By: Robert Williamson
Ahoy, mateys! Welcome to a Game Café board game review! Today we’ll be looking at Merchants and Marauders from Z-Man Games, a 2 – 4 player, sandbox game that lets you sail the Caribbean as either a merchant or… wait for it… a marauder!
This distinction is not just for flavor, but a key factor in gameplay. Your goal is to reach 10 glory points. Completing missions, selling in-demand goods, raiding other vessels, or stashing gold (1 point for every 10 gold you’ve stashed), among other things, awards you these points. However, becoming a notorious pirate or a prosperous merchant can open some paths to victory and close others.
You’ll start each game by drawing a captain card from a deck of sixteen. Your captain has his or her own special ability as well as different stats that can help tip you towards what play style might work best. A captain with a low scouting ability, for example, will probably struggle at piracy, as succeeding a scouting roll is necessary to find merchants to raid. After choosing your captain, you’ll select one of the two types of starting ships and then you’ll be ready to set sail!
As the name of the game implies, there are two clear paths to victory in this game. You can earn glory points as a merchant by buying goods in one port and selling them in a port where that good is in-demand, or as a pirate by plundering 12+ gold off an NPC merchant in a raid. These two roles tend to be mutually exclusive, as earning a bounty will close off ports to you and make life as a merchant difficult. At least up front, playing as a pirate is more lucrative, but comes with real downsides. With each merchant raid, you receive a bounty from that merchant’s sovereign nation, causing NPC naval ships to pursue you, and making you a target for other players. You also tend to close yourself off to most missions, as many employers will not hire you if you have a bounty.
As a merchant, you’ll have to watch out for NPC pirates, but you’re really focused on one thing, making those doubloons. I’ve found that while being a merchant is less flashy than pirating, you have a real chance of beating the pirates out just by slowly amassing your fortune. Whenever you buy from port, finding multiples of items gives you a discount, so by buying in bulk you can always make a profit whether you’re selling in-demand items or not. You also aren’t having to repair your ship as often as pirates which gives you a real edge in accumulating wealth. Keep in mind that for each 10 gold you stash in your home port, you get a victory point that stays hidden from the table. Games often end with one player revealing their stash for a come-from-behind win.
Now while these are the two obvious routes to victory, the game is very open-ended, and as I’ve played I’ve found several other, less obvious ways to play. First up is what I like to call the bounty hunter! This playstyle works best in four-player games, as player pirates make a much better target than NPCs, although it will probably also earn you their ire. If you’re able to defeat an opponent in crew combat you get their gold, their cargo, their glory cards, any rumors, their special weapons, any specialists, and their ship, in addition to any bounties they have on their head. Your goal is, of course, to hunt pirates, plundering their ships and collecting their bounties. This method can be extremely effective by picking off weakened players fresh out of a merchant raid with lots of gold on board and lots of damage to their ship.
Another role is the treasure hunter—this player takes every mission and every rumor possible (which works best with one of the captains that allows you to take on multiple missions or rumors at once). For each mission you complete and every rumor you prove true you get a glory point in addition to whatever rewards or treasures it pays out.
Of course, most games you won’t stick to just one role, but will opportunistically do whatever’s best at the time. Merchants and Marauders has a high potential for risk and reward, you might leave your captain out at sea and vulnerable at end of turn to grab that extra merchant raid or get to the other side of the map to complete a transport mission. You might decide you don’t want to just buy a new ship, but want to grab the biggest one in the fleet, Jack Sparrow style. However you decide to play, you’ll be fighting through storms, warring fleets, and other players to do it. Merchants and Marauders is one of the few board games I’ve played that really feels open-world and this review only scratches the surface on how you can play.
I would like to warn that this game is not necessarily for the faint of heart, as games often take three hours minimum, and the sheer amount of rules and the interactions in the game can be overwhelming (each player is given a 12” x 12” double sided cheat-sheet, which is either a good thing or a horrifying thing, depending on your perspective). However, gameplay is fairly intuitive once you get the hang of it, and the possibilities in each game are nearly endless.
So if you have a good crew and want to brave the high seas, I can’t recommend this game enough. Pick it up for your next game night today!