Let’s take a moment to reflect on the events of a year ago, when both Stronghold Games and Fantasy Flight announced a reprint of Richard Hamblen’s Merchant of Venus. Confused fans had every reason to be pessimistic. The ensuing silence only fed fears that the lawyers had been sent in to do battle. We may never know all of the details of how the whole thing happened or how it was resolved. But what I do know is that the resulting reprint of Merchant of Venus succeeds beyond anything my heart dared to hope for.
When all was said done, we ended up with two distinct designs in the box. The “standard game” is a redesign by the good folks at Fantasy Flight Games, who have done their share of reboots. Some, like Talisman and Cosmic Encounter, have been well-received. But I think it’s safe to say that they have just as often made changes that have been embraced by some and bemoaned by others, as was the case with Dungeonquest and Fury of Dracula. Stronghold’s contribution to this package was the inclusion if the original 1987 design, originally released by Avalon Hill. The board is double-sided, there are a ton more components, and there’s even two separate rulebooks.
The two games are different in many ways, but they share a common framework. You take the role of an intergalactic trader, who will travel the galaxy collecting exotic goods from one location and delivering them for a tidy profit on other planets. There are fourteen different cultures, each one placed randomly on different worlds around the board. A good produced can be delivered to the next four or five cultures in the numerical order. So if you pick up something at culture no. 1, you can sell it to cultures 2-5. Along the way, you can get alterations to your spaceship (or in the classic game, trade it in for a nicer model), you’ll encounter dangers, and you’ll have to deal with the unpredictability of intergalactic travel. The finish line is different in each game. In the classic version, it’s the first to a set number of credits, usually 2000. In the standard, it’s the most money at the end of 30 turns.
While the reprint was in limbo, I played a homemade version of the classic game and really enjoyed it. So I had a little knowledge of that version going in. In short, it’s just about everything I want in a game experience. As much as any game can, it just felt right. I liked the movement between the planets, which is entirely dice-driven. It felt suitably unpredictable without being a mess, and more importantly it felt volatile like space travel should. I liked feeling like my ship was actually mine, a sense of ownership in what I was doing. There’s a great deal of personal connection with what you’re doing, and it manages to make the game fun even when you’re losing badly. And of course, I loved the goofy tone. The goods had names like “psychotic sculpture” and “immortal grease.” Despite a couple of rough spots, it gelled together into something very special.
I’m pleased to say that the new classic version has left almost all of it intact. There are one or two tweaks that I don’t mind at all. Perhaps most drastic is the cutting of the player range from six to four, a move that I think is smart since this is a game where there isn’t a lot to do when it’s not your turn. The most pleasant surprise about the classic version is that I like it even more than my inital experience indicated. It’s not just that the game is fun, it’s actually quite open. It allows you to do largely what you want to, even if it will result in crushing defeat. That’s where that strange sense of ownership came from, the fact that the current state of my game is very much impacted by my own decisions. But it’s not ENTIRELY impacted by my own decisions, because movement is dice-based. The result is a game that is open without being too boggling.
There’s a cool arc that develops, as you travel to different planets to make first contact with new cultures. It’s as much exploration as it is trade, especially early on. As the game continues, it becomes more about finding a good trade route to exploit for fun and profit. New goods are produced by randomly drawing tiles and returning them to the board. Perhaps the most subtle touch of brilliance is the way that cultures are tied to the planets randomly. It ensures enormous variety without requiring a ton of extra components. It’s a little design trick that a lot of newer games would do well to learn.
If this were just a straight reprint of Hamblen’s game, this would already be a terrific package. But there’s still the standard game to tackle. I must confess some skepticism here. Fantasy Flight is never one to underdesign, even when the original game already works well. They did indeed add a lot of new stuff in their version, but to my great surprise it stands toe to toe with the classic version. It expands on what I liked best about the original and comes up with a version that I might like even more.
The key to the success here is that the game still feels true to its core. The cool stuff I mentioned above? It’s all still there. The movement is still dice-based. The thrust of the game is still pick-up-and-deliver. But that sense of ownership and space adventure is ramped up considerably, and I think the result is their most successful reimagining. The biggest addition is that of ship add-ons, which are customizations you can buy around the galaxy to improve your ship. Instead of trading in your ship to get a newer model, you just trick it out. It gives a sense of continuity that is pretty darn cool. Another new addition is that of fame, which you get for doing neat things around the board. It’s a sort of victory point, but it translates to money at the end of the game. You can get fame for certain customizations and for completing missions. (Oh yeah, there are missions too.) Finally, the hazards have changed to ones that are generally more difficult, and there is a much greater variety in random encounters.
It’s bulkier than the original, which wasn’t exactly streamlined to begin with. But the turn structure itself is basically the same, and the little details are the challenge. There are more places to roll dice and flip cards, so it’s a more unpredictable version as well. Those factors give it less of a standard route-following feel, and create something closer to a traditional adventure game. That’s the part I really like, because I find myself more drawn into the world of the game. There’s greater detail and nuance. At the same time, they managed to sand away a couple of little strange parts from the original, like the subtle differences between merchant, neutral, and open spaceports. I also prefer the 30-turn limit, though I think it makes for a somewhat longer game. Suffice to say that the standard game is pretty clearly why players five and six were left out, and I do not mourn their loss.
Neither version is what I would call lean. There are stacks of tokens to track with and handle. There are a lot of places where you can look at it and think that maybe it could have been a little simpler. Some will feel that FFG’s graphic design doesn’t help the matter, though this hasn’t been an issue for anyone I’ve played with. I would also question how balanced each version is. It feels like it’s difficult to overcome a bad start, though I think the standard version offers some more opportunity for it. There’s also not much interaction, which is usually a bummer for me. But in this case, I think it’s appropriate. Indeed, one place where FFG could have really bungled the redesign would be to introduce some kind of combat into the proceedings. This was done with the original Avalon Hill release, though it was never particularly well-loved. It’s best as a race game, one filled with adventure and wonderful thematic flavor. None of these factors have diminished my enjoyment of these games one bit. I’m having too much flying my spaceship.
So which version do I like better? That’s a tough question. At this point, it’s probably the standard game, though I reserve the right to change my mind later. Which version will you prefer? If you’re a planner or prefer a simpler game, you’ll like the classic. Those who go more for the experience and the theme might prefer the standard. But the brilliant thing is that there’s no need to choose. Each game by itself is wonderful, but the real treat here is that they are in the same box. It makes this one of the best game releases in Fantasy Flight’s catalog, and easily their best reprint since Cosmic Encounter.