Saturday, March 12, 2011

Quoting Charlie Sheen: A first Look at Merchants and Marauders

Today I had to choose between being a pirate or a sailing merchant in a Pirate\Trade game set in the Caribbean during the Pirate\Colonization era. Of course, I choose being a pirate and it cost me the game, sort of.

My opponents drew me in by telling me that the game was a cross between a trade game and a wargame. Not only was it a cross between the two, but it was an EXCELLENT blend of merchant\delivery vs. Pirate attacks. The Game was Z-Man games' "Merchants and Marauders" and delivered a very satisfying afternoon. I can see how the game would move much more quickly once players learned the system and there is nothing too complex here.

Players get to choose whether they will act as merchants or pirates and both have benefits as well as drawbacks. The game has excellent balance between the two choices (usually made based on the skills of player's captain (randomly chosen at the beginning of the game). Each player has three actions on each turn which are either move, search for enemy ships, or conduct business in court. Players get Glory points (victory points) for delivering three of a commodity to a port where it is in demand, defeating an enemy in battle, or defeating a non-player ship (pirate or a National Navy).

The basic mechanics of the game are clean and easily comprehended. They offer a careful balance that prevents a player from doing too many things in one turn or jumping around getting multiple victory points per turn. A player can also purchase Victory Points at a cost of 10 each, but is limited to money he put into his stash (which he can only do at his home port) to do so and can only purchase a maximum of 5 points in this manner. This means a player has to earn 5 Victory points and then balance returning to his home port to stash his gold.

Combat is pretty neat. Players can shoot, board, or flee from a combat and various items assist. For example, everytime a player earns a Glory point he gets a glory card that has a special ability (usually a one time use) and ships can be upgraded to improve either its merchant or combat ability.

The deal breaker for some gamers will be the events. Each game turn begins with a random event card being flipped and read. One event brought war between Spain and England and one of my opponents was unable to enter the port of the opposing nationality to deliver the goods with the demand he needed. Another event brought storms and minimized the number of actions my opponents could perform on that turn. Other events brought in National naval forces that were looking for Pirates, or added non-player pirates. The random events added lots of flavor but I think to a staunch wargamer these events offered a great deal of luck factor and skewed the game to some extent. One player had the worst luck with these events almost always coming at the worst possible time for him and therefore he could not wait for the game to be over.

The most fun I had in the game was holding the lead for most of the game. This allowed me to taunt the other players by quoting Charlie Sheen and saying repeatedly "Winning." I did attempt to avoid calling my opponents "trolls" however.

I had a great time playing this game, but I think the luck factor would cause thie one to get old pretty fast. I can see how a couple of bad events could really leave a player feeling cheated. Still, I prefer events that actually have a chance of impacting the game in a strong way, so I think it is a game I will enjoy.

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