Saturday, February 28, 2015

Merchant of Venus: A tongue-in-cheek universe of glittering possibility

Posted By on Sat, Feb 28, 2015 at 7:36 AM

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Having a friend buy a copy of a complex, meaty game, digest the rules and play-test it before you sit down for the first time is a boon. I don’t know that I would have been able to enjoy the involved and sprawling Merchant of Venus quite as much without my friends doing a walkthrough prior to bringing it over.

In Merchant of Venus, up to four players take on the role of interstellar traders. There are many planets and space stations to travel between, and at the start of the game you get a minimally equipped ship, an untested pilot and zero knowledge of what races or tradable goods are at any of the locations. All of the players launch from a central space station and race to discover who and what are on the planets, vying to find the most profitable — and least dangerous — trade routes for shuttling cargo and passengers from one place to another for profit.

The Merchant of Venus universe doesn’t take itself too seriously. The game’s several types of cargo include eyebrow-raising commodities such as rock videos, bionic perfume and psychotic sculptures, which you’ll ferry around to markets populated by the likes of the Graw, the Shenna and the Yxklyx. (Yix-clix? Ixklix? Oh, the hell with it.) As the action unspools, you’ll run into pirates who are happy to relieve you of your cargo. You’ll curse yourself as navigational gambles leave you diddling around in space while other merchant captains rake in the loot. You’ll buy drilling licenses that let you mine asteroids for incremental income, and agonize over whether to spend your last 40 credits on cargo or a potentially critical ship upgrade.

As all the planets are discovered and their products become known, you’re drawn into an epic race to have the most money and fame when the game ends. But strap in: The best thing about Merchant of Venus is also the worst thing about Merchant of Venus. This game has a lot of pieces and rules. Setup is somewhat laborious and mastery of travel and trade won’t happen in one play. As the game winds on, it can sometimes be a challenge to track all of your ship’s capabilities and the growing number of purchasable cards that can be used for benefit.

But give yourself time and you will see the rewards that this profusion brings: A wide-open adventure that, goofy theme aside, gives you the feeling of growing a seat-of-the-pants trading enterprise in a formerly war-torn star system. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing your money stack up, plotting the best route to the next lucrative drop-off, and watching your modest ship acquire badass abilities that further accelerate your profit-making ability.

Our last four-player game clocked in at about five hours. But it didn’t seem like a long five hours, if you can believe that. Watching your enterprise grow and seeing how you measure up against the other traders is totally engrossing. Merchants of Venus is a unique cross of an economic game and an adventure game that I look forward to experiencing again.

I‘d like to see if my impressions change over the course of more play and familiarity. And that may take a while: There are actually two games in this box. When Fantasy Flight Games republished this title by another designer, they included both the original classic and the FFG team’s redesign. That’s a lot of wild potential for planet-hopping, willy-nilly dashes around supernovas and through asteroid fields, and, I suspect, a lot more fun to be had.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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