Updated: Dec 22, 2019
As you can see when you look at the board, there’s a lot going on in this game. There is an array of different ways to rack up points, and that can initially seem bewilderingly daunting. As it is, though, none of the different elements are difficult to grasp. It’s probably never going to be viewed as a gateway game but you can be up and running with Merlin quicker than you might think.
Published by Queen Games, Merlin is designed by Stefan Feld (Castles of Burgundy) and Michael Rieneck (Pillars of the Earth). As the title suggests, it’s set in the time of Arthurian legend. Each of the (2–4) players is a knight competing to win the king’s favour and succeed to the throne. The knights of the round table theme is reinforced by the ‘round table’ roundel that makes up the central playing board and the castle-shaped individual playing boards.
Merlin is a light, accessible euro game that combines several elements that will be familiar from other games. Points, resources and other advantages can be scored by worker placement. Points can be scored through winning area control, both through placing out ‘influence’ in the principalities on the main board and by building manors in the ‘environs’ made up from tiles that are randomly placed out at the start of each game.
And at the heart of the game, Merlin gives us something of a return to the much-derided ‘roll and move’ mechanic that was the basis of many of the games we played as children. The difference here is that all the movement dice for each round are rolled at the start of the round and players decide when to allocate each die to their movement along the central roundel that forms the main playing board. This, and the various ways made available for modifying die rolls and the direction of movement, gives players much more control over their moves than they will have been accustomed to in the ‘roll and move’ games of yore. So much so that you need to watch out in this game for ‘analysis paralysis’ as players carefully work out the various locations and corresponding actions they can choose between in making their movements on the roundel, particularly at the start of a round when they still have all four dice to choose between. Added to this, one of the four dice each player rolls is a white die that is used to move the Merlin meeple. This is moved by each of the players and can always be moved either clockwise or counterclockwise.
There is some bumping of ‘henchman’ (the off-theme name given in the rules to the workers placed out in principalities) and players will be vying for area control, but Merlin is not a game where there is a high degree of ‘take that’ player interaction. That being the case, it seems surprising that no solitaire rules were incorporated... Players do need to defend against attack but this is from the ‘traitor’ tiles that are placed out each round, not from player vs player conflict. For any ‘traitor’ that is not repelled from his battlements, a player loses three victory points.
Unlike more complex euro games, you won’t be building a points engine in this game. Merlin is a game where you are playing for tactical advantage rather than developing an overarching strategy. Curiously, it isn’t the dice rolling that introduces the largest luck quotient but the luck of the draw in picking up ‘mission’ cards. These score points when the conditions on the card are met, and sometimes players can fortuitously benefit from just happening to meet the requirements of the card they draw.
All in all, Merlin is an enjoyable game. At around 90 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The game comes with an ‘expansion’ or optional module that gives players the option of sacrificing the victory points earned on mission cards for an in-game ability. This doesn’t add overly to Merlin’s complexity, though it’s probably best omitted from an initial play. Its inclusion though adds to this game’s replayability. Queen Games traditionally add a succession of small ‘Queenie’ expansion modules to their games, so we can probably look forward to more add-ons to further expand Merlin in the years ahead…