Keyflower – The Merchants: expansion review

Keyflower MerchantsKeyflower* is popular euro game of bidding, engine building and point scoring that was first released in 2012 (and reviewed by me in 2015).

It has risen into the Top 25 games as listed at Board Game Geek and this is the game’s second big box expansion, after 2013’s The Farmers.

Played over four seasons (rounds), Keyflower is a cut-throat bidding and worker placement game wrapped is some lovely, whimsical artwork. Each turn sees you bidding to add tiles to your village, or using those tiles for their action – but you can place your workers on any tile in anyone’s village, so just because you buy a tile through bidding doesn’t mean you’ll get to use it when you need to.

The game plays fast with snappy turns (an hour is about right with four or less – but it comfortably takes up to six players), is high on interaction and is full of difficult decisions despite being relatively simple in terms of rules overhead. A modern classic.

What does Keyflower: The Merchants bring to the party?

Keyflower Merchants contractsThe Merchants introduces a whole bunch of interacting components, but these can be roughly broken into three categories: new boat tiles, contracts and extensions.

You get six new ‘boat tiles’ with the same names as the originals, each with ‘II’ added to the end. Two of the six offer interesting alternatives to the original game – one always giving a green meeple, the other always giving a gold. The rest add components from this expansion to the usual mix of meeples and skill tiles. The idea is to shuffle these with the originals and choose one boat of each name per game as required, but you can of course just pick the ones you fancy.

The 36 ‘contracts’ are small cardboard scrolls that depict a wide range of components – anything from two to six – which can be a mixture of meeples, skill tiles and resources (some colour specific, some neutral). These can be claimed from both new boat and season tiles, with three face-up to choose from at all times (or you can pick one blind). Once received you can either trade them in for one of the items depicted, or fulfil their requirements to score seven points for each contract at the end of the game.

The 18 ‘extensions’ are small wooden squares (you’ll have to sticker them up) in the four meeple colours. The sticker shows the price you must pay to take them; which will also cost you an ‘upgrade’ action. They can only be placed on an already upgraded static scoring tile and immediately lock that tile to the colour of extension you buy (meaning if you already had red meeples on it you could only buy a red extension). On the plus side they double the value of that tile for scoring – which could be a 10-point swing.

Connected to these are 6 wooden cabins (claimed from two of the new boats) which, when collected, are added to your starter tile. Each gives you an extra opportunity to upgrade when you (or someone else…) use your home tile, making it more likely you can place some of those high-scoring extensions.

Finally, six new ‘season tiles’ (one spring, one summer, one autumn and three winter) also feature the new mechanisms. And it’s worth noting that in the rulebook there are plenty of directions on how this expansion can be integrated with the earlier Farmers expansion, letting you mix and match as you see fit. There’s even a handy score chart to follow (covering the base game and both expansions), to ensure you won’t miss any points.

How much does it change the game?

Keyflower Merchants extensionsThe real stories of The Merchants are the extensions and contracts. While neither impact extensively on the core mechanisms, both add a small amount of complexity, a reasonable amount of extra choice and a potentially massive swing in end-game victory points.

The cheap cost (usually one item) and relative ease of placement make extensions a no-brainer, unless you’re taking a heavy goods-on-tiles strategy – and even then you’ll be considering taking them for denial if nothing else, as you may have upgrades to burn if you’re moving a lot of resources.

Fixing a tile to a certain colour could of course have repercussions, but it doesn’t feel as if it had much of an impact in the games we played; although locking a tile to green in a game low on opportunities to grab green meeples would of course be significant. That said, I did enjoy the extra level of thought attached to the extensions.

Personally, I found contracts a little more interesting. Grabbing them is a nice way to ensure you have a particular item just when you need it – but then scoring seven points at the end of the game is really tempting too, especially if (for example) you’ve got no other way to score meeples, or a certain type of good, because you’re looking likely to miss out on particular winter tiles.

This could certainly be seen as a negative by some: if you’re the kind of player that loves that winter bun fight for the bonus tiles, you may find players instead happy to fill contracts and upgrade to extensions instead. Not for me though. Again, I enjoy the extra level of decision making that they offer up.

Is Keyflower: The Merchants essential?

Keyflower Merchants tilesIn a word, depends. As is so often the case, the real answer to this question is going to come down to usage.

If you’ve only just picked up the base game and have a few plays under your belt, ask yourself if you’re still happy playing the original.

If so, you don’t need to invest in an expansion (yet…). The original game has plenty of variety in setup and also plays pretty differently at varying player counts, so is unlikely to get old quickly if you like the game.

However, if you’re a seasoned player looking for a few extra options and a reason to get this classic euro game back to the table, I’d say it’s a solid ‘yes’. While the new options don’t change up the core mechanics they do make you face new decisions, both tactically and strategically.

And as everything is optional, you never quite know how things will turn out – even the innocuous looking new ship with the green meeple can have a big effect on its own, depending on which season tiles come out.

Is The Merchants value for money?

At around £20, The Merchants may feel a little expensive when you consider you’re adding it to a £30 base game packed with content. However, when compared to expansions for other games it’s certainly comparable in terms of components/weight etc.

I guess whether you think you’ll get £20 of value from The Merchants then really comes back to the above question about whether it’s essential. It’s going to come down to a case-by-case basis.

… and does it fit in the original Keyflower box?

Keyflower Merchants boxYes, and comfortably. You should be able to fit both this and the earlier Farmers expansion in the original box, as well as any of the plethora of mini expansion tiles you’ve picked up along the way.

And finally, a nice bonus was finding a cloth bag in the box that is purely for putting the skill tiles from the original release in – a nice little touch, showing both the designers and publishers are listening to the players.

* Thanks Coiledspring Games for providing a copy Keyflower: The Merchants for review.

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