Cardboard Children – Merchant of Venus

By Robert Florence on July 8th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Hello youse.

Many thanks for watching that epic Top 50 Board Games of all time video series. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it made me revisit a lot of my favourite games. Today we’ll talk about something new. Merchant of Venus is a trading game set in space, and it’s considered a bit of a classic. Does it still stand up today? Read on.

MERCHANT OF VENUS

I bet you love space trading games, right?

I mean, okay, let’s look at this. If you’re a visitor to this site, you’re probably a pretty hardcore gamer. And you’re a PC gamer too. You most likely go way way back, back to Elite. You’ve traded in space before. You LOVE doing that shit. When you hear that a game lets you pick up goods from one planet and sell those goods at another, you do crazy stuff like buying “Early Access” versions of the game. Right? Space trading stuff is BRILLIANT.

Well, that’s what Merchant of Venus is all about. Players have a ship and a big galaxy map to explore. You fly around, exploring new planets. When you make first contact with a new alien race you establish good relations with them and find out what kind of goods they sell. You get a little bonus that lets you buy goods more cheaply from that race. Cool, right?

At this stage of the game we’re totally chilled out. We’re navigating paths and meeting aliens. And the navigation stuff is really cool. It’s a simple little dice management thing which usually works out totally fine, but very occasionally sends you fucking off around a planet in a completely wrong direction. There’s a little bit of stuff to think about, but nothing major. You start to dabble with trade, buying a couple of goods from here or there.

Then demands start to appear on the board. Those weird robot guys want a particular good. And they’re paying BIG MONEY. Do you have any of those goods? No? Do you know where to get them? Maybe the race responsible for the manufacture of that particular good isn’t discovered yet. Or maybe you DO have that particular good. And maybe someone else has it too.

The race is on.

At its heart, Merchant of Venus is a race game. No, it is. Don’t argue with me. When demands for goods spring up, you’ll see players sit up to attention. Suddenly this game of chilled-out exploration, buying and selling is a tight and tense sprint to the big opportunity.

“Ah fuck, I’m never making it over there,” you bluff. Your eyes are counting the spaces. Can you make it there first?

You can improve your ship, of course. You can modify it so that it carries more goods, which increases the chances of you having the right stuff on board when a demand pops up. Bigger ships move more slowly, though. Other modifications can speed you up, moving you faster along those space-lanes. You’ll find that players will end up doing different things. Someone will have a big fat goods-beast of a floating supermarket. Someone else will have a zippy little courier ship, darting from planet to planet.

And aside from a few additional little details, like picking up passengers to operate as a space-taxi or opening your own factories to share in some of the profits from goods sales, that’s pretty much the game in a nutshell. Pick up, deliver, pick up, deliver, pick up deliver. A few hours of that and you’re done.

It’s a great game. Every time you play, the alien races will be living on different planets, so the journeys will be different. You’ll always have that early-game exploration feel, and those periods where you’ll be gambling that an in-demand good might be on that unexplored planet on the other side of the galaxy. When the game focuses in on the trading itself, the brakes really come off and it’s a big freewheel downhill to the finish.

Merchant of Venus will be staying in my collection for keeps. Why? Well, I haven’t really played another game that feels like it. It’s weirdly relaxing. Even when the pace picks up towards the end, it’s still kinda relaxing. “Oh, that alien wants this. I have one of those. I’m going to fly over there and give them that. Then they’ll give me money.” “No, I’ll get there first.” “You think?” Cue two chilled-out people firing their engines and blasting off towards glory. Halfway through the trip – “You know what, I’m not going to make it. Oh well.”

No hate, no anger. Just that feeling of “Well, it’s a big universe. Somebody is going to want these freaky Living Toys.” And off you go, into the stars, looking for your next big score.

Also strange – when you LOSE at the game, it doesn’t really feel like a loss. I mean – okay, it IS a loss. Of course it is. Says so in the rules. But you’ve made money, right? You might have made less money than the other players, but you’re still “up”. You made your own way in the wide open galaxy, and you made some cash. You’re a success.

Maybe it’s because I usually love nasty, vicious, knife-in-your-back games that I loved Merchant of Venus so much. It’s a change of pace. A real cups-of-tea and conversation game, as you whip your little ship around an asteroid field to find your fortune. Please try it if you haven’t yet.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The new edition of Merchant of Venus, from Fantasy Flight, contains two versions of the game. There are the Standard Rules, which is actually a new version of the game with a whole load of Fantasy Flight-style fluff attached. The version I reviewed was the “Classic Game”, which is the original design. I checked out the rules for Fantasy Flight’s re-do and it all looks a bit fussy. I will dig into it someday, but I can recommend this game on those classic rules alone.

THE FUTURE: Back to new game recommendations for a while, with the occasional video in the mix. See you soon, folks! Stay dicey!

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14 Comments »

  1. Lexx87 says:

    I wonder what the Midnight Table would think of all this….

  2. McGuit says:

    Merchant is a classic for a reason.
    It’s flat out fun.
    Got to get my copy back to the table soon.

  3. Duke of Chutney says:

    good words rab

    I prefer the classic rules, its quicker to set up, easier to play and in my view less punishing. When you hit an anomaly in space, in the classic rules you lose points, in the standard/FFG rules you end your turn. It can be very frustrating when you end your turn early two or three times on the trot and sit there doing nothing for another 15 minutes. The FFG version does give you a lot more toys to play with and different ways to play the game. It also has a hard turn limit which means if you have players that much around rather than going for the win condition it can be faster, but it can also be a lot slower with all its fiddliness.

    For those wondering, this is better than Firefly the board game, and Phantom League (a game that is explicitly trying to do elite in card board). Hamblin’s classic is still the best space fairing board game.

    • Harlander says:

      I got a bit confused and had to look it up, so for the benefit of anyone else mildly perplexed, I’m pretty sure “Hamblin’s classic” is this.

      It’s actually by a Richard Hamblen, and the only thing I could find by a Hamblin was something called Meltscape, which doesn’t seem to be in outer space at all!

  4. udat says:

    This sounds quite interesting. My mates and I have gotten good value out of the Firefly game recently for many of the same reasons. Sometimes it’s nice to just fly around doing your thing. Yes you are competing with the other captains, but because the interaction between crews is quite limited, it’s quite relaxing doing your thing. The theme is pretty much nailed on as well. The “misbehaving” mechanic can feel like you’re in an episode of the show. The fact that my friends are all right minded people who love Firefly and can quote lines while we play probably helps.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      ‘The fact that my friends are all right minded people who love Firefly and can quote lines while we play probably helps.”

      I’d say that’s essential. My primary motivator for playing a game of Firefly is reminiscing with friends how awesome the show was. And singing the theme song. And The Hero of Jamestown.

      Also, I can kill you with my brain.

  5. electron105 says:

    No breakdown post of your top 10 Rab?

    • Dawngreeter says:

      I was just gonna say the same thing…
      I might be in the minority but video reviews aren’t really my thing. I was waiting for the breakdown to find out the top 10 :-/

  6. frenz0rz says:

    I like the sound of this, although as a Fantasy Flight fan I’d love to see a breakdown of the old rules vs the new. So far everything I’ve played from FF has been utterly brilliant, and it seems odd that they’d intentionally complicate and bog down a rulebook with extra fluff for no reason.

    That said, it’s nice to have the classic option too; much like the choice of using the classic or new Filch flare card in Cosmic Encounter.

    • Deano2099 says:

      I really like the updated version. It adds a lot, and certainly makes it feel a lot more like an FFG game. It makes the game a lot more random, and it feels more like an adventure game than a straight up trading/race game. Demands are out (though adding them back is an optional addition), you have fluctuating markets but they have a fairly minor impact. Instead of buying new, different ships that are all balanced, you buy upgrades to your existing ship to improve it in different ways, though slots are still limited. There are missions that give you something to aim for in the early game while still discovering the good trade routes. There are passengers that turn up…

      It certainly changes the game, only the core mechanics of how you move and navigate, and the final objective (make money) stay the same. If the original was the board game version of Elite, the new one is much more FTL.

      • frenz0rz says:

        So you might even consider this to be two (or at least 1.5) games for the price of one? Even better!

        • Deano2099 says:

          Definitely, it’s not a cheap game, but there’s a hell of a lot of components in the box, and I’d say the majority are specific to one version or other. Even the board is double sided despite the differences being minor.

          How this happened is a wonderfully lovely story about two companies both thinking they had the rights to the game and one announced a new updated version, the other announced a reprint of the original. Rather than be dicks and spend three years sueing each other they got together, put both games in the same box and joint-published it.

    • jarowdowsky says:

      Pretty sure The Dice Tower youtube review has Tom going through the versions in detail, either that or Ryan Metzler. Either way, just search for merchant of venus dicetower and you should get a video taking you through the changes.