Merchants and Marauders is a pirate game. Or is it? The backdrop is the age of piracy in the Caribbean, but to raid and plunder or to adventure and trade is entirely up to you. Merchant or marauder, something in between, or both at the same time?
You start the game with a small ship. You can sail around the Caribbean and do all sorts of different things. You can buy and sell goods, raid merchants, attack others' ships, complete missions, follow up rumours. You can upgrade your ship to fight better, carry more goods, etc. You can even buy a new different-class ship.
At the start of every game you draw a random captain character to play, and every captain has different strengths, weaknesses and special abilities.
Four European countries have presence in the Caribbean - the English, the Dutch, the Spanish and the French. Each port belongs to one nation, and you can enter port only if you don't have a bounty of that nation. That means even if you decide to be a pirate, try not to antagonise too many nations, else you won't find many welcome ports. You do need ports because you buy and sell goods there, you recruit crew, repair ships, hear rumours, gain missions etc. Being a pirate also means that the navies hunt and fight you, and if you happen to have a bounty of a particular nation, their navy will prioritise hunting you down compared to other pirates.
Things are not necessarily safer if you're a merchant. Other than the four navies, there are also two non-player pirate ships on the board hunting non-pirates. These six non-player ships ensure plenty of interaction. It may not always come to sea battles, but the locations of the ships and the characteristics of their captains, and their relationships with you, affect your decisions on where to sail.
To win the game you need 10 Glory, which can be gained in many ways, like winning sea battles, making big trades, affording bigger ships, completing missions and, most humourous of all, burying treasure. You can stash away cash at your home port and every $10 is 1 Glory.
Allen, Han and I have played 3 times. In our first game we all chose a sloop as our first ship. You have two choices, sloop or flute, the former more suitable for pirating and the latter for trading. I think at the start we were all keen to do some pirating, since that was the fun thing to do. However in the early game our ships were small and weak so we had to do some honest pick-up-and-deliver trading to raise funds to buy bigger badder ships.
I was slower than the others in my ship replacement. I spent some effort on chasing rumours and attempting missions to gain Glory. I had good Leadership and Scouting abilities which helped with these.
There wasn't much battling. Buying and selling seemed convenient and less risky. When Han eventually turned pirate, he attacked merchant shipping. These were handled in a simpler and more abstract way, so it wasn't a proper full-fledged sea battle. Allen also attacked merchants for the quick money. At one point we had to remind him not to antagonise too many nations lest he ran out of welcome ports.
When a sea battle finally occurred, it was me, still the honest merchant, being attacked by the non-player pirate. I had a decent ship, but my captain's Seamanship really sucked. The battle dragged on and on as my ship took more and more damage. Sea battles are very brutal. Once engaged it is very hard to flee unless your opponent has poor Seamanship. The two parties keep inflicting damage to one another until one ship sinks or flees. It is possible to board your opponent, and when this is done successfully the battle changes to a crew battle.
My captain was good at crew battle, but since she had lousy Seamanship, I couldn't successfully board my opponent. Eventually I barely managed to flee the battle. My ship was full of holes.
Immediately after that I saw Han and Allen converging towards where I was. Sharks smelling blood in the water! I wouldn't believe them if they told me they just happened to need to sell some goods at a port nearby.
It didn't come to any player-vs-player battle. Han had accumulated enough cash to reach 10 Glory. Neither Allen nor I had even half of that, but Allen did have some cash in hand which he could convert to Glory by returning to his home port to bury treasure.
For our second game, we again started with heavy trading. The game became even more like a pick-up-and-deliver game! We were quite lucky with our card draws and even managed to do many big sales that gave Glory in addition to the big profit.
We did turn pirate eventually, after upgrading to bigger ships. The lucrative merchant ships were hard to resist. I was keen to do some battling, perhaps to avenge my lousy fate in the first game. I hunted and found a non-player pirate. Although I had good odds, the scoundrel managed to flee. What a waste.
Wanting to have some fun, Allen came to attack the same pirate, and even managed to sink it! Hey! That was supposed to be my prize! Allen had been doing well in trading, being able to do more of those Glory-gaining big sales than both Han and I. Immediately after Allen's victory over the non-player pirate, Han came after him before he could repair his ship. A nail-biting sea battle ensued.
Although Han had the upper hand (undamaged ship plus better Seamanship), as the battle dragged on, it became costly for both. It was a bitter fight. Trying to flee is difficult, and each attempt to flee means forgoing a chance to do damage to your opponent. Things got pretty bad and out of desperation Allen had to attempt to flee. He was as good as captaining a raft at that point. To our surprise, he managed to flee before getting sunk. He made a beeline for his home port which happened to be just in range, buried his gold, and won the game with 10 Glory! That was a narrow escape.
In the third game that we played, we all followed a similar approach of early trading and quickly upgrading our ships. This time I was quite lucky with my trading, and made many Glory-scoring big deliveries. I tried to do some rumour-chasing, but was not successful. Allen attempted a mission of searching for a boy kidnapped by native Indians, but he kept failing it after many tries. Maybe the natives are racist or sexist - Allen's character was a Japanese lady I think. Han also had an Oriental captain, a Chinese guy of English nationality. I guess from Hong Kong? Wait... Hong Kong wasn't under British rule yet at the time was it? Anyway, it reminded me of Chow Yun Fat in Pirates of the Caribbean. Han upgraded his galleon and armed it to the teeth, buying grappling hooks, grapeshots, chainshots and a few other upgrades. He was getting ready for some big-time action. He had started attacking merchants, gaining some bounties.
My trading business did so well that I won the game before Han could do any ship-to-ship battles. It was a battle-less game! For three games I have wanted to do some pirating. This time I had hoped to at least fight the non-player pirate ship, but my trading business kept me so busy and distracted me so much that I had won before I could stop myself. Arrgghh... greed is bad! Now I can only retire to brag to my grandchildren about selling spices as opposed to fighting pirates. What would they think of me?!
I enjoyed Merchants and Marauders very much. I'm not a particular fan of the pirate theme, but I like how thematic the game is and how everything makes thematic sense. There are many details and many rules, so expect to need to refer to the rules in early games. A good ref sheet is provided for each player.
This game really tells a story. It's like Tales of the Arabian Nights, but with much more control. The rumours, missions, events all contribute to the story. I guess after a while you'll see all of them, but the order of appearance and the different combinations will make different stories too.
Trading seems to be generally the easier way to win, based on the few games that I have played. However in a way I don't really mind that. I'm enjoying myself too much with the very open system and with the many choices I have. I'm happy that I have the choice to do pirating if I want to, even if it is more risky and it is more difficult to win. Well, I do need to remind myself to start pirating before the game ends. I still haven't done any pirating after three games! This is not supposed to be Age of Steam.
One thing I'd like to do is to set a higher goal for winning, say 15 Glory. I think I have been enjoying myself too much that the games felt a little short and seemed to have ended too abruptly. When a 2-hour game feels short, that means you're having a good time.