Roll & write games have proved to be exceptionally popular and, as you might expect, they've spawned numerous variations on the theme - notably games like Welcome to the Moon (Blue Cocker) that substitute cards for dice. With The Guild of Merchant Explorers, however, Matthew Dunstan and Brett J Gilbert have gone one step further: not only are there no dice but there's no writing either! Instead of marker pens and dry-wipe boards and thick pads of play & discard sheets, Guild substitutes wooden cubes and cardboard chits. So what's this got to do then with roll & writes?
Tho' you're neither rolling nor writing, The Guild of Merchant Explorers plays exactly like a roll & write game. Each of the 2-4 players has a matching map board; the game comes with four different sets of map boards - some introducing minor rule tweaks and extra challenges. If this were a roll & write, you'd be marking off hexes on the maps as you 'explored' them but instead you place a cube on each hex explored. You place cubes according to the terrain indicated on the cards that are turned over - so all players see and use the same action cards. So, for example, one card allows all the players to place two cubes in desert spaces: it's up to each player which desert spaces they choose on their board just so long as every placement is adjacent either to the central 'capital' or cubes already placed or to a village. You get to place out a village whenever you complete an area on your board, and at the end of each round you remove all the cubes you've placed out but you retain any villages you've 'discovered' (built).
Scoring is for the coins you collect. Some hexes will give you a coin when you place a cube on them but you'll mostly collect coins for 'discovering' villages and towers, connecting city spaces to create 'trade routes', completing goals and for the treasure cards you pick up the first time you place a cube on a 'ruin' hex. Some of the treasure cards give you mounting set collection bonuses.
As with the majority of more conventional roll & writes, players start off on an equal footing but their paths increasingly diverge thro' the course of the game. That divergence is accelerated in The Guild of Merchant Explorers because players also get to draw 'investigation' cards each round, choosing one and discarding the other. These cards offer additional ways of scoring and they are triggered when the round marker card is drawn.
All this makes for a great game that plays quickly regardless of the number of players because everyone is taking their turn simultaneously in response to the same card. You know what cards are coming, just not the order in which they'll appear each round, so you can plan your 'exploration' accordingly. Of course, you're effectively playing multi-player solitaire because there's no direct player interaction other than the race to be the first to complete objectives on the displayed goal cards. It's no surprise then that the game also incorporates a solo/solitaire mode where the only difference from the 2-4 player game are the special rules for scoring the goal cards.
As you might expect, placing out cubes on a map is not without its pitfalls: jog the table and your cubes can easily be sent scattering - ruining the game. If you find that exasperating, we guess you could downgrade Guild to a conventional 'roll & write' style game by laminating the boards and breaking out a set of dry-wipe pens. There is tho' something somehow more satisfying about placing out cubes on a map that more than justifies the extra production involved from AEG in turning a 'roll & write' style game into a full-fledged board game. The art from Gerralt Landman is muted - to the extent that some players struggled in poor light to distinguish the different terrain types - but it grows on you; we just prefer our seas to be blue rather than grey. You'll enjoy discovering the subtle differences that each of the maps brings to the table, and no doubt there's ample scope for expansions...