Friday, March 04, 2011

Thar be Pirates.....sometimes anyway

Merchants & Marauders
Published: 2010
Designer: Christian Marcussen
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Rules Complexity: Medium
Players: 2 -4
Type: Competitive

Artwork: A
Bits: B+
Playing Time: 2-3 hours

Let me get this out of the way up front Merchants and Marauders is one of my favorite new games for 2010/2011 and I've barely scratched the surface. The game is set in Caribbean where you can take on the role of a influential merchant shipping goods from port to port. Have more sinister ideas of acquiring fame and glory? Well then a pirate life you be seeking.

Merchant off the port and she is riding low captain!
The game comes with a lot of bits for your buck. There are over 250 cards, 190 tokens, die cut treasure chests for each player to stash their booty. There are 26 plastic ship miniatures, featuring 5 different ship types. Finally there is one beautiful board which while big in size starts to feel crowded at times during the game.

As the game gets moving you'll have all players ships on the board, goods tokens, ship upgrade tokens, possible NPC merchants and pirate ships. Finally mission cards can also be placed on the board which struck me as odd. For a game full of bits that do an excellent job at keeping you immersed in the games theme, two cards laying on the board was not expected. Fortunately a little imagination and a printer and you can come up with some creative bits for those mission locations.

"Merchant and pirate are the same they just rob you in different ways... scoundrels to the man."

The game starts by each player getting one of the 16 random captains. Each captain has a set of stats for Leadership, Influence, Seamanship and Scouting. They also have a special ability such as Ignoring the effect of Storms. Finally a nationality and a home port. During the game ports will close to you either via your actions as a pirate or events pitting your country at war with other countries. However your home port never closes, it's like returning home from college and giving mom all that laundry.

You're captain and his or her stats will generally guide you to your career path. Some captains set up much better for being a merchant, while others a pirate. Of course you're free to follow your own course. After you have seen your captain you secretly choose either a Sloop, which is better for pirates or a Flute which is ideal for shipping cargo and your off.

The object of the game is to be the first player to 10 Glory points. You gain glory points from various things such as defeating another captain, plundering 12 gold in a merchant raid and selling 3 in demand goods at a port. You can also stash gold in your treasure chest whenever you're in your home port and for every 10 gold you get a secret Glory point. While you can stash as much gold as you want in your treasure chest you can only accumulate 5 glory points this way.

While theoretically this can catch players off guard it is pretty easy to tell if a captain is stashing gold and while you never know how much. If a player is at 5 or 6 victory points and has set full sails for his home port you know whats coming. What's unique about this mechanic is if a player declares victory in this manner the other players still get to finish their turns. Glory points on the board count more then glory points gained from stashed gold. So if I had declared victory with 5 Glory on the board and 5 from my stash, and Chris who had 7 glory on the board managed to finish his turn and have 3 glory from his stash he would win the game.

A turn starts by drawing an event card. Events can bring into play NPC pirates or nation specific ships, storms or the previously mentioned wars. NPC pirates hunt player merchants and npc ships hunt players with bounties on them. I wont go into the whole hunt order but just note it is fairly simple to follow and the NPC's move on the event cards so it is not cumbersome at all.

A players phase consist of a combination of 3 actions. They either move around the seas or to and from port. They conduct a port action or they scout for a merchant vessel. Port actions allow you to sell and buy goods, recruit crew, upgrade and repair your ship and of course get rumors which is an excellent way to get glory points.

Scouting allows your captain to search for merchants and plunder them if they so choose. Every sea zone except for one is governed so to speak by a nationality and each sea zone has a merchant token. After a successful scout you can flip the merchant token and then either decide to plunder that merchant or one of the zone. For example if I am in the Spanish zone of Havana and I flip a Dutch merchant token I can choose to raid the Spanish, the Dutch or no one.

Raiding a merchant gets you a bounty token. This is how you officially become a pirate. Once you've done this NPC ships hunt for you, ports close to you and life can get much harder. No one said being a pirate is easy, but with risk comes reward and with planning and luck you can make a go of it.

Bring her about and fire all Canons.
I don't want to spend a lot of time detailing combat, you can find how it works in the online rules. The important thing to know is that combat is fast. There are actually two types of combat. When you raid a merchant it is all card play and it literally takes no more then 2-3 minutes. This mechanic in a game with a lot going on is perfect. It doesn't inflict the game with downtime.

Combat is a bit different when fighting another player or NPC as it should be. Even then it is pretty fast. You choose to either shoot, board or flee and you see who has out maneuvered who and then go to the results. Even after boarding, crew combat is fast and furious. The typical combat of this type is going to take 5 minutes, 10 tops for newer players.

I think this is the key to what makes Merchants a very good game. The combat and raiding gets the job done and doesn't slow down the game.

Set course for Tortuga

I haven't even touched on Missions which if solved give you glory and some kind of reward. How each port has a special ability. Glory cards you receive when acquiring a glory point which do all sorts of wonderful things such as giving you special crew members to extra actions. Captains can retire and die which means you're never out of the game and can change your play style mid-game.

Make no doubt about it Merchants is a game with a lot going on and it's all very good. It's also a game that needs to be played several times to be appreciate. It's very tempting to go the merchant route. It is far easier at the start of the game and some even say it is easier to win the game playing a merchant.

I'd disagree, because successfully playing a pirate puts the choices in your hands. You're not hoping to find the right good while purchasing and being able to move it close by. As a pirate if you make the right decisions on who and when you strike you can gain a lot more glory quickly. Sure at the start you're vulnerable with your little sloop but just a few successfully raids and spending your money on upgrades instead of goods is going to pay off.

However that first game most people will flounder in between merchant and pirate and that is the worst way to play and it draws out the game. You need to pick one and go, and for a first time player that is easier said then done.

Which brings me back to my initial point. Merchants is a game you need to play a few times to learn "how to play", not to learn the rules. Each game gets better and better and a seasoned group of players can result in an interesting contest.

My recommendation is buy it.


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