03 August 2011

Merchants & Marauders part 2 rules and gameplay

Welcome back to the second part of this review where I will talk about the rules and how it plays.

Merchants & Marauders have a striking similarity with the PC game Pirates of the Caribbean (which had nothing to do with the movies). You have RPG light elements with your captain stats and special cards that can be played, you buy new ships and upgrade them and you travel between the ports of the Caribbean to buy goods and sell them where the demand is high. Or you resort to pirate activities plundering ports, merchants and fellow players alike. The best features from the PC game translated into a great boardgame.

Starting the game every player gets a random captain card, 10 gold, 1 glory card and one of two small ship types. Either a Sloop for raiding, or a Flute for trading. A player can only have 1 single ship at any time, when you buy a new one you sell the old, or when you capture a new ship you scrap your old. Players then shuffle their captain cards in one common pile and draw one captain randomly to become the 1st player for the remainder of the game.  You then proceed to go clockwise from that person once he has finished his turn.

The function of the first player is to be the person drawing Event cards. Event cards are as the name suggests, events taking place in the Caribbean during this very turn. It can be a serious storm that will damage ships caught out at the open sea, pirates appearing in certain locations, war between 2 of the 4 nations, NPC battleships appearing, tropical disease etc. If the event card shows an actual event and not a NPC character, then the event will play out during the remainder of the turn.

Player captains have a card showing 1 special ability, and 4 stats. Seamanship, Scouting, Leadership and Influence. The number next to each of these stats indicate how many dice you roll when asked to perform a influence check or scout for an enemy ship. In order to succeed you must roll 5+ (or in this game, skull and bones).

The most important part of the game are so called “Glory points”, at the bottom of the board  you will find a track going form 0-10. And as you might have guessed the player who reaches 10 first wins. Glory points are acquired by:  Defeating NPC or Players in ship-to-ship combat, selling 3+ of a cargo in demand at the same time, plundering 12+ gold from a merchant vessel, completing a mission card, successfully complete a rumor card, upgrading your ship to a Frigate or Galleon (once per game) and stashing gold in your home port.

So as you see the way to victory is filled with choices and you can really focus on being a merchant, pirate, something in between or using your skill to find out if rumors are true and completing missions. Tied to the Glory Points are the Glory cards, of which you receive one at the start of the game and one more each time you get a glory point up to 4 cards in your hand. These are disposable one time tricks or specialist crewmen – they have in common that they are really good to have around in very specific situations.

So, embarking on your adventure, you start in your port and are given several choices already. Each player has 3 action points to spend. These actions include movement, scouting and port action. You pay 1 action to move in/out of ports and between sea zones. Scouting is used to determine if your captain manages to spot a ship on the horizon. This action is used for raids and can be performed either against the port in which case the merchant will be of the same nationality as the port location, a merchant token at sea which is flipped to see which nation it belongs to, NPC ships or other players in the same sea zone.

The port action consists of selling and buying goods, possibility of buying a ship upgrade, buying special ammunition, acquire a rumor card, buy new ships, replenish lost crew, repair your damaged ship and claim mission cards. Fortunately you can do as many things as you like with 1 single port action, but selling goods is always required to be conducted first.
Buying and selling goods is the primary cause of entering a port, and each port in the Caribbean has a “in demand” token showing a specific type of goods. When you buy goods in a port you draw 6 cards from the goods pile and discard any “in demand” goods and draw new cards. You are then given the option to buy goods at a price of 3 gold for a single card, 2 gold each for duplicates and 1 gold each if you buy 3+ of the same goods.

The ideal conditions are to have a large enough cargo hold to at least 3 identical goods bought cheaply. You then sail with your ship to a port that is in demand of the goods you bought and you sell it there with a great profit, 6 gold each for any goods in demand. You can always sell other goods at a rate of 3 gold per card but it is often pointless unless you want to clean out your cargo hold or have obtained those goods through plunder. And you want to sell 3 or more of the same goods to receive that Glory point.  Selling goods in demand at one port also has the player remove the goods token and replace it with a randomly drawn new one. This way the demand will change and the game becomes a lot less static. This is the essence of being a merchant.

Being a pirate is a drastic difference. A successful pirate is a captain who has a good “scouting” stat. You have to go out to sea and perform a scout action. You can either scout the port in which case you will attack a merchant vessel of that nationality or make a scout check to flip a merchant token in a sea zone. Flipping a merchant token gives you a choice, either you attack it or let it go unharmed, depending on what nationality it has. You see, once you have attacked a merchant you will be branded a pirate and also get a bounty on your head from the target nation. Every time you attack a nation your bounty with that particular nation rises on a special bounty track on your player board.

Having a bounty on your head prevents you from entering ports belonging to the nation hunting you, so you are limiting yourself from a merchant perspective. NPC ships on the board will also make scout checks when in the same sea zone as you as they try to hunt you down. Other players may attack you and receive a reward if they sink your ship.

After having performed a scouting action vs a merchant a merchant raid is initiated. You draw 3 goods cards and check the bottom. Half of the cards have a “escape” icon and half a “damage” icon.  You roll dice according to your Seamanship and for every success you are allowed to discard, exchange or add another card from the goods deck. The idea behind a merchant raid is first to prevent the damage inflicted by the merchant ship to bring down any of your ship locations to 0 “wounds” as that makes your raid an instant failure and might prove to be your death if the hull is destroyed.  The second thing is to prevent the merchant to escape. So looking at the cards you’ve drawn you might want to check if your ship will survive, and if the merchant escape value is equal to or above your own ship maneuverability – if so the merchant escapes. If below your maneuverability value you catch up with the merchant and plunder it. You get gold matching the number printed on the bottom of each card, and, you can keep the goods cards if you like and have room in your cargo hold. If you plunder 12+ gold in one raid you get a Glory point.

Player vs NPC/Player combat is a bit more dramatic. There are 3 actions that can be performed during such a battle. Fire cannons, boarding action and flee. The first turn must always be fire cannons. You must first succeed in scouting the enemy ship. You both then roll your seamanship and the player that have an exclusive success, or rolled the most, wins the combat and inflicts either full damage or damage matching the amount of successes. A ship with 2 cannons would inflict 2 hits on the enemy ship if the captain rolled a success on his seamanship and the enemy didn’t roll any. There are versions on how you inflict more/less damage depending on what both players roll, but explaining that is not necessary for this review. All I can say is that the ship-to-ship combat with other players and NPC’s is pretty frightening and should not be performed unless you are sure of victory. Losing combat will mean that the enemy will plunder your entire gold located on the ship, kill your captain and either sink or, if they want, take over your ship! And it works really well, you can see players modifying their merchant ships with protective upgrade and the pirate players buying upgrades that will help them attack with greater odds of success.

NPC ships are commanded by captains randomly generated by the “event deck”. Each nationality can only have 1 NPC captain in play at the same time, if you draw an additional captain of the same nationality you place the new captain card over the old one and transfer the ship located on the board to the “deployment” location of the captain card. There are also 2 pirate captains that can command either a sloop or a frigate, bringing the maximum number of NPC ships on the board up to 6.  Depending on your career choice these NPC ships will mostly block your routes and sometimes force you into battle with them. NPC ships will attack you if you have a bounty on your head (regardless of who which nation set the bounty) and NPC pirate ships will attack you if you are a merchant BUT will not attack you if you have a bounty token as you are then considered one of their own. NPC ships are not static, and will move around as instructed by event cards, and if you are in a “target category” and located in a nearby sea zone they will move and try to scout and attack you instead of following their suggested movement pattern.

A player can raid ports and merchants belonging to his own nation and will get a bounty from his home country. In this case you are prevented from entering ports just as described, with the exception of the “home port” which you can always enter no matter what. Some glory and event cards allow players to rid themselves of their bounty and drop their pirate lifestyle if they wish.
Sometimes the event cards will say that a war has erupted between two nations. In this case you draw 2 bounty tokens randomly and place them on the “war” location in the top left corner. These two nations are now at war, and players belonging to either one cannot move into enemy nation ports for as long as the war rages on.

My final thoughts. This game is truly excellent, it is complicated enough and offers a variety of ways to win to make it interesting – but it is not overly complicated and bogged down with difficult rules.  Everything comes together in perfect symmetry and you feel the impact of events and your own choices in the game in a way that makes the whole gaming experience highly immersive. The limitations placed on players that have become pirates, with ports being closed, being chased by NPC’s and a completely new play style is great. Being a merchant is surprisingly rewarding and great fun as well. You can’t really go wrong no matter what choice you make, you will have a great time nonetheless.

The dynamic “in demand” feature is also great, especially when lots of players move around and trade – sometimes you will find yourself in a position where no ports are looking for the goods you have aboard, or just happen to be closed to you for one reason or the other. Completing missions and rumors are always a good way of earning glory points on the side from your main focus which is trading/raiding. 

The ship being highly important to you is reflected by the damage locations and cargo hold size. It is great fun to enter combat against other players or NPC’s as you are really fighting for your life doing so.

This game is for 2-4 players, but I would recommend playing 3-4 players because playing only 2 makes it a bit too easy and the competition is not that high which makes for 2 merchant players. Having more players in the game will at least force one person to take up a pirate role and screw around with the others. This does not mean that the game is not enjoyable or works poorly with 2 players, it just means that it is less challenging. The playing time is said to be 45 minutes per player, and it is pretty accurate. A 3 player game took us 2 hours, and the 2 player game I played was 1.5 hour. So this is a pretty fast game that can be played at least twice during a afternoon.

If I have to make some remark there are two things.

The first I should mention is something I’ve noticed during my test game and later games with friends. You simply cannot start a pirate career using the Sloop from the start of the game. The Sloop has a too small cargo hold to make if able to sell 3+ goods at any time which will leave you economically behind and also poor on glory points. The Sloop is also very weak so you cannot raid merchant ships with it without huge risk of getting killed. The sloop is excellent for raiding with a captain that has high seamanship and after upgrading it with stronger hull, additional cannons and most importantly a bigger cargo hold. But this will make the other players be way ahead of you. What I do suggest and the game seem to agree, is to start out as a merchant, and swap to being a pirate halfway through when you upgrade your ship to a frigate. The frigate is by default a good raiding ship and with a few upgrades it is very good for that purpose being a lot more durable than the flimsy sloop and with a cargo hold large enough to hold sufficient amount of goods.  This is more something you should keep in mind, rather than thinking of it as a broken feature. Bold captains with high seamanship will be able to raid merchants with the Sloop getting money fast and upgrade to a better ship in time with some luck. But it is a lot more risky.

The other thing is that the game can have an abrupt ending due to one of the victory conditions. Stashing 10 gold in your home port gives you 1 glory point. You can get up to 5 glory points this way. The game holds a perfect pace up to about when everyone has 6 glory points, at which point some players will be wealthy enough to make a huge deposit and instant win the game. This can be a bit of a surprise, and this also often happens when everyone has the best time. The game itself offers a solution by suggesting that you can increase the amount of Glory points needed in order to win. This is also really easy to fix by simply increasing the amount of gold necessary to 20 gold instead of 10 in order to receive a glory point. It is extremely easy to “fix” this minimal problem and this is also the single thing I would tweak. The rest of the game is damn good.

If you like pirate themed games, this game will not disappoint you and you will most likely love it. If you don’t really care about pirate themed games, you should still give it a try because it is a damn good game with solid features and it offers good gameplay and value for money.

You can get this game over at Kulturkommissariatet.


  1. Great stuff. Thanks for the comprehensive review.

  2. Great review of a great game
    One thing i need to ask about tough is your statement that you cant start a pirate career in a sloop.
    Why not? Remember that you can use special weapons to turn 1-4 into skulls in merchant raiding even after the cards are shown
    And dont you ahve other players on the board? A pirate should plunder and that includes other players, take your gentleman gloves to some other game mate ;)
    A sloop has booth a crew and seamanship advantage over flutes at the start so you should have no trouble boarding your merchant mates and taking their stuff. If they have to much cargo just scuttle your sloop, sail to closest port, sell cargo and buy a new sloop for 5 gold (10 but you get 5 gold for selling that flute)
    Another tip is to raid in Santa domingo for that sweeeet + 3 gold raid early on.
    With some luck you are well on your way to that awesome frigate
    Real man play pirates from round 1 :D


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