Considering how many games have been made about the classic Tolkien-esque fantasy races mercilessly slaughtering each other, and the more-than-a-few games about the dungeon-building villains of those RPG stories, it’s frankly quite surprising we haven’t seen many games that explore the mechanical underbelly of those settings. What about the merchants whose pockets are lined with adventurers’ GP? What about the shopkeepers who ply weapons, armor, and trinkets with an ever-increasing litany of enchantments and plus-one-to-hits? Like the best PC game of all time, Recettear (note, that’s not my opinion, that game is the best) Battle Merchants from Gil Hova and Minion Games gives players the chance to supply magic (well, supposedly) weapons to a fantasy realm roiled in constant meaningless conflict. Unlike Recettear, you’re not outfitting heroes or adventurers versus dungeon-dwelling monsters… you’re supplying everybody versus everybody else. In fact, you’re often supporting both sides of every single conflict in the game. It feels wrong… but the towering stacks of cardboard coins you’ll get feel so RIGHT.
Also, don’t hoard coins like that. Please make change. We’re running out of ones.
Battle Merchants starts out as a dirt-simple buy-low-sell-high kind of economic game. You can craft two of the game’s four types of weapons. There are spots on the board that represent battles, where each side wants to buy a particular type of weapon. There’s no fluctuating market so to speak; Supply is precisely what you (and your competitors) make, there are no raw materials. Demand is precisely the spaces available on the board. Prices are also rather static, at least at first. You can build weapons (up to three at a time) for 5 fantasy bucks a pop, and sell them (one at a time) for 6 fantasy bucks as long as there’s a space for them. Pretty slim margins, yeah, but such is the life of a hobbyist weapons retailer. Slowly, surely, you’ll scrape together more and more money, as your economic machine churns to life.
The game might be mechanically simple, but that doesn’t mean your choices are simple. There’s a lot to consider, and each option opens more options down the road. For example, on your turn (instead of forging a batch of weapons or selling them) you can choose to spend time upgrading your skills by buying craft cards, making your weapons STRONGER. You might think stronger weapons would sell for more, but you’d be wrong. Somehow these fantasy warriors are totally incapable of recognizing premium merchandise. Your upgraded weapons WILL, however, make kindling out of the shoddy work your competitors are busily spewing onto the board. There’s an elegant rubber-band mechanism here; the best cards cost more based on the skill you already have, but the “Bad” cards are always free. That makes it tough for the guy forging Level 7 battle-axes to justify upgrading them to level 9, but going from level 1 to 3 is a breeze. Get good enough, and you can build VORPAL weapons, medieval WMDs that cost 3 times as much but which defeat ANY lesser ‘regular’ armament, no matter the level.
You can collect Kingdom Cards, special abilities or one-shot effects that will help your enterprise, giving you an extra dollar for selling to the warring factions in the mountains, or for instigating another battle, or for having your efficient craftsmanship turned to kindling by some smug jerk selling premium warhammers.
What’s more, as you sell to one group, they become loyal customers. Interestingly, this means you’re able to charge them more, so focusing on one faction might be a good idea, as each individual sale sill be more profitable. You can only earn one of these loyalty upgrades per race per turn, but you can earn the loyalty of multiple factions, so maybe you want to spread out, instead? Sacrifice the extra penny this turn for a few more down the road, that is, if someone else doesn’t sell to the hobgoblins before you do. Do you want to be a loyal warmonger or an opportunistic one? Options!
Whenever both sides of a battle are supplied, (yes, that includes if you sold to both sides yourself) the battle escalates, growing larger and opening up new opportunities for sales. Now the Orcs want a batch of hammers to go with their axes, and the Elves want swords to match. Once enough of these battles escalate, it’s officially time for WAR! That means all of the battles resolve themselves, with the stronger, better-levelled instrument of war shattering the opposing armament. The proud craftsman who sold the bigger bludgeon keeps the remains of his opponent’s work, and collects a handy couple of bucks for ‘repairs’. So maybe it’s good to build up a reputation for quality weapons, since the player with the most of these grisly trophies will get a reward at the end… However, unless you DO have the most, the trophies aren’t worth anything. What’s worse, satisfied customers aren’t going to buy new weapons if the ones they already have are good enough! Maybe it’s a better idea to be the Medieval iPhone, and sell the Dwarves hideously obsolete weapons that you know they’ll replace with slightly better ones next season…
Just in this overview, I’ve stumbled into many of the wonderful strategic questions that build on the game’s simple framework. You can build cheap, sell cheap, and let your weapons get destroyed. You can become a master sword-smith, handily beating everyone, clogging up the market on swords and collecting a small fortune in repair fees. You can build a reputation among one faction, or sell to everyone. Do you spend your first turns buying and selling a couple basic weapons? Or do you start building up your Craft skills and Kingdom Cards, banking on their future benefits to make up for the late start? There’s a world of cool stuff to do.
It’s not all strategy either. Unlike a lot of economic euro-games where you set up an engine and watch it churn out victory points, there’s more conflict here than just “I took the card/space you wanted.”
…Well, there IS that. And that’s most of it.
But, there IS more! This is mostly due to the board, and the nifty way the market gets larger as people sell. If I have a sword, and you have a sword, and there’s one sword space left, then yeah, passive-aggressive euro-block your heart out. But if you have a sword, and I’m building weapons, maybe I want to look at the new spaces that will open up when you sell it? You’ll sell the sword, escalate the conflict, and suddenly the hobgoblins want my shiny new Vorpal Hammer after all. Timing when to sell weapons, and when to spend turns building up your enterprise or your backstock is key, and you’ll want to watch the other players like hawks, seeing how much cash they’ve got on hand, what they have in their stores, and who they like to sell to the most.
One thing you won’t be terribly able to watch, unfortunately, is their weapon level, which will be obscured in a mess of tiny symbols on tiny cards. The game has more than a few issues with component clarity: The coins have extremely stylized numbers on them, which while pretty, don’t seem to click with newbies. The escalating Kingdom Card hand-size is great mechanically, but easy to forget. Some of the kingdom cards are weirdly worded, and the Craft cards are sorted into piles based on their only-vaguely-different card backs. The MOST irritating component issue, by far, is the Craft cards themselves. Weapon level is pretty important to the game, and you upgrade it by buying little tiny ticket-to-ride size cards that have one or two emoji-sized “level” icons on them, as well as a potential 1 or 2 coin discount. The icons aren’t placed in a way that’s conducive to seeing them all at once, and some cards have multiple weapon types on them, preventing you from stacking them by “suit” at all. Unless you have laser eyes and a gigantic table on which to splay all the cards, you’re going to be asking “What level are your maces?” pretty much constantly. The game would benefit tremendously from a little level-tracker widget, but the upkeep for that would add more upkeep to a game that…
Well, it has kind of a lot of upkeep already.
Don’t get me wrong, the game is mechanically simple, but at its heart this is a game of tiny, easy to fumble calculations. You’re selling weapons at a measly one dollar markup at the beginning of the game, so every single copper coin counts. However, when you build weapons, you might have a discount based on what kind you build. When you sell weapons, you’ll collect any number of bonuses from loyalty tokens, cards, and so on. So you’ll be doing tons of this:
“Okay, I’m going to build weapons. I have two dollars off hammers, so I’m going to build 2 hammers… I have enough money to make a vorpal one, to beat your maces over there, so I’ll do that… and I’ll build an axe as well, so that’s 3 and 13 and 5… and then I get a free weapon from my extra materials so I’ll make a sword… actually, I have a dollar off the sword so I’ll build the sword instead and get the axe for free so that’s 3 and 13 and 4? 20? Okay, then next turn I’ll sell this here for… 18 plus my orc tokens is 21, plus my mountain token is 22, and it’ll escalate so that’s 23… and I get another orc token so that’s 1 more for my NEXT sale…”
You’re doing a metric axe-load of little arithmetic, and the game is all about making those extra pennies, so miscalculating once can set you back quite a bit. With all the summing going on, it’s terrifically easy for players to make game-wrecking mistakes. I don’t think I’ve played a single game where at some point one player didn’t realize, a few turns too late, that they’d cheated themselves out of a potentially important couple of coins. “Oh, I think I haven’t been counting my [bonus text] for those last couple sales, but I’m not sure…” It’s difficult to unroll, and after multiple plays you’ll get more attentive, but I still found it a bit daunting in that respect. That’s really the biggest downfall of an otherwise immensely enjoyable game. If you become frustrated when figuring out how to divide the check, err on the side of caution.
If I were to try and dredge up another criticism, (and I will because I’m a whiner) it’d be the classic salty loser forum cry of “imbalance”. Now, I’m not sure it’s actually a huge issue for gameplay balance, but the power of the Kingdom Cards does have an impact on the way the game feels. Many of the Kingdom Cards represent a big swing for the player who gets to scoop them up. The hand-limit mitigates the influence this can have somewhat, but it seems incongruous to have such big power-plays in a game that so much of the time is concerned with efficiency and making the most of small margins. In particular, the “Extra Materials” card which grants you a FREE 4th weapon whenever you forge three at once seems to be a game-changer. It’s a fun game-changer, but cards like that seem a bit swingier than I’d expect from a a game like this. Pulse-rifles are fun, but pulse-rifles in a knife fight can make the knife-fight seem a bit unfair, at least to the knife-havers. Then again, they can always pick up a Pulse-Rifle themselves, since most of the Kingdom Cards are free and some even grant cash on the spot.
Anyway, that’s more than enough grouchery from me. Battle Merchants is a ton of fun.
Despite my grumblings about components and calculations, I think Battle Merchants is a charmingly-themed, mechanically streamlined game that fires up my entrepreneurial spirit. It plays in around 90 minutes and gives players a very satisfying sense of strategic freedom; every time I play I’m able to think about how I want to approach THIS game, and how to react to other players’ actions, rather than being railroaded down one strategic route. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hawk this backpack full of rusty forks to a gang of belligerent merfolk.