Publisher: Queen Games
This game received a very mixed reception when it was first released in late 1998. It is from the respected design team of Richard Ulrich and Wolfgang Kramer, and while it was enthusiastically accepted in Europe, it got quite a hammering amongst the English speaking world. A pity, really.
In this game, the players are traders who are also social climbers, trying to improve their standing via amassing vast amounts of cash. Beginning the game with a meagre 5000 in gold, players become purveyors of fine goods, buying low, transporting quickly, and selling high in order to maintain their cash flow. Cash is everything in this game - it is required to purchase more goods; ensure wagon transportation; maintain your social status; and finally to purchase advancement in status.
The game is gorgeous. A large board shows six cities connected by a simple road network. Three large wagons (huge hunks of wood with wagon stickers pasted on them) are placed in the three starting cities. These wagons have grooves machined out of them to hold player's goods when they are being transported to another city. A myriad of game "bits" are also included, representing goods, counters for the player's actions, El Grande-like wheels, money, and so on.
The game is played in turns, with each turn having six phases:
Wagons Move: wagons are moved via a simple chit mechanism, the object being to get wagons to another city, specifically a city that doesn't produce the goods you are carrying so you will earn a nice bonus. The bonus climbs by one level for each turn a wagon fails to arrive in a city.
The turn structure appears rather complex on first reading, but after playing the game for a couple of rounds, it becomes apparent that it really isn't complex at all. You purchase, load, move, sell - it all feels quite natural and logical. This isn't a complex game to play. However, there is a lot of information to track, and that is where the complexity arises. Die Haendler reminds me of Die Macher, with its various mechanisms all pointed towards the one goal of making money (or in Die Macher's case, earning votes).
A couple of sturdy decks of cards are also present in the game. One deck consists of eight cards which give the players specific abilities at various points in the turn structure. These are auctioned off at the beginning of the game, with each player able to pick up two of them. Some are quite powerful, and they have been appropriately seeded with differing minimum bids. The abilities are:
The Courier is interesting. It is represented on the board by another hunk of wood with a horseman sticker on it. Each time the Courier meets a wagon, the moving player can draw an influence card. Influence cards are further rule breakers that allow very nice things like instant sales, cheap status advancement, stopping a wagon from moving, and so on. The players with the Courier abilities receive a lot of these cards, while those without typically have to sit back and watch. While it appears the players with the Courier ability have an advantage, in fact it is very well balanced.
The winner of the game is the player who has advanced highest up the status ladder by the end of the game. The game end is triggered when the eighth wagon has arrived in a city (the mistranslated rule had the wagon arrival marker incrementing once per turn if any wagons arrived, instead of once per wagon).
The game is a good one. There is a lot of information to keep track of and some tough decisions to be made. I found it quite easy to slip into the role of a merchant - cornering the market in a commodity, haggling over a wagon loading price, directing the wagon in a direction I wanted it travel, and so on. While the game has received criticism for having different mechanics that don't click with the theme, it didn't bother me at all.
Queen should also be applauded for catering to different tastes. They have included variants to make the game friendlier (fixed loading prices, take out the "Broken Axle" influence cards) or nastier (all out negotiation on everything). The "friendly" rules are suitable for family play, while the "nasty" rules are for the hard-core gamers. The variants do make a substantial difference to the feel of the game.
The game is listed as 2-4 players. I had my doubts about the two player game, however it does work. The auction elements are not as tense, and watching rather empty looking wagons rumble across the board is a bit strange, but the game does hold together.
In summary, I like this game. It looks good, the theme appeals to me, lots to think about, and you can tune the rules to your game group's tastes. With hidden cash, it is hard to tell who is doing well and every game I've played has experienced very close finishes. Die Haendler came in a respectable 5th position in the Deutscher SpielePreis 1999, behind Tikal, Ra, Union Pacific, and Samurai. I would have placed it 2nd, behind Ra.