Shrine Games could perhaps have come up with a more inspiring or descriptive title but Merit is nonetheless an interesting and exciting tactical combat game, ideally for two players but playable with three or as a team game for two teams of two. The title perhaps sums up the fact that there's no luck element involved in the game - you win or lose on Merit! There are dice included in the game but they are used only as markers.
As with most fantasy-themed games, there's a scene-setting scenario, in this case involving a tournament between heroes aimed at staving off Armageddon, but we needn't trouble ourselves overly about that. Merit is an arena-style combat game where three is the magic number! It's played over three rounds of three three-action turns each, where a team of three hero characters will be in combat against another three. What makes Andrew Swan's design of Merit especially interesting is the diversity between the six very different heroes - each represented by their individual board and an impressive mini. You start each game by drafting your team, and part of the appeal of playing Merit is discovering the synergies you can build between the three asymmetric characters that make up your team.
Each character has a starting vitality (maximum health), movement and armour. The latter of course reduces the damage the hero will take but modifiers picked up during the game can alter the armour figure and even push it into the negative, so, in effect, the hero's broken armour increases the damage they take. Heroes start off with an energy bar of four energy and on a player's turn they have three energy (actions) to take across their team of heroes: so you might perhaps expend one energy apiece across all three of your heroes (for example, to move all three heroes on the board) or you could concentrate on just one of your heroes and expend three of their energy points for that one character to take three actions.
As you might expect in an arena combat game, one win condition is to eliminate all the characters on the other side (ie: reduce their health to zero). The other win condition tho' in Merit is to end a round with control of all three of the 'realm stones' on the board. When a hero is adjacent to a realm stone, you can spend one of your energy points to place one of your dice on the stone signalling it's at Level 1. Subsequently you can take a similar action to move the die face up. Similarly, if your hero is adjacent to a realm stone controlled by your opponent, you can take an action to reduce the die number, or remove the die if it is at Level 1. Much of the game is about this tactical to and fro.
We've highlighted the fact that the heroes are all very different. Aside from their starting stats, they each start off with a unique power or ability and, each round, players will get to level up a hero for each realm stone they control - making the tactical manoeuvring for control of the stones even more critical. Each hero has their own upgrade tree of special abilities. Exploring and exploiting these is at the heart of the game as they make each hero play in its own unique way. For example, the reptilian Captain Teefs collects coins and in some circumstances can donate them to another hero in their team; coins can be spent to buy additional levelling up! The voodoo Joe Bokor inflicts poison as part of his attacks, adding damage at the end of a round that ignores armour. The vampiric Elvira Violeta and werewolf Dr Wolfgang can cause opponents to bleed, again adding end-of-round damage that ignores armour. Other special effects include concussion, which prevents a hero from moving unless they spend an energy point to remove it. Canny use of these abilities in combo can turn the game by limiting an opponent's ability to counter you from meeting the win condition. Note tho' that the majority of special actions will cost you one, two or even three energy points to activate...
We've hugely enjoyed our plays of the Merit prototype ahead of the game's launch on Kickstarter on 9 May. Click here to check out the campaign because this game certainly Merits your attention.