Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Friday 5 January 2018

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Merlin

Game: Merlin

Publisher: Queen Games

Designer: Stefan Feld and Michael Rieneck

Year: 2017

King Arthur is looking for a worthy successor to his throne. Together with Merlin, he seeks the best candidate from among the Knights of the Round Table. To impress the King, a knight needs to repel traitors, build manors in the environs, complete missions and gain influence in the principalities.

In Merlin, a euro game from Stefan Feld and Michael Rieneck, you'll each play as a knight and to try and achieve the feats you'll manipulate the position of your knight and Merlin on the circular track of the board. The game plays 2-4 players in about 75 minutes and uses a whole host of mechanics, inclduing dice rolling, roll and move and worker placement.


At the start of each round every player will roll their 3 player-coloured dice and 1 white dice.On a players turn they choose one of the 4 dice to use. If they choose to use one of the coloured dice then they move their knight around the circular game track the number of spaces indicated on the dice and perform the action that they landed on, before discarding the dice. The white dice works the same way, except that instead you move the Merlin pawn and you can move Merlin clockwise or anticlockwise around the track, in addition you have the option to use merlin's staff to perform the action twice. If you don't like the dice rolls available, you have a few ways to manipulate where you move, either using apples that let you change a dice to any number, or by using some of the flags to change how you move.
The game end with two players.

There are a lot of different action spaces in Merlin, but the majority are simply different ways to gain the 4 main items in the game. Should you land on a castle space you may send out any of your 4 henchmen to generate one of these resources; influence, flags, shields or building materials. Building materials are required to build on the side-board, the colour is important as it dictates where on the board you can build and points are scored based on the size of territory you have the majority of manors in. Flags allow you to use their special powers, such as flipping a die to it's opposite face, or immediately defeating a traitor. Shields defend against traitors, preventing you from losing points. Finally, influence allows you to manipulate castles from afar (should you land on the correct spaces) as well as scoring points for the player who has the most in each castle.

The game of Merlin consists of 6 rounds, with a scoring phase at the end of every second round. You earn points for manors built on the side-map, influence markers in castles and henchmen on the main board. You then lose points if you failed to fight off the traitors attacking you. After scoring you will draw 3 more traitors. You can also gain victory points for completing mission cards during the rounds. Mission cards reward you for meeting certain criteria, such as owning 3 different building materials, and you can complete 1 each turn. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

Merlin is quite a tough game to explain, there are so many different areas on the board which all do different things. But once you start playing you realise almost all of them are simply different takes on "get a resource". You also quickly notice that landing on castles is almost always the best thing to do, as these are 4 spaces apart you will find yourself in a good situation if you can roll fours on your dice, or at least combinations that let you visit multiple castles each round. And here is where the game starts to fall apart. Rolling the dice well is critical to your success. You can choose what order to play your dice in, but whatever you do in the end you are going to be at the same place. Not all spaces on the board are created evenly, and if you find yourself restricted to visiting spaces that you can't use then your chances of winning can diminish quickly.
Your personal player board, with spaces for flags, traitors, shields and your workers, as well as all other resources.
Most of the time you are playing Merlin you have the threat of the traitors looming over you, if you don't defeat them then you lose 3 points per traitor. So you often spend most of your game working out how to get the 3 shields you need, 3 points for 1 action is a great deal, so you'll almost pick a shield over any other option. Ways to manipulate your dice roll are few and far between, you have to land on a specific space to get an apple, which is simply a matter of luck. Flags can help, but they are no-where near as powerful as apples, plus any time you take a flag you have to face the fact that you could have taken something else.

The mission system works well enough, but again it is highly based on luck. Three cards are available at any time, while you always have 4 in your hand, when you complete one you get to take one of the 3 available to replace it. if your missions happen to coincide with the shields you need to fight off traitors, or all have similar requirements then you will find yourself rolling in points, but more often than not you get stuck with a hand full of missions that require you to go massively out of your way to get.

Ultimately Merlin is a roll and move game. It's more complicated than snakes and ladders, but while it gives you the illusion of choice the same thing is true of both of them: The winner will go to the player who can roll the best. Perhaps with more players the game will be more dynamic, the Merlin pawn will move around more, influence will be more contested etc. But certainly as a two-player game I can't recommend it.

Fi’s Final Thoughts 

When we played our first game of Merlin, I was really excited and thought I had found another Stefan Feld game I could fall in love with, as I did with Castles of Burgundy. It had two of the incidental elements that I love in board games - a set number of rounds, and small objective cards that help you to determine your plan for the next turn or few turns. Although the main mechanic is roll and move, the feeling it gave me was much more like a dice worker placement, it's just that the restriction on placing my dice was based on a circular track, rather than discrete spots on the board.

In Merlin, it feels very important that each move you make earns you points, or at least prevents you from losing points. If you have to waste a turn, just because it's part of your journey to another spot on the track, then you'll soon find yourself dropping behind opponents who are steadily gaining points. In our first game, we were really competitive and both able to make use of the dice to our advantage to work towards our objective cards and an overall strategy for the game. Unfortunately, in subsequent games, one player always struggled.

In our second game, Amy struggled and I still forged ahead - I thought she was just unable to make the best of the dice rolls, but then in game three, the same thing happened to me. Once you've run out of ways to manipulate the dice, which can be very fast because there are not many opportunities, you're stuck with them. Sometimes you just can't seem to do anything productive with a turn, only able to land on spots that let you swap a resource rather than gaining a resource, or perhaps swap you mission cards, which may or may not help you in any way at all. Not all spots on the track are created equal and sometimes the bad luck is just out of your hands. I had a pretty miserable third game and Merlin dropped massively in my estimations.

What concerns me is that it took me 3 games to realise that the game wasn't great. I could easily have played this in a cafe or with a friend, then bought it, thinking it could be a Top 10 game for me, only to find two days later that I never wanted to see it again. With just a few more mays to manipulate my dice, Merlin could've been a favourite, but unfortunately I can no longer recommend it, especially to the euro gamer set that this designer and type of game appear to be aimed at.

The Good
  • Merlin provides an interesting puzzle as you figure out the optimal way to use your dice each turn.
  • The events provide focus in what might otherwise be a typical Stefan Feld 'point salad'.

The Bad
  • There is a lot of luck in this game which is surprising in a game that appears to be a mid-weight euro game on first impressions.
  • The potential luck issues didn't surface for me until our third game and really put us off a game we were otherwise very keen to add to our shelves.

The Verdict
5.5/10 Too much luck and not enough opportunity for luck mitigation mean that although sometimes you can have a great game of Merlin, it is often a frustrating experience for at least one player at the table.

Merlin was a review copy provided to the Board Game Exposure reviewer collective.

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