Monday, April 22, 2013

Merchant's & Marauders -- a wargamer review

Merchants & Marauders is an unusual game in many ways. It's very heavily themed, based on historical events and features fairly intricate game procedures. In other words, it's a lot like your typical war

On the other hand, it doesn't hew close enough to historical fact to be considered anything remotely like a
simulation, most of the game's chrome is obviously designed for play balance purposes, there's no player elimination, a lot of resource management and it uses a lot of special card decks. In other words, it's a lot like many of the more popular euros.

It is, in fact, a hybrid that manages to combine some of the best features of its respective genres to create a big hit that can appeal to a wide variety of game interests.

Game in progress
As a long-time wargamer, I've come to appreciate many euros for the fun and strategic challenge they often provide, but I'm often left feeling like it's pretty light fare in many ways. Most euros have a very passing relationship to their themes, which is OK, but it can actually lead one astray if you think too hard about the theme while you are making game decisions.

Merchants & Marauders manages to be a very competitive game without completely mangling the essence of the historical context. Sure, there are a lot of very historically problematical aspects to the game -- for example, there may have been a female pirate/merchant captain or two in history, but I think it's fair to say that they didn't amount to almost a fifth of the pool like they do in the game.

Still, in broad outlines the game captures the era where the four major maritime powers of the age vied for influence and trade in the Caribbean. The ports are in the right places and there's an interesting dynamic between peaceful pursuits and piratical ones. The game seems slightly easier for merchant players, especially when less experienced, but piracy is a lot of fun and will tempt many players with the lure of quick rewards.

There seem to be many viable routes to victory in the game. The most straightforward is a merchantman's strategy of just trading smart. In that sense it can be the sort of resource management game that many euro players are comfortable with. On the other hand, there is conflict built into the game. Some captains make natural pirates and a well-handled pirate sloop can terrorize the more peaceful players effectively. There are real tactics involved and the wargamer will find his niche can be rewarding as well. There's also a certain amount of Adventure Game influence as well. There are Rumor Cards and Mission cards which can provide important benefits if successfully completed. I haven't seen anyone try that as their main approach yet, but it seems like it could be a third way to win.

Probably the biggest mistake a player can make, however, is to be too wedded to one particular strategy. There may be a time when even the most successful and peace-loving merchant may want to take a turn at piracy -- especially if he upgrades to a fine frigate and even the most blood-thirsty pirate is well-advised to stay on good terms with somebody so they have some safe harbors.

The Age of Piracy isn't one of my areas of historical interest -- most of what I know about the era comes from Treasure Island and the Pirates of the Caribbean like everyone else, so I can't vouch for its historical authenticity. The places on the map seem to belong to the appropriate powers and ships seem to behave like ships ought to, but so many of the port abilities, captain's talents and crew abilities are obvious game artifacts that no one could seriously imagine it's historical.

That said, there's an awful lot going on in this game -- enough so that a wargamer may feel right at home. In my opinion many euro gamers are not used to games with a lot of intricate detail. They often find wargames daunting because there are so many details to track, and I think Merchants & Marauders is wargame-like in that way. There is a lot of hidden information during the course of the game, due to cards and chits. There are a lot of procedurally involved game tasks involving various modifiers that may not always be immediately apparent. And there's a considerable degree of luck, not only in the dice-driven combat system, but also in the interaction between all the different decks of cards. There are Cargo, Event, Glory, Mission and Rumor card decks being drawn from constantly. This is a game that rewards thinking on your feat -- not long involved plans.

There's enough meat in it for wargamer to sink his teeth in -- so I'd recommend trying it out.

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