At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to update this blog at least once a week, but as you can plainly see by my posting history, that has fallen through. I suppose I could blame it solely on not being able to play as many games as I’d like, or on the fact that there aren’t as many games coming my way as I want, but both of those are blatant, complete, utter lies. What it comes right down to is that I’m just busy and lazy, alternating between the two at blinding speed. I’ve really been doing quite a bit of gaming, picking up new games, and experiencing the gaming culture as a whole. So, because I’ve been gone from here for about three weeks, I suppose I should run through and give an update on some that has been going on. I’ll start with a review of a game I played recently, talk about some RPG stuff going on, and then an update about upcoming cons.
Merchants And Marauders
I’m not entirely sure what I thought this game would be when going into it, but Merchants and Marauders from Z-Man Games just kept twinging on some little known and rarely tugged heart string deep inside me. Call me a sucker, or call me crazy, but having been raised in the coastal regions of North Carolina, and growing up with tales of my native state’s most infamous pirate, Blackbeard, I’ve always had a certain fascination with those scurvy scalawags of the seven seas. Even as a child I clearly remember the day that I received a copy of the NES game “Sid Meier’s Pirates!“. The sailing, the trading, the fighting and the exploring were just a godsend for a kid whose mind was constantly on the ocean. Then 2004 came along, and the classic game was re-released for PC with a shiny new graphics interface, more stuff to do, and a much broadened scope. I was delighted, and many an hour was lost to simply sailing the waves of the Caribbean on the lookout for merchants or other pirates to plunder.
Inspired by memories of this classic franchise, I picked up a copy of this new board game and gave it a solid play through with a few friends of mine. Imagine my surprise when I slowly started to realize through the course of the game that this board game was that old video game! Now, I know that some of you will say “yes, this game is very much in the spirit of any pirate themed game mechanic…” but let me readily assure you that this board game is a cardboard and plastic version of that video game from start to finish. Even down to the way one fights other ships and captains, to boarding actions, to even assaulting land-based targets, there is a nearly one-to-one correlation between these two games.
In Merchants and Marauders, a player takes on the role of a randomly selected captain of a vessel whom has stats for seamanship, influence, scouting, and leadership. These stats will help you to determine what starting vessel you will begin with, the maneuverable and fast sloop or the more trader friendly yet less quick flute, as well as what sort of tactics that captain will be good at in the game. This isn’t to say that what you start with is how you will end, but some captains are obviously built for trade, while others are built to plunder. The game board is a map of the Caribbean, with ports scattered about, each owned by a different nation (French, Spanish, Dutch and English, just as in the old Pirates! game) and each port has a good that is ‘wanted’ in that port. Selling a ‘wanted’ good in a port that wants it nets the seller double the normal price for selling the good, and also the possibility of ‘Glory’ (aka: points).
A captain may also attack and plunder NPC ships as well as PC ships, with adequate rules for combat and ship upgrades to make this an easier experience, but attacking other ships will net the attacker with a ‘bounty’, making his time on the waters more difficult. The life of a pirate can definitely be a prosperous one, with any captured ship giving up its gold as well as cargo to the victor. However, life can also be just as short as it is exciting, as any pirate captain will be ruthlessly hunted by NPC ships or even other PC pirates.
Now, I can go on and read the rule book to you, but I’d much rather go through some of the game mechanics and show where those similarities with Pirates! lie.
- Combat: Both games operate on the principal of 2 distinct types of combat. Ship-to-Ship and crew melee. In both games you are given the option of firing at each other with cannons from a distance, or boarding the other vessel. In both games, the combat between crews after boarding is a back-and-forth affair until one captain has defeated the other captain’s crew, which then allows that captain to take the other ship and it’s spoils.
- Through out the game, ‘events’ will transpire that will pit two nations at war with each other, or introduce new NPC captains to the game, or cause global effects that can change what ports or goods are accessible to the player. This also parallels Pirates! to a great extent.
- Both games have the idea of “rumors”, which are events that are particular to a the captain who experiences them, and may or may not be true, depending on the luck of the dice. Rumors, when completed, generally reward the captain with money, goods, glory, or even new crew members for the ship.
- At certain times, a captain has the option of hiring ‘specialists’ to their crew to improve performance or give some sort of bonus to that captain (usually in the form of re-rolled dice) . Again, Pirates! had a very similar, if not identical, mechanic.
There are, of course, differences between the two games, but when I played Merchants and Marauders, I definitely had a feeling of deja-vu hanging heavily in the air. It was just like those old times back at my PC, sailing and plundering and trading, only instead of the open-ended PC game, this board game obviously did have to come to an end.
And in the end is where my problem with Merchants and Marauders lies. The game is played until a captain(s) has 10 victory points, with gold being the deciding factor in ties. Through the course of the game, a player is allowed to ‘stash’ a secret amount of gold such that the other players cannot know how much gold they have set aside. Unfortunately, this gold can be used to push a player to the 10 point mark, even though the amount is secret up until that point. Perhaps it makes the game shorter if someone gets 5 points and then stashes enough gold to get the other five, but I also feel that it is a really cheap way to win, as I’ve calculated that with the right conditions, a player could easily win in approximately 10-12 turns, regardless of how many points anyone else may have accumulated. If it were up to me, I’d simply let the players stash, and not count those points until the end game, which may bring someone out on top even if they were not the ones quite to 10 victory points yet.
Well, as those of you who read this blog know, I’ve got a regular gaming group that I play with, mostly using the Savage Worlds rule system. I’ve been having heaps and heaps of fun with these guys over the last half a year or more, and have had the honor of running a few games for them as well. The last game I ran was a continuation of our Deadlands campaign. I had bought a GM screen for use with clarifying and making readily accessible some of the more obscure and specific rules for the Deadlands setting, and with it came a module named “Murder on the Hellstromme Express”. As anyone who knows me may recall, I’m usually not a fan of running pre-made modules, since I’ve always felt that I should stretch my own storytelling legs when it comes to RPG campaigns, but I could not pass up running this adventure.
The adventure in question fit very nicely into our current story line, and also gave me an opportunity to give my players the chance to stretch their RP legs a little more than we have been the past few sessions. We had run through some scenarios in the Necessary Evil setting, but as with most superhero (or villain) games, it was more action than talking, and the Hellstromme Express was a nice break from that routine. I’ve already got in mind where to take the players next, starting with a nice little necktie party.
Before all of that, though, I’m looking forward to our bout of Solomon Kane. The setting seems really cool, and I loved the European-only released movie that came out not long ago, so here’s hoping that I’ll be able to get my fill of pulp adventure horror fantasy. After that, then, it looks like we’ll be running outside of the normal Savage Worlds settings and gearing up for some good old fashioned Shadowrun. Looking forward to that, as my only previous experience with Shadowrun ended poorly with a party dissolved and no one left to pick up and carry on. Ah well, C’est la vie.
Just a quick little update here. It appears that I will be attending the local Gaming Hoopla next month, and then GenCon later this year. Room and registration is already booked for both, and I’m honestly looking forward to them, Hoopla more than GenCon. Sure GenCon is where everything happens, but I’m not so sure if I’ll have as good of a time with all the glitz and glamor as I will with just good old fashioned gaming.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Keep looking here for me to talk more in the coming weeks about some of those other games I’ve been playing, as well as reviews, previews, and just views.