Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

The Details



Publisher: Osprey Games

Price: $$$

Theme and Overview

In the 12th century, Merv, a prosperous trade city seated at the heart of the Silk Road was once known as the greatest city in the world. In this game, players take turns to select actions from a central grid representing the city center in which they will receive the corresponding resources and trigger actions at different locations throughout the city representing its political, religious, trade, and cultural centers. As the game progresses, the threat of the Mongol invasion looms and players will need to prepare for their attacks by building walls to protect their infrastructure.

Merv takes place over the course of three years. At the end of the third round, points are totaled and the the player with the most points wins (as if that needed to be said). Points come from a variety of locations around the board, each representing a different location in the city and each tied to a different action one can take throughout the game: the Caravansary, Palace, Library, Marketplace, Mosque, and Wall.

At the center of the game board is a 5X5 City grid from which players select their actions, collect resources, and build houses.

Merv’s gameplay is based on an action selection mechanic that is centered around the 5X5 City Grid at the center of the game board. On each of the four sides of this grid there are five spaces where players take turns to place their Master Meeples and then immediately choose one tile in the corresponding row or column to activate for this turn. This activation can be resolved in a variety of different ways:

  • If there is no building on this tile, the activating player may first place one here THEN…
  • The activating player collects the pictured resource cube on the selected tile and all tiles in the same row or column with a matching colored building THEN…
  • The activating player performs the action pictured on the selected tile.

Players can select tiles where others have placed buildings and activate them accordingly. When this happens, the players who originally built those buildings will collect all resources that the activated building tile would normally produce.

After each player has taken one action in this manner, turn order is determined for the next round according to the placement of the Master Meeples around the City Grid. One year is complete when four rounds (one on each side of the grid) have been played.

There are some additional intricacies to the Action phase of the game including upgrades that can be added to these building tiles and one additional space known as the Camel Market, but the basic action selection described above and jockeying for turn order is the meat and bones of Merv.

The Caravansary action involves a set collection mechanism with bonuses for each pair a player is able to collect.

Actions offer a variety of a ways to use resource cubes including climbing tracks to achieve bonuses (The Mosque), collecting card sets (The Caravansary), committing to end of round scoring bonuses (The Palace), and more. The actions in Merv are unique in that most action spaces allow players to activate their associated action as many times as they would like. For example, taking a Wall action allows players to place as many wall pieces as they can pay for. Likewise, a Mosque action will allow a player to climb multiple spaces on the track as long as they can pay for each advancement.

Players must build walls to protect their buildings from Mongol invasion. Walls protect two spaces inward from all sides of the City grid.

At the end of the second and third year, Mongols will attack the City, destroying any building that isn’t defended temporarily by a Soldier (meeple placed on a City tile) or protected by a wall (built with the Wall action). Alternatively, players can pay a ransom to keep buildings around as well.

Components Sizing

Merv contains 6 Solo cards (56x89mm) and 42 Contract or Caravan cards (44x67mm)


General Enjoyment

This game is wonderful! The central City Grid is truly novel but also brilliantly executed. Selecting a space from amongst the entire grid leaves almost any possible action open at any point in time but the difference in which resources come with these activations can be immense. Players are often challenged to make tough decisions between the best action for the moment, the greatest resource yield, the best set-up for future turns, or the best defensive play. In a two-player game, a dummy player is used very cleverly to add an extra layer of tension as the player who has the first turn each round will also place the dummy player’s Master Meeple and the second player will place one building of its color each round. In any case, every turn provides an excellent puzzle to crack!

The Wall Building action provides a way to generate influence which determines the level of contract a player can fulfill and the number of different spices a player can collect.

Each of the action spaces around the board are exciting. Even the Wall space, which I initially worried would feel like a necessary chore to keep buildings on the board provides enough of a benefit and scoring potential to entice players to explore it. In fact, the Wall action entices players to contribute to the collective defense against the Mongols by also providing influence bonuses for assisting others. Moving up the influence track unlocks the potential for players to collect larger sets via the Caravansary or complete greater contracts so contributing to Wall is a crucial step for any strategy. This is a good example of how many of mechanisms of Merv are masterfully tied together. Whereas a heavy focus on one action type might viable in other titles, players will have to experiment with different elements of Merv’s game mechanisms to achieve their full potential.



Replay Value

Like any other good point salad game, there’s enough going on in Merv where you can’t quite do everything you want by the game’s end. While you may finish the game having completed the Mosque track, you might be intrigued by an opponent’s progress with set collection from the Caravansary or completed contracts via Marketplace actions inspiring you to attempt different strategic approaches in subsequent play-throughs.

Additionally, the central space in the City grid is a two-sided Camel Market. On either side, there are four different activation options that can be used when a player uses the central row or column during the Action phase. Though seemingly subtle, the difference in choice that these two sides offer can lead to quite a bit of strategic variety.

There is very little randomness in Merv, save for the appearance of cards at the Caravansary, so one might plan to approach the game with a similar strategy each time. The brilliance of its design is that it is so interactive in the way that players select actions from the City Grid that predictable plays can be easily hindered by attentive opponents.



Thematic Immersion

Merv is a Euro game through and through, and with that, comes a strong emphasis on mechanics over theme. While the art may be thematically immersive (we’ll get to that in a second), the actual game play is not so much. The resources that one will trade in a game of Merv are indiscriminate “resource cubes” referred to only by their color. Considering that this game is set in the prosperous hub of trade for the Silk Road, it’s a little disappointing that the best that can be done is “orange cube”, “white cube”, etc. That said, it does feel as if this was a conscious decision by the designer to get “right to the chase” and avoid confusion resulting from references to the specific good types. Take it or leave it…

Beyond that, many of the actions such as climbing the Mosque track are activated by merely paying resource cubes and this may seem thematically confusing given the circumstance. What is this exchange? Bribery?

A step up on the Mosque track requires a player to merely pay one or two specific colored resource cubes. Players can climb as far as they can afford with one action.

But maybe this doesn’t matter. After all, when you sit down for a game of Merv, it should be no surprise that you’re going to get a full-fledged Euro experience. Don’t expect thematic immersion beyond some imaginative references to Mongols when your’e being asked to pay some colored cubes or images of cinnamon and ginger that just happen to represent the suits in your card sets.



Quality of Components

Most pieces in the game are made of wood (resource cubes, buildings, wall pieces, Master Meeples), with our absolute favorite inclusion being the 11 camel meeples that are used to do things like increase reach on the Caravansary track or spend at the Camel Market. In fact, this game might secretly function a the fifth player expansion to Everdell. 😉

Merv contains some very fancy camel meeples!

The central City grid on the board is composed of 25 cardboard tiles representing each of the City spaces. These thick cardboard pieces can be shuffled and randomized easily to be dealt into a new arrangement of 25 for each game.

All of the cards (save for the Solo cards) are small 44x67mm cards that slot into spaces around the board signified by silhouettes painted on the board’s art. These smaller cards are a little difficult to shuffle but are appreciated as you play the game because they take up significantly less space on the table.




Ian O’Toole is a master of design and function. While the art is some of the best of any game we own, the game has been presented in a way that lays out Merv’s many mechanisms in an easy to understand and easy to find fashion. Each City tile has a large icon depicting its associated action and a picture of the colored cube that one would collect when activating. After selecting an action in this grid, it’s easy to match this icon to the icon printed largely on the board in the section associated with that action. This makes this heavier game quite a bit easier to play, especially for those who are new to it.

Iconography is very easy to interpret in Merv.

Iconography is far from overwhelming for this weight of game and the icons that exist use some consistent concepts such as “matching” or “unique” when referring to cube color or card suit.

The only thing that we find to be missing is some kind of graphic that lays out the end of round process and scoring. While these elements are depicted around the board (Invasion, score Palace, pay favor, score buildings, scoring tiles, and Mosque track), it would be very beneficial for there to be a graphic some place on the board or on a separate card that would lay this out. It is printed on the back page of the rule book but this can get a little boisterous to pass pass around the table while playing.



Grand Total

Our overall score based on the responses of both reviewers in five different categories (10 points possible for each).

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