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Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

Chances are you've never heard of it, but, in its day, Merv was the largest and most populous city in the world. It was destroyed by an invading Mongol army in the early 13th Century and tho' it was subsequently rebuilt, it never recovered its former glory. In this game by Fabio Lopiano - who previously designed Ragusa (Braincrack/Capstone) – you'll play your part in building the great city and developing its wealth as a major trading centre, but you'll probably want to bear in mind the existential threat posed by those Mongol hordes...

Central Asian setting notwithstanding, Merv is a medium-weight euro game that takes place over three game years, each marked by the circuit players make around the inner board's four sides. That means, this is a game where you'll only get to take 12 actions. On first glance at the initially dauntingly busy board, that seems totally insufficient. There are lots of different locations to choose from and they all look enticing. You'll want to do everything but you'll need to make choices between all the profitable options at your fingertips. This is an economic game where you'll be earning and spending cubes of various colours, and camels too as a further form of currency, but the principal economy you're managing is the strictly limited economy of actions.

The inner square of the board forms the four sides of a 5 x 5 grid of randomly assigned tiles. Each turn, players position their marker against one of the five rows. They can place a building of their colour on any unoccupied square in that row. They collect the resource cube shown on the tile and they get to take the action indicated. Actions generally cost a cube of a given colour, so on your first turn you'll almost certainly be taking a single cube and spending it to take a basic action. On subsequent turns, as more buildings appear on the grid, you will collect cubes for all the buildings in the row that match the colour of the one you are activating, and with multiple cubes you can multiply the impact of the action you take: so, for example, if you use an action to move along the Mosque track then you may be able to pay the cost of moving several places up that track, taking the benefits that yields.

Tho' Merv is a competitive game, you're competing to do better than your opponents rather than to do them down. That means you can build a points-scoring engine without having to look over your shoulder to see if someone is going to be throwing a spanner in the works. There's very little blocking - your progress on a track or in a market doesn't in the main get in the way of other players; the key exception being that there are only limited spots available in the Palace, which gives end-game points-score multipliers for various of the items you collect over the course of the game. On the other hand, the game offers valuable incentives to encourage a degree of cooperation. You don't have to feel overly precious about ownership of a building; you can choose to activate a building in your row regardless of who owns it - you get the benefit, including that of cubes from matching colour buildings, but so does the player who owns the building. Merv is about a city built on trade, after all, and commerce is not a zero-sum game. You need Influence (ie: progress on an Influence track) in order to be able to be able to collect spice cards of more than one type and you can earn this by taking an action to build city walls. Your initial thought will be to place walls so that they protect your buildings from the Mongol attacks at the end of game years 2 and 3, and that will earn you some Influence, but if you place the walls so that they protect another player's buildings then you'll earn twice as much Influence...

This all makes for a tense tightly-balanced game where there are multiple routes to point-scoring success. Merv is a game you'll play and immediately want to play again in order to try a different strategy. There's a solo version and the game works well as a two-player game, but it's at its best with four players because there's more scope for constructive interactions that have the effect of injecting more resources (cubes) into the game's economy. Osprey Games have done their usual sterling job in the production of Merv and, by way of a thematically consistent twist, they've maintained an economy of space: tho' there are more components in this 30 x 30 cm box than in most comparable games, the box is only 6 cm deep. This is a game that's so thematically rich that you can almost smell the cinnamon spice and hear the muezzin's call to prayer, and tho' I initially yearned for a less busy board, Ian O'Toole's artwork eventually grew on me as I knew it inevitably would.

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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