A good business person knows how to make money by making good deals and making wise investments. Designer Jay Treat puts us to the test to see if we have what it takes to be successful in Merchants of Araby. In Merchants of Araby, 2-4 players compete to be the wealthiest merchant prince or princess in all of Araby by establishing an entourage of merchants and allies, teaching virtues, summoning djinn, negotiating shrewdly, and making successful caravan investments.
Merchants of Araby blends hand management, card drafting, tableau building, and a hefty dose of negotiation. Illustrations done by Zulkarnen H. Basri place this game in a fictional desert land.
The objective of Merchants of Araby is to be the player with the most coins at the end of the game. This will be completed over four rounds. There is flexibility to lengthen the game if desired. Players will be building a tableau of cards in front of them that form an entourage of people used to generate resources in order to participate in caravans. Players will work to add camels to different caravans in order to try to receive payouts when the caravans resolve. Players have the opportunity to use their own skills in trying to negotiate with other players to make arrangements to be profitable. And players can use their own virtues or even the power of some djinn to gain the upper hand on their road to success.
At the beginning of the game, each player will receive a reference card that explains all of the iconography on one side, and turn order sequence on the back of the card. Each player will also receive 3 coins, a tent to hide their coins in, a randomly dealt merchant persona card and camels of the player’s color. The camel tokens are placed in sight of all other players as it is open information.
Each player’s starting components
There are 16 caravan cards that are to be shuffled and divided into 4 face down stacks with each stack having a number of cards equal to the number of players. Any unused caravan cards are returned to the game box.
There are 86 game cards that are composed of virtues, merchants, allies, and djinn that can be drafted. The cards are shuffled and each player is dealt a starting hand of five cards. The remaining cards are placed face down on the table and 4 cards are dealt face up to form a draft line.
Starting Hand of Five Cards
Select a first player who then takes a caravan card off of the first caravan stack and turns it face up on the table in front of him/her. *In subsequent rounds, the caravan in play will be resolved before drawing a new one.
At the beginning of the turn the caravan will be resolved, but in this review, I will explain how the caravan is resolved after explaining all the actions that can be taken on a turn.
During a player’s turn they have a choice to perform as many actions as they like and even do the same action multiple times.
Actions include playing cards from their hand, tasking cards in their entourage, adding camels to their caravan and negotiating with opponents.
Playing cards from the hand is done by paying products, coins, or even discarding other cards to reduce card costs. There are four different types of cards: merchants, allies, virtues, and djinn.
Merchants and allies are added to the entourage which is a tableau of cards constructed in front of that player. Merchants will be able to generate products and allies will give special abilities that can be used repeatedly during the game.
Virtues are cards that will give a one time ability to use on a player’s turn.
Djinn cards can be summoned at any point during the game including other players’ turns. Once these types of card are used they are discarded.
As cards are played, at the end of the player’s turn, 2 new cards will be drafted and added into the player’s hand.
Another action is to “task” cards in your entourage. This is done by rotating the card to generate the resource or ability noted on the card.
Tasking an Entourage Card
A third action is to add camels to their caravan. On the caravan card, there are spaces that have different resources shown. By paying the resource, the active player can add a camel to his or her caravan. Paying the resources can be done by tasking merchants, playing a djinn card that will generate the needed product, and also by negotiating with another player to generate a needed product.
Placing Camels onto Caravan Cards
Camels are placed on the active player’s caravan card on a space that matched the product paid. Once all five of that player’s camels are placed on caravan cards, no more can be added and camels cannot be moved around to different caravans. Camels can be added to other players’ caravan cards, but that can only be done by negotiating or a card that may grant that ability. Placement of camels on caravan cards is important because when the caravan is resolved, if rows or columns of camels are not complete, the camel is stranded and returns home with nothing.
The final action that can be taken is to negotiate with opponents. Negotiating can be done at any time during the game. Typically, players will work out deals to generate needed products and to place camels in caravans. Negotiation is key because players will want to play camels into their opponents’ caravans to help guarantee scoring coins. It is up to the players to work out deals but anything that has to be resolved during the current turn is binding, however any deals that may involve things happening on future turns are not guaranteed. So the question is……..can you trust your opponent?
At the end of the player’s turn, any tasked cards are refreshed and two new cards are drafted from the row and added to their hand. Those 2 spaces are refilled from the draw pile of game cards.
So during each round, players are working to get their camels out into caravans to hopefully get payouts. At the beginning of each player’s turn, their caravan card is resolved.
The first thing that is done is to remove stranded camels. Stranded camels are camels that are not part of a complete row or column. They are taken off of the caravan card and returned to their owner.
Resolving a Caravan Card
Next to resolve the caravan card, take the top card off of the game deck and place it next to your caravan card. This is the resolution card and there is information on there. In the upper right corner is a symbol that indicates which space is attacked by bandits. If there is a camel on that space it is returned to the owner of that camel. The bandit attack does not cause any other camels to be stranded. Once the bandit attack is over, all remaining camels reach their destination to receive payouts.
The numbers on the resolution card indicate the number of coins each camel in that row receives. The coins are paid to the camel owners, their camels are returned, the caravan card is discarded and a new one is drawn. The resolution card is returned to the top of the game card stack.
Gameplay will continue until there are no more caravan cards that can be drawn to start a new round. The final caravans are resolved and then player’s reveal their coins and whoever has the most coins wins. If there is a tie, then whoever has the most cards in their entourage is the winner.
Keep your money hidden!!!
When I first read the summary of Merchants of Araby I was immediately interested in the game. First of all, I enjoy negotiation games and second, I am a sucker for games that are set in the desert. As I read the rules, I became more interested in the game because it blended the negotiation with hand management, tableau building and more.
Getting into the game itself, I was working with a prototype, so I did not have all of the final pieces, however, the artwork was final and I like it a lot. The rules are well written and easy to understand, so players will be up and playing in no time. There are even some tables in the back of the rulebook that players can consult that deal with card frequencies and breakdowns of each card type. This can be useful when thinking about negotiations to make.
Playing the game itself is a blast. Turns go smoothly and each turn players are free to take as many actions as they want and can afford. So do you as a player go all out and put all eggs in one basket, or do you operate at a slower drip and use your negotiating skills to do things on other players turns? Hand and resource management are key in the game. You use coins to play cards and you can use them to pay other players, but in the end coins are your victory points so you must manage money wisely. Cards can be discarded to make other cards cheaper, but is it worth it to whittle down your hand? Remember you only get 2 cards at the end of your turn. But, will your opponents make a deal with you that nets you with more cards?
The merchant cards are important for building a resource engine, but you cannot overlook your ally cards either. Virtues and djinn are great little one-shot cards that can help you at just the right moment.
I really like the way the caravans are resolved and the rules for placing them onto the caravan cards. The restrictions on placing them makes you as a player rely on working with your opponents to get your camels into their caravans. Do you strike a deal that gets your camel into a position in a caravan that will not leave you or your opponent stranded at the risk of your camel being struck by bandits?
This game has a lot to do with words. How will you use your words when dealing with your opponents? Will you be harsh and be quick to strike down a proposal that can come back to hurt you later or do you sweet talk your way into a prosperous position? Will you be a person of your word or will you be a fink and fail to keep your end of a bargain? The answers to all of these questions will be found when you play Merchants of Araby.
The game play experience is different for the various player counts. With 2 players, it is more of the “You need me just as much as I need you” when it comes to dealing with your opponents so players can take some harder stands on proposals, but it can also bite back harder. With 3 and even more with 4 players, it is more about what is the best offer players can receive as well as making sure at critical times, putting your BEST foot forward.
This game is one that fills a hole in the current game market especially when it comes to negotiation. As I was playing, the tableau building and tasking of cards reminded me of a simple version of Magic the Gathering. Having a solid entourage will provide the products needed to have your camels in the caravans. The hand management and resource management are typical staples in a euro style game and hold together a well though out game design. The negotiation mechanic in this game reminds me of some of the early games in the Alea Big Box series, namely Chinatown and Traders of Genoa. If there is one weakness in Merchants of Araby, it is not in the game design itself, it will be in the people who play it. If people are not good at talking and making deals, then Merchants of Araby may not shine as much for them as it does for me. I play with talkative people. However, with some repeated plays, even the most timid of people will learn to open up and work out some things. Putting it all together, I find Merchants of Araby a solid game than combines the mechanics of today’s modern games with the feel of the classic negotiation games that have been enjoyed for several years.