I was never much a fan of the old pirate stories, and I sure as hell don't like the Somali scumbags that are boarding merchant vessels in the modern world today. That being said, the moment I heard about Z-Man's Merchants and Marauders, I wanted it. I read a bit about it on the Z-Man website, read some rumors on the interwebz, and each new story made this seem like an amazing adventure game. While I am indeed usually optimistic, I simply had to get this to prove to myself that it may be the game to change my mind, forever, about pirates, and more specifically, pirate games.
I bugged Zev, the genius behind Z-Man Games, and to my incredible surprise, not only was he aware of the Superfly Circus, he was so incredibly generous that he offered me a review copy. I was astounded and humbled. That being said, me being who I am, I immediately had a sense of dread that if I hated the game, I'd have to shit all over a product from a person whom I liked once again, and I really, truly hate to do it. So, when the game arrived, I set sail for high adventure, or so I hoped. It turns out that I didn't simply play this game three times before reviewing in order to be fair, I played it a total of five times as of this writing, because I simply could not believe how many different avenues one could take in the game in order to be successful. This is certainly not the fare of Captain Feathersword, this is much, much more sinister.
After reading the rules, I was absolutely impressed with the game. It is as close an equivalent to the board game version of Grand Theft Auto, but in the ocean in an old-timey sailing ship. The concept is that players set sail in an open-ended adventure that has them performing milk run merchant trips, firing batteries of cannons at merchants to plunder them, boarding ships and chopping heads from enemy crewmen like so many blades of grass, or setting off into the jungles to save lost kin from tribal cannibals. While the object is to gain glory Points, which are essentially victory points, you'll realize that the enjoyment is found in the gameplay itself, which is the sign of a great game. In short, the game's theme is not only really cool, the implementation and execution of the gameplay itself is almost flawless.
From the moment I saw the cover art, I was intrigued by the game's theme. The art is breathtakingly good from stem to stern, and with no exception this holds true with every component in the box. The board is beautiful, well designed, and reasonably easy to use during gameplay, but my singular complaint is that it may simply be too small in practice, even though it is pretty big on the table. There's a swath of little ships in six colors, with two of them representing national ships and pirates. There's also four buildable treasure chests wherein you hide and protect your treasure from your opponents and random negative events.
Beyond that, there are a couple of hundred cards representing captains, cargo, missions, rumors, ship types, and my favorite, rewards for completing glorious tasks. There's also a swath of tokens used to determine what cargo types are in demand at a given time, ship modifications that turn your sad little ship into a death dealing dreadnaught, and special weapons that allow you to perform specific actions in combat. Then, there are some nationality flags and some "hidden ship" tokens with any of the four nationalities in the game that act as unknown and hidden merchant vessels for you to search for and then attempt to loot. The last bits are the nice, large-sized reference cards, the player boards that are used to track the ships' statistics, some wooden cubes that are used on that player board, and finally, my favorite bits in the box, the dice. The dice have Jolly Rogers where the five and six would be on a normal D6, which is very, very cool. I want to buy some extras just for use with Arkham Horror, in fact.
Now that I'm done with the cursory inspection phase of the review, let's get to the most important part: the gameplay. Starting with the setup, which will take around ten minutes or so, you need to lay the board out in easy reach of everyone and shuffle all the decks, aside from the Ship deck, which is better if it's organized by ship type. Each player gets a player board, a reference card which is actually a must-have item in this game, the ships and six wooden cubes of their chosen color, a glory card, a randomly-chosen Captain card, and then the player will choose either the small and piratey
Sloop or the big, fat, bullseye-marked merchant Flute. Each Captain has a home port, so you place the miniature of your color on that home port. After that's done, take two mission cards, read them aloud, and then place them in the appropriate spot on the board, which is detailed on the cards themselves. Now, all but one sea zone on the board has a port within, and there's 2 square places to put chits down. Randomly choose some of the item tokens and place one on each spot, then, face down, put a weapon modification marker in the second. The last step is to put a random merchant ship token, face down, in each of the sea zones. Really, the shuffling takes the most time, and it's critical that you get the cargo cards shuffled very thoroughly. Once the game's all set up, you choose a player to go first, and the game begins.
The object of the game is to get ten glory points, and these can be through killing and pillaging, performing missions, verifying the veracity of some rumors you hear in port, or by having gold. The trick is that while your glory points are public knowledge as they're tracked on the bottom of the board itself, your gold is not. Ten gold is equivalent to one glory point, and so you can get a stealth win by hoarding gold and, when you reach 100 gold, you can proclaim yourself the saltiest dog in the sea. The problem is that the gold comes in denominations of one, two, five, and ten valued chits, so if you have a fat stack of gold lying around on your player board, it's tantamount to walking around in South central LA with a suit made of hundred-dollar bills. Very, very dangerous.
As noted before, each Captain has a home port, and it is at these ports you can stash your gold. The smart move is to start to store gold in your treasure chest, which limits your access to it during the game, but protects it in case your Captain is keel-hauled after being boarded or is sunk by an enemy. It's a balance that players have to worry about, since there's a wide array of bad things that can happen to you, but having enough money on hand to buy cargo or weapons is a critical piece of being an effective Captain.
Anyhow, back to the gameplay. On your turn you have three actions to use, and you can do any of a variety of things. First, you can move from one place to another for one action. This is encompassed by either moving from one sea zone to another or moving into or out of a port. Now, not all ports are always accessible, but I'll get to that later. Another action you can take is to scout for ships. Even though, as a player, you know there's a merchant ship nearby, it's a very big sea and without the advent of ground radar, you need to scout for them. To do so, you simply declare what you're trying to scout for, be it an enemy player, a national Naval ship, or just a random merchant. Doing so simply requires you to roll as many dice as your Captain is allowed by his scouting skill, and if any of the dice come up with a skull, you're successful.
What happens when you actually find a ship is determined by what you were looking for. If you were looking for an enemy ship, you can then choose to attack. More on combat later. If you were looking for a random merchant, though, you flip up the token that was present on the board and place it in the Merchant counter section of the board. You may attack that ship if you so desire, and combat against a merchant is far different than that against a Naval ship or against a player character. I will also add that if you decide to attack anyone, regardless of who they are, you generally get a bounty on your head from the country whose ship you attacked.
These bounties restrict your ability to enter ports that are owned by that country, and so it really hampers your ability to be an effective merchant down the road. To emphasize that last point, I need to mention that this game is called Merchants AND Marauders, not Merchants OR Marauders. The gameplay is as open as you wish it to be, and you can start a Merchant to get the money to buy bigger, nastier ships, and then become the most feared pirate in the sea, or you can start killing people straight away and use your ill-gotten profits to buy a larger ship to protect yourself from pirate raids while living the life of a merchant. Your role isn't set in stone, but the Captain that you end up with can greatly influence what life you wish to lead, and once you've got a bounty, merchant activity becomes harder.
Another aspect to the role selection is that you can forgo being either a pirate or merchant to become a freebooting adventurer, sailing from place to place and investigating rumors and performing noble or not-so-noble deeds. Getting back to the actions you can take, if you're in a port you can use an action to use port functions, and a lot of the game is spent doing so. In port you can buy and sell goods, which is a main method of getting rich quickly. Each cargo item is worth three gold when sold, but if the cargo you have is in demand at the port you're in, this is doubled. If you sell an in demand item, you have to take the token off of the little space and replace it with another random one. After selling items, you can then buy new items which is done by taking six cargo cards from the deck. Each item costs three gold, unless you drew multiples of the same type of item. There's six or seven cargo types, ranging from sugar cane, wood, and cocoa to spices and bananas, so it's not going to happen all the time. If you do happen to get multiples, the price drops to two gold per item if you have two like cards or to down to one gold per item if you end up getting lucky and having three or more like cards.
After you're done shopping for cargo items, you can then head to the shipyard and buy or sell your ship for a new one, you can repair your ship for a fee, replenish your crew if you can roll some skulls, or finally, upgrade your ship. Upgrading with ship modifications is a very strategic thing, because they are generally not transferrable from ship to ship when you buy a new one, and there is a very limited supply of them. The good news is that they're only three gold a piece, as are the one time use weapon upgrades that are always available. Modifications range from adding a new gun to increasing your cargo area, and all of them are actually very useful. As long as you accept that you're not going to have a super-ship that has all of them, you won't be disappointed, because each port has only one, and once someone buys it, it's gone.
Other port options include asking around the local establishments about rumors, which essentially has you paying two gold and rolling dice equal to your influence value and hoping for a success. If you do get a skull, you can take the rumor card. If not, you're out of both luck and your two gold bribe. Rumors range widely in scope, with some having you checking out a ghost ship and others having you search for a merchant vessel known to be overtaken by slaves. If you have a rumor, and you may only have one at a time, you can also attempt to verify the truth of it by performing the action listed on the card in the specific location on the card. This amounts to, you guessed it, a skill check against your Captain's skill. If you fail, you cry a little on the inside and must discard that rumor as it proved to be false, but if successful, you reap a reward, a glory card, and an elusive glory Point, bringing you closer to victory.
If there are missions available, you can enter the port that the mission card is on and claim it. These missions, unlike rumors, have requirements, such as not having a bounty from a specific country, or some force you to pay an insurance fee that is generally pretty steep in case you fail. Once you've accepted a mission, you pull a new card, read it aloud, and place it in the appropriate sea zone as you did when setting up the board. There's always two missions available, so taking missions is a very viable strategy to get rich quickly as well as gain the needed glory Points. Missions, like rumors, are quite varied in their nature, but the ones I've experienced so far are often times simple "go to X and do X" style quests, but there's others that are more compelling as well. If you fail your quest, nothing bad happens and you can try again next turn, but if you complete it, you're handsomely rewarded with gold, a glory point, and a glory card.
While I'm here, I should mention what glory cards are. These are cards that allow the player to have special one-time use re-rolls, or instant successes on skill checks, and a wide variety of other things. Some of the best cards in the glory deck, though, are the specialists. You can hire onto your little crew specialists that always make your ships better, from expert sailors to cannon experts. These are not game changers, but they're definately things that help you along on your quest for wealth and fame (or infamy).
Back to mission cards, one thing I want to note about the mission cards regarding the sea zones is that you are supposed to lay the cards, which are of the half-sized variety, onto the sea zone itself. This was a problem for me. The reason is that each sea zone has text that describes the special characteristics of that area, and the card takes up so much space in the sea zone that you can't really read it. Now, to be fair, the text is written on the player aid cards, but the fact is that I constantly have to remind myself about it. No, it's not a big deal since there's only two zones that this affects at any given time, but it was a pain in my ass a couple of times and I thought, in fairness, I should mention it.
Now, at this point I need to talk about the event cards, because they really do drive the game in a major way. These come into play at the beginning of a round, and some are persistent while others are simply one turn events. Unlike most adventure games where the world is static, this game is chock full of non-player characters, and the event cards are the primary path for them appearing, as well as controlling their movement. That being said, in this dynamic world of piracy and capitalism on the high seas, a lot of really bad stuff happens. Sometimes you'll have a storm that cripples or damages your ships, sometimes nations will set Naval vessels upon the players, and sometimes rogue pirates will end up joining the game. Each one of these event cards has icons of nations or a Jolly Roger, and a direction. Now, each sea zone has corresponding directions as well, so if an NPC ship of one of the flags shown on the card, it travels in that direction.
Speaking of NPC ships, the rulebook has a clear and simple chart that defines the AI that each ship uses. Naval ships will generally attack anyone with a bounty, but if there is more than one player in the same sea zone, the AI chart defines which the NPC will attack, if any. Some are, as I stated, in the employ of the various Navies in the game, but some are pirates. Both interact with players differently, and so no matter which road you take, piracy or mercantilism, players are not the only enemies that you will have to contend with. In reality, though, most of these act more as area denial mechanisms, forcing you to go around them if you wish to evade attack rather than as a Genestealer-type persistent threat that chases you. The one caveat is that if you end your turn in a sea zone adjacent to an NPC, the NPC will disregard their normal movement method and enter your sea zone, provided you meet the criteria for its AI scheme.
Now we come to my favorite aspect of any game, the fighting. There are two types of combat in the game; one version is for assaulting and pillaging the random merchant ships, and the other is against NPC ships and opponents. The first is a card-based ordeal where you draw cargo cards. These cards, while acting as cargo types, also have icons on the bottom specifically for combating merchants. The short version is that you may draw three cards and roll a skill check against your seamanship value. For each success you may draw a new card to keep, discard a card that you drew, or trade a card for a new one. These cards have a gold value at the bottom which tells you how much gold, when totaled, you get to keep if you win, and it has an icon that tells you if you were hit, and where. Finally there may be an icon of a ship that indicates that the merchant is trying to flee the battle. I should note that a key aspect of this mechanic is that you can discard a weapon upgrade token to change any missed roll to a success, so when playing a pirate role it is imperative to keep these on hand at all times.
If, when you're done horse trading with the cards, the ship icons meet or exceed your ships maneuverability value, that ship has escaped, and you not only likely ended up with hits, you end the battle empty handed. On the other hand, if the ship didn't escape, you simply tally the damage done to you, and if you haven't been sent to the bottom of the ocean, you win the battle and may take the amount of gold won onto your ship as well as any of the cargo cards you choose to load. Each ship has a cargo capacity which cannot be exceeded, so having a small, fast ship will generally only net you gold, but if you have a big, fat frigate you gain both gold and, potentially, a bunch of stuff. Finally, if you ended up taking the ship for 12 gold or more, you gain a glory point, a glory card, and the rest of the normal spoils.
Combat against NPCs, who are controlled by opponents in combat, or against opponents themselves is an entirely different matter. Each player first proclaims their intentions to either shoot, board, or flee. These are binding and cannot be changed until the next combat round. Each side rolls their Captain's Seamanship value in dice, and the player with the most successes gets to perform their full action first. If the winner chose to shoot, they score hits that equal their ship's cannon value, and unless the loser chose to shoot, they don't get to do anything. If they did choose to shoot, though, they score as many hits as they rolled successes.
After hits have been tallied, each player rolls a die for the hit location to determine where they damaged the other ship. The chart on each player's player board makes this easy to determine, and being hit in certain parts of the ship can have catastrophic effects. Hitting an enemy's hull brings that ship one step closer to sinking and the subsequent death of that Captain, with all of the ship's cargo and gold going down with it. Destroying an enemy's masts is the worst of all, in my opinion, because it restricts that player to only one die during Seamanship rolls, effectively disabling that player's ability to fight. You can also target Crew, Cargo bays, and Cannons, all of which are nasty, but the first two are the worst damage to bear.
There are some caveats to all of this due to both the ship modifications that can be bought as well as the weapon upgrades. One modification allows you to shoot before combat begins in earnest, another to shoot a fleeing enemy, and my favorite is the swivel cannons, which effectively repels boarding parties. Then there's the weapon upgrades, such as the grapeshot which you can discard to apply hits in combat to the enemy crew, or the chain shot that allows you to target masts automatically. These are, undoubtedly, the best way in the game to spend three gold, irrespective of your choice of player roles because they're always useful and, when played well, can mean a huge advantage in combat.
Back to the choices during combat, if the player who won the Seamanship roll chose to board the enemy, then an entirely different combat type, Crew Combat, begins. Crew Combat boils down to each player rolling dice equal to their Captain's leadership value, and each success scores a hit. If you kill the enemy crew in combat, not only do you get to kill the Captain and plunder their ship, you can TAKE their ship as your own. While ship modifications you purchased cannot be transferred, taking a Galleon values at 35 gold with a 10 gold Sloop is a hell of a way to get ahead fast. The final option is to flee the scene, and if you're successful, combat simply ends without incident. This is often the best option if you have a small crew or are obviously overwhelmed, and since you lose so very much when your Captain is killed it's certainly better to run away to fight again another day, so to speak.
The game makes you care about your character, and while there is no player elimination, when your Captain is killed it really feels miserable. Every battle is a risk, even if you've got an overwhelmingly strong ship, if you don't play well, and the choices you make during combat are viscerally tense. There will be a lot of cursing, piratey talk, and of course, some good drinking while playing this game. It's simply a fun adventure game that, surprisingly, leaves you wanting more when the game ends prematurely. In one instance, we wanted to extend the game to 15 glory points just because we were all getting some good ships, good upgrades, and it felt really crappy to have to end the game.
Since I'm near the end of the article, I think I should talk about death. Dying in this game sucks on an epic level. When you lose all of your crew in Crew Combat, or if you are sunk by another ship, your Captain is dead. There are no Clerics to resurrect, no Surge Tokens, nothing. You're gone. You can also retire your Captain while in port, if your ship is beat up and you don't have the cash to repair it. In both cases, you essentially start from scratch with a new ship, a new Captain, and while you get to keep your glory points and stashed gold, that's all you get to keep. So, mind the enemies and keep your powder dry.
Why I Don't Hate Pirates Anymore:
- The art is brilliant, engaging, and really thematic
- Gameplay is brisk, with minimal downtime between turns, even with AP-prone players
- The bits are top-notch, and the little skull dice are cool as hell
- This game captures the feel of the colonial-era Caribbean like no other
- Tremendous replay value is in the box due to all the options and randomness
Why This Game May Have A Place In Davy Jones' Locker:
- The sea zones are too small to have mission cards blocking the text
- Both NPC/player and Merchant Combat can be perplexing the first few times you play
I really want to emphasize that this is truly one of the neatest adventure games that I've ever played. It's got all the elements that I, as a gamer, love: fighting, real death with real consequences, and a ton of dice. The constant skill checking reminds me a bit of Arkham Horror, which is also another one of my favorites, so I was quite at home playing this. The rulebook is quite easily readable in a longer session on the can, and you will need to refer to the book maybe five times on your initial play, and after that it seems as if you'd known the game for years. It's just a brilliant, fun game, and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.
Learn more about this game at Z-Man's website here: http://www.zmangames.com/boardgames/merchants_and_marauders.htm