Merchants & Marauders: Uproarious fun during the golden age of piracy

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NATE WARREN
  • Nate Warren
We’re several turns deep in the game. My wife, playing as a British freebooter named Francis Wright, decided early on that it was the pirate’s life for her. She’s been jacking Dutch and French merchants from Nassau to Caracas, earning her loot and lots of unwanted attention from a Caribbean that’s now thick with naval ships looking to take her out of the water. While other pirates won’t mess with her, she’s now persona non grata at Dutch and French ports and is challenged with finding ways to squeeze profits from a shrinking sea. Her recent merchant scouting has revealed lots of ships flying the Queen’s standard — a move she’s loath to take, as it would close off even more ports.

It’s a fine afternoon for Merchants & Marauders, which sees up to four players take command of a ship in the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy. Each player starts the game with a captain from one of the game’s four nationalities — French, Spanish, Dutch and English — and tries to be the first to sail their way to ten "Glory Points," which can be earned through trade, combat and numerous rumors or missions.

I played a French captain, Nicolas Jaurés, who was paid handsomely for a risky dash wherein I ferried a cousin of the Spanish queen from Caracas to Havana. I parlayed the reward into the purchase of a stout galleon whose cargo holds are groaning with rum and sugar cane, all of which would fetch eye-popping prices — at ports controlled by the British, which I can’t enter because Britain and France are at war. To complicate matters, a pirate frigate captained by Benjamin Hornigold is prowling the waters to the south. I think I’ll let him have a go at my galleon and see if he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

Merchants & Marauders is an adventure game, which means it’s good to have a strategy, but you’re really in it for the rollercoaster ride. Each turn, event cards change the conditions of play, sometimes wildly. Storms can limit your movement options; new naval captains arrive on the scene, looking to make their name killing pirates; or nations can go to war.

It’s up to you to maximize the individual abilities of your captain and find a way to victory, whether it’s by plying legal trade, investigating regional rumors, fulfilling dangerous missions, looting merchants or a bit from any of the above — a toy box of options that makes each game a rousing story all its own.

I don’t know how this afternoon’s game will end, and that’s the great thing about Merchants & Marauders. While it’s not a pure-strategy masterpiece, it brings the house in every other department: gorgeous components, unpredictability, tons of flavor and the ever-present frisson of high stakes. Did I mention that players can attack each other? If a player successfully locates another by using their captain’s scouting ability and winning the ensuing combat, they get the loser’s ship, gold, weapons, and special cards — everything. The loser is left to start over with a new captain and an entry-level ship. Battles like these create gunpowder-black grudges that carry from game to game.

I’ll never forget the time an opponent sunk me when I was one port away from a massive trade that would have put me far in the lead. He saw that I was damaged from a battle and swooped in to strip my future from me. I never recovered. I still dream of settling the score. It was a bitter loss, but it fulfilled a higher purpose of board gaming: Making a night that none of us will ever forget. And isn’t that why we do anything in the first place?

Merchants and Marauders has its drawbacks: there are lots of game components to manage and remember, and the player count tops out at four. Combat rules are a bit chewy, and although we’ve played six times, there still seem to be odd little cases that have us checking the rulebook or consulting BoardGameGeek.com.

For me, the fiddly parts are more than offset by the full broadside of fun this title delivers. I highly recommend it for folks who like story, chance and strategy in equal servings.

Now, where did I put my spyglass? Hornigold’s sea vermin will be bearing down on me any minute now.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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