Open world or sandbox games have become commonplace in the digital realm. However, creating something similar in “the world of cardboard and easy to remember rules” has been quite the challenge for many designers. The most popular themes that have been engaged so far are space trading and eighteen century piracy. Merchant of Venus (recently re-published) and Avalon Hill’s Blackbeard have been the most famous in this category for a long time. Yet, all of that changed when Merchants and Marauders arrived on the scene.
In Merchants and Marauders, you will be controlling the actions of a captain operating in the Caribbean archipelago. The objective is being the first to amass 10 Glory Points. These points can be obtained from a variety of sources, which makes M&M approachable in many ways. Selling cargo, raiding merchants, exploring rumours or accomplishing missions are all valid avenues for scoring. The main distinction that is made throughout the game is between a pirate and a non-pirate. Captains are mostly fine as long as they refrain from attacking other entities. These include other players, NPC’s (Non-Playing Captains) and abstracted merchant fleets that populate the map. Being aggressive is rewarded with bounties being placed on your head, as well as the eternal “special attention” of ports and military vessels belonging to the affected nation. This sounds pretty bad at first, and believe me – it is. However, these pirate players can get powerful in a short time and can begin posing a real threat to others (if lady luck helps them in the process). Non-pirates usually deal in commerce and a bit of profiteering on the side, that being the least dangerous way to victory and probably the quickest if pirates and buccaneers allow it.
How exactly do I plunder in Merchants and Marauders?
Oh look at me, I haven’t even begun explaining the gameplay yet and I’m already rambling about greater aspects. Sorry.
The turn structure in Merchants and Marauders is quite simple. At the beginning of a round, the first player draws an event card. These can trigger storms, wars or other interesting stuff, but they’re also responsible for NPC spawning, as well as them hunting for players and moving about. After resolving the event, each player gets to perform up to 3 actions on their turn. Incidentally there are also 3 types of actions to chose from – Move, Scout and Port. They can be done in any order and can be repeated multiple times if necessary.
“Move” simply allows you to sail your ship from one sea zone to another or to enter/exit a port. Scout and Port actions however can get a bit more complicated.
The “Port” action is a sum of activities that the captain can do, such as visiting the shipwright for upgrades and repairs, selling and buying goods, visiting the tavern to get crew, recruit specialists, catch rumours and contract missions. The majority agrees that the Port action is the most time consuming part of the game, which is also the main criticism players bring about. I must agree with that, and although there are some variants proposed by Christian Marcussen (the lead designer) with the help of the fan community, they inadvertently sacrifice player options or even entire actions. However, Merchants and Marauders is not the sort of game meant to be played during lunch break. Some time investment should be required in order to experience a full blown pirate adventure.
The “Scout” action is potentially the most interesting, since it’s generally a prelude to combat. On the other hand it can also mean nothing more than a failed scouting check or the player’s refusal to engage. Scouting is used to find ships in your sea zone but also to explore known rumours. You can scout for any plastic ship in range or for the local merchant traffic. Finding a merchant can result in a raid, which is a form of highly abstracted combat. You draw cards that show hits and merchant escape attempts in a push-your-luck stile mini-game. Combat will leave you with some dents in the hull but hopefully with enough gold and goods to make a profit.
Attacking plastic ships however is a whole other deal. This is where you’ll find the drama and excitement in Merchants and Marauders. As a side note, I haven’t touched at all on the subjects of captains and ships. The captain’s skills come into play at various points in the game and represent check thresholds for different actions and circumstances. In the case of combat, the ship’s stats also come into play quite heavily. Each round of combat is preceded by the ships “dancing” around each-other in order to get an advantageous position for shooting, boarding or getting the hell away. This is done simply by a concurrent Seamanship check with a bonus for the ship with higher maneuverability. The chosen action will resolve to various degrees or not at all depending on the success of the Seamanship roll. This leaves a lot to chance, but what do you expect from a couple of wooden vessels circling around and firing hot lead at each other?
The difference between shooting and boarding can mean a lot to a pirate player, because sinking your prized galleon is not the same as stepping in its cargo hold. Once a ship has been boarded, the combat proceeds to crew combat which is even more ruthless than sea combat. There is no retreat and however looses, dies! Winning the combat means you get the ship and everything on it. Losing means you get a new captain and a sad face. Bounty hunters need not worry about sinking the enemy. Nations don’t care how you bring in the culprits.
The probability of combat is fairly low at the beginning of the game. Players have weak ships while the NPC’s (whether pirates or navy) have not yet begun to populate the board. This gives room for captains to improve their ships and establish some plans. For example, you can stick with commerce for a while, until you can afford a frigate and then either cash in on the bounties or start pirating yourself. You can also keep an eye for the outbreak of war. If you attack the navy in time of war, you might get your hands on a Man-o-War, the most powerful ship in the game (generally not advisable).
What I appreciate about Merchants and Marauders is the open experience. You are never stuck to one path. If you’re in a tight spot, you can simply retire your captain or go on a suicidal attack. Your new captain will receive a new ship and will inherit any gold that you might have previously stashed, although nobody will retire with a hefty sum in their coffers. Also your current score is never affected. However, I have found that this game offers enough variety of situations and premises for adventure that points serve as an ending condition more than a goal. From navigating a beautiful map and scoring the perfect cocoa sale to the high stakes of naval combat, Merchants and Marauders is easily one of the best thematic games in existence. I wholeheartedly recommend you try it if you enjoyed PC classics such as Cutthroats, Port Royale, or Sid Mayer’s Pirates!