Kris Hall’s First Impressions: Merchants and Marauders, Dominant Species, 7 Wonders

Like many gamers, I got to try several new games over the Christmas and New Year holidays.  Here are some of my thoughts of these new games: Dominant Species (Chad Jensen, GMT), 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza, Repos/Asmodee), and Merchants and Marauders (Christian Marcussen & Kaspar Aagaard, Z-man)
Dominant Species

Dominant Species is the most complicated worker-placement game I have ever played. Designed by Chad Jensen and published by GMT Games, DS has been an unexpected hit, and GMT is now sold out, but is rushing a new printing into production.

In DS players take charge of one class of animals–mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnid, or insect–and try to make their critters thrive as an Ice Age slowly changes normal environments into tundra. Players score points by having the most species (little wooden cubes) in a terrain hex when the hex is scored.  And scoring a hex is just one of the actions a player may take by placing his action tokens on the worker-placement tracks.

DS has an unusually large and complicated menu of worker-placement tracks.  Various tracks allow players to advance their token on the turn-order track, claim a new environment token to be added to their animal card, place environment tokens on the edges of the hex tiles of the game board (which allow hexes to support animal classes with the corresponding tokens on their cards), choose which hex will become a glacier this turn (which basically allows a player to nuke a hex and wipe out most of the species there), add species cubes to hexes on the board, add new hex tiles to the board and migrate species cubes to the new hex, eliminate opposing species cubes, and score hexes.  Naturally, there always seems to be more to do on a turn than a player has action markers for.  I might place my action tokens on the score-a-hex track only to find that my scoring opportunities have been lost if other players use their actions to eliminate my species or send a tundra into my best hex.

I found Dominant Species intriguing, but also frustrating because I was whacked pretty hard by other players in the first turn of the game, and never managed to catch up, or even seemed to have a chance to catch up.  I attribute my frustration to the fact that I was playing in a six-player game, and I had only three actions to take per turn.  The owner of the game assured me that players feel much more in control of their destinies in three, four, and five player games.

I am eager to try Dominant Species again, but only in games with less than six players.  The Hobbesian war of all against all in the six-player game turned me into evolutionary road-kill all too soon.

7 Wonders

7 Wonders (designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Asmodee) doesn’t need me to praise it as it already appears to be the most popular game of the last six months.  While I tend to shy away from pure card games, I was interested in seeing if the game lived up to its hype.  To my surprise, I found that it did.

So much has already been written about 7 Wonders that I am not going to go into a description of the game here.  But the thing that impressed me the most about the game was the quick simultaneous turns.  Players all choose the card they will play at the same time, and then pass the rest of their hand of cards to their neighbor.  These simultaneous turns means that a seven-player game can be played almost as quickly as a three-player game.  I expect to see other game designers copying this simultaneous turn mechanism in the months ahead.

Merchants & Marauders

Once upon a time I wrote a column for the Boardgame News website entitled The Merchants & Marauders Opportunity.  M&M was originally supposed to be published by Pro Ludo, but the company changed its mind , and Christian Marcussen posted the rules online, hoping to generate interest in the game.  I read the rules, and was impressed enough to write a piece about how the game might be a publishing opportunity for a discerning company.  I specifically said that M&M might be a good fit for Z-Man Games or Fantasy Flight Games.

Now, I don’t think for a second that Zev at Z-Man needed me to steer him toward a good design.  He probably never saw my column and discovered M&M on his own.  But I am proud that for once my column was prophetic, and of course I had to acquire the game to see if it lived up to my expectations.

In M&M, players are captains of ships in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (which I believe occurred shortly after the adolescence of Errol Flynn).  Players can choose to be a pirate who preys on available merchant shipping, or be a merchant yourself and collect gold by shipping valuable goods from port to port.  There are four nations in the game (England, France, Spain, and Holland), and players can attack ships from some of these countries while maintaining good relations with the others.

Players get three actions a turn, and these can be move actions, scout actions (searching for merchant prey at sea) or port actions (selling goods, buying goods, buying a bigger ship, repairing a damaged ship, buying special ship modifications, and collecting rumors).  Each player gets a captain card with four ability numbers (seamanship, scouting, leadership, and influence) and these affect various die rolls.  In sea combat, for example, its good to have a high seamanship number while the influence rating is needed for collecting rumors.

Each area on the game board contains a port that belongs to one of the four nations (with the exception of one central all-sea area).  Each area also had one unique characteristic; ship purchases are less expensive in one area, and merchant prey might be easier to find in a different area.

Players win the game by collecting ten glory points.  Players gain points by selling at least three units of high demand goods in port, plundering a rich merchant ship, buying a frigate or a galleon, winning a sea battle, completing a mission, or accumulating large amounts of gold.  Missions, by the way, are cards that usually tell a player to go to a particular area and perform a particular action to gain a reward.  Sometimes there are risks associated with a mission.

As pirate players become more successful, they get a bounty on their heads, and some players may be tempted to attack opposing players to collect a reward from one of the nations.  And if players don’t feel inclined to attack each other, cards often bring non-player ships onto the board.  These ships may be the armed forces of the one of the four nations, and are thus a danger to pirate-players, or they may be non-player pirates who pose a threat to players acting as merchants.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in M&M, and a full game can take three hours (although it can be less if one player has a string of good luck).

What was my reaction to the game, and the reaction of the other players?  I rather liked Merchants & Marauders.  While there is certainly a lot of luck in the constant drawing of cards and rolling of dice, I don’t mind those things in an adventure game.  And I appreciate that the game lets me choose to be a pirate or not, and gives me many ways to try to score points.  I can mind my own business and trade goods and go on missions, or I can attack both merchant shipping and opposing players if I am willing to press my luck.  Also, the physical production of the game is good with sturdy plastic ships and so many cards that you might think it was a Fantasy Flight game.  One friend I played with was initially skeptical of the game, but soon wanted to borrow a copy of it.

But not all the other players liked the immense amount of luck in the game.  In the second game I played, Tom quickly won with a merchant strategy before anyone else had more than three or four points.  Tom said he had been incredibly lucky with his draws from the merchant goods deck which allowed him to deliver high-demand goods to nearby ports, and caused him to speed to victory.  Tom thought it should have been tougher for him to win.

Those who like adventure games with a lot of good bits and a lot of luck should like Merchants & Marauders.  Those who favor luck-less strategy games should probably avoid it.

— Kris Hall

[Editor’s Note: Due to some technical problems, I have posted this column for Kris.  When we get things straight, the “authorship” of this article will revert to Kris Hall.  –DY]

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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13 Responses to Kris Hall’s First Impressions: Merchants and Marauders, Dominant Species, 7 Wonders

  1. >I expect to see other game designers copying this simultaneous turn mechanism in the months ahead.

    I didn’t play 7 wonders (yet), but this mechanism was already present in Notre Dame, wasn’t it?
    It’s certainly a great way to speed up the game, definitely something to user more often!

    Emanuele

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Notre Dame used the card drafting mechanism, Emanuele, but not the simultaneous play. Fairy Tale used both, and was the first instance of this mechanism-combo I can think of.

    7 Wonders doesn’t really have anything new in terms of mechanisms, but it’s efficient and fun to play nevertheless. What is new is the quick playing time and the use of cards instead of development tracks for each civilization. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

  3. Brett says:

    Can you make any comparison between Dominant Species and Wildlife? I’ve not seen DS, but Wildlife is one of my favorites.

  4. Kris Hall says:

    I haven’t played Wildlife recently enough to make a comparison. But I’m pretty sure Dominant Species is considerably more complicated.

  5. Tom Rosen says:

    I very highly recommend trying Dominant Species with fewer players Kris.

    I’ve played the game 6 times now, once with two players, once with four players, and four times with 3 players. I think, based on those plays, that the game would likely have serious issues with 5 or 6 players (and also based on what I’ve heard from you and another friend that tried it with six). I really enjoy the game with 3 players, and found it pretty good with 2 and 4 players.

    With 2 players we used the variant where we each controlled two animal types, which hurt my brain a bit more, but worked well. With 3 players, I don’t think the variant is necessary, as three different animal types, one for each player, works remarkably well. The game moves along very quickly with 3 players, just 2.5 hours, and you feel more in control (although it’s still a bit chaotic and you have to be okay just being along for the ride in a sense).

    I could feel some of that control slip away in the 4-player game I tried and the game certainly took a bit longer, so I can only imagine how bad it would get with 5 or 6 people. I’m going to try to keep my games to 3 players generally because, at least after four games with 3 players, I’m really loving this game.

  6. Seth Jaffee says:

    Dominant Species and Wildlife are wildly different. Thematically similar maybe, and both have some area control scoring, but the mechanisms at work are as dissimilar as can be. So much so that I don’t think liking Wildlife could be used as an indicator that you would or would not like DS.

  7. Larry Levy says:

    Seth hit the nail on the head. Wildlife and Dominant Species have nothing in common outside of their theme. Wildlife is a somewhat elaborate, but nevertheless pure Euro and I’m a big fan. DS is considerably more involved, longer, and more chaotic. I’m sure that DS is the deeper game, but I’m uncomfortable with the mix of chaos and heavy planning. As Tom says, you have to be willing to go along for the ride and that’s not something I like to do with a game of this length. So I’ll just stick to Wildlife, thank you, to get my evolution fix.

    The big difference between the booster draft as implemented in Fairy Tale and 7 Wonders is that in 7W, everyone reveals their cards immediately, while in FT, you wait until the end of the round. Outside of that, they’re pretty much identical. That’s the main reason I’m skeptical that we’ll see a lot of games that use this mechanic in the near future. The process was much praised when Fairy Tale came out, and yet it’s only appeared in a handful of games since. Granted, 7 Wonders has much higher visibility than FT ever had, but I think you need a certain sort of game for this mechanic to work. Specifically, lighter games are probably required, as advance planning is pretty limited with a booster draft. It works great in 7W, but it may only have limited applications in other games.

  8. Doug Adams says:

    DS reminds me of Die Macher in terms of “weight”, but nowhere near as good. It’s a fun game to play but it is a “Euro” cube pusher, and it’s two hours too long. The event cards are very powerful – akin to the poll cards in Die Macher, which you must cover if you are interested in controlling an election result – here in DS however you can get totally beaten up by them, purely by someone claiming one by being “Dominant” on the other side of the board. Happy to play again, but I sold my copy on.

  9. Frank Branham says:

    Merchants & Marauders is a GREAT game. It is definitely an adventure game as you are mostly chasing opportunities, and the useful of those opportunities versus winning vary quite a lot.

    But the game finally replaces the old AH Blackbeard for me. The elements are all there, but the production and streamlining in the design make it so much better.

  10. Curt Carpenter says:

    Regarding Dominant Species, it’s hard to believe that those who have commented about it have played the same game I have. Yes, it’s long. If you don’t like long games, it’s not for you. Move along. But otherwise, regarding specific comments above:

    1) There is no heavy planning in DS. Anyone who plays this expecting heavy planning is bound to be disappointed.

    2) The rules to DS should simply state that 5-6 players is not recommended for first time players. Yes, you can feel a little whipped about. I think 4 is the best number, and the player # poll on BGG agrees with me, pretty emphatically.

    3) I like Die Macher, a lot. But DS beats DM for me. While there is luck in DS, in DM there is way more, and it comes [i]after[/i] any player can decide what to do about it. Not only are there dice (!!), policy cards (personal and board), and opinion cards, the luck of the opinion cards being auctioned before you even know if it’s good (or bad) for you kicks the luck factor up significantly. As for the domination cards in DS, a) there is lots of time to react to them before any take effect. And b) as has been discussed online, the luck of the elements is significantly more impactful, if less flashy, than the Domination cards. Whereas DM gives you the illusion that you’re in control, DS makes it pretty clear that you’re not. I can understand why someone might prefer DM over DS, I can’t understand luck having any relation to that preference.

    4) DS may have a large menu of choices for worker placement, but it’s static, and smaller than the number of choices by the time you get to the midgame of something like Caylus, Agricola, or Le Havre.

    5) I also like WildLife. But compared to DS, I find WL to be the more complicated game. The rules to DS are extremely smooth. After reading the rulebook once, I don’t think I’ve ever had to look anything up. Other than number of cubes for setup. WildLife also takes WAY longer for my group than the 75 minutes claimed on the box. That’s actually why it hasn’t seen much play for me, even though I like the game.

  11. peer says:

    The problem with using a simultaneous mechanism like 7 Wonders now would be that the game would always be compared to 7 Wonders. I actually scrapped a simultaenous mechanism from one of my prototypes to avoid this (even if the mechanism was quite different – you played three cards, played them one after another and then gave the used cards to your neighbor – it was compared to 7W which irritated me quite a bit).

  12. Dale Yu says:

    @peer – that’s an interesting comment. While I understand that you’d like to have games that did not have immediate comparison, wouldn’t there also be some positives of using a similar, familiar mechanic — if nothing else but to give a frame of reference to the potential game buyer? As you’ve described it, the mechanic of “you played three cards, played them one after another and then gave the used cards to your neighbor” is certainly different from 7 Wonders. But I wonder (pun intended) whether gamers who liked 7 Wonders would then look for games with similar features. This has certainly happened with Dominion, for instance, with a number of similar games having their own loyal gamers now.

    D

  13. peer says:

    Hm, I consider Dominion a different beast, because deckbuilding is more of a genre, than a single mechanism and as on par as majority or worker placement – and there is a lot of potential there (I do work on a deckbuilding game where deckbuilding is not the main objective). And even there you have comparisions with Dominions on games like Arcana or even Fürstenfeld that dont seem to share much with Dominion (havent played either so I cant judge).
    And if you would use the 7 wonder – mechanism in a completly different game, that has an entire different emphasis (like a racing game) it wouldnt be a problem either. But if you use in a similar fashion like for putting out cards or gaining VP or building something etc. and you use it to create a fast playing game, the feeling might be somewhat similiar and the comparision unavoidable. I wouldnt like to be put in these shoes of creating something thats “a blatant XY-Ripoff” ;-) Im sure that mechanism is safe to use in about 2-3 years, but considering the phobia of majority-games that still persists today in some circles, Im wouldnt bet on it… :-)

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