|Merchants & Marauders (2010)
|Meeple Like Us
|Kasper Aagaard and Christian Marcussen
Error: No such teardown
I used to have this hanging on the wall of my horrible, depressing office in what was then known as Edinburgh’s Telford College.
I was working there, in a job that almost drove me to the verge of a nervous breakdown, hating almost every minute of it. At least during my first year of employment I had something cool on my wall that I could look at whilst wishing I and everyone around me was dead. In my second year we moved into an open plan area that I’m pretty sure was the testing ground for some CIA experiment in noise torture. I couldn’t have my flag on the wall then. I left soon after. I’m not saying that’s the reason, but you know – it was a factor.
Here’s a portion of one of my bookshelves in the room where I’m currently sitting. These aren’t my only books on the topic.
BTW, if you’re going to get a book on pirates, I would recommend Life Among the Pirates, which is absolutely fantastic. Look how well read my copy is!
Back in the days of the Commodore 64, I copied out by hand the route-tables of the Silver Train and the Treasure Fleet for Sid Meier’s Pirates so that I could give a copy of the game to my friends. This kind of in-box documentation was what passed for DRM back in those days. Yes, I know, it was very wrong of me. I was behaving like some kind of scurrilous pirate, by pirating Pirates.
It’s probably fair to say then that I can’t really approach Merchants and Marauders with the kind of detachment I can for most games. It’s got frickin’ pirates in it!
Look at that cover! It’s like someone took a picture of me! Look how happy I am! And look at this game map:
Why, it’s all I can do when looking at it not to completely lose myself in the myth, mystery, violence and romance of the golden age of piracy…
Thursday, 21st of March 1695
Winds are variable, The weather is dry, and warm. I am Captain Nicolas Juarez, and I have, by dint of conquest, taken control of this fine sloop – the Mighty Meeple, and docked her here in the warm waters of my home port, Petite Goave, With this sleek and agile ship at my command, I intend to bestride the Caribbean like a colossus, earning coin through robbery. Such a path is dangerous, and I will undoubtedly dance the hemp fandango before my life would naturally reach its end. I will live by the motto of my pirate brethren. I will aim for a short life… but a merry one.
From where I stand, upon the creaking deck of my new charge, I can smell the sea salt in the air and feel the warm tropical breeze on my skin. The birds above call endlessly as they circle, occasionally dipping into the waters only to emerge with wriggling, plump fish in their bills. That is what I long for – the freedom of the skies, far from the world of slave-owners and naval press-gangs. Since I cannot have that, I will turn to the open sea for my salvation.
Merchants and Marauders is a game of breath-taking scope and openness. You have, as your playground, the rich and varied waters of the Caribbean. You have, as the backdrop to your play, all the richness and romance of the golden age of piracy. You can turn a coin as an honest merchant, seeking to meet demands where you may find them – for a profit. You can turn your hand to the dark arts of piracy, buckling your swash on your way to an early watery grave. You can try for something in-between. Or you can become a pirate hunter, earning glories for the famous rogues you defeat. Or maybe a privateer is more to your liking? It’s like piracy, but with the weight of sanctioned foreign policy behind you.
Perhaps you’re more interested in the mysteries and intrigues of global geopolitics? There are missions aplenty into which you can sink your teeth. Or maybe you want to shine a light into the seedy underbelly of maritime life, paying for rumours in the taverns and seeking out their veracity in the secret and unknown places of the haunted islands.
This isn’t hyperbole – you can do every single one of these things. The only thing is you can’t do them all – not in a single game. When you buy Merchants and Marauders, you’re buying a box that contains more adventure than you can hope to experience in a half-dozen play-throughs.
You begin the game in with a captain – properly picked randomly from the deck, but we prefer to choose the one that will fit our particular play-style. Captains have unique special abilities that define them, and a set of skills in four categories – seamanship, scouting, leadership, and influence. The skills of your captain will have a huge impact on what career is most appropriate. Merchants and Marauders is an asymmetrical game right from the start – we’re all going to try to accomplish the same thing, but we all have our own prevailing winds we’ll need to follow to arrive safely at the destination.
In addition to your captain, you get to choose between two ships. You can have the nimble sloop, a favourite of pirates and privateers. Or you can have the capacious flute – lightly armed, lightly armoured, but possessed of a deep cargo hold that you can fill with silks, spices, and all the exotic commodities of these far-flung lands.
The Caribbean is broken up into a number of sea areas, and each of these areas has a set of special rules that define how they work. Port Royal, that famous hive of scum and villainy, allows pirates to recruit crew at no cost. A player with an English bounty usually may not enter an English city, but in Port Royal you can just bribe, or charm, your way in.
The rich Spanish trading city of Cartagena offers great opportunities for canny merchants – if you’re going to buy three lots of cargo from the market, you can claim another piece of cargo for free. If you’re a pirate on the other hand, you can easily find Spanish traders to prey on. The nationalities you choose to victimise are important. If you’re English, you’ll probably want to concentrate your ire on the French, Spanish and the Dutch. Think of it a bit like re-enacting Brexit, but with cannons.
Or maybe you want to take advantage of the lawlessness of Tortuga, a historical den of buccaneers and pirates. Those claiming French allegiance will find favour among what pirates may be lurking in these waters. Pirates in turn will find the French navy turning a blind eye to their behaviour. In Tortuga, an informal entente cordiale holds sway.
All of this lends a glorious diversity and richness to the world. The special territory rules capture something of the historical context of the time, and make stops on the map more than just destinations in a trading route. Some locations offer great boons, others are dangerous. Some will be closed temporarily, some will force you to consider whether or not the rewards are worth the risk. There are dangers in these waters beyond that of simple piracy.
You begin then with a captain, a ship, and ten pieces of eight. But you also begin with your very own treasure chest!
This chest contains your ‘stash’ – you can only access it when you’re safely docked in your home port. When you store pieces of eight in your chest, it counts simultaneously as ‘saved money’ and as down-payments towards glory points. Once you’ve accumulated ten glory points, you win.
Player captains also start with a ‘glory card’, which is a one use bonus they can play to achieve some kind of game advantage. Or, sometimes, to stave off their own misfortune. Or sometimes to completely screw over another player. They’ll accumulate more as they build their own legend through daring deeds and legendary displays of mercantile cunning.
Each player board comes with slots for the various cards that will be accumulated, as well as sections for each ship upgrade that may have been purchased. Importantly, the board also contains a grid that shows the disposition of the captain’s ship – we use little coloured cubes to indicate that status of the ship in various categories. As we take damage, lose crew, or succumb to disease we’ll find these cubes moving to the left. Bad things happen to us when that occurs. It is the ship we choose that tells us how to set these up.
The setup of the map begins by populating the various ports with goods that are ‘in demand’. Each port is also given a secret ship modification you can buy. You only find out what’s on offer when you enter the port, but these will allow you to upgrade different elements of your ship to improve survivability and killing power. Each sea area too gets set up with a hidden merchant. They’re the plump and delicious prey of pirates, but an effort must be expended to find them. Each has a nationality that we’ll only find when we go hunting them out.
We also place two randomly selected missions onto the map. They’re available for anyone to claim, if they can pass the tests. Once a mission is claimed it’s replaced by another, ensuring a regular circulation of opportunities for everyone. Completing a mission awards a glory point, and often also has other effects on the game rules as time goes by.
Once all of that is done, we can place the ship type we chose into our home port. Each player is going to have their own ship, their own colour, and their own player board. From this point on, the adventure begins and we can really throw ourselves into the drama and excitement of a life on the ocean waves.
Saturday, 23rd of March, 1695
Winds are steady. The weather is fair. I have taken on a crew of roughs and toughs, ready to seek my fortune in the sun-dappled waters of the Caribbean. There has never been a better time to be a pirate – the seas are empty of naval forces, and there is little competition for the rich merchant vessels that sail all around. My heart pounds at the thought of the riches and treasures that their holds may contain. What was once briefly theirs will soon be mine.
And yet, an anxiety grips my heart. The world is large and full of opportunities, but also dangers. I am new to sailing under the black, and I do not know if my crew will be up to the challenges. If one is not the predator, one is the prey – and there are bigger fish than me out there. But what else can I do? I have no wealth, only this ship beneath my feet and the hunger to become all that I can be. This hunger will allow me to swallow the world, or it will consume me utterly in the attempt. I only hope I can be strong.
At the beginning of each turn, an event card is drawn. There’s a deck of these, and when the deck is empty the game is over. It might not seem it at the time, but there’s a clock ticking and we don’t have long before it begins to chime. The deck contains information about NPC naval ships and pirates, as well as events of climatic or geopolitical upheaval. It contains wars, and plagues, and deaths, and storms, and more. It contains good news and bad news, often in equal measure, and often everyone will interpret the events differently. It’s a spinning roulette wheel that will bring joy or despair with every revolution.
For our first player it contains an NPC and the instructions as to how to bring him into the game.
This is Olivier La Bouche, commanding the pirate sloop – he is going to be placed in the sea-zone of Nassau. If there was already a pirate sloop in play, it’d be replaced by this one. Each captain or admiral has a different skill profile – some will lend themselves to particular kinds of engagement and strategies. We will get to that though.
Beginning with the first player, each captain gets to take three actions, which can be any combination of:
- Move from a port to the sea, or from the sea to a port
- Move from one sea zone to an adjacent sea zone
- Scout for merchant ships
- Perform port actions, if currently docked.
This is a little misleading though because port actions are actually broken down into many different things that can be done, all in exchange for a single action. Sometimes the nature and number of turns will be altered by events, but this is the standard game flow.
Monday, 25rd of March, 1695
We set sail today, into the waters surrounding Petite Goave. We were lucky to find ourselves in rich hunting grounds for piracy – we intended to misbehave. I ordered the lookout to pay close attention to any merchant ship that may hove into view, and to mark them by their flags. We will not attack vessels that fly the colours of our own nation, but God have mercy on any foreign vessel we see. We shall have it, mark my words.
My crew is international, and my own national sense of fraternal protection may create tensions. These are men though that have killed, and maimed, and worse – they have ended in my crew, for my meagre wage, because they have no loyalties to speak of. They will be loyal to coin though, which I intend to provide in abundance. I shall buy their consent through glittering gold.
Our captain moves from the port into the sea, using up an action. He then chooses to ‘scout’. Here, he must make a ‘scouting’ check which is where his skills come into play. He has a scouting skill of two, as indicated by the spyglass on his captain card, which you can see above. That means he rolls two dice for this check. If any of them show a skull, then the test succeeded:
He rolls, and gets a one and a skull. The scouting attempt was successful, and the player can flip over the merchant token to reveal the nationality of the ship underneath. He does so to reveal a Dutch symbol. Players need to keep some avenues open for docking in ports, and attacking a ship of any nationality will earn a notoriety that will precede them. Choosing to attack a merchant in this way is an act of piracy, and no nation will suffer a pirate to live.
He needs to decide what happens. He can let the ship go, in which case it sails off the map onto the merchant track (when that fills up, merchants are repopulated onto the board) or he can choose to make an attempt to raid it.
Monday, 25rd of March, 1695. Afternoon
A cry went up from the lookout post today. A ship has been spotted! It is a Dutch merchantman, riding low in the water. We cannot know what booty it contains, but we do know that it is heavy with potential plunder. My helmsman is Dutch, and begged me to permit the ship to leave unmolested. He entreated me in front of the crew – such dissent I cannot permit to go unpunished.
I let him feel the butt of my pistol hard across his skull and initiated the order to attack. This will be the first test of my new and untried crew. If they do not live up to expectations, they will suffer the same fate as the helmsman. They will yield to my authority, or they will be shatter beneath my wrath. Issues of ship-discipline can wait though – I have blood that must be traded for booty!
The raid is far more exciting, so that’s the order he gives. Avast, Captain Juarez!
During the actual golden age of piracy, ships tended not to fight back. Contrary to modern belief, there was no consideration given for ‘having put up a good fight’, and pirate ships tended to be well armed and well crewed. Life on a pirate ship was much, much easier than life in a merchant vessel because there were many more people around which to spread the workload. A merchant ship would have a skeleton crew, no ability to fight off an actual attack, and no real stake in the profit of the journey. It was far more likely that a merchant crew would surrender rather than fight. Merchants and Marauders simulates this by ensuring merchant raids are straightforward.
You draw three cards from the cargo deck. The number in the bottom left shows a gold value. The icon in the bottom right shows a ship action. In this case, the ship has two escape icons and a ‘cargo’ hit. This means that the attacking player takes a point of damage to their cargo bay. It started off at two, meaning that they could hold two cards of cargo on their player board. Now they can hold only one.
The escape values are the most important – if the number of escape tokens matches or exceeds the manoeuvrability of the attacking ship, it gets away Scott free. A sloop has a manoeuvrability of four though, so there’s not much chance of that.
If Captain Juarez decides here that he’s going to board the ship, he’ll get ten pieces of eight and his pick of the cargo. But, here’s where it gets interesting – raids are easy to work out, but they also have a great ‘push your luck’ element that drives them forward.
The game ends when a player accumulates ten glory points. You only get a glory point from a merchant raid if you plundered at least twelve pieces of eight. Here, we have only ten. But when you choose to engage in a merchant raid you also roll a seamanship check. For Captain Juarez, this lets him roll three dice. He rolled two hits, which means he gets to manipulate the draw. He can spend each of these hits to do one of the following:
- Draw another card, risking damage or escape but increasing the value of the raid.
- Get rid of a card from the draw
- Exchange one card in the draw from one drawn randomly from the deck.
The enemy ship presents no risk of escaping, and the Mighty Meeple is in no immediate danger of sinking. So he draws two additional cards, in the hope of reaching a plunder value of twelve pieces of eight.
The two additional cards inflict damage against the masts and the hull. That’s not great, because each point of damage costs two pieces of eight to repair in a port. But, the total haul is fourteen gold, and any of the cargo he can haul into his ship. He decides to take a bolt of silk. Fourteen gold gets him a glory point, and a glory point gets him a new glory card!
However, his ship isn’t looking great, and for plundering a Dutch merchant he’s earned himself not only the plunder but also a Dutch bounty. He’s now a target for naval ships, of any nationality, and may not enter Dutch ports until the bounty is cleared. There are a few ways of doing that, but it’s best to assume that the bounty is with you until you die.
More than that though, Juarez now a lucrative target for other players! Each bounty gives five gold to a captain that might defeat the ship – when a player has a lot of these bounties, from a number of different nations, it can be extremely lucrative for other players to turn pirate hunter.
With his final action, Juarez moves into the adjacent sea space of Cartagena, and his turn is over.
Monday, 25rd of March, 1695. Evening
My crew has been blooded, and a fortune in gold has been hauled aboard the Mighty Meeple. Even my helmsman was happy when he realised the extent of our haul, although less happy when he realised that he would receive no share of the plunder. He spent the entire battle unconscious, and I will not reward such indolence.
The Mighty Meeple took considerable damage during the battle, and as such we’re as of yet in no fit state to seek our fortune in a second engagement. I have ordered the navigator to set sail for Cartagena, where we will dock, resupply, and prepare for our next encounter. It seems that it is very much a pirate’s life for me, and I couldn’t be happier. What fool would work for a living?
The event card previously drawn now comes into effect, moving the pirate sloop into Nassau:
Play then continues with the next player, who follows the same cycle of ‘draw an event and make three moves’. Each player does this in turn, changing the world state with every action they take.
When our turn comes around again, we draw the next event card:
This one comes with navigation information along the top. When we draw this, we move any French ship in the game to the west, any Dutch ship to the north, and any pirate ships to the south. Since there’s only a pirate ship in the game, it sails south into Tortuga. The problem for Juarez though is that the event itself is pretty punitive. He has a Dutch bounty, and so his bounty level goes up from one to two. He’s now worth ten pieces of eight to other players if they defeat him in battle, and he’s become a more lucrative prize for naval vessels in the game. They’ll prioritise him over other, less highly prized bounties. At least he’s on nodding acquaintance with other pirates though – they won’t be looking to engage in battle with him. He will merely cry ‘Parley’ and then they’ll all have a good laugh about it and go their separate ways.
Having sailed into port for an action, Juarez then takes his second action – a port action. This is… an involved process, involving any or all of the following:
- Selling goods
- Buying goods
- Visiting a shipyard to buy a ship, handle repairs, buy modifications, or buy special weapons
- Recruiting crew (on a successful leadership check)
- Acquiring a rumour (on a successful influence check)
- Claiming a mission (if you’re in a zone where a mission is located)
- Stashing gold (if you’re in your home port).
If you want to sell, it has to be the first action you take. Silk is in demand in Cartagena, so Juarez sells his single bolt for six pieces of eight. If it weren’t in demand, he’d command only three pieces of eight for the sale. He only provided a single unit, but he’s deemed to have met the demand. The silk demand token will now be swapped for that of another good.
Trading is lucrative, but if you want to earn glory points you have to trade in bulk. The key method by which traders can earn glory points is to provide three cards of an in-demand good at any one time. A sloop, with a cargo capacity of two, can’t do this even at the best of times. They’re manoeuvrable, and great if you turn robber upon the salt sea, the salt sea. They’re useless for earning your bones as a merchant.
Buying goods is a simple matter – you draw six cards from the cargo deck. You discard any goods currently in demand and draw replacements. Then, you pay for what you want. Goods cost three gold each, unless there are two in your supply. Then they cost two. If there are three or more, they cost one gold each. Juarez, as a pirate, will just steal the goods he wants to sell. It’s not that he can’t supplement his plunder with some honest trading, it’s just that you can’t do everything at once. The clock is ticking with each drawn event, and he’s already barred from entering any Dutch ports. When you like a career path in Merchants and Marauders, you better be prepared to put a ring on it.
He visits the shipyard to have his ship repaired at a cost of six pieces of eight. He buys the ship modification on sale (hammocks, which increase his crew capacity by one). He then passes an influence check and recruits crew at two pieces of eight each to fill his new hammocks. Then he buys one each of the special weapons (a total of nine gold) and pays two gold to attempt to acquire a rumour. He passes his check, and adds the rumour to his player board.
And with that, his action is over. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. If it sounds like it would lead to a lot of downtime, that’s because it will. There is a lot of downtime in Merchants and Marauders – merchant raids are quick and easy, but the real battles between players and NPCs can be many rounds of intense dice-rolling. There are some ways you can limit down-time by allowing people to parallel process their port actions, but it can get a little confusing and relies heavily on trust. With his newly repaired and supplied ship. Juarez uses his third action to sail out into sea, and into further adventure.
Let’s skip ahead now a few turns, to a point where the English and Dutch have gone to war, and a Dutch warship has entered the game. Most naval ships are frigates, but when two countries are at war they make use of their powerful Man O War ships instead. These are the most powerful ships in the game, and a match for even a fully upgraded pirate frigate. Juarez of course is in a sloop, and has a Dutch bounty on his head. He doesn’t want to encounter that ship, but it’s in a sea zone just north of his own.
Friday, 30rd of March, 1695. Evening
We have been sailing the Caribbean now for several days. We are being hunted by a Dutch Man O’ War – it dogs our steps. We have been preying on the Dutch that we see – we are hated anyway, and our need for plunder grows greater every day. Our early successes have emboldened my crew, and now they seek every opportunity for death and glory. But I am more cautious. The Dutch warship would destroy us within moments should we stray too far into its path. We must hope its patrols do not bring it into our waters.
The night is exceptionally dark at sea. It is like staring into an endless void, within which I can see only my own impending doom. I cannot sleep – I hear the roar of the cannon and the cries of the dying every time I close my eyes. I can only sit here, and stare into the darkness. I have been at sea only five days, and already I tire of death. I have inflicted too much suffering. I am perhaps not made of stern enough steel to be the pirate king I had thought I could be.
The battles against merchants are quick and easy, but there’s a different kind of combat in Merchants and Marauders – a brutal, terrifying, viscerally satisfying encounter of dice-chucking and fervent prayer. It’s what happens when you come into contact with a ship that’s hunting you, or a player that decides you represent a juicy prize too succulent to give up. When this occurs, the game shifts gears into the single more intense combat I have ever encountered. In an instant the whole tenor of the game changes. It’s no longer casually flipping over cards and sailing away with a hold of booty. Now it’s a real gamble. Not only that, but it’s the gambling you do when you’ve just pissed ten thousand pounds away at the poker table and you absolutely need to win the next hand if your family is to have anything to eat in the coming month. You’re betting your shoes, your shirt, your kids – anything. And if the dice don’t roll your way, you’ve lost almost everything. This isn’t a death by a thousand cuts. Sometimes it’s execution by guillotine. Others it’s death by beheading, but the axe only manages to cleave halfway through each time.
God, it’s brutal.
As a result of the next event card, a Dutch Man ‘o War moves south into Juarez’s sea-zone, and it begins to hunt for him. Its admiral has a scouting skill of three. He rolls three dice, and succeeds. He’s found Juarez, and his little sloop…
Tuesday, 2nd of April, 1695.
Blast all the luck. I awoke from fevered sleep this morning to the sound of frantic activity. During the night, the Dutch vessel had sailed in from the north. It caught the wind, and in the darkness slipped into striking distance. It is phenomenally powerful – well armed, and full of Dutch marines ready to battle. Against my tiny crew and my ineffectual cannons, it is all but indestructible. But we must try to defeat it, for it would tear us to shreds were we to try to flee.
I am under no illusions. My life will end here, in this battle. I will leave behind me not a rich legacy of daring deeds, but instead only a cautionary tale of greed and violence. I deserve this. We all deserve this. May the Lord have mercy upon my soul, although I know I am not worth of it.
The Man O War is an incredibly tough ship, and the admiral is a skilled sailor. However, it’s slow and lethargic in comparison to the sloop. Captain Juarez gets an extra dice when he rolls a seamanship contest against his enemy. However, it’s unlikely to do any good. For these battles against an NPC, it’s another player that plays the role of the naval ship. They’re rolling to kill. To kill YOU.
For the first round of ‘real’ combat, both captains must choose to shoot. They roll a seamanship test, and the one that wins rolls a dice for every single one of their cannons. That’s five cannons for the Man O War, and… shit, one cannon for a sloop.
For the first round, Juarez wins – his four dice against his opponents three allows him to command the battle. He fires the cannons, and inflicts a hit against those of the Man o War– they will roll four attack dice instead of five now. If Juarez can just keep whittling away at the ship, without ever rolling poorly, he might be fine! It could all still be fine! It’s fine! He’s fine!
He’s not fine.
For round two, the Dutch admiral rolls two hits. On four dice, Juarez rolls one. The Man O War fires its cannons directly into the sloop – four of the bloody things.
The dice rolls determine where on the sloop the cannons strike. Skulls can be distributed by the target player in any way they choose. The rest go where they are marked. If there is nothing left to damage, it gets directed to the hull instead. If there is no hull, there is no ship – it sinks.
Seriously, four cannons just tear through the sloop as if it was made of paper. Juarez no longer has any cannons – he can’t shoot at all. All he can do now is choose to board the Man O War (haha) or flee. Boarding means that it becomes a leadership check instead of a seamanship check. It also means that every hit anyone rolls will deplete their opponent’s crew value by one. The Man O War has five crew. Juarez has one. When he has no crew, he loses the boarding battle and his ship. Fleeing would seem to be the only option.
But fleeing is actually the hardest thing you can do at sea – you can only do it if your opponent rolls zero successes. Juarez gives it a try anyway. The Dutch admiral chooses to shoot, hits, and blammo:
And just like that, Juarez is killed in battle. His ship is sunk. His war is over. And with it, almost all of his progress.
When you die you lose a few things in the process. Namely, you lose:
- All your cards
- Your ship
- Your captain
- All the possessions on the ship
- All your gold
- All your glory cards
- All your missions
- All your rumours
You do at least also lose your bounty tokens, and you get to keep any gold you have stashed. You also get to keep any acquired glory points, but that’s it.
Holy shit, combat happens quickly, is mercilessly brutal, and the stakes are so high it usually results in an espresso jolt of pure adrenaline to the heart. If you’re going to survive, you’ll need to upgrade to something tougher – like a frigate, or a galleon. And then you’re going to need to keep pimping that damn thing until it can’t be pimped no more. Pirate sloops aren’t too much trouble, most of the time, but there is also a pirate frigate that roams around. And of course, any player that wants to attack you can. And do you know what they get if they beat you?
- All the gold on the ship
- All your glory cards
- All your cargo cards
- All your rumour cards
- Any special weapons you have
- Your ship, if they want it
- Any specialists you hired to your crew
There is no other game I know where the stakes of losing a battle are remotely comparable.
This tension to combat adds a real sense of danger to play. And it has a powerful effect on the social dynamics around the table. You’ll see someone stocking their ship up with cargo – they’re only a sea-zone away.
‘Haha’, you say, ‘Would be a shame if anything happened to that ship, eh?’
‘Haha’, they reply, ‘it sure would, haha’
And everyone at the table has a good chuckle, because by golly it sure would be a shame. But then you noticed they’re not leaving the port, and suddenly they’re showing a lot more interest in special weapons and cannon upgrades than they did before. And of course you weren’t going to attack them, but then… you’re worth sixty pieces of gold in bounties right now, and they’re just a sea zone away. And now they’re loading up for bear. I mean, it’s probably just in case you attack them, but…
And then you notice everyone else has gotten a little more interested in the combat readiness of their ships. And the more they load up on equipment, the more vulnerable you feel. So you think ‘Maybe it’s time to get those extra cannons I had my eye on’…
A light-hearted joke can spin off Cold-War levels of suspicious paranoia that never subside – very fitting for a game in which you spend a lot of time circling Cuba. You can absolutely play a tame, safe game of wheeling and dealing. Assuming nobody else eyes up your treasure pile and thinks ‘That’s a lot of glory I could pick up very quickly and easily’.
Merchants and Marauders isn’t an elegant game. In fact, it’s an excellent example of inelegance in design. Everything is clunky, and slow, and awkward to do. It’s full of design compromises and tokens and fiddly, prissy rules you need to obey. There’s a huge amount to keep track of, and it’s very easy to miss things as you go along. There are elements of bizarre decoupling of action and outcome, such as how you move enemy ships after your turn is complete rather than when you draw the card. So much of Merchants and Marauders is trying to get in the way of you having fun that you would be forgiven for thinking it had self-esteem issues. It wants your love but it can’t help but push you away.
But if you persevere… oh my God, you should persevere. This game is so rich and varied in scope and wish-fulfilment that Mrs Meeple and I still haven’t even begun to drain it of its variety. I’ve even played it solo, and still never managed to get around to claiming and completing a mission. I’ve never managed to capture a Man O War and turn it into my flagship. I’ve yet to beat the game by reaching the required number of glory points before the time runs out. I think I could play this another ten times before I stopped having new things I could do. It’s more than just a game, it’s a gloriously evocative pirate sandbox and it leaves it entirely up to you to decide how you’re going to play in it.
It’s a hard game. Not ‘difficult’ hard but ‘unforgiving’ hard. If you lose your blinged out frigate late in the game, then your chances of catching back up to everyone else are virtually zero. There’s no elimination from play, but unless you were way ahead in terms of glory points already there’s an ingrained elimination of contention. It’s not that the game changes, but the context in which you’re trying to earn your victory points will shift dramatically. The situation will develop not necessarily to your advantage. That can be funny too, in the same way a near escape from a knife-wielding maniac is funny. You laugh not because of the comedy, but because of the relief. But if that’s going to be enjoyable for everyone at the table, you better be able to look at your galleon sinking beneath the waves and honestly think ‘I am okay with that’. And you know, if you approach it with that mindset it actually will be because Merchants and Marauders is also a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It leans in to all the best fantastic tropes of the period whilst avoiding all of the clichés. It could so easily have been a parody of the time period, but it’s not – it’s a thoroughly affectionate tribute. Death and triumph and intrigue and war and violence are all parts of a great big rollicking story of adventure you’re all building together. When you die, and there’s a good chance you will, you’re the termination of a thrilling chapter of the narrative.
Merchants and Marauders is very much towards the higher end of game complexity – I wouldn’t rate it in the heaviest of rule categories, but a lot of its fundamental awkwardness may fool you into thinking it’s a more complicated game than it is. That’s a shame, because even when you’re making a mistakes and forgetting rules of sea zone bonuses or events in play you’re still having a great degree of anarchic fun. It’s also a long game – two players will take around two hours if neither of you are spending too much time engaged in complex mercantile negotiation during port actions. I’d estimate an hour per player, which is a chunk of time meaty enough that it might not be possible to easily plop it into the soup of your day. This is not a game you’d break out on a whim – you need to plan an evening around this leviathan. What an evening it could be though! You could be pirate royalty for a day! Who wouldn’t want to give that a go?