The Caribbean was the center of naval trade but also the sea marked by frequent wars, conflicts, and piracy. You’re given a small boat and a handful of coins and given the freedom to carve your path forward.
Will you be an honest trader or turn your sights on other ships and invoke the wrath of colonial forces? Find your own way in this race towards the title of the most famous sailor of the Caribbean Sea!
Brief Overview of Merchants & Marauders
Merchants & Marauders combines elements of several board game genres to create one of the few pirate-themed games that have it all — trading, colonial powers, piracy, ship upgrades, quests, and rumors. Calling the board game version of Sid Meier’s Pirates is probably the best way I can describe it.
The relatively high complexity of the game stems from the amount of information new players need to take in. Once the initial hurdle of learning all the mechanics has been surpassed, Merchants & Marauders will become more accessible.
With 2.5 to 4 hour-long sessions, Merchants & Marauders is far from a short game, but it gets better once the group becomes more experienced. It does not have a solo mode and is limited to only 2–4 players.
Merchants & Marauders may not be the ideal pirate-themed game, but it deserves a place at the very top of the subgenre. If you’re a fan of the theme and adventure, then Merchants & Marauders is a game you shouldn’t skip.
Unboxing Merchants & Marauders
The box contains the following components:
- 1 Game Board
- 4 Player Boards
- 100 Coins
- 26 Plastic Ships
- 24 Demand Tokens
- 17 Merchant Tokens
- 16 Ship Modification Tokens
- 12 Special Weapon Tokens
- 20 Bounty Tokens
- 254 Cards
- 29 Wooden Cubes
- 4 Naval Tokens
- 10 Custom Dice
- 4 Treasure Chests
- 2 Player Aid Sheets
- 1 Rulebook
I think that there are two main ways to handle the pirate theme. One involves antique-looking charts, gritty and worn colors, and a generally serious approach to this violent and grim profession.
What most people enjoy is the romanticized pirates, the freedom seekers that answer to no one, fight the corrupt nations and steal their treasures. I’m glad that the designers of the Merchants & Marauders went with the latter option and gave their game a bright color palette that matches this tone perfectly.
The game board is massive and takes a lot of room on the table, but is otherwise fairly clutter-free. The text written underneath locations is important, so such a big board isn’t a bad idea, as it allows the players to position comfortably so that nobody has an upside-down view of the board.
The component quality meets a high production standard, from punch-out cardboard tokens to rulebooks and reference sheets. Player and NPC ships look great, as do the treasure chests for stashing coins.
The only real critique of the components is the creases that can form on the board over time, but even that’s a minor inconvenience. Overall, the quality components used to make the Merchants & Marauders board game is more than satisfying.
How to Play Merchants & Marauders
For the proper explanation of how the game is played, you’ll have to read the 16-page rulebook and play at least one game. In this section, I’ll give you a brief overview of how the game is played, and what to generally expect from the experience.
Captains & Ships
In Merchants & Marauders, players draw captain cards to determine their skill at naval combat, scouting, leadership, and influence. Captains also have their nationality, home port, and special abilities.
Then we have the ships: sloops, flutes, frigates, galleons, and man-o-wars. These ships have varying levels of toughness, cargo capacity, crew count, cannon firepower, and maneuverability.
Even though you’re free to take whatever path you’d want to, the starting captain has certain skills that make them better for piracy or trading. With that in mind, you can select your starting ship — flute for transporting cargo, or sloop for maneuverability.
The NPCs in Merchants & Marauders represent the game-controlled naval or pirate ships that will come into play through event cards. Naval ships will hunt for players that have a bounty on their head or are simply aligned with one of the warring nations.
The pirates on the other hand will not target other pirates and instead go for the traders with gold or cargo on board.
Combat can occur between Non-player Captains and players or between two players. The process consists of three stages: declaration, seamanship contents, and action. Combat relies on captain skills and dice rolls.
The declaration sets the intent of both the attacker and defender. The possible choices include shooting with cannon fire, boarding the ship, or fleeing the battle.
The seamanship contest has both combatants roll their captain’s seamanship skill. The winning player gets to perform the action that they’ve previously declared. If the other player declares shoot, they can still perform the action if they’ve tied or lost the contest.
The action involves attacking the enemy with cannon fire, boarding their ship, or fleeing from combat.
Combat is explained in great detail in the rulebook, but the gist is that cannon fire has a higher success rate and can damage parts of the enemy ship, while boarding relies on the leadership skill roll.
The winner of crew combat gets to plunder the other ship for one of their cards, gold, or even their ship. Death is not the end in the Merchants & Marauders as players can return with a new captain and keep their glory and stashed gold.
Earning 10 glory points will grant you victory, and there are several ways to earn it:
- Stashing gold at the home port.
- Defeating NPCs and players in combat.
- Completing missions.
- Finding a rumor to be true.
- Upgrading to a galleon or frigate.
- Plundering enough gold from a merchant ship.
- Selling goods that are in demand.
Taking Turns & Actions
The round starts by drawing and activating an event card, followed by player actions in order. Players get to perform three actions on their turn and combine them in any number and order.
Move action can be used to move between sea zones, to dock in a port, or depart from it. As all three actions can be spent on moving, this will allow players to leave one port and dock in the one located in the neighboring sea zone.
Scout action allows the raider to locate a ship in their sea zone. The player has to declare whether they’re looking for a player, NPC, or a merchant, and then pass a scouting skill check.
Port action is separate from docking in the port through the move action. Once you take the port action, you can do any number of activities, including buying or selling goods, claiming a rumor, stashing gold, upgrading your ship, or recruiting.
Winning The Game
Once a player declares they’ve accumulated 10 glory points by revealing the secret points accumulated through stashing gold, the game ends after everyone has had their turn.
It’s possible for players to tie at 10 glory points, in which case the player with the most points on the tracker wins (not counting the stashed coins). Further ties are solved by counting the amount of gold in the stash. All players that are still tied beyond this point are declared winners.
Your First Game of Merchants & Marauders
I should start this section by saying that if everyone at the table is playing Merchants & Marauders for the first time, set aside at least 5 hours for the game. The rulebook is well organized and there are no edge cases, so if everyone read it, it would help speed up the game.
The captain you draw will have strengths and weaknesses, so try your best to work with what they’re good at. Merchants & Marauders isn’t a game you’re going to figure out in the first, second, or even the fifth playthrough. However, once things finally click, you’ll be able to exploit the strengths of your build and the situation you find yourself in.
The only real tip you should take from this is to hide your gold. I don’t mean you should put it in your pocket, but keep the amount of gold on your ship a secret by covering it with cargo cards, as they share the same space on the player board.
By hiding the amount of gold you’re carrying, and especially the amount of gold you’ve stashed, you’re not placing a huge target on yourself for other players to exploit. Likewise, you should keep tabs on what other players are doing and try to estimate how much gold they’ve accumulated to find the right moment to strike and plunder.
Pros & Cons
- Immersive Experience
- Balanced & Flexible Ruleset
We often see board games that use the theme like a coat of paint to mask otherwise generic gameplay. Merchants & Marauders handles its theme perfectly to the point where everything in regards to the game just makes sense.
There are no workers to place on resource-gathering points, there are no nonsensical resources and mechanics. Instead, you’re sailing around the Caribbean on your boat and doing whatever you want, legal or otherwise.
I’ve also noticed a ton of critique at the expense of the gameplay balance, but I just haven’t seen it. Yeah, the merchant galleon may be better than the pirate frigate, but the risk matches the reward, and correct me if I’m wrong, but pirates were all about taking risks, as long as they were calculated.
Even if you find problems with the rules and requirements for certain achievements, like the acquisition of said galleons, you can house-rule as much as you’d like. Merchants & Marauders has a very flexible ruleset that allows for such a thing.
- Overwhelming First Experience
- Downtime Between Turns
First-time players will struggle with Merchants & Marauders, partially because of the complexity of the game, and because of how long the game session will take. Expecting someone to be attentive for four or five hours is unreasonable, which is why this game will take several playthroughs to figure out.
The love-it or hate-it, part of Merchants & Marauders is the downtime. As every player gets 3 actions per turn, you’ll have to wait for some time until it’s your turn again. I didn’t have much of a problem with it, as focusing on what the other players are doing gives you an edge.
Merchants & Marauders Review (TL;DR)
Merchants & Marauders is one of the best pirate-themed experiences you’ll find in board game format. Start as a trader, turn into a pirate, switch sides, and betray your own country — there are plenty of possibilities to create a unique experience while still playing a competitive game.
The long playtime and downtime between turns will annoy some, but Merchants & Marauders offers plenty to make it worth playing. If you’re a fan of the golden age of piracy, this game is a must-play!
Versions & Expansions
Seas of Glory
- This hefty expansion offers a modular experience with 11 new...
- Introduces new gameplay mechanics like changing winds, smuggling,...
- For 2 - 4 players
- A fast-paced hand-management strategy game.
- Quality wooden components to build your ship with… and your...
- Defend your ship first or quickly sink the enemy? each decision...
The pirate theme will always have a special place in my heart, not because of the romanticized pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or Blackbeard himself. Those certainly help, but the main reason I love the theme is Sid Meier’s Pirates, the best video game in the genre.
The only problem is, that game came out 17 years ago, and since then nothing came close. Tracking down rumors and treasures, ship battles, boarding, besting famous pirates, and some trading are something no video game has managed to replicate.
And yet Merchants & Marauders, a board game, has all but done it. Usually, I’d go into more details as to why I’ve enjoyed or disliked a game, but I think this is more than enough to sum it up. Those who were chasing the same kind of rush will be more than satisfied with Merchants & Marauders.
We hope you enjoyed our Merchants & Marauders review! Have you tried this epic pirate-themed game? We’d love to hear what you think about it or if there are any other similar games you prefer. Drop a comment below and let us know!