merchant Explorers plays simultaneously, with opponents using the same actions to forge their own paths on identical maps. It has a blend of tactical and strategic gameplay. The actions are randomized through a deck, but it is crucial to predict what could be flipped next. You will struggle to remain competitive if you neglect this information. Fortunately, the exploration board does a wonderful job of giving players a visual reminder of what has, and has not, arrived for each era – making this strategic element feel approachable.
Although the actions are concurrent, individualized action cards add asymmetry. This ramps up with the game’s progression and ensures no two players explore the map identically. The blend of special actions they provide can lead to powerful and satisfying turns in the late game. With asymmetry comes the potential for imbalance. These cards all seem incredibly powerful in the right circumstance; however, it is possible to draw cards that offer little benefit to your current situation. This has not been a typical problem in our games, but it has happened.
The four different eras create an engaging arc. In Era I everybody is starting out with mostly the same weak actions. Players can, and should, work to get at least one strategic village placed to ensure a nice starting point for Era II and beyond. By the time the fourth era begins, players should have several launch points and three strong individual actions in addition to the five basic shared actions. It is fulfilling to build your map and engine in a way to set you up for big moves by the final round.
The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a light strategy game. I find it approachable enough for inexperienced players, but interesting enough to keep veteran gamers engaged. Learning to play is pretty easy – there are very few rules to learn, and nothing feels impossible to explain. Actions are simple and the game as a whole has an elegant design – everything tends to make sense and works together.
Most of our games have taken the suggested 45 minutes or less, and that feels about right for a game of this weight. Because the actions are simultaneous additional players should not add a lot of length to the playtime. Once everybody knows what they are doing, the turns move quickly.
With four distinct maps, 28 investigate cards, and 24 goal cards, there is a lot to explore in this game. Each map offers new challenges: mountains that are impossible to cross, new resources to exploit, different shared goals, etc. The most variability comes in the form of action cards. The mix of investigate cards chosen by each player and the order of their arrival informs how the maps are explored. In some ways, each game feels similar to the last – but there’s sufficient variability and meaningful choices packed in that give it an addictive quality. It is an easy one to play back-to-back.
Theme / Aesthetics
The theme is a bit generic and dry for my tastes. The rulebook attempts to inject a bit of lore into the game, but it’s easily overlooked and ignored. I tend to appreciate games with strong immersive themes – although that doesn’t come through for me in The Guild of Merchant Explorers, it in no way affects my enjoyment of the game. I am too busy anticipating my next move and trying to chain actions together to worry about theme immersion during this game. The visuals are very much in line with the theme. It’s all very… beige. It is not a showstopper but has an understated beauty that has grown on me.
I have no complaints about the component quality. The map boards work well for me, as do the wooden cubes. I was worried that bumps to the table, mat, and cubes would cause chaos on the maps, but I am happy to report that none of this was an issue for us. I did not love the coins, but I also understand that they were designed to keep scores secretive, so in that regard they are functional. I found the constant making of change a bit tedious, though, and is rife with potential for error.
Interaction / Fun
This is not an interactive game. Except for the friendly race to the shared goals, there is no reason to pay attention to other players at the table. This game is very much “multi-player solitaire.” The simultaneous actions make this a lot more palatable and keep the game moving at a quick pace. The fun lies in the individual puzzle – trying to build up your map and action cards to create powerful combinations later in the game.
The Guild of Merchant Explorers has cast a spell on my household during the busy holiday months. Its lightweight strategy that rewards thinking ahead has kept us reaching for it, especially when we didn’t have the time or mental energy to tackle something meatier.
I like interactive games, but The Guild of Merchant Explorers offers next-to-zero opportunities to interact. The theme and visuals don’t garner much excitement, either. The game plays so smoothly and elegantly that I can look past that and appreciate the clever design and deeply satisfying gameplay.
I really enjoy the planning the game facilitates. You have near-perfect information to work with, but not knowing the order in which the actions will occur can make even the best plans fall flat. Even so, setting yourself up for the future is crucial for success. Additionally, establishing strategic launching points on the map early on is essential for branching out to new areas. My plans don’t always come together, but when they do, it makes me feel clever. The biggest highlight of the game for me is the investigate cards. They inject asymmetry and variability into the game, and drawing two to choose from is genuinely exciting, like opening a present. The actions granted by these cards are significant and make the game shine. They elevate it from a basic flip-and-write style game to something that interests me quite a bit more.
The Guild of Merchant Explorers was a game that surprised me. All its design elements come together to make a quick, satisfying, and smooth game. I think it will appeal to a wide range of gamers, from newer players to more experienced ones. I will happily play several sessions back-to-back, and can’t imagine turning it down if another person suggests it. It’s easily one of my top games of 2022 and will stay on the shelf for a long time!