I’ve long been a fan of games designed by Stefan Feld, so it almost pains me to say that his newest title, Merlin, is impressively bad—so bad that I can’t figure out if the game is unfinished, if he just mailed this one in rather than fix it, or if this is some sort of elaborate prank on his fans, because it feels like a parody of the games that made him successful in the first place.
Feld’s style of tile or worker placement games sometimes gets the derisive term “point salad,” meaning that players have to try to collect points from multiple sources that often don’t seem very well connected within the game’s theme. But when he gets the design right, his games can be smart, challenging puzzles that are still fun to play, never more so than in Castles of Burgundy, his best title and one of my top ten all-time games. Castles of Burgundy has players try to fill out their own boards by drafting tiles from a common supply, selecting them via dice they’ve rolled and possibly manipulated, and then gaining benefits from every tile placed. You also earn bonuses for filling out terrain areas on your boards, or becoming the first to achieve certain milestones, or trading goods you acquired over the course of the game. You do lots of things, but most are small and simple, and the strategies that work become clear over a few plays.
His other hits have included Notre Dame and La Isla, both a little simpler and shorter to play than Castles; Bruges, which I think is a little too heavy on the influence of the objective cards but still has a few points to recommend it; and Bora Bora, easily the best looking of his games (at least that I’ve tried) but trending a bit too much in that point salad direction. Merlin seems to combine the worst of all of these: You’re placing workers, collecting stuff, meeting objectives on cards, and you’re lucky if anything you do is worth as much as 3 points. I’ve played very few Euro games that felt this busy and yet still this futile.
The game has six rounds, and in each round players roll their own set of four dice (three in their player color, one white), so they get 24 actions in total over the course of the game. A player can use one die of his player color to move his player token clockwise around the rondel on the game board, and then takes the action of the space where the token lands. With three dice rolled per round, the order in which the player deploys the dice matters; players each start the game with one apple token that can be used to turn one die to any number desired. Merlin does appear in the game as a non-player character—his token is on the player rondel in the center of the very busy board, and all players can move Merlin once per round and take the action of the space where he lands. Each player starts the game with three Merlin staffs that can be used (and discarded) to repeat the action where Merlin landed. Merlin can be moved clockwise or counterclockwise, because he’s Merlin, I guess.
Players move around the rondel to collect things and sometimes get points. There are six principalities, and each has resources, flags, shields, and a place for players to drop influence tokens. If you move to one of the principality’s spaces on the rondel, you can place one of your four henchmen on that principality, and then take the action of that henchmen—grab a thing or place an influence token. You want resources because you can use them to build manors on the entirely separate map of the Environs, and those are worth points and often get you extra things. You want shields because you use them to repel the three Traitor tokens you get randomly at the start of each odd-numbered round. You want flags because they give you special one-time powers like letting you jump 180 degrees around the rondel. You want influence tokens because those score a few points after every even-numbered round, and if you have an influence token on a principality you may get to take more things from it later on.
Oh, and then there are mission cards. You start the game with four, and they can be worth 1 to 3 points when fulfilled. The requirements are—seriously I don’t even feel like explaining what the requirements are, because this has become very silly, and I haven’t even explained all the rules or all the ways to get points or even gotten into the mini-expansions, like the one that changes the Environs tiles so that they give you better rewards, or the one that lets you skip the points from a mission card to get certain special powers—but sometimes you can only use those powers three times in the entire game and have to keep track of how many times you’ve used it. Every expansion (I’ve tried three, one that comes with the base game and two “queenies” mini-expansions from Queen Games) just feels like a kludge to address something amiss with the base rules, and each one succeeds only in making the game more complicated to learn.
Merlin might have started from a good idea, but at some point, Feld needed an editor, or even an adversary, to tell him to roll it back and start over. There’s way too much going on here, so many niggling rules to follow and so many tasks that provide minuscule rewards, that the game itself feels pointless, like we’re all taking our turns but there’s no real end goal—no engine to build, no cohesion to the theme, and, most tellingly, a total absence of fun.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.