Neither Merchants Nor Marauders
Merchants & Marauders was a great big sandbox of fun. It fully embraced the go-anywhere, do-anything joy of life as a sea captain. Did you want to quietly sail between ports, getting rich on clever trades? Fine, fine. Or did you want to make enemies of the Spanish, tackle a treasure galleon, and raid everyone down to their piratical pantaloons? Even better.
Merchants & Marauders: Broadsides is not that.
In fact, other than “boats,” Broadsides shares nothing in common with Merchants & Marauders at all. Certainly not designers. Christian Marcussen, who also created the wonderful Civilization homage Clash of Cultures, is nowhere to be seen.
This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if Broadsides had something similarly clever up its sleeve. If it evoked Merchants & Marauders by being fresh, or by allowing any number of paths to victory, or simply by being a good game, then no harm done. Instead… well, let me give you an example.
In Broadsides — which is a strictly two-player game about a pair of ships unloading cannons in one another’s direction at close range — it’s possible to employ what are generously called “dirty tricks,” optional game-changers that let you spring unexpected surprises in the heat of battle. For the most part, there’s nothing dirty about them. For instance, maybe your captain has shown the utmost gall by installing a crow’s nest on his ship, so as to get a better view of the surrounding sea. The scallywag. Or perhaps he’s shown his true colors by hiring a ship’s surgeon or helpful powder boy. Rapscallions, all.
Since these so-called tricks are doled out at the start of a fight, perhaps informing how you’ll approach the impending flash of cannons and clatter of steel, imagine my surprise when I drew the Sea Dragon Figurehead. At first glance, it’s a perfectly good card. You’ve got a sea dragon. Scary! Perhaps your enemies will run in terror when they catch a glimpse of its unfurled tongue!
Nope. It does nothing. Literally nothing. That’s a literal literally, not a figurative literally. Basically, the card declares itself as a bragging right if you happen to win despite having wasted one of your tricks on a worthless card.
Sigh. Oh, Broadsides.
The basics of the game seem sound enough at first glance. In addition to being nicely illustrated, your ship is covered with wooden pieces representing your crew, sails, and the planks of your hull. Taking a hit means removing something, which often exposes some downside underneath. Lose too many sails, for example, and it becomes harder to evade the enemy ship’s fire; have your crew thinned out and you’ll struggle to aim your cannons.
Even better, it’s possible to send your crew clambering along the rigging to shore up your weaknesses. If your captain is left alone, scurry a few hands over to shield him. Have torn sails? Go ahead and patch ’em up. There are plenty of actions to take, most of them completed by spending the poker hands that you assemble from your own personal deck. Reloading your cannons requires a pair; firing a ship-splintering broadside demands a flush; shaking off your enemy’s cannon-sights takes a straight. And so forth.
Unfortunately, this is where Broadsides starts to rear its ugly Sea Dragon Figurehead. The method of a cannon’s resolution seems powerful at first, potentially shattering all the planks or rending every sail in a particular firing zone. But after one or two exchanges of fire, as targets become fewer in quantity, all it takes is a single dead crewman in the wrong place to ruin your chances of landing a shot. That or a breezy evasion by your enemy. In the end, most encounters come down to whichever side can draw a good enough flush to launch a game-ending broadside. For all those options, including the fact that you can win by either destroying a ship’s hull or murdering its officers, nearly every fight comes down to the luck of the draw.
Not only are your captain and all his dirty tricks drawn at random, but so too are your targeting cards and the poker cards you’ll be spending for nearly every action — including to aim. Even the shots you load into your cannons aren’t chosen via some act of clear-headed tactical consideration, but drawn from a bag. Already left your opponent’s sails in tatters? Too bad, stuff more chain-shot down that barrel.
This still might be acceptable if only Broadsides doubled down on its elements of chance. And yet it doesn’t. There’s no bluffing to employ, no wagers to raise. The randomness exists for the sake of wresting the ship’s wheel from your clenched fingers, not adding the thrill of uncertainty to the proceedings. The result isn’t merely mercurial. It’s temperamental. It’s flighty.
I’d be less blunt if Broadsides didn’t so brazenly flaunt the name of its betters in a vain attempt to attract more attention. As it stands, buyer beware: here be Sea Dragon Figureheads.
Which is too bad, because the Age of Sail makes for a wonderful setting. But in this market, it takes more than merely existing to appeal as a dedicated two-player game. Why engage in a duel of wits that doesn’t quite measure up when 13 Days is an option? Or Star Wars: Rebellion, Stronghold, Heir to the Pharaoh, Hands in the Sea, or Exceed? Why settle for less when there are plenty of games with actual room for cleverness, for trickery, for beautiful design and nails-biting moments?
The answer is that we shouldn’t. Perhaps a marooned sailor might appreciate the sight of Merchants & Marauders: Broadsides washing up on the beach. For the rest of us, it’s too much effort to even drag the waterlogged thing to the recycling bin.