Avast there me lubbers! If it be pirates ye be lookin’ for, ye’ve found ‘em! And boy what a game this is. There are a few really good pirate games out there these days, I’ve been enjoying Treasure Island recently, but 2010’s Merchants & Marauders is undoubtedly the granddaddy of the genre. Of course one of the disadvantages around this being an old game is that it’s been out of print for years, but now there’s a new print available and this seems like the ideal time to see if this game’s reputation as one of the best pirate games out there is truly deserved. So, is it time to set sail for adventure? Step this way matey, as we plot a course for glory!
X Marks The Spot
The gameplay in Merchants & Marauders takes a while to pick up but is fairly simple once you get into it. This simplicity though, hides a depth to the game that will keep you coming back for game after game.
Each player (2-4 is on the box but ideally you want a full quota so the sea is properly crowded) controls a different captain and ship with which they seek out adventure, money and (most importantly) glory. Glory points are how you win, and these can be earned in a number of ways. It could just be by trading and making big money, but it could also be by fighting other ships and even other players. There are missions to complete, rumours to seek out and events to cope with. The whole thing plays very like the old “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” video game and that is a very good thing indeed. But what does gameplay look like? Here we go:
Each turn starts with an event card being drawn. This might relate to an NPC captain appearing or a storm or a number of other things, each one adding to the drama of the game. We then move on to the player turns. Each player can take up to three actions, these might relate to movement across the sea or into port, scouting for other ships (whether NPC’s, merchants or players), or actions when in port (buying cargo, selling cargo or modifying ships). Play goes round the table and then the round ends and we move onto another one. And that’s it. Simple right? Yes! And no. Because this is where everything gets clever.
Let’s start with trading, you buy cargo by looking at a series of cargo cards which relate to different products. Each product costs 3 gold, unless you buy more than one of a unit in which case it costs 2 gold each. And you can sell items for 3 gold, except each port has one item that is particularly in demand and these can be sold for 6 gold per unit. Combine this with the fact that your ship has a limited amount of space in its hold, and you have the start of a game on its own. When you then consider that the in demand products are assigned randomly and they may be on the far side of the map, there is an excellent sense of risk and reward. Do you cross the Caribbean in the hope of the big payday while braving pirates? Or do you sail round the edge, picking up what you can, when you can and gradually building up your bank balance? If this was the whole game it would be fun and could easily be sold in a smaller box as complete, but we’re just barely scratching the surface.
Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Burn
Of course, what you’re really here for is the piracy, and this is where the game goes from a string quartet to a full orchestral score with Jack Sparrow swinging from a rope or duelling while escaping a hurricane. If you decide that piracy is the thing for you, then Scouting is the action you need to be doing.
When you enter a sea zone, you can choose to scout for a merchant ship and raid that for gold and cargo, or you can go for other players or NPC ships in pursuit of the really big prize. This is where you finally get to roll the beautiful skull and crossbones motifed dice as you test your captain’s seamanship skill against the enemy. Perhaps you’re raiding a merchant and the dice roll has you skirting skilfully round the damage the merchant is doing you as you play cards and push your luck to get the most cargo possible while you take as little damage as you can. Or maybe you’ve decided to go for it and have cornered a player captain and here’s the best of the best as you go into the naval combat mini game.
Each player calls their plan “Fire!” “Board!” “Flee!” and rolls dice. Each skull and crossbones is a success and the person with the most successes wins that round, though not without damage. Every success on a shoot action still counts as a hit as the two ships wear each other down and wood splinters across decks as cannon balls pound into the hulls. If one side decides to board then we go into crew fighting and the captains test leadership instead of seamanship against each other until finally one side is defeated, the captain is killed and the ship is captured or sunk. The victorious captain sails away with the as much loot they can carry, a glory point to add towards their total and an implacable enemy in the form of the defeated player, whose new captain will definitely be holding a grudge.
Bring Me That Horizon
I hope I’ve conveyed just how good this game is by now, but if not. Well. There are some games in my collection that I’ll get out occasionally and others that I’ll get out for the right group. Merchants & Marauders is a game that I will get out for any group so long as we have the right number of players and the right amount of time. Because make no mistake, this game requires commitment. The first time I played it we started at 8pm and we’re about halfway through by the time I had to go home at 12:30! Now it won’t take so long if you don’t have to explain the rules each time, or if you don’t have to look up rules queries, or even if you’re used to the game and don’t need so much thinking time, but the box says three hours and I would definitely take that as the minimum unless you’ve worked out optimum strategies.
Ultimately though, I love this game, and I will be playing it as much as possible from now on. For the amount of game you get, the price is an absolute steal (appropriately enough) and you will be wanting to play this with different play styles over and over and over again. Shiver me timbers Cap’n, this one’s gold!
That concludes our thoughts on Merchants & Marauders. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy Merchants & Marauders today click here!