Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for animals. When they’re in games, even better. Anthropomorphized animals in games? JACKPOT. When a friend flashed the box for Dale of Merchants at me at a convention back in 2017 I was immediately in, before knowing what the game was even about or how it played. Well, I was in for a treat.
Dale of Merchants is a bit of a mish-mash of drafting, deck building, hand management and tableau creation. The first box comes with 6 animal types – Scarlet Macaws, Giant Pandas, Northern Raccoons, Flying Squirrels, Ocelots, Veiled Chameleons – with a 15 card deck for each type based on a different play style. Each game will be played with a mix of decks, depending on player count (player number plus one); each player has a starter deck of value 1 cards for each animal, as well as an assortment of junk cards (the game’s basic currency). The rest of the animal cards are then shuffled to create a market deck – five of which are always in the flop for players to purchase on their turn. You’re not only looking to acquire these cards for their printed values (additional currency and for merchant stalls) but to grab them as items to work your deck to your advantage.
On your turn, you’ll take one basic action (as a minimum) – either playing a card, buying from the market or building into your “merchant stall”. The latter is the way you’ll aim to win; players are vying for victory by being the first to complete building their merchant stall, which consists of 8 piles of cards – the first totalling a value of one, then each increasing by one until the last stall of value 8. What I found interesting as I learned how to play was the interaction between the way certain animal types would play, working on adding to your deck, while figuring out what you could shed from the deck to make into your merchant stall’s piles of cards, and the way you could manage your hand and the cycling of your deck to optimize play.
For this first set of Dale, the mix of characters is not complex but does offer a good sample of what you can do with the game. The Macaws centre around hand management, the Pandas are market wheelers and dealers, Raccoons have some direct player interaction with stealing, Chameleons imitate other cards, Ocelots play with luck by having a dice to roll, and the Squirrels are pros at setting up their stalls. Because no one player is using just the one type of animal deck, the whole game takes on the mix of how the market deck is made up. Perhaps you’re focused on hand management and the market, with Macaws and Pandas in the mix, for instance. Along with the style of play, this mix and match aspect of the Dale series cements it as a game I love coming back to. Luckily I got my hands on it eventually!
A few years after the convention I first tried Dale at, I was at a local game event and picked up not just that first box, but also the follow-up Dale of Merchants 2. It’s got a great mix of interactive decks, some luck, some take that – a great addition to the existing sets. I was excited when I got Dale of Merchants Collection, as it added yet another 8 decks with some fantastic new ideas and styles, as well as being a fabulous storage solution for the series. I saw a handful of dividers for animal decks I hadn’t heard of yet, so when I saw Dale of Merchants 3 go up for pre-order you know I mashed that button because I can’t say no at this point (plus, echidnas! woo!).
So this means that shortly, I’ll have quite the menagerie — 27 animal types (yes, I ordered that Beaver deck too, come on now). That is a lot of customization when you’re looking at decks to pick and play from. So many combinations. Thankfully there’s a breakdown of the sorts of things you can expect from all the decks so you can, at a glance, get an idea of what you might like to pick. Depending on what you enjoy about Dale, you might rarely (or never) play some decks – maybe take that isn’t something you want to have every time, or perhaps one game you’d love to have havoc reign with lots of luck. This will keep the game dependable or surprising, and honestly, it’s terrific to have the option for either. I’m sure it’s the same when people come to other more straight-up deckbuilding games with a number of expansions (Dominion or Star Realms for instance) for the combinations of what makes a game fun for you.
At this point I would recommend trying some of the decks from that very first set of the game, to get your head around how the game plays. You may only have one basic action each turn, but that can turn quickly into extra actions or tricky player interaction once you explore the decks more and more. The idea of purchasing cards directly into your hand (rather than discard pile) and keeping as much of your hand as you like at the end of your turn can take some adjusting to when looking at the game as a whole – regardless of your included animal decks. There are some interesting and somewhat tricky things like passive cards, storing, delayed techniques, that can keep players on their toes, too. Right now, I’ve still yet to try all of the decks included in Dale, Dale 2 & Dale Collection – and yes, it can be tough to keep trying new stuff. Especially when you are introducing new players to the game. I have to dig into BGG to see if folks have started recommending various mixes for games.
While every deck hasn’t hit my table (virtual or otherwise – yeah that’s right, Dale is on Tabletop Simulator officially!), I have played at all player counts. To be honest I prefer it best at 2. But there’s always more fun at a higher player count when you’re playing with interactive decks, so that’s something to consider. But it’s such an elegant little 1-v-1 game that I can’t help coming back to that format, and it keeps the mix of animals focused down to a tidy package to work with. I find that adding to 3 and 4 can make the gameplay a little long when you have new folks joining, but when you have a seasoned table of Merchants then it flows nicely.
If you’re considering a new card game for your collection that would benefit from repeated plays during this time of lockdown and blowing 10×10 game challenges out of the water, you won’t go wrong with Dale of Merchants. Besides – just look at these critters! They don’t just have personality, but they are also as cute as heck. You’ll delight at the art with all of its detail and character, just as much as you will with the game itself. If you step into the markets of Daimyria for a while, enjoy – and let me know who your favourite merchants are!
Dale of Merchants Collection is a card game for 2 – 4 players that takes approximately 30 – 60 minutes. Designed and illustrated by Sami Laakso, it is published and sold by Snowdale Design. Endless thanks to Sami and Snowdale Design for sending a review copy of the collection for us to cover.