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Conspicuous Consumption Gets Competitive in Mercado

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Rob was perusing the wares at the market, a sparkling spectacle of jeweled goblets, gilded books, and fine clothing available for purchase to anyone with enough coin. He reached into his purse to see what he could afford and came up with a handful of worthless counterfeit currency. He glared at Kevin, who had recently foisted the fake money onto all of his competitors with the aid of some intoxicating perfume. Kevin feigned an innocent smile while the rest of us laughed.

“So what are the come from behind rules again?” Rob asked.

Lucky for him, and other players that hate the feeling of never being able to catch up with an early leader, Mercado is good at keeping things close and competitive. Published by Thames & Kosmos, the game puts two to four players in the role of super rich people that want to show off their status by buying fancy things. The game contains four pouches decorated with pendants corresponding to the four colored character tiles. The pouches start with five wooden coins of five different colors representing four forms of viable currency and counterfeits that can’t be spent on anything. Throughout the game you can find ways to purge your fake money, have more added to your bag, or pick up white coins that can be used to represent any type of money. The effect makes the gameplay pleasantly tangible and forces players to try to remember how many good and bad coins they’ve added to their collection.

Each turn, players pull three coins out of their bag and place them on tiles in the center representing treasures that earn them points, perfumes that can be used to help yourself or hurt your opponents, or services in the form of minor benefits that remain consistent throughout the game even as the other cards change every round. Each tile has a specific price that must be met such as two copper coins or four coins of the same type. If you don’t have enough to buy a tile immediately, you leave your coins on a side of the tile corresponding to your player color, a nice design feature that makes it easy to understand the board state at a glance. The first person to pay the full price spends their coins and acquires it. All players that bid on a tile but failed to get it put their coins back in their bag. If you were the second closest to acquiring it, you also gain a seal that can be used to draw two additional coins from your bag on your turn, which is a pretty powerful consolation prize.

While there’s no limit to the number of tiles you can buy each turn, practically the number purchased was almost always one or zero. I started my turns drawing three coins and looking at the options laid out in front of me before figuring out if there was anything I could immediately buy. If I happened to have a seal I’d look over my spent coinage and try to calculate the odds that two more coins would enable a purchase. Other players often filled the time by pointing out what money could be spent on or just mocking particularly useless draws. Sometimes you didn’t even need to draw counterfeit coins to get unlucky if you drew a bunch of copper but most of the things on the board called for silver or turquoise. The decision to push my luck by drawing more coins was easy when I had multiple seals or was very likely to gain another one, but if I just had one I had to seriously consider accepting the turn as a dud and hoping for better luck next time around.

Most of the game players seemed to alternate between good turns where they used a seal and were able to buy something, and bad turns where they just scattered coins around the board and hoped to set themselves up for later success. The seal mechanic provides a consistent if powerful advantage. You can only spend one seal per turn, which keeps people from hoarding for a big draw and then running the board all at once. When you run out of coins in your bag, you need to take an action to reset. That means going on a buying streak eventually forces you to take a turn off. It was a testament to the game’s excellent balance that we all reset on roughly the same turn.

Another fun twist is the scoring system. Rather than just add up points at the end of the game, every time players gain points they move their piece around a scoreboard marked with both good tiles that could do things like give you wild coins and bad ones that might add counterfeits to your bag. If another player is already on a specific score tile, you gain no good or ill effect. That board often forces players to consider more than just the strict numerical values of what was available in the market, determining if they could gain some advantage based on how their score moved or if the price they would pay was worth picking up a particularly tantalizing treasure. Some cards also provide players with “privilege tokens” that given them with extra victory points and some other minor benefits when played. Attack cards can force you to discard these tokens, but I still found myself holding onto mine if they had the potential to put me in a bad scoring spot.

As is often the case in European games, Kevin’s strategy of focusing on attacking other players by purchasing perfumes didn’t pay off since he didn’t earn enough points himself. He beat Rob, but only narrowly thanks to cards that are worth more or less based on what position you’re in when you purchase them. Both finished behind me and another friend who didn’t get quite as unlucky as Rob did and also largely eschewed aggressive cards in favor of just steadily buying treasures and making sure we almost always had a seal to spend. The game was close, managing that rare balance of being both fun and fair. If you have some extra coin in your pocket, it’s well worth picking up.

Samantha Nelson
Managing Editor Escapist Magazine. Contributor at A.V. Club, The Verge and the Chicago Tribune. Member of the Critical Hit podcast.

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