Merchants and Marauders
Time: ~150 minutes
Times Played: 8
I have been searching for a great naval pirate game since we started getting into the board gaming hobby several years ago. Pirates absolutely fascinate me. Luckily for me, piracy is one theme that is strong in the board gaming world. Black Fleet was snatched up quickly and while a good game, was far too family friendly for me. Pirates Cove by Days of Wonder was next but still felt too entry-way for what I was searching for. Jamaica has been a great game for larger groups but I honestly never feel like a pirate while I participate in the race. Rum and Bones is an absolutely phenomenal game but it nails you to the deck of a ship instead of out exploring the world and taking what’s yours. Blackbeard by GMT was just bad. What I was looking for was the physical form of Sid Meier’s hit PC game, Pirates.
Enter Merchants and Marauders.
After explaining my plight to some fellow gamers, they steered my sails toward what they described as an epic, sandbox nautical plundering adventure and needless to say, my mouth started to salivate at the thought of such a game. Now that I’ve had a few plays under my belt, there is still one question that needs to be addressed: is this the treasure I’ve been searching for?
(Spoiler alert: No )
First off, this game looks amazing. The map is vibrant and well detailed and while there are several chits strewn about the board, clutter is kept to a minimum. The board is very active with iconography and items (whether ships or chits) but I never felt overwhelmed by the influx of items. It’s very eye catching and makes passerby’s immediately interested in what is going on.
The cards are standard cards with a linen finish and many incorporate pirate quotes on them to help further create the ambiance. The plastic ships are relatively well-modeled and while they may seem fragile at first (with their thin masts and all), we’ve yet to have any issues and our copy was purchased used so the ships definitely saw some play prior to us.
Merchants and Marauders also nails the theme. The setting is grand and the artwork and design create this immersion into all things piracy. The treasure chests that each player has to store their loot is such a creative and thematic touch and the gameplay, through the missions and the Non-Player Character (NPC) ships, are exceptionally well designed. The naval battles, while typically few, are tense and dramatic and most importantly, short, which is ideal for a game of this magnitude.
It’s also one of the only games that I can think of at the moment where the theme carries the rules as opposed to the other way around. Everything that exists in this game for a player to do is because of the theme. The rules are not overly complicated but it’s the specifics of the rules that will bog players down. The rulebook does a great job detailing out actions and providing examples but it’s sixteen pages to read through. There are a lot of rules and unlike other games where there can typically be a rules master to help guide players along on this voyage, Merchants and Marauders will absolutely punish new players that don’t have an understanding of the intricacies. Players will get bogged down due to the exceptions to the rules that seem never ending.
Do you want to navigate the seas and deliver goods from port to port? Do you want to chase down rumors of treasure or battle it out with opposing nations? Do you want to plunder merchant ships or be a mercenary for other political factions? You can do any of these things (or all of them) over the course of a game. You can pick a captain randomly or by choice and fit your play-style to that of that individual you’re paired with, as well as a ship for your maiden voyages.
After my initial playthrough, I have to be upfront and say I was severely disappointed. I was punished mightily for pursuing the pirate lifestyle as my dice rolls failed against merchant ships and ports blocked me out due to my raiding, which thematically made sense but seeing my merchant friend whiz around the board and make delivery’s made me question the “marauder” part of the games title. The merchant is a more intuitive, easier route to learn and win the game which makes the marauder aspect of this game feel more like a cameo as opposed to a full-feature.
From hearing others accounts of the game, I was not alone in this initial realization. The beginning of the game was exciting as I set forth on my journey and explored this new world. My attention was kept for that first hour as I turned over cards and sailed the different seas but after that first hour, when I realized this was all I’d be doing, my feelings toward the game started to wane.
I felt the gameplay was more shallow than I imagined as going the merchant route resulted in just a standard pick up and deliver game and if I wanted that, I’d rather play Black Fleet as it’s a much smoother and faster take on that mechanic. It’s also worth noting that in the base game, the merchant ships are vastly superior to the pirate ships. Playing as a pirate just has players targeting vessels and ports with randomized results.
One thing that struck me as odd is that for the most part, turns do move relatively quickly once you know what you’re doing but the Port action always takes minutes. It’s such a jarring break from the game for the other players that it feels totally out of place. Obviously once you have enough plays under your belt the turn speeds up but this isn’t something that is seeing the table frequently enough (in my opinion) to have players memorize all the different options available to them.
But this was my initial play through and I know better than to judge a game by just one play. How did the next seven plays impact my thoughts on the game?
It just reinforced my initial thoughts. This is a great choose-your-own-adventure but feels like a better game version of Betrayal at House on the Hill, where getting into the role and playing for yourself and your interests are much more important than strategic and tactical decision making. The game itself is such an interesting concept and I still haven’t encountered a game that offers a similar open-world exploration. I know they’re out there but it hasn’t hit our table yet.
The reason I compare it to Betrayal is because if you play it as a straight competitive game, you’re not going to have fun with the assembly line aspect of scoring points. You’ll spend money buying half of your victory points and track down the other five by being a merchant. There’s nothing wrong with that but then it removes all of the charm the game offers.
Playing at two-players is almost like playing a solo game. The board is big enough that the two players may never really interact but if they do and combat is involved, the winning player will more than likely go on to win the game. There’s so much the game offers players to do that the only negative of a two-player voyage is the lack of interaction. That tension that exists with more players does not exist at a lower play count. It is also quicker at two-players due to less players having to make decisions (which is really true of any game but is very noticeable in Merchants and Marauders).
Three-players suffers a similar fate as two-player and there can be so ganging up on players that are perceived to be in the lead. At four-players is where Merchants and Marauders is at its best as the board becomes a little tighter and navigating becomes a little more perilous. But at a full player count, the game will take two or so hours to play. That begs the question of is this what you want to spend two (or more) hours playing? Would you rather play something with more strategic depth? Would you rather play several smaller games? That’s a personal inflection that you and your group will have to decide, especially if it’s your first time playing.
Like most games, this is one that will be dependent on your group. It’s not about whether or not they like heavier games (although that does help); it’s all about whether they can lose themselves in another world for two hours or more.
The beauty of Merchants and Marauders is that the game lets you play the way you want. If you want to be a pirate, go board someones ship. If you want to be a merchant, go deliver goods. If you want to chase rumors, go brave the sea. It’s about as open a world as I’ve seen in a board game. But that great strength is also a great weakness as there can honestly be too much choice for some players and as the turns aren’t exactly fast, this just adds more time to the game.
That open world lends itself to an incredible array of customization. The creator, Christian Marcussen, has posted updated FAQ’s and rules on Board Game Geek and the community has crafted additional variants and a solo mode (hence my asterisk earlier) that can tailor the game to your specifications. This customization not be for everyone as it’s additional information to learn and decipher and requires your own personal play-testing to see if you like it, but I welcome the ability to modify the game in additional ways.
I’m also not sure that the depth of the game is matched by a depth of strategy. I felt like most of my initial strategic blunders came from not knowing the rules well enough to capitalize on certain scenarios and in subsequent plays, that strategic value was there just because I knew the rules, not necessarily that I had positioned my ship for the most opportune strike. For there to be so much to do due to the sandbox nature of the game, it feels very shallow with the decision making.
Also, like other games where rolling a die is prevalent, there’s a heavy luck factor and while there are some variables that help mitigate that luck (special weapons and such), the chances of spending the end of the turn being assigned a combination to Davy Jones’ locker is far too frequent. In addition to the randomness of the dice rolls, Merchants and Marauders includes an Event Deck, which when it is balanced fuels this game and makes me want to play it again immediately but when it’s not, the game can become a drag due to too many NPC events or worse, no NPC events.
The game will also suffer a little with accessibility due to the ships all being the same mold. The colors could cause issues with our colorblind friends and with the ship molds being identical, it will be nearly impossible to discern one ship from another.
The customization and variability of the game, from the goods, the captains, the ships, the random events, and the different play-styles offer a massive amount of replayability as there’s so much you can attempt to do. The problem is with the randomness, the lack of tactical depth, and some paths clearly being better than others. It makes you have to play this as an experience rather than a game.
When writing this review, I felt the same excitement I did as when I first played Merchants and Marauders. The excitement as I remembered all the thematic developments and the ability to do whatever I wanted on the game board. I just wish that excitement carried over after I packed the game away each time we’ve played. If this game could be condensed to an hour or less, I think I would be gushing about this game as the flaws that I have only really take hold when you realize how much game is left to play.