7/10 A classic pick-up-and-deliver game that runs long
I’ve played at 2 and 3 player. Given its length, I wouldn’t recommend 4 players.
The original Merchant of Venus, a sci-fi game about exploring and trading goods between different planets and systems, came out in 1988 and gained something of a small but very dedicated fanbase. So dedicated that long after the original had gone out of print, fan-made versions surfaced that people could print at home. Eventually, companies looked into getting the game reprinted for real. The problem was that no one was quite sure who owned the rights to the game. Stronghold Games licensed the game from Richard Hamblen, the designer, intending to reprint the classic game. Fantasy Flight Games licensed the game from Avalon Hill, the original publisher, intending to make a new “modern” version. After a big mess of people trying to figure out who could actually reprint it, they reached a compromise. FFG would reprint the game but include their “standard” rules for the new version as well as components and rules to play the “classic” version in the same box with credits to Stronghold. This made it a touch expensive, but everyone got the game they wanted.
The Classic Version
In the classic version, as with the original, you have a starting ship and some starting funds, then you go explore to find different alien cultures. As you discover new cultures, you can buy and sell goods between cultures, upgrade your ship, transport passengers, and set up your own spaceports and factories. The game is a race to earn 2,000 credits before anyone else.
It’s an older game and uses something of a roll-and-move mechanic. You roll dice based on the speed of your ship (starting at 3), then total your dice. That’s how far you move. You must move the full distance unless you find a place to land, typically on a planet or at a station. There are also some face-down encounter tokens that when reached, you reveal them and resolve. Sometimes they’re relics, items you can stop and pick up for new abilities, but there can be hazards (pay money to move through), tele-gates for moving around the board faster, and even new stations you can trade at.
At its heart, it’s not a complicated game, but it has some fiddly rules you need to remember. When moving, you can’t turn around and go back the way you came. You have to set a navigation die when entering gates or navigation spaces, but the die still counts towards movement, but also you’re not allowed to turn around at a navigation point even if the die would send you back the way you came. Moving on green lines costs 2 movement instead of 1. And then there’s the math in the game. When someone (including you) buys a good from one of your factories, you get a 50% commission from the bank. If anyone (including you) buys from a spaceport, you get a 10% commission from the bank on all transactions. There are some other edge-case rules as well. It’s certainly not the worst offender when it comes to fiddly rules, but it’s not what you’d call a streamlined game.
The Standard Version
There are several differences from the classic version. For one, you can’t buy new ships, instead, you upgrade your ship with equipment. Each culture sells gear that can be slotted into your ship, and you can earn special rewards that also have special abilities, much the same way you could find relics in the classic version. There are also now missions that reward you for completing objectives. Your pilot can also level up and gain new abilities and higher piloting. And the encounter tiles now have a deck of cards with more complicated events. This all sounds great! But you also now have two stats on your player board (shield and laser) and a piloting stat on your pilot card, and when you need to test something, you roll a die and see if you get under your stat. It’s not really an inspired mechanic and introduces a lot more randomness. Each culture also now has a variable market with a set of 3 tokens that cycle, changing the value of the items by small amounts. You also play a fixed 30-round game, at the end of which, the player with the most money wins.
The basic structure of the game remains the same. You fly around, exploring different systems, buying and selling goods between cultures, deal with various hazards around the map, and upgrade your ship (in some manner). But there are yet more additions to the standard game.
There are now pirates that can appear. When you cross one, you have to choose to test piloting, lasers, or shields. If you fail, the pirates rob you, taking a good based on type or 20 credits if you have no matching goods, and your movement (and thus, your turn) ends. It’s brutal. Even worse, if you land on a pirate with your last movement point, they ambush you and you automatically lose. The hazards can also be harsher than in classic. There are hazards around the board that require you to test one of the stats. If you fail (very likely), you can reduce your lasers or shields, depending on what was tested, to keep moving (which cost money to replace). However, a piloting fail ends your turn. Weird that the “modern” version has more “lose a turn” effects than the original.
With all the new things they threw in, including the several ways you can modify your ship, there are a lot of new rules. However, they didn’t streamline the previous rules much. Factories, one of my favorite parts of the game, are gone. And they made spaceports annoying. Instead of the owner earning money from the bank, the player using the port has to pay an additional fee for each transaction (and spaceports block planet-side cities, forcing you to use them); that money then goes to the owner. Can’t pay the fee, can’t perform the transaction. There are other “take-that” elements introduced with events.
After playing the standard version a couple of times, we tried out the classic version and never looked back. Honestly, I had to take another look at the standard version because it had been so long. It’s actually worse than I remember. Neither version is perfect, and there are some neat elements introduced in the new standard rules, but for us, the classic is cleaner and more focused on the fun parts. The standard version is bloated with rules, components, randomness, and is ultimately a mess.
But even classic is still long for what it is. It gets grindy after a while, and I wish it could do all the same things but in 2 hours instead of 3. Maybe someday we’ll see a new edition that bridges the gap between the old design and modern games. I would like to see ship upgrades and missions, but I don’t think we need stat tests or event cards (and no pirates). And I think a slightly smaller board with fewer cultures and a re-balanced economy could also help speed up the game.