Merchants of Dunhuang

Designer: Gabriele Bubola

Artist: Martin Mottet

Publisher: Mandoo Games

That man looks a little untrustworthy to me……(Photo credits: Mandoo Games@BGG)

It is uncommon for an Asian publisher to publish original games designed by non-Asian designers. Even if they do, a publisher will often go for established luminaries such as Reiner Knizia which makes sense since there is already a built-in audience for Knizia designs. In Merchants of Dunhuang, you see an original from an upcoming designer, Gabriele Bubola published by a Korean company, Mandoo Games. Dunhuang is actually one of Bubola’s earlier designs that came out in 2020. His more recent designs, Hats and Old London Bridge, made some noise, especially Hats, a clever card game that seems to be in the same page as Arboretum and Parade. Apparently, Dunhuang also falls into this genre of card games.

Dunhuang is a meaty card game packaged in a relatively small box, similar in size to the KOSMOS EXIT series boxes. The component quality is excellent with thick cardboard tiles and good quality card stock. Mandoo has also done a great job with the illustration and Asian themed artwork. I love the Asian representation in the game. A thumbs up for the overall production values.

The game is very much a set collection game, but with a rather complex decision space on how and where the set collection ought to be carried out. What’s unique about Dunhuang is that players are collecting two sets of cards, each with its distinct scoring plan. Players can either place the selected good cards in the shop, which is an open and visible tableau space or take the cards into the hands and keep it concealed. Both set collections are occurring concurrently with players needing to decide each turn, where the chosen card will go – concealed or public.

Good cards in Dunhuang differ in counts and face values. In a 4 player game, there are 9 types of goods in play with values ranging from 1-10. The face value for each type of goods also correspond to the number of cards available for each type of goods. In other words, there are 4 pottery cards which are each valued at a 4.

The game is set up as a rondel with 8 good cards populating each of the 8 action tiles slots arranged in a circle . Each turn, players move a camel clockwise to pick up a goods card and activate the action on the tile or pick up 3 coins if the action is not desirable. The camel’s first move is free, but beyond that, each additional movement will cost a coin. One wonders if this rondel design is not the slightest bit influenced by Mac Gerdts, who is most associated with this action selection mechanism.

When each goods card is selected, it must either be taken into the hand and remain concealed, or placed in the shop for all to see. At either location – in the shop or at hand – the sets collected will gain end-of-game points based on majorities. In the shop, majority tokens earned for each type of goods will net 2 points when the final card is drawn from the draw deck. Meanwhile, a simple majority of good cards at hand, after comparison with all players, will net the face value of the set. So, in this case, if you have the most pottery cards among all players, it will net you 4 points.

On the surface, the disparity of points to be had for set collection in hand – which appears way more valuable – and in the shop seems puzzling. Why would anyone display good cards In the shop if each majority token is worth a measly 2 points? Well, that’s because a second victory condition exists: if at any point a player has 4 majority tokens (in a 4 player game), along with 4 different good cards in their hands, a king is immediately crowned. This instant victory condition is probably the heart and soul of this game and is the main mechanism that generates all the tension and angst between choosing where good cards are allocated.

Now, instead of ignoring shop majorities, players must keep an eye and remain moderately competitive in fighting for table presence, if not to dominate, at least to make it harder for someone else to gain 4 majority chits for the instant victory. By hoarding cards in your hand and ignoring the shop, you will open up opportunities for your opponent to win before the final scoring occurs. No amount of final victory points will compensate for when someone triggers an instant victory. Therefore, the biggest decision space in the game is going to be deciding where a goods card is allocated.

The game would be rather straight forward if there weren’t other variables to muck up player decisions. First are the action tiles that can really change things up. These actions, as you expect, allow you to manipulate and alter the normal flow of game play. For example, some actions allow you to swap cards between your shop and your hand or with opponents. Other actions allow you to pick up goods cards from different slots on the rondel. The game also has another scoring category in the form of collecting jewels for prestige points which can be triggered by selecting some of the action slots. There is one one other action tile that deserve special mention. This action allows you to get a one-off protection from other players for stealing the majority token for one of your goods. Because ties favors opponents for deciding majorities, you will lose the majority token if someone picks up a goods card and matches your total count. If you have this one-off protection, you can fend off one such attempt to steal your majority token. This may not seem much, but it buys you time to increase your majority holdings on a particular good which is essential for holding on to the lead. I don’t see this mechanism often as ties usually favor the status quo and it is often times harder to unseat the incumbent, but it is refreshing to see a twist to a common mechanism.

There is more than meets the eye in Dunhuang. The push-pull between going for either set collection is intriguing and can be hard to wrap your head around. However, the way cards counts and their values are distributed makes every decision even more chess-like. The fact that you know that your opponent holds specific cards, and you know what cards you have makes it possible to gauge who has what majorities. This is not a perfect information game as some cards are discarded at the onset of the game and every player starts with one concealed goods card. So, it is not possible to account for all the goods in play and some educated guesses are needed to decide who holds majorities. The action tiles also provide a fair bit of variability that can be hard to predict at times. Some actions allow you to score prestige points directly while others may dramatically change majority holdings. While some actions feel more disruptive than others, and there is some inherent unpredictability in this type of action selection, it does not feel overwhelming – at least not in our first few two player games. The game does scale with player count, with several types of good cards removed from the draw deck with fewer players.

Merchants of Dunhuang fall into this category of complex card games where the decision space is complex and interactive based on what other players are doing. Players cannot exist in their own bubble and just take and make what they want. You cannot win this way because careful attention must be paid to what others are doing and to also adjust the strategy for set collection accordingly. Sometimes, there needs to be a strong response when confronted with an instant victory threat. Other times, movement on the rondel can be opportunistic to take advantage of the positioning of the camel, not only to take the desired cards, but also to trigger desired actions.

When I think of Dunhuang, I think of other clever card games like Arboretum or Parade where the positioning of cards both in the common space and in the hand matters for final scoring. Unlike the above mentioned examples, Dunhuang dips further into the bag of mechanisms in search of more variability by incorporating the action tiles. This is not a criticism of Dunhuang, but games like Parade try to introduce variability and interaction by being creative with spatial organization of cards, timing of play or tweaks in scoring without resorting to rule-breaking actions. I appreciate the action tiles in Dunhuang for what they are, and they certainly ramp up the possibilities in the game in a way that these rule-breaking actions often do. While there are only 8 action tiles per game, each tile is double-sided and players will need at least a few games to acclimate to the iconography and the utility of each of these actions. This could be seen either in a positive or negative light, depending on individual preference.

There is a lot to explore in Merchants of Dunhuang and I think at different player counts, the game will play out differently. With two, I suspect you have a better shot of gauging the possibility of winning concealed majorities since there are fewer hidden variables. The contest will also be a little more controlled since it is a zero-sum effort. With more players, there are more sets in play and perhaps, the instant victory conditions may become more attractive since it is harder to recall who has what cards in their hand. I think repeated plays are needed before I can come to a conclusion. In the mean time, I am looking forward to Mr. Bubola’s next venture.

Initial impression: Good

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