What's Eric Playing? #233: Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road
Full disclosure: A review copy of Kashgar was provided by Grail Games.
Alright, we’re back with another game from Grail Games, this time it’s Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road! My friend Annette (of Nettersplays) is pretty bullish on the game, so I’m excited to check it out and see what I think of it, as well. I know I’m already a fan of the larger cards, so that’s always nice.
In Kashgar, you’re traders working to traverse the Silk Road in search of various spices and gold. Naturally, the safest way to get there is in a large caravan, so you’ll be working with your existing caravans to try and recruit more people to your specifically-commercial cause. In fact, maybe the real caravans were just the friends you made along the way. Either way, will you be able to spice up your long journey?
Setup is pretty simple. Give every player a board:
Give them a marker in each of the 5 spice colors, as well as a gold / mule marker:
Have them place everything at “3”.
Now, shuffle the standard cards:
Place them in a pile near the center, along with a pile for the Special Cards (different, redder back), which you should also shuffle:
Shuffle the starter cards, and deal everyone 3:
Shuffle up the Order cards, as well, and reveal 4:
And have everyone put a Patriarch on top of each of their Starter Cards:
The Patriarchs have a Matriarch on their reverse side. More on that later. Once you’ve done that, choose a player to go first and you’re ready to get started!
So, gameplay is somewhat similar to a deckbuilder, but more Hardback than Paperback, if you’ve played both. Rather than buying cards each turn, you’re attempting to gain resources to fulfill orders (which will earn you points), and to do so you’ll end up drawing standard or special cards and adding them to these “caravan” queues that you’re forming.
Let’s dig in a bit deeper on that.
At the beginning of your turn, you may either activate a card or pass. If you pass, choose a caravan (queue) and move one card to the back of the line. The only thing worth noting is that cards with a (!) cannot be passed. You must activate them to move them to the back of the line.
If you choose to activate a card, choose one caravan (queue). You’ll activate the card at the front of the caravan and then use its effect. Some will let you increase a resource along the track, others will have you set a resource to a certain value, and others still will let you draw cards from the Standard or Special card decks. Those are your basic actions. There are some weirder ones, like cards that have you remove cards from your caravan (and from the game) or cards that turn over (the Patriarchs become Matriarchs and vice-versa), but those are fewer and farther between. Some actions have costs, which force you to spend resources of a type in order to use the action. Naturally, if you don’t have the resources to perform this action, you can’t use it.
Generally speaking, there are two broad types of action: caravan actions (in beige), and parting actions (in red). A caravan action is normal and the card, once activated, moves to the back of your caravan before you use its effect. A parting action, on the other hand, causes the card to be removed from the game once activated. Once you’ve done so, then you may use its effect. Its effect is typically better, to compensate, if that helps.
Now you increase, decrease, and set resources for one goal, generally speaking: fulfilling Orders. These are cards that have set resource costs and major benefits (usually VP). There are three types: Small, Large, and Special Orders. Typically, Large Orders are worth more VP, but Special Orders give you benefits like instant resources (or the Wheat Fields, which make every Farmer in your Caravan worth +1 VP). However, in order to fulfill an Order, you must activate a card whose action is fulfilling an order; you cannot just do so on your own. This, naturally, is the challenge of the game — you need to gain cards to build up an engine that will ultimately help you gain enough resources to fulfill orders with some regularity.
Play continues until one player has gained 25 Victory Points across their caravan cards and their orders. At that point, finish up the round of play (so that everyone gets equal turns). The player with the most points wins!
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
Honestly, I didn’t notice that many differences at different player counts. I mean, this game doesn’t play particularly quickly (though I’d argue it plays faster than your average deckbuilder since you really can only play one of three cards per turn, generally speaking), so adding more players will just increase downtime, since, again, there’s no real adjusting done for higher player counts beyond “I suppose it’s more likely for Farmers + Wheat Fields to be diluted”.
I’d probably keep this one to two or three players, as a result.
- Don’t ignore Farmers + Wheat Fields, if there are enough present. There are enough Wheat Fields and Farmers that if you were to get them all you’d have 30 points. It may not be worth diluting them, but if you need to, keep an eye on other players’ scores and make sure they’re not hoarding them without your knowledge.
- The game explicitly allows you to ask a player what their score is. Keep track of how players are doing. If one player is starting to pull ahead, you might need to refine your engine a bit more aggressively. The absolute last thing you want is a Splendor surprise where one player is suddenly like, “oh, yeah, I have 25 points” and you are completely caught off-guard.
- You need a way to deliver orders. The Cinnamon Man is the best bet (no penalty and can deliver any order), but the Harker isn’t too bad in a pinch (only Special / Small Orders, but you can substitute gold for any spice). If you don’t have a consistent way to deliver orders, you’re going to have an extremely hard time winning the game. It may not even be a bad idea to have one queue that’s purely focused on fulfilling orders so that you always have a way to do so and using the other two (or three) queues to bolster your resource stores.
- Keep a pocket Matriarch, generally speaking. You want first grab at a card in the discard pile, especially if an opponent underestimates its value for you (or has no choice but to take a card that’s much much better for them). A Matriarch can help you fish stuff out of the trash.
- Read all the cards. You don’t want to be surprised by an effect on a card you didn’t expect when you threw it into the discard pile. Even if you don’t want a card, read it thoroughly. It might be more valuable than you think. In fact, it might be valuable enough to an opponent that you need to take it just because you don’t want them to have it.
- Don’t forget that some cards are worth points (and some are worth negative points). You really should have a running total of your victory points at any given time, and be trying to make sure that you’re both maximizing that and still maintaining momentum around gaining new cards and more resources. If you get rid of too many VP-heavy cards, you’re just slowing yourself down (even if you don’t particularly want them in your queues).
- Sometimes your best move is just ignoring a queue for a while. When you’ve got an order fulfilling card at the front of one queue, sometimes it’s worth just doing something else until you have enough resources to use that. Just be careful! Some opponents may use that opportunity to strike and mess with your queue ordering, making it even harder to fulfill orders.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- Plays pretty quickly. Once you know what you’re doing, you can pretty quickly run through a game.
- Also pretty easy to explain. It’s similar to (but simpler than) a standard deckbuilder, which I appreciate.
- I appreciate the perfect information. You can get a pretty good sense of what options are available to your opponents and more easily strategize when you don’t have “hands” to manage, which is nice. You can also play games against yourself and test out strategies, if you’re so inclined.
- The queue system is really interesting. It’s got the same feel as a deckbuilder (and I’d still call it a deckbuilder, practically), but you’re doing more queue management than shuffling your deck, so it’s not exactly random. It reminds me a bit of Aeon’s End, in that sense, since you don’t shuffle your deck there, either. It comes with its own issues, but it’s definitely novel and I think that’s pretty cool. Would love to see more novel mechanics from games.
- Tarot-sized cards are always appreciated. Even though I’m not shuffling them myself, it’s really nice to have big cards for the entire game.
- The fairly unique cards allow for a lot of different strategies to be valid. They come with their own issues, as well, but it’s nice to see a wide variety of available cards. It might be worth having a like, First Game Set that’s a bit slimmer, given that there are a lot of cards to learn, but once you’ve learned it, there are a lot of valid paths to victory.
- Similarly, everyone getting a set of unique starter cards is pretty cool. It means that your games are usually fairly different (or at least have different starting points), since nobody has the same cards at the beginning beyond the Patriarchs. It’s pretty cool.
- Best played on a tablecloth or other “not directly on the table” surface. Having to insert cards at the back of your queue every time means that more often than not you’re trying to lift cards straight up off the table, which is a little annoying. I wish we didn’t have to do it so much, but it’s that or shuffle your deck (a la a normal deckbuilder), so I’ll take what I can get. I’d just recommend putting a tablecloth down before you start playing so it’s easier to grab cards.
- The game can take some time to get going. It’s definitely on the slower side of an engine-builder, but you don’t have to do a whole lot to have your engine “built”. That can be frustrating for some players, so I’m just noting it here. If you’re looking for a game where you’re sort of doing more, more quickly, your classic deckbuilders have you covered. This is more purposeful and methodical.
- The theme is fine. It’s right in that “oh we’re trading spices” part of like, the Silk Road set of themes. Probably still falls under Mediterranean Goods Trading, but hey whatever. I’d’ve loved it if it had been like, managing customers at a fast food joint or attendees at a theme park, but others might prefer this theme. Your mileage may vary.
- Doesn’t really have a good method for speeding up the game at higher player counts. The only ending criteria is 25 points, and so, at 4 players it will likely take twice as long to play as it does at 2 players, which might be longer than you’re looking for. A fair number of games operate like this, but I do find it mildly frustrating since extra players add more downtime.
- The game really requires you to know every card. This is a similar issue to SPQF in that knowing every card is extremely helpful, but whereas SPQF has a fairly narrow set of card types, Kashgar has starter cards and special cards and standard cards and even expansion cards, if you want. That can make the game tough if you’re trying to get a sense of whether or not you like it, though I’ll note that it’s a lot more fun once you dig in a bit.
- If you’ve got some sort of altered color perception, this game is … kind of unplayable. I was very embarrassed to present this game to some friends only for one of them to note that they could not play it, as he had some trouble distinguishing the pieces. Naturally, since the icons on the cards use the pieces’ shapes (rather than the icons on the board), he could really only tell by trying to match up which icon appears to correspond to which column. This is … kind of inexcusable. Hopefully a second edition will include pieces that make it more accessible to people who have trouble seeing certain colors. Until then, yeah, that’s a pretty big issue.
OVERALL: 7 / 10
Overall, Kashgar is pretty good! My major complaints are just the sheer number of cards you need to know to do well (as opposed to Dominion, for instance, which limits the variety of cards in one game to ~10) and the lack of accessibility around color perception, since the tokens are all pretty similar colors. Were it not for those, I’d probably be significantly higher on the game, sure (and maybe if it had a theme that excited me more personally), but it’s still a very fun game in its own right. I especially appreciate the simplicity of gameplay and the novelty of the queue system compared to other mechanical spins on deckbuilding. I’m hoping that the major issue (accessibility) is rectified in a later version, but if you can currently play Kashgar and you’re looking for an interesting spin on deckbuilding, I’d recommend checking it out! I’ve enjoyed every game I’ve played of it.