Hey, blog! Remember me? Yeah, it’s James. I know, I know, it’s been a while. What’s that? No, doesn’t ring a bell. Letters to the Creature? I’d never cheat on you with another blog. Ahem. But anyway, look, I’m back now! It’s been a busy year or two, but things are settling down now, and I’ve got all sorts of ideas for articles. Here’s a cracker, for starters.
The other day, my good buddy Nick sent me a tweet in response to an article I posted, asking me (on a bit of a tangent) what my top ten board games are. Well, blimey. That’s like asking a proud parent to name his ten favourite children. I put a bit of thought into it, had a look at how I’d rated things on boardgamegeek, and came up with a rough list of ten games I love. Nick pointed out that he’d only heard of about half of them, and in a rush of euphoria at the thought of introducing things I love to someone new, I did two things:
- I immediately invited Nick around for dinner and a board game;
- I decided to revive the blog with a series about my ten favourite games, and why I love them.
So here we are! I’m going to start at number 10 and work my way up the list. First up though, I’m going to get the list written on the screen so it’s set in stone. Ish. For now. I totally reserve the right to change my mind, re-order things and add games I forgot I love if I’m reminded at any point. And if you saw the original tweets, you’ll notice I’ve already changed my mind a bit! But here we go, without further nonsense, my top ten games at the minute…
10) Merchants & Marauders
8) Space Alert
7) Terra Mystica
4) Space Hulk
2) Galaxy Trucker
1) Pandemic Legacy
Eagle-eyed readers will spot that Netrunner is technically a card game rather than a board game, but I love it enough to overlook this technicality and include it. I only hope you can find it in your hearts to do the same.
Anyway, on with number ten. Here it is.
Merchants & Marauders (Z-Man Games, 2010, Kasper Aagaard & Christian Marcussen)
Have a look at that box cover. Go on, get a really good look at it. I’ll give you a moment to drink it all in.
You done? Right.
That salty sea-dog is the best advert this game could have. Look at the glee on his face. I almost wrote ‘malicious glee’, but that’s not quite right, is it? It’s more like exhilaration. There is a man who utterly adores what he does, scurvy and weevils be damned. He’s seen a ship on the horizon, a potential target for a raid. He’s not looking relieved. This isn’t someone who needs to steal to survive, or who is holding out for hope. No, this guy is just excited because he knows he might get to swing from the rigging, discharge a pistol at short range and maybe lob a bomb or two. He loves being a pirate for the simple reason that it’s bloody good fun.
And that, in a nutshell, is my experience of Merchants & Marauders.
It’s not a perfect game, by any means. In a lot of ways it creaks and groans like a galleon anchored near a reef in the dead of night. There can be a lot of downtime between turns, especially if someone is feeling indecisive. Then, when your turn does roll around, you might end up just leaving one port and sailing into another, without the chance to actually do anything once you get there. The game has a very heavy luck element, and there are times when it feels like everything’s going against you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Oh, and you have to be really, really careful about who you’re playing with, because this game is a potential friendship breaker.
Before I tell you why, let’s take a little step back and get some context. Merchants & Marauders is a game of trading and piracy around the Mediterranean in what I assume is roughly the mid 18th Century. It’s designed for between two and four players, but in our experience three is the sweet spot – two is a bit flimsy, and four slows to a crawl. Each player assumes the role of a captain (drawn from a characterfully illustrated deck), starting out with nothing but a small vessel, a handful of gold and a frankly delightful chest to stash your riches in.
Your choice of vessel is an important one, because (along with your captain’s attributes) it will determine your intended route to victory, and the shape of your game. Do you go for the slow but spacious flute, or the swift and deadly sloop? Pick the former and your game will revolve around seeking out rare goods and selling them to colonies where the demand is high, earning heaps of gold and staying firmly out of trouble. Pick the latter and you’re in for a life of piracy, raiding NPC merchant vessels and other players alike.
Yeah, other players. See where this is going?
The game begins with a tense moment, as each player hides their ship of choice in their hand and everyone reveals them at the same time. This is utterly vital to the flow of the game; if everyone chooses the slow and steady merchant route, gameplay is going to be all about outmanoeuvring each other and cornering the market. If everyone chooses to be a filthy marauder, the game will be cut-throat in entirely more literal sense, with players leaping at each other’s throats and racking up bounties faster than a canteen worker restocking a vending machine. Of course, the most interesting part is when you get a mix. A game of two traders and a single pirate is utterly electric, with each player trying to outpace the marauding swine, hiding behind naval patrols or doing their best to nudge the other non-combatant into their path. Meanwhile, the third player will be zipping around from port to port, picking off NPCs to steal cargo and selling it for just enough gold to upgrade their cannons, or buy some chained shot so their quarry can’t flee.
The thing is, trading is the sensible route to victory. It nets good profits, and if you take advantage of scarcity of resources, you can be on your way to a win in very short order.
All it takes is one engagement with a pirate, and you can lose it all. And conversely, while being a pirate is a much riskier path, all it takes is that one lucky combat, and you might steal what you can’t afford without spending a single crown.
See, combat in Merchants & Marauders is horrible. It’s agonising. When two ships clash on the open water, the rules are weighted towards a single outcome: one will be left standing, and the other will either be walking the plank or going down with the ship. It is brutal. Yeah, you can try to escape, but by the time you realise it’s a good idea, it’s almost certainly too late. You’ll watch as the dice go against you, and your ship is chewed to pieces by short-range cannon fire. Then they’ll board you, and they’ll slaughter your crew, slay your captain and capture the ship you’ve spent the last hour carefully upgrading. You keep your stashed gold, but you get a new captain and start again with nothing but a small vessel and a handful of gold. This stings when you lose to an NPC (especially if you foolishly went up against a naval Man o’ War in the hope of capturing it and becoming the terror of the high seas), but that is nothing compared to what happens when you lose a combat to one of your friends. Here’s what happens.
Have you just killed my captain?
Oh, god. But… I was on my way home to my stash! I’ve got a full hold! I’ve got a competent crew for the first time ever!
Mm. About that.
SOPHIE REACHES ACROSS THE TABLE LIKE A VICTORIOUS POKER PLAYER, GATHERING UP EVERYTHING IN FRONT OF JAMES
I’ll be taking your galleon. Ooh, nice paintwork. And are these new hammocks? Looks like this specialist gunner is happy to join my crew.
Oh, wow! How much gold have you got in here? Awesome.
Actually, you know what? On second thoughts, I’m just gonna take the gold and the crew, and scuttle your ship, because… effort, you know?
I am going to take this very well and not get at all upset, acting beyond reproach in an entirely realistic manner that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m writing this.
Remember what I said about being careful who you play this with? And how this game is a potential friendship breaker? This is what I mean. Never have I seen a game where you can be so deliberately petty and vindictive towards your fellow players. Nothing stings like watching another player not only take your floating pride and joy from in front of you, but stripping it for parts because they decide they like their ship better. You need to play this game with people who don’t mind a bit of rough-and-tumble, a bit of backstabbing, a bit of revenge.
There’s so much more I could say about this game, but I think I can sum it all up by saying that, every time we’ve got this to the table, I’ve come away from it with the feeling that I’ve just spent a couple of hours knee-deep in theme and narrative, cruising around the Caribbean and trying to make a name for myself. Whether I win or lose, there’s a definite joy in just playing the game and seeing what happens turn by turn. Interestingly, it fills a very similar niche to Firefly: The Game in this regard, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the former was a bit of an influence on the design of the latter. In that game, you also take on the role of a captain and command a ship, zooming from place to place earning money where you can. I like them both, but Merchants pips Firefly by giving players a lot more freedom to do what they want and being a little bit less reliant on blind luck.
There we go, then. Game number ten on my top ten board games. I want to play it now! If I do, I might get some photos and see if I can do a follow-up post.
If you’ve played the game, or if it sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, why not let us know in the comments, or tweet me at @lagoon83?
See you next time!