Merchants & Marauders : A Game Review

Merchants & Marauders is the latest in a small line of pirate games.  There just aren’t that many to pick from – Jamaica, Blackbeard and Pirate’s Cove are the only serious pirate games that come to mind.  Of the group, Merchants & Marauders stands out for it’s high replay value and overall fun gameplay.

Appearance: Merchants & Marauders is made by ZMan Games and it comes with some great components.  A ton of miniature ships, lots of cards, multiple player boards and one huge game board depicting the Carribean Island’s all come in high quality detail.  The artwork is good if not stellar, with depictions of the various pirates on the cards and good use of symbols for the various mission and quest cards.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Merchants & Marauders has quite a heavy rulebook; with multiple areas to cover – from actions in a turn to three forms of combat (Merchant Raids, NPC/Player Ship combat & Boarding Combat).  So there’s a lot to learn; but it all meshes together quite well.  In addition, the handy player-aids help with the explanation.  Just expect to take between 10 – 15 minutes at least to fully explain the game.  And double-check the rules for things you might miss since there are a number of small details that are easy to miss.

To summarise the game, each turn a new event card is drawn.  These event cards can range from new Navy or Pirate vessels, weather affects or world events (like wars).  After that, each player takes his turn doing one of three possible actions three times (except for the Port Action which can only be done once a turn).  Move, Scout & Attack and a Port Action.  In Merchants & Marauders, players need one action to move into or out of port or across a sea space.  Scouting is based on a die-roll and players may then, if successful decide to attack the scouted vessel.  There are 2 types of combat – NPC Merchant Raids (dealt with by drawing cards) and NPC Vessel & PC Combat that involves lots of dice rolling. Lastly, the Port Action allows players to buy & sell goods, recruit crew, acquire a Mission or Rumour, repair or upgrade their ship or buy a new one. To win the game, players need to acquire 10 Glory Points; which can be won from Gold ‘Stashed’ away, sinking certain Ships, buying a better ship or completing Rumours & Missions.

Gameplay: Merchants & Marauders is a solid game, with a lot to offer gamers.  With multiple captains and numerous event, Rumor & Mission cards, there’s a lot of replay value here.  In addition, the decision to play as either a Merchant or Pirate is viable as a winning strategy – in fact, it’s possible to win staying in either profession.  Of course, it’s a bit faster if you switch professions after a while; deciding on when to do so is part of the overall strategy and will often be dictated by the Missions & Events that appear on the board.

There’s a lot of theme in the game, from finding rumours that depict lost treasures or playing Privateer for specific countries.  I also like the fact that you can upgrade your ship, though the lack of difference between various ships in terms of movement across the board seems quite unrealistic to me.  In addition, the pricing on the ships seems somewhat strange and probably should have been adjusted.  Lastly, the ability to only upgrade ships based on what tokens are available on the board is annoying as well – I wish that there was more flexibility in that area.

Your first game of Merchants & Marauders is going to take at least 3 hours (if not 4) with 4 people.  With more experienced players, it’ll certainly decrease in time as turns can be extremely short and planned ahead in some cases (e.g. move out of port, move, move into port). However, the Port Actions will always be slow since players often have to draw / roll to find out what they can do.  In addition, combat can be a quite drawn out, if fun affair, with numerous dice being thrown by either player.  I do like the combat system between vessels though, it is a good depiction of naval combat with the choice of duking it out via cannons or boarding.

Of note is the fact that luck is going to be a big factor in this game.  There’s a lot of dice rolling for combat, card drawing for merchant raids, Event, Mission & Rumour cards are all random and even your choice of starting captain is random.  It’s quite possible to be utterly run-over by the board (e.g. having a country go to war on the first turn and on the 2nd have a Man-of-War appear right on you), but the game is fun enough that it’s still worth playing even after getting sunk repeatedly.

Conclusion: Merchants & Marauders is certainly a good pirate game.  It strikes a pretty good balance between not being too light (like Pirate’s Cove); while not getting too rules heavy.  It sometimes feel a tad bloated, with too many rules (did we really need both Mission & Rumour cards, couldn’t they have been combined?), yet still offers a lot of strategic possibilities.  Just bear in mind that there is a lot of luck to this game and that it isn’t fast and you’ll likely enjoy yourself immensely.