A while back, when Games Workshop released Dreadfleet, I was very interested in buying it since it was Warhammer and pirates rolled into one. Eventually, with the price tag on it, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t sure about finding somebody to play against, led me to not make the purchase.
A year (or two?) later, and I have finally decided to take the plunge and buy a ship-themed game. After reading through the rules from Z Man Games’ website, I decided to purchase Merchants & Marauders.
The packaging is nice for this game. I think that the pirate art on the cover is a little bit cheesy, but I guess it’s not all that bad. The internal storage for the game pieces is satisfactory. While it is nice that some plastic bags were included to put all of the pieces in once you punch them out, it is a little frustrating that the treasure chests have to be taken apart to store properly.
The game components are really nice, and there are lots of them. I think that the board is very pretty, and the miniatures for the various ships are nice, too. A couple of the sea zones can become extremely crowded during the course of the game with multiple ships, a mission, and the zone’s game text present, but this has rarely been an issue for me. One thing that would have been nice would have been if one set of the flags had similar backings for when you are randomizing the ‘At War’ nations. Everything else is pretty nice, though. I will note that my son was a little disappointed that the Galleon and Man-of-war use the same ship model.
The goal of the game is to acquire Glory points. The rules account for up to 10 Glory and it can be attained in various ways:
- Selling 3 or more “In Demand” goods at a port
- Obtaining 12 or more gold in a Merchant Raid
- Defeating another player or NPC (Non-Player Captain) in a naval battle
- Completing a Mission
- Finding a Rumor to be true
- Buying a Galleon/Frigate
- 1 glory point (up to half of the total points) for every 10 Gold that you have stashed (this is kept hidden from other players)
Whenever you gain a point of Glory, you also receive a Glory card. These have various abilities or actions in Naval Combat or Merchant Raids, or could possibly provide you with a Specialist to join your ship.
The board consists of 12 different regions, each (except for the Caribbean Sea) with a designated nationality and a special rule that affects actions in that port or sea zone.
Also worth mentioning is that each die in the game contains 1-4 and 2 skulls on it (replacing the 5 and 6). Any time a skull is rolled for a skill check, that is considered a success.
At the start of the game, each player receives their captain and 10 Gold. Which captain you start with largely affects your strategy for the rest of the game. Marauder captains rely more on the Scouting ability to be able to spot other ships. Other skills are good, too, but Scouting seems to be pretty important. I think that I am going to implement a house rule where the players get to draw 2 captains and pick which one that they want to use. The game allows for you to retire your captain to get a new one, but you lose an entire game turn to do so.
Each Captain has the following characteristics:
- Nationality – Primarily used for when your nation is At War
- Home Port – This determines where you start the game and also a port that you can always enter, even if you have bounties from your home nation
- Special Rule – These rules vary quite a bit. Some give you bonuses in ship combat, some give bonuses when trading, and others allow you to do various things better.
- Seamanship – Used in ship-to-ship combat, merchant raids, and other situations (like storms)
- Scouting – Used to spot other ships and occasionally for Missions or Rumors
- Leadership – Used for crew combat and to replenish your crew
- Influence – Used primarily for Missions and Rumors
Each player then selects their starting ship, either a Sloop or a Flute. Generally, you choose the Sloop for a life of marauding or the Flute for lots of trading.
Each turn consists of the following:
- Draw an Event card
- Each Player takes 3 actions
Draw an Event card
Each turn is started by drawing an Event card. The cards have various effects but generally fall under the following categories:
- Storms – Anybody starting their turn at sea loses an action and those not ending in the turn in port take damage that can be reduced by successful Seamanship rolls
- NPC Ships – At the end of the turn, the ship for the specified nation or pirate is placed in the sea zone listed on the card. If the ship is already in use, it moves to the new location and once that captain is defeated, the previous one is returned to play. Each card represents a separate captain and has different skill values.
- War/Peace – If no nations are currently At War, then you draw which two are and replace their Frigates (if any) currently on the board with Man-of-Wars. Players of a Nationality At War cannot enter ports of the opposing nation and also may be hunted by their ships. If two nations are already At War when this is drawn, they settle their differences and the Man-of-Wars return to Frigates.
- Plague – This will prevent you from entering certain ports and cause crew damage to those in one of the ports at the start of the turn.
- Clemency – Players can pay to reduce the Bounties that they have accrued for the specified nations.
All of the cards, except the NPC Ship cards also have movement on them indicating which way three of the NPC ships move. This movement can be overridden if a player is nearby who has bounties or is At War with the NPC’s home country.
During a player’s turn, they can take any 3 actions of their choice.
Port Action – Port actions tend to be the most lengthy actions taken, because you have many different options at port. One port action allows the player to do any and all of the following:
- Sell Goods – The player can sell each of his goods for 3 gold each. If a Good is In Demand in this port, he instead receives 6 Gold for each of that Good. Then, the In Demand good for that port is changed to something else.
- Buy Goods – The player draws 6 cards, replacing any of them that are the current Good In Demand at that port. He can purchase any Goods at the base cost of 3 gold each. If there are multiple copies of a Good, its price is reduced by 1 gold for each duplicate, to a minimum of 1 gold each.
- Visit the Shipyard – At the Shipyard, you can repair your ship for 2 gold per point of damage suffered, buy ship modifications, or special weapons. Also, you can buy a new ship, with the Frigate or Galleon each costing 35 gold.
- Recruit Crew – Make a successful Leadership roll to replenish your Crew to its full capacity. If that fails, you have to pay 2 gold per Crew replenished.
- Claim a Mission – If a Mission is present in this port, it will specify what is needed to claim it. If you make a successful claim, you take the Mission and place it on your player board. A new mission is drawn and placed on the board. The Missions are quite varied. Sometimes you are sailing from one port to another or trying to track down an enemy ship or Pirate. Each player may only hold 1 Mission at a time.
- Acquire a Rumor – Pay 2 gold and make a successful Influence roll to obtain a Rumor. Rumors are fairly similar to Missions in what you do. Each player may only hold 1 Mission at a time
- Stash Gold/ Retrieve Gold from Stash – This can only be done at your Home port. Stashing gold keeps it safe from loss if your Captain happens to die. It also allows your gold to count towards your Glory points.
Movement – This is by far the quickest action to take. You simply move your boat from port to sea, from sea zone to sea zone, or into a port. Each move takes 1 action.
Cards – Some of the cards that you obtain require you to use an action to execute them. These effects will vary based upon the card being played.
Scout for Ships – You specify which type of ship that you are looking for and roll your Scouting ability. These are 2 main types of results for this based upon which type of ship that you scouted for.
- Merchant Raid – If a merchant was successfully scouted, you flip it over to see what nation it belongs to. You can then either raid that nation, raid the nation whose water it is present in, or let it go. Raiding the merchant allows you to plunder some gold and cargo, but can also damage your ship. It will also add a bounty for you from the aggrieved nation.
- NPC/Player Attack – You can also scout for other ships. When another ship is found, a Naval Combat ensues. These combats are much more involved than the Merchant Raids with another of the players controlling the attacked ship. Each player has a choice of 3 actions: Shoot (only option in the 1st round), Board, or Flee. After each player has declared their action, each player rolls on their Seamanship to determine who wins the Seamanship battle. Special Weapons (Chain Shot, Grapeshot, and Grappling Hooks) can be used to aid in these battles and some ship enhancements come in to play. If a player wins a battle after boarding or being boarded, they are allowed to plunder the other ship or even take it as their own. If you happen to defeat a player who has a bounty, you receive 5 gold per bounty from one nation where they are “wanted”.
Once NPCs have entered the board, they move around based upon the direction on the Event cards. NPCs can be scouted for, but they will also scout for pirate players or players whose nation is at war with them. If they succeed in scouting the player, a Naval Combat will ensue, as mentioned previously.
If your ship is sunk or you lose a battle after being boarded, your captain dies. When you die, you lose everything that you have, except for Glory points and any stashed gold. You then draw a new captain, and set up like the start of the game. This can be quite devastating and game changing if you had a ship loaded with gold/cargo.
I have had a lot of fun with this game, and have probably played about 10 games since purchasing it in mid-January. About half of those have been with my 6-year-old son, who grasps most of the concepts of the game. Some of the finer strategies of trading and ship combat are a bit more complicated for him to grasp. However, I have also played it with some guys at work and they also seem to enjoy it. The rules seem to be fairly easy to grasp.
I think that it is more fun to play as a marauder, but the merchant route is definitely something different (and viable) and can help appease the non-conflict type players. You probably do want to make sure that players can roll with the punches (or have some non-aggression pact), because there is nothing worse than having your decked out Frigate or Galleon taken out by a bold pirate in his Sloop.
I am very happy with my purchase of this product and expect to play many more games of it this year.