Beige Is All The Rage: THE GUILD OF MERCHANT EXPLORERS review

Thurn & Taxis. Toledo. Concordia. The list of beige, non-descript boards that are in my collection would make a day at Holly Beach look like a Degas print. I like gorgeously painted boards as much as the next gamer, but it has never bothered me that the classic euro main gameboard is as colorful as sandstone.

As my good friend, Steve “The NameFather” O’Rourke says, “Beige Is All The Rage.” I say, bring on the beige!

That’s why criticism of the aesthetic look at AEG’s new game, The Guild of Merchant Explorers, that I have seen on social media puzzles me. The colors are muted, yes, and the artfully drawn player board maps look like a dressed up, modern version of the inside cover maps from The Belgariad. But for a gamer who grew up reading Tolkien’s works or the works of Lloyd Alexander, these aesthetics do not turn us away but rather draws us in with nostalgia.

It’s the Dawning of a New Beige!

I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself here, so let’s just refresh these cubes and start from the beginning.(Holy foreshadowing, Beigeman).

Matthew Dunston and Brett J. Gilbert designed one of my top twenty-five games of all time, Elysium. I’m always looking out for their next big follow up, and I think The Guild of Merchant Explorers, a new randowriter that does not involve any writing at all, is it. The Guild of Merchant Explorers is published by AEG and plays two to four players in under an hour, especially once you have the basics down.

The Queen of the land has tasked each of us players, expert cartographers that we are, to explore areas of her queendom that have not been heard from in years. How much Dunston and Gilbert were influenced by the Two Rivers lore from The Dragon Reborn is unknown to me, but that’s the vibe I got right away. A noble Queen wants to ensure that the peaceful little areas on the edge of her domain do not get any ideas about rebuilding themselves into separate little duchies.

Over the course of four ages, we and our descendants will take turns flipping a small, but powerful deck of cards and place our explorers contiguously on our maps branching out from our starting city. As we make contact with the local villages, we will establish trade routes or explore old ruins for treasure, or pick up random coins along the way like a medieval Super Mario character. We’ll try to connect to mysterious towers and fill out little sections of the map with our cubes.

Almost every action we take will generate us some coins, which are victory points, but we have to balance out our actions each round. The deck we flip has five actions — each one corresponding to a different terrain on the map. Maybe we will put out three explorers on the sea in a straight line, or add one explorer to a mountain space. Maybe we will connect some grasslands or desert spaces. We’ll do this round after round until the action deck is depleted.

But the real interesting part of the game, the one that makes everyone in the Gumbo keep coming back to it time and again, is the fact that the little flip deck will be punched up each age with roman numbered cards. Each age will add one more card, meaning we start with six pretty good actions to having nine actions at the end that will tingle the combolicious areas of our brain.

How so? Because when those roman numbered cards come out, each person will receive two random cards depicting actions that break the game rules. Instead of two grasslands being connected, what if we could put five explorers out? What if we could put three sea spaces AND more explorers on spaces next to them that have coins? There are so many of these super-action cards, and we only play at most four per game, that all of these game-breaking combos set off “play this again, NOW” alarms in our head every time.

And these powers are not only important for reaching across the board, but there’s an important step that we have not talked about that will really help us explore. You see, when a new player first looks at the board, and realizes that at most they will be putting out seven to twelve cubes the first round, getting to the far flung reaches of the map where the best trade routes and towers are seems impossible.

Ah, but there is one more rule to discuss. Every time a player fills out a section of the map that is a contiguous region of the same type of terrain, they get to put out a village. Villages score points. Villages can help you meet goal cards. But more importantly, villages don’t get wiped out at the end of the round. Voila! Now, our little beige map is getting filled with colorful outposts that let us start the next round even farther away from the center!

So maybe that’s why the aesthetic of the game looks like a dusty old map from the Riftwar Saga. It’s almost like a paint by numbers kit, where you and your fellow players will start with a beige canvas and add in all of these colorful and cute little wooden buildings all over the map. They sprout up with abandon, and the best of them — the towers and the villages — stay from age to age.

I was intrigued by the concept of a randowriter that had no writing or rolling at all. My wife and I made a beeline for the Dice Tower East con library on day two of the con, grabbed a friend, and worked our way through the rules. I was hooked.

When we got home, a new copy in hand from one of our favorite stores, we started diving into the four different maps that have been provided. (More maps, please!?!) None of the maps are so wildly different as to shake up the game mechanics too much, but the third and fourth map both have unique little rule twists that breathe some continued life into the game once you feel like you have mastered the first two maps. We especially like the map with the abundance of sea territory, because there just seems to be some good combos in the bonus power cards that can be best utilized on that map.

We have had such good fun putting The Guild of Merchant Explorers through its paces on our game table. It has been constantly played since it arrived, and I think it’s because those two elegant game mechanics (the bonus powers and the refreshing of the map) combine in such beautiful ways. It’s just gosh darn satisfying — as the kids say — to combo up three randomly drawn, but expertly selected, bonus powers and get them to synergize in the best of ways. It’s just flat out thrilling to realize that the tower you need or the ruin that fits the mid-game goal or a big swath of coins are all right in your sights because of a village you completed last round.

The Guild of Merchant Explorers will definitely make my top games of the year list, and has a strong shot of taking home the coveted Fleur de Ludo award. It’s a beige canvas, for sure, but get ready to make beige the rage this holiday season.

Wild and crazy paint jobs on game boards are just so 2021.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

This copy was purchased from an online retailer.

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