There’s no mistaking it, pirates are just fun. Whether we get to do our best impression, giggling about stealing booty, or just buccaneering our way through adventure; it’s fun to be a pirate. The down side, though, is that game publishers know this. And all too often, they’ll stick a fun pirate them on a game with mechanics that are a pile of poop deck. Finding a good pirate game can be tricky. But there’s one that is simply heads and shoulders above the rest: Merchants and Marauders.
The players start with a small ship in a Caribbean port. From there, they can do pretty much whatever they want. True to the title, players can act as merchants, buying and selling for profit. Or, they can become freelance privateers, raiding other merchant vessels and plundering them for coin.
In game terms, the goal is to get to ten glory. But there are tons of ways to earn that glory. A successful raid or particularly profitable sale of goods is one way to go about it. As is hoarding your wealth. But you can also gain glory by investigating rumors, accepting and accomplishing missions, and even by obtaining a powerful frigate or galleon. Heck, in the right circumstances, you might be able to board and steal a Man-o-War – a country’s naval vessel.
The wide open design space allows the players to get into whatever trouble they want. Sometimes, it’s a race to make it to a certain mission and be the first to claim it. Other times, merchants look like they are about to get glory by safely selling goods. Of course, if another player is nearby, they might decide to attack and steal those goods for themselves!
Above all, the game has an absolutely piratey feel. It all takes place in the Caribbean and you move from port to port obtaining new ship improvements, chatting with the locals, and trying your best to either avoid the pirates or attack the merchants. The board feels alive with possibility. Not only does every port provide some sort of special powers for ships there (or in the neighboring sea area), but there is an event deck that flips a card each turn. This might declare two nations to be at war, it might introduce or move non-player pirates, or it might have other effects as the populace of the isles respond to the threat of piracy.
And Merchants and Marauders isn’t just a pirate dressing on top of a boring game. It is mechanically solid and interesting. Each player can decide for themselves whether they’d like to pursue piracy or commerce (or both). And each is balanced. Merchants rely a bit on luck as they find out what goods are being sold in which towns. Similarly, pirates are never quite sure what a merchant vessel is holding and whether they will gain enough to achieve the glory they so desperately seek.
Despite allowing everyone do essentially what they want, there is no path that is categorically stronger or better at achieving glory. If you want to stick to the relative safety of ports, you can do that. If you want to eschew selling and instead investigate the rumors of various towns, that’s fine. Whether you raid others or go on missions, you’ll have a ton of options. Of course, the most successful strategies tend to blend the best options as they become available. But it can all be done by player choice and preference.
Sometimes a game can give you so much choice, that you find yourself falling into a comfortable rut and doing the same thing each time. To combat that, Merchants and Marauders assigns every player a unique captain. You simply draw one for each player from the deck of captain cards. They have different stats that impact their ability to sail and fight. And they all have special abilities to be used and manipulated. This makes every game unique from the get-go. Sometimes you’ll get a captain who was clearly meant to pirate. Other times, you have a born merchant. And often, you’ll get someone who can play on either side of the fence as long as you commit to it. It’s a fabulous way to make players rethink favored strategies in every game.
Usually, when I hear about a pirate game, I lose interest. I’ve been burned too many times by terrible titles with piratey themes. But Merchants and Marauders is the salve to that salvo of awful titles. If you are looking for a genuinely good game filled with buccaneering goodness, then this is the one.
What are your favorite pirate games? Tell us about it in the comments.
All Image Credits: Z-Man Games