Who reigns supreme as the king of all pirate-themed board games? Ryan looks at how Merchants & Marauders stacks up against every pretender to the throne that has usurped its way into his collection. But in the end, there can be only one.
Merchants & Marauders is a pirate-themed board game of adventure and combat on the high seas. Yarr! It’s Captain Ryan from Nights Around a Table. Let’s Find the Fun!
Now at the time of my recording this, i didn’t actually have a How to Play Merchants & Marauders video up, but i’m working on it! And if you’re watching this at a time when it’s been posted and it’s ready, check the top of the video if you’re watching this on YouTube, and i’ll throw a link up there. You can go watch it. i’m not going to spend time explaining how to play the game, so i kind of rely on you already knowing that. Even if you don’t, hopefully you’ll pick up how this game goes in context while i talk.
Fun: freeeedommm! This is what we call an “open sandbox game,” which means that the game has a bunch of rules and systems that govern what you can do in it, and then you’re just left to float around and do the things within those systems. You have complete control over where you go and what you do, and sort of the way that you seek your fortune. There are a bunch of different ways to rack up points, and you can go get points in whatever fashion or order you choose. i really really like that – a game that just gives you a big map and says “go exploring!” And there are just a handful of games that i can name that have that same sort of sandbox system to them: Western Legends is one of them, if you want kind of, like, a frontier west kind of theme to a sandbox game. And Xia… or Zayah… or Chia(?) is the other one, which is a sci-fi take on the same concept. If you ask me, i don’t think there are nearly enough open world sandbox board games for us to play. Tons more in the video game world. It’s really taken off in the past decade, but i’d want to see more coming to my table. Now this can also be a con depending on the kind of player you are. Some players just feel a little bit more comfy if they have sort of training wheels on, or… or just a better sense of how to move through the game and how to manipulate systems in order to gain points and beat their competitors. They don’t do so well when they’re just unfettered and left to their own devices. Me? That’s the kind of fellow i am, that’s the kind of player i am, and i really value that in a board game. Not fun: this is the kind of game that we say has “high player interaction,” which means you really get in each other’s business. If you don’t like the idea of a game where your fellow players, and even non-player characters, could be hunting your ship down and trying to sink you, this just isn’t the game for you. You have to be mean! You have to sink ships, and you have to accept getting sunk. And the nice thing about the game is that design-wise, they made it so that there’s no player elimination. So when you get sunk, you’re not out of the game for the next three hours. There’s a way to recoup stuff and hang on to your stashed gold and the glory points that you’ve earned, which are the things that count towards winning the game, and you can start over again. So you kind of gotta be okay with “Okay, if i’m going to play a merchant, i’m like a sea piñata, and the other players can come in and hit me, and my whole game is to evade them and get through the ocean and sell my stuff and earn my points without getting blown away.” And if you play a pirate, you have to play mean. You have to seek out ships and sink them. And i’ve played a bunch of games with certain people – mostly my family – and they just don’t like kicking over each other’s sand castles. They just don’t like that kind of style of game. So if it’s not your bag, it’s not your bag. Don’t worry about it. Lots of other stuff to play. Fun: the artwork is GORGEOUS! You know me: i’m a bit of an art snob when it comes to board games, and there is nothing to fault here. It’s absolutely, mind-numbingly fantastic looking, from the artwork on the front of the box that just pops right out and grips you, to the beautiful rendition of the azure coloured seas surrounding the Caribbean islands. i’ve said it before and i’ll say it again: if i’m going to be sitting at the table staring at a board game for hours upon hours… and with this game, you’ll be spending that kind of time… i want to look at something that’s pretty! Merchants & Marauders is PRETTY. i like the artwork so much in this game that i’m actually kind of bummed out that there’s not more of it. They went with a small format card in the game – you don’t get the normal sized cards – and because of that, a lot of the text and the instructions on the card are crammed into a small space, and what you’re missing are – you know – big beautiful pieces of artwork to accompany that that text. It would make for a much more expensive production, but i would love to see cards that have, like, a really nicely rendered picture of a thing or a setting on the top to make this already thematic game even more thematic. Maybe something closer to Lost Ruins of Arnak? But as it stands with the artwork that already exists in the game, i can’t fault it. i can’t complain. It’s… it’s luscious. Not Fun: there’s a little bit of a ux/ui problem. Your captain card has four symbols along the bottom of it. They are a ship’s wheel, a cutlass, a spyglass, and a treasure chest, and those represent different skills, and depending on what you’re trying to do in the game, you throw some dice, and if you have a roll of five or six, which are replaced by a skull n’ crossbones, then you get a success and you get to do the thing. The icons represent seamanship… scouting… influence… and leadership… and it was really hard to draw those four words to mind because, like, that’s not easy to remember. It’s not like you got a picture of a skull, and that means “skull.” So you gotta remember the “cutlass” is “leadership.” And then, like, worse… through the instruction book, it uses the words “leadership” and “influence” without, for some bizarre reason, without using the icons that those words represent! So it’s… it’s a hard game to learn how to play in the rulebook, because i don’t know… they were lazy, or they didn’t think about that, or they thought that it was obvious that a treasure chest meant “influence.” i dunno. Not Fun: randomness. Almost everything that you do in this game, especially combat, comes down to multiple dice rolls, and you roll the dice according to the number in that skill that i mentioned across the bottom of your captain’s card. …i just noticed this eye patch is difficult because whenever i smile, my cheek pushes it right up and off my eye. i’d make a lousy pirate. Yarr! It’s Captain Depth Perception. …What was i even talking about? Oh yeah. Randomness. So some people really don’t like randomness in their games. i think that there are degrees of randomness, but this one involves… it does involve a whole lot of rolling dice. Fun: sure there’s randomness, like i think there needs to be, but at least there are various ways to mitigate that randomness. And if you know my past reviews of games, you know that i don’t mind when there’s randomness thrown into the game, as long as there are kind of ways that you can work around it. So with Merchants & Marauders, you can buy ship upgrades, and you can buy special weapons, so that if a roll doesn’t go your way, as long as you plan for it ahead of time, you can just flip one of those weapons, or get rid of a token, and just say “Euh..” you know, “Let me try that again,” or “Let me doctor some of these dice,” or “Just give me another… give me another shot at it. i spent the money, i’ve come prepared like a good pirate boy scout should… don’t… don’t sink my ship just yet.” Not Fun: the game has a down time issue. Quite a severe one, i would say. You have three action slots ,and three different actions you can take: you can move, you can scout for another ship to fight, or you can do port activities. You think “Well, that’s pretty simple – you know – what’s the big deal with that?” Well, the port activities are split into – i think – like, 10 sub activities that you can all take all within the umbrella of your port action, and even some of those, like visiting the shipyard, have multiple things… so you can buy a ship, or you can repair a sh… it… there’s… all kinds. It’s just a big tree of stuff that you can do all on that one action. So when you’re playing and people don’t have the firmest grasp of the game, it can be really like “Okay, i’m going to take a port action,” and everyone’s like “Oh my God. Oh. Set your watches. i’m gonna go… i’m gonna have a snack. i’m gonna go have some cheese, and i’m going to milk the cow and curdle the milk, because i got time.” So it’s just kind of lumpy and chunky and cumbersome, and it’s not the best design, because it’s not even designed so that the person doing their port things can do that while other people do other stuff, you know what i mean? Like, we have to wait for the person to to finish port activities. Fun: the theme!! This is almost my entire pro for this game. i almost don’t need to mention anything else, because the theme is so wet and juicy… the game is just slathered in it. It drips on every single card. This is the mo… i guarantee you, this is the most piratey pirate board game experience you will ever have. Nothing in the market beats this game, and i will stand by those words until i die. Nothing even comes close to this game. It is so theme drenched. And forget pirates… i think it’s hard for ANY board game out there to come close to what this game has accomplished with its integration of theme. So you can play as a pirate. You can play as a merchant. That’s very thematic. That was a golden age of piracy kind of thing. If you play as a pirate, you can sink the merchants and steal all their stuff. If you’re playing as a merchant, you have to deke out and evade the pirates in order to sell your goods and keep your skin. That is all very thematic. There are different navy ships that get introduced to the board, and they’re loyal to different countries. Very thematic. If you’re a pirate, you can sink those navy ships. Very thematic. But if you do go after them, you get bounties on your head from those countries, and then you can’t enter ports that those countries kind of govern or control or hold sway over. Extremely thematic. All the different sea zones have ports, except for the one in the very center of the board, and all of the sea zones have little extra rule-breaky things about them. So for example, in Bridgetown, if you’re captaining one of the bigger ships and you try to get into the narrow, shallow port of Bridgetown, which was built on a swamp historically, you have to do a saving throw, or else that shallow port will do damage to your big ship. Thematic! And that’s just sort of, like, the top level rules of the game. When you dig deeper and you get into the events and the missions and the rumours, that’s when you realize that every single pirate trope or story element they could have possibly stolen from Robert Louis Stevenson, or any pirate movie that you’ve ever seen is in this game! You can romance the governor’s daughter. You can go and find a guy who is marooned and find his buried treasure and fight his crew to steal it from him. You can go after legendary ships that are filled with booty. You can smuggle goods around to the different islands. Like, every piratey thing that you can think of to do is in this game. It’s incredible! And while you’re doing it, of course, you’re hoping you won’t get sunk by a non-player pirate or hunted down by the non-player navy sea police. It just gives you so many choices and so many interesting threads to pull to tease out story and theme, and just really feel like… not like you’re there, but you’re definitely in the world of the golden age of piracy, whether it’s based on historical fact or whether it’s the stuff of fiction, it blends together and it just… it just oozes from the board, if that makes any sense? If you know me, you know i’m a theme guy, and what i don’t really go for are very tightly designed, interesting, mathematically accurate, fair, even-handed games where the theme is, like, just tacked on with some pushpins, you know? And if you were to just pull out those pushpins, you could just… you could just tack on any other theme to that game, and it wouldn’t really matter. Now it’s about trolls. Oh – boop! Now it’s about …South African apartheid. Or now it’s about… cupcakes! Nyah! Like, it doesn’t matter! With this game, with Merchants & Marauders, if you remove the theme, you remove the game. And i think that’s the true test of whether a game has integrated its theme faithfully and honestly enough. Not Fun: it’s not an easy game to learn how to play. There… it’s a… it’s a thick rulebook, very text heavy, not a lot of picture examples, and there are just a lot of curb cases. And if you do this and the other guy does this, unless the other guy does this first, and then you can counter with this, and this… there’s just a lot of… of intricacies especially when it comes to combat. Combat is not easy to wrap your head around. There are three different things that you can choose to do in combat, but if it’s the first round you can only do one of those three things. And with each of those things you can do in combat – you can shoot, you can board, or you can flee – you have to win the dice roll. You got to get more successes than the other person… except in the case of shoot, because you can either tie the other person and shoot as many cannons as you got successes, or even if you lose that roll, you get to shoot as many cannons as you got successes, Not so with board. You have to win that roll in order to board the other player, and if they chose to shoot, they can still shoot you and take off chunks of your ship and potentially sink you before you get a chance to board. And if you decide to flee, you have to not only win the roll, but the other person has to make zero successes. So, you know, it’s… it’s conditional based on every single little thing that you can try to do in combat. They made an expansion to this game, and they thought, you know, “Yeah, it is a little bit complex. We should give people a player guide… a little – you know – cheat sheet, so they can refer to it and know everything that’s going on in the game.” This, my friends, is the “cheat sheet.” Look at that. This is a little… i mean, this takes up more room on the table than your actual player board does! And not only that, it’s double-sided! So, i mean… and everybody gets one! they made enough for all the players. That… you know, it’s a little bit… it’s a little bit crazy. And it’s definitely not to all tastes. The expansion is nice because they did make a few quality of life improvements to the game – really simple ones, like giving you coloured flags to place on your home port, so you can always easily, at a glance remember where your captain comes from so that you know where to go to stash your gold. That’s the only place in the game that you can stash your money. Or they give you a little black flag and a brown flag so that when the event card announces that a new navy ship or a new pirate ship is coming out on the board, it doesn’t happen until the end of the turn, and it’s easy to forget – “Oh, yeah – well, we gotta put the ship out there.” So they give you these little flags that you can put on the board to remember where on the board those non-player ships appear. The board can get a little bit crowded, and you’re supposed to put these mission cards on the sea zones where the missions are, that you can go claim. But it’s a game a little bit like Scythe, where there’s so many pieces in a single section of the board, it can crowd up, and you miss what’s actually printed on that section of the board. So they introduced a couple of little numbered tokens. Now you can keep the missions off the board and put the numbered tokens on there, and just it’s a small token on the sea zone so that you know which mission it’s associated with. You know, so it’s little things like that, little things to make the going a little bit easier, so i like a bunch of what they did in the expansion. If that helps and you’re a little nervous about a couple of things that you heard about the game, yeah – pick up the base game and the expansion. It will not fix the complexity of combat, it won’t adjust the amount of randomness that’s in the game… it adds a whole lot more stuff to the game, but if you like Merchants & Marauders, you’re going to have a good time with the expansion, too. So let’s Find the Fun in Merchants & Marauders, where “fun” is represented by… Merchants & Marauders, and “Not Fun” is represented by… every other pirate game in my collection! (Get in there.) Merchants & Marauders is fun! The Scales of Funstice have spoken! Yeah, despite its flaws – and it IS a flawed game… i’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that it’s mechanically perfect, because it isn’t… it has some rough edges – despite those flaws, Merchants & Marauders is fun. It’s just a fun experience. And now normally this is where the video would end. i’d say a couple of parting words about the game, i’d defend my position, and then you’d be off to either go play it, or ignore me ,or yell at me in the comments, or whatever you want to do. We’re not going to do that here. This video is not complete unless i illustrate for you how every other pirate board game i’ve played or collected falls far short of the glory of Merchants & Marauders. And i hope in doing this, i can fully convey to you how, while this isn’t a perfect game, it is the perfect pirate game. It’s the only pirate board game on the market that exists today that does everything it should, and nothing even approaches second place. And in fact, what’s really interesting to me is that sure – there are a bunch of game mechanics in Merchants & Marauders. Every other pirate board game that i’ve played seems to be a fragment of Merchants & Marauders. So it takes a piece of Merchants & Marauders, and that’s the entire game. But it’s just like… like a vertical slice of Merchants & Marauders. It’s not the whole experience. So let me give you an example: Pirate’s Cove. Pirate’s Cove has the player board from Merchants & Marauders that represents your ship, and you’ve got little rings that track the stats on the different areas of your ship, just like Merchants & Marauders. It’s got a map with an archipelago of different islands that you can visit, just like Merchants & Marauders, but what’s missing is the freedom. Almost everything you do boils down to just a random dice roll, and unlike in Merchants & Marauders where you can mitigate those dice rolls, you’re kind of beholden to them in Pirate’s Cove. There’s no rumours, there’s no missions, so there’s none of that extra flavour that makes the game super piratey. And while it looks nice, it’s just kind of really boring and dull. It’s… it’s just not a really good game. It feels a bit like Snakes and Ladders with a pirate hat on. Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot and Pirates of the 7 Seas both have the exact same combat system in them. That’s where you chuck dice or cubes into the play area, and you sort of have to measure the distance that they land apart from each other and figure out based on that who shot who and who gets sunk. So it’s a little bit like… like Dungeon Drop, if you’ve ever played that game. They both have beautiful cartoon illustration, which i really like, especially in a pirate game. Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot has, i think, a little bit more going on with commodity trade in it than Pirates of the 7 Seas does, but they’re.. they’re very similar games. There’s no real reason to own both, or… dare i say… either. If you’re going to own a board game themed around pirates… make it Merchants & Marauders! Black Fleet. Great game. Love the artwork. It’s pirate themed, and it feels like a pirate themed game. You’ve got a beautiful map with islands on it and beautiful blue ocean, and you’re sailing around with your little ship, and there are non-player enemy ships that you have to avoid, or integrate into your strategy. It’s pick up and deliver, so you’re grabbing stuff from port and delivering it at another port, so it’s got that aspect of Merchants & Marauders. That’s kind of it. Like if you were to strip away the event cards, the mission cards, and the rumour cards, and dramatically simplify the combat… so you see what i mean? It’s just, like… it’s like a shade. It’s a… it’s a… it’s a pale piece of Merchants & Marauders. Really nicely produced, great to look at, nicely done, and you can definitely get it played in a shorter amount of time than you can play Merchants & Marauders, but if you’re gonna play a pirate themed board game, play Merchants & Marauders! Jamaica. Now for a guy who really likes artwork in a board game, i mean, this won awards. It’s absolutely eye-popping to look at. It deserved every single one of those awards. But i’m gonna go out on a limb and say… it’s not a pirate game. It’s a game…? It’s a race around a circle. You’re using cards to get your pawn further than other people’s pawns. But it could be racing turtles. It could be racing drones. It could be anything that races around in a circle. It doesn’t… there’s nothing piratey about Jamaica, except for that artwork. And i thought i could fix that by getting the expansion… throw good money after bad, Ryan. Why not? So i got Jamaica: the Crew because, you know, now you can hire different crew members, and there’s more pirate artwork, and they’re looking all piratey, and depending on kind of what role they play, they can help you in the race. You got a little wooden bottle of rum that you’re moving around the… the recruitment board. That’s cool. But then it was just like Jamaica, with a couple of extra mechanics. And it still… i mean, it didn’t… it didn’t make the game particularly more piratey. It just added more pirate paint layers – more pirate pastiche onto the existing game, which… which, for me, isn’t enough. Jamaica doesn’t pass the pirate smell test. It is not piratey enough. But you know what is? Merchants & M… Dark Seas. Dark Seas is weird. i think Dark Seas was the very first rondel game i ever played, without even knowing what a rondel was. Again, they… they went with cartoony artwork for their pirate game, which makes sense. i think everybody’s kind of trading on this Secret of Monkey island thing, where everything has to be bright and colourful and goofy and cartoony looking when you’re doing a pirate thing, and that’s fine. i don’t mind that. i just didn’t really like Dark Seas. i didn’t like some of the artwork. i thought some of the female characters kind of looked like Bratz dolls, like they were… they were hard to look at. And it was ultimately just a very forgettable experience. i mean, sorry AEG. i love you guys, but this one fell flat for me. Hey… you know what pirate game didn’t fall flat? M… Chrono Corsairs. You may have seen the review that i did of this one with Rahdo. i don’t think either of us were super impressed by it. Like Jamaica, it’s a game that they just kind of, like, painted pirates on top of. There’s very little piratey stuff. Your your pawns look like pirates. It takes place on an island… and that’s about the extent of it! It has a killer elevator pitch, though: time traveling pirates in a time storm. That sounds really cool. Unfortunately, it’s not. Piratoons. Again it’s another pirate themed game with cartoon artwork. You have the ship player boards, just like you do in Merchants & Marauders and in Pirate’s Cove, and you’re sort of putting them together in a Tertis-y kind of way…? i barely even remember. i was not compelled to play this game at all when we finished. i just played it, and i was like “Hmm.. yeah. It was a game.” It didn’t fire me up. Nothing to write home about. Piña Pirata. The artwork in this looked really cool. Cheryl got it for me for Christmas, i think, one year. After buying all these other pirate games and finding them so underwhelming, i didn’t even open this one! i just returned it to the store and got something else. As usual, i kind of checked the ranking on BoardGameGeek. Nobody seemed too thrilled about it either, so i didn’t feel awful about that decision. Liar’s Dice. This isn’t a game that i went out and purchased, though you can. This was a game that pirates actually played, and you can see them playing it in one of the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies. You don’t need to buy this game. If you want to play liar’s dice, you just go buy a bunch of dice. And it IS a fun time to play with your family and friends who aren’t super into board games. There’s not a whole lot of rules. It’s a bluffing game, easy to play. It’s a drinking game, if you’re into that. Gambling game, if you’re into that. It’s probably a whoring and a murder game, if you’re into those things. This is why pirates played it. And it’s fine, but it’s not like… it’s not pirate… pirate themed. It’s, like, an activity that pirates actually did. So, like, if we’re going to throw liars dice in there, we might as well throw rigging in there. i just include it because we’re talking about pirate games. Before you say it, i know a few of you are going to ask, you’re going to say “Oh Ryan, you – i mean – you say Merchants & Marauders is the best pirate board game out there because you haven’t played (da da da da da),” so to cross them off the list: no, i have not played Cartagena, no i haven’t played Libertalia, no i haven’t played Treasure Island… and i think that kind of sums up all of the higher profile pirate games i can think of… or the ones that i see in the store all the time. Of course, there are a million others. The one game that i HAVE played… i said nobody comes even close to second. Well, that was a bit of a lie. The one pirate themed board game that i have played that does approach second… i don’t know if i would put it… i don’t know how close to first i would put it – i think you know which game i think is first – is Dead Reckoning. This game at the time of this shooting isn’t out yet, but they commissioned me to do a video for the Kickstarter preview. It took us a while to play. That’s because it was a prototype, so i’m not too sure how long it would actually take to play in the wild, and – you know – when the thing’s all kind of polished off and sent out to the backers. Though i did play it with the designer and with Paul Grogan. i think it took us about four or five hours to play it on the live stream too, so it was a… it overstayed its welcome a little bit, for sure. But it had a couple of features that Merchants & Marauders doesn’t have, surprisingly. It had a modular board, so the… the sea changes up every single time you play the game, which… which is cool, but that was kind of at the cost of having Merchants & Marauders’ really pretty board. You know – the board in Dead Reckoning is now, just kind of, like, a grid. So it didn’t look quite as nice, i don’t think. But it still has you playing a boat, and you can go and you can bury your gold on different islands, and you can ferry things across to the different islands, and you can attack and be attacked and all that stuff is super piratey and fun. It also has a list of goals along one side of the board – if you’ve played Scythe, this is very familiar to you – and if you’ve played Merchants & Marauders, that’s kind of like an improvement that the game could actually use – whenever you get points in those different categories, you get markers in your colour up there, and then as soon as there’s a certain number of markers, that’s what ends the game – and that’s… fine. And it has sort of a deck building and card crafting element that’s kind of novel that you see in John D. Clair’s other game, Mystic fail that’s neat. i’m not… i’m not accusing John D. of, uh… “paying homage” to Merchants & Marauders, but all i gotta say is that i’m not a thousand percent convinced that his game, Dead Reckoning, could have existed without Merchants & Marauders coming 10-12 years before it. Does that make sense? You know how they say in media that one thing owes a lot to another? Well, i think it’s fair to say that Dead Reckoning owes a lot to Merchants & Marauders. They’re both great games, and i haven’t really looked into what the expansion content brings to Dead Reckoning, but i don’t think that out of the box, you get all the really cool piratey thematic stuff that you get out of Merchants & Marauders with your base purchase. So i think just… just based on that, if you love pirates, and you want to play a pirate themed board game that has piratey pirates out the piratey wazoo, Merchants & Marauders is still my pick over Dead Reckoning… though i did quite like Dead Reckoning. So… i talk a lot. i guess what i’ll say just to sum it all up is that if you want a master class in the integration of theme and mechanics, and mechanics that kind of – though they may be hard to remember, and you have to check a gigantic reference sheet – they make sense thematically, and are in service of the theme… if you want to play a theme first game, rather than a lot of these euro games, which are mechanics first, theme later – theme tacked on… if you want to play a theme first game where everything else takes backseat to making you feel like you’re captaining a ship through golden age of piracy Caribbean Sea, then Piratoons is the game for you. Oh God, no! i mean Merchants & Marauders! Thank you for letting me ramble on about one of my absolute favourite games! If you like this kind of content and you want to see more of it, please hit three buttons: like, subscribe, and the bell to get notifications when i got new stuff. And if you REALLY like this content, toss me a doubloon or two over at Patreon. We’ve got lots of fun perks going on there. If you watch the credits in the end of this video, you’ll see the names of my Patreon backers fly by. You could be one of those names! Make your indelible mark on history by throwing me some money, instead of… stabbing somebody on a boat. Thank you for watching this one. i’ll catch you next time we Find the Fun! Did you just watch that whole thing? Oh – hey! To 100% this video, click the badge to subscribe, then click the bell to get notifications when i’ve got new stuff! [Music – Board Game Boogie by Ryan Henson Creighton]
Get Your Own Copy of Merchants & Marauders
Are you pirate enough to handle this game? If you think you’ve got the marauder mettle, grab a copy using the Amazon link below. Your price remains the same, and i’ll receive a small share of the booty commission for making the recommendation!