Mercado: Curses and Purses

What a beautiful marketplace! I can’t wait to spend my wares at these various vendors! What shall I come home with today? Perchance some bejeweled shoes for that royal ball next week? Or maybe a single solid gold goblet complete my collection of overly fancy cups. Ah, but this perfume smells divine. I’ll take it! Here you…oh shoot, it turns out I brought only counterfeit money with me today. Uh…do you take Venmo?

Mercado by Rüdiger Dorn drops players into an undefined period and place with a purse full of valuable coins; gold, silver, copper, and turquoise all appear with equal frequency. The market before you is full of merchants hawking their wares to the rich nobles that pace the rows of stalls. There’s a lot to check out, so get moving, because these people didn’t bring enough product to sell to everyone..

There are three main categories of stalls you can spend your money on. Valuable objects are just what they sound like. These are good for the majority of your points in the game, and they vary from one measly point to a whole handful. Enchanting perfumes don’t move you much around the scoretrack, but they have very powerful effects that could kickstart an incredible turn later in the game. Finally, there’s the coin changer and head merchant, people you can always turn to for little boosts. Each tile has certain costs attached to them, so a specific combo of coins is all you need to bring that music box home with you. But these combos aren’t always easy to come across.

Your turn begins by reaching into your giant purse for three measly coins that you can spend in the market. With only three coins, a lot of the time you’ll have to put a down payment on goods, promising that you’ll return in the morning with that last turquoise coin you need. But will that painting even be there when you get back? You have to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. Players that have coins at goods sold outside of their turn get a consolation prize of a wax seal (which can be used to draw two more coins on a turn) and their coins back, but is that worth the time you wasted chasing after it? And you even have to have the 2nd most coins at a good to get that seal. What’s likely to sell soon? What’s sticking around?

Players are constantly evaluating their odds at pulling the exact coins they need to pull off a huge turn. When you purchase a good, the coins you spend go onto your character card, not back into your bag. The percentages are constantly shifting, and the bags of other players morph as well. Is now the time to spend a seal to draw more coins? Or am I throwing good money after bad? Are my neighbors likely to draw what they need, or do I have a little more time? You’ll always start with 5 of each coin in your purse, but when your bag starts emptying out, you have to decide when to skip an entire turn just to refill it. What’s left in there? Only good things, right? Not exactly…

Somehow, some worthless knockoff coins have found their way into your bag, diluting your purchasing power. These duplicates are such poor replicas that any merchant worth their salt can spot them from a mile away. However, instead of disposing of them once in hand, you must hang onto them throughout the game. Perhaps because you were fooled by them, you hold out hope that they will someday dupe another. These coins can be removed from circulation through specific spaces on the scoretrack, some privilege tokens, or from purchasing certain goods. But anyway you look at it, it’s never a good sign when you draw a coin stamped “E Pluribus Uranus” from your purse. Even worse, you may end up receiving more and more bad coins throughout the game. The merchants can suss out fakes, but you sure can’t. Buying certain goods and specific spaces on the scoretrack may inflate your money holdings to an absurd degree. Multiple times I’ve ended a game with twice as many coin-terfeits as when I started my journey around the scoretrack.

Let’s talk about that scoretrack! There are lots of different kinds of ways to track your score out there, from the serpentine to the circular. Here in Mercado, you won’t find any pesky numbers to count, just relative position on the board from the end and other players. Instead, little bonuses and punishments are scattered across the spaces. When you score points from purchasing goods, you move your piece along the track. If it lands in an empty space, you get the blessing or curse from that space. If another player’s piece is already there, you get no bonus, but also no burden. So not only are you trying to score points, you’re trying to score them at the right time and the right place. Is there a tricky portion of the track that’s full of counterfeiters? Just wait until the other players cover those pesky spaces. A good that moves you 4 spaces could move you 7 if your timing is impeccable. But you do have some tools that give your jumps some extra accuracy: privilege tokens.

Privilege tokens are precise boosts that you can accumulate from purchasing goods or visiting the head merchant in the market. These declarations are played at the beginning of your turn, before even drawing coins, and move you along the scoretrack. But this time, those spaces are optional, allowing you to blast past tricky spots at the right time. Remember, though, that you’re betting on your upcoming draw that things will go perfectly. If not, you’ve still got seals, right? It’s these little pushes of luck that really sell the spirit of fomo with all these fancy goods. I need those shoes now, and I don’t care what I spend to get them. You’ll do anything to get those little boosts around the board.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part about the scoretrack! During the setup, you place the starting piece on any space of the track and players move clockwise from that point for one lap. You can start anywhere along this circle and it changes up the flow of the game from the very beginning. Not only that, there’s a whole other side that swaps out the effects for bigger moments of drama. Every other player gets counterfeit coins! Privilege tokens all around! It’s such a simple way to introduce variability into the game.

I could talk about the temporary wild coins, the coin changer that supplies them immediately, or the perfumes that require them, but if you’ve read this far, I’ll spare you more gushing. Mercado is lightning fast, which initially lead me to break it out as dessert at the end of a game night or as a quick romp to kill time. But upon further plays, I realized this game can very well handle the spotlight of a main course. The anticipation of the draw, the jumping on the scoreboard, and the agonizing decision to refill your purse all add up to a game that’s more than meets the eye. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if that teacup set is still available.

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