Board Game Review: Merchants & Marauders

The dreaded pirate frigate, bane of all merchants.
I like pirates. I like board games. It’s then no stretch to apply simple logic and assume that I would like a pirate themed board game! History has proven to be a bit rocky (or at least lacking) concerning the reviews and critical reception of a few titles, such as Blackbeard or Pirate's Cove. Z-Man Games with designers Christian Marcussen and Kasper Aagaard have really done the genre some pirate justice with Merchants & Marauders.

In M&M, you get to play the role of one of 16 possible "sea captains" out to gain the most glory (10 glory points are required to win). You'll notice that I have this in quotations - a cool feature of the game is that it doesn't pigeon hole you into playing one certain way. You get to choose between two major strategies: spend your time and energy shipping goods to produce coin and glory points, or raid merchants and other players by committing acts of piracy for glory. That's the defining element that gives this game so much flexibility. Should I go crazy, swashbuckling pirate on any fool unlucky enough to cross my path? Or do I keep my nose clean, stick to the safer waters, and trade goods to make my bank?  Or should I be something in between?

In any case, your strategy is supplemented by a few other ways to make glory points. There are two types of cards that make their way to the table - rumors and missions. Rumors require you to reach a certain location and then make a skill check to complete the rumor (which will sometimes include minor battling). Missions are similar, but often are a bit trickier. In either case, you will reap monetary rewards or advantages on the game board and (more importantly) a glory point for completing them! You also get a glory point for defeating an opposing captain (player or non-player) in battle, for raiding a merchant ship worth 12 or more gold, and a one time point for upgrading to one of the larger, more costly ships. Finally, you can - in true pirate style - stash gold in a your cardboard treasure chest (yes, you get a 3-D treasure chest!) for 1 glory point per gold stash, up to a maximum of 5 points. This is kept secret from the other players and only revealed when you declare that you've won.
The board in action - all four navies AND a pirate frigate out?? DANG.

The game mechanics have enough nuances and depth to make them challenging, and yet they are simple enough to keep game play going without too much "crunching." You essentially have 3 action points each turn, with 3 possible action choices: move, port, and scout. The map is divided into sea zones and ports. With one move action you can traverse a sea zone to an adjacent one, or you can move from a sea zone into a port. Port takes one action point, but allows you to do a multitude of actions, from buying ship upgrades to gaining rumors or missions, to buying and selling goods. Scouting is what you use to look for merchant ships (if interested in raiding them) or other captains. Naval ships and pirate ships controlled by the board show up and pose a threat to players. Naval ships hunt pirates and/or captains with nationalities they are at war with. Pirate ships hunt merchants. In either case, you can have enemies around you fast! The quickest way to avoid being hurt is to stay in the ports as much as you can - it takes longer to "port hop" around like this, but you can stay under the radar relatively easily.

With most abilities, you simply roll an amount of dice and hope for one or more successes, with a success being a 5 or a 6 on a six-sided die (cleverly marked with a skull and cross bones for easy and pirate-y reference!). You do have a hand of glory cards that allow you to "cheat" the rules with special abilities and such - these add a ton of flair to the game and really keep you on your toes wondering what your opponent has when you are battling a player captain.

The components.  There are lots of 'em and they are well made.
My only complaint with the game comes in the same vein as I am praising it. I praise it for being a game that lets the player make a choice on how to accomplish his goal (of winning the game) primarily by being a merchant or a pirate. However, in my limited amount of plays thus far, it has been exponentially harder for a pirate to succeed at gaining glory from raiding merchant ships on the board, compared to picking up the right goods and shipping them for a glory point as a merchant. When buying goods, you draw 6 cards (sometimes more, depending upon your captain's abilities and the special abilities of each port) and get to look at a selection before choosing. The more you buy in bulk, the cheaper. You then cart those goods in the safest route you can plot and sell them for money and a glory point - besides the sailing, there is minimal risk involved in this. 

A pirate player, however, has to engage in a mini battle when raiding merchants. He draws three cargo cards and notes their special icons, either hits to his ship or the merchant trying to escape him. Through a dice rolling mechanic, he can add, subtract, or replace cards on the table. He has the chance of having his ship injured, which will require making to port for repairs, and at worst can be sunk. The cards are valued from 1 - 5 in gold value, with 3 being the most common. So on an average flip, he will see 9 gold worth shown. If he gets no other adds or replaces, the first flip will rarely yield a successful raid for glory - and he might lose everything in the process! The key here seems to be attacking player-character captains and raiding merchant ships as "option 2" when deciding how to gain points, since defeating a player-captain always nets you glory.

Besides what appears (to me) to be a slight imbalance in the game, the game is really, really fun! I played it three nights in a row and can tell you I want to play it another 10 times.  M&M is one of those games that will strike a really nice balance between competitive, "I'm gonna getchyoo!" players and more casual, less-confrontational players. It's definitely the most pirate-y game I've gotten the chance to enjoy. If I may submit to you: Yarrrrr?

Where it succeeds:
A player board, tracking your captain, ship stats, gold, etc.
  • Excellent components, good art
  • The theme permeates the entire game
  • Enough player v. player to keep it interesting, but is not necessary and does not dominate (reassurance for more timid types)
  • Simple, elegant mechanics that capture the thrill without being too thick

Where it struggles:
  • Slight imbalance between being a pirate and being a merchant
  • "Port hopping" has been a staple of merchants so far and can be annoying, but is solved by the designers own "cuthroat variant"
  • A heavy dose of chance, so not for those who hate rolling dice

Final Thoughts: This game is an absolute blast and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. Yo-ho!