Merchants and Marauders Accessibility Teardown


Merchants and Marauders (2010) – Accessibility teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

Version Reviewed

English second edition

Introduction

Drink up, me hearties.  Now It’s time to raid the Merchants and Marauders box, sinking our swords deep into its belly to see if accessibility pours out.  For all its finicky rules and reams of tokens, it’s an awful lot of fun and gives you the perfect engine for generating great tales of swashbuckling excitement.  It’s four stars worth of fun in fact, as we recently discussed.  Is it though going to be easy sailing for anyone that might want to play?  Let’s find out.  Accessibility ho!

Colour Blindness

The only areas where colour is a problem are in the ships and glory point tracks.   Each player takes a particular colour of ship, and there will be NPC ships in play on the map too.   There are a number of problematic colour clashes:

Colour blind ships

The treasure fleet is in Curaco!

It’s not quite as simple though as saying ‘Bad’ and moving on.  The image above shows the variety of ships you can acquire, and each ship has its own model.   Some of the ships aren’t very distinct at a distance, but they all have their own unique profile.  The brown ships show NPC vessels, and these will always be accompanied by a marker that shows national allegiance:

Spanish ship

This should be accompanied by the Imperial March.

The black ships are pirate vessels, and they’re visually striking regardless of category of colour blindness.   That leaves us with limited differentiation between green and red (Protanopia) and green and blue (Tritanopia).

The ships you go for will change depending on your play style – if you’re a trader you’ll go for a flute and later upgrade to a Galleon.  If you’re a pirate you’ll go for a sloop and upgrade… well, probably to a galleon again because it’s ridiculously good in almost every category.  You might also potentially upgrade to a frigate.   If clashing coloured players are following two different paths through the game, their models will be different.   There will still be a glory point clash on the track when the cubes are placed, but position on that can be identified by almost anything.

This gives a somewhat larger degree of flexibility in meaningful compensation for players,  Clashes can be resolved when two players with overlapping palettes are following different upgrade strategies, and a suitable combination can likely be worked out regardless of who is playing.  That may not be the case if you’re playing a game with four players and have to compensate for multiple categories of colour-blindness but it should be okay in most cases.

For everything else, there isn’t a problem.  Flags are well distinguished by design, and the various cards are possible to differentiate by borders and also through their general layout and the markings on the back.

Colour blind cards

Colour blind cards

The tokens used to represent goods in demand (and a few other things) all have unique designs that identify them but we’re going to come back to that in the next section:

Colour blind tokens

Those spices look a bit off to me

We’re prepared to offer Merchants and Marauders a recommendation in this category.

Visual Accessibility

There are several significant problems in terms of visual accessibility.  First of all, let’s look at these tokens again:

Tiny tokens

I just poured myself a cup of hot tobacco and now I have serious cravings

The problem here is that while they are unique, they’re not unique enough to aid in easy identification for those with visual impairments.  Truth be told, at a distance it’s difficult for anyone to be confident between sugar and wood and spices, or between cocoa and tobacco.  Take a look at this and tell me what good is currently in demand in St John.   This represents the vantage point of someone that may actually be sitting at the table.

Reading the map

It’s in the east somewhere

You probably can, but it was also probably trickier than you might hope.   Obviously, you can just get up close and check, but there’s a problem with that too.  Why are you looking to see what’s in demand?  It suggests you’ve got a certain kind of cargo in your hold, and it also sends signalling information as to your destination.  If you’re playing a high competition game of pirates and traders, you may as well have sent out an itinerary.  ‘I will be in Havana in three turns, carrying a hold full of cocoa.  Please rob me at your earliest convenience’.

The models you work will sometimes be very small, and the differentiation between sea zones is not great due to the poor contrast ratio on dividing line – it’s a mere 1.5:1.

A sloop

Around Nassau town we did roam

This can make it difficult for players to work out what sea-zone they are in, and what ships they share a space with and which are adjacent.  As we saw in the review, that can be life and death information.   Sea zones can become very cluttered too, containing multiple ships of different kinds, some with nationality markers, demand information, ship modifications, merchants, and mission cards.   There can be an awful lot going on.

The cards that you draw often have lots of densely cropped text adorned with an old-timey ships log font that isn’t ideally readable:

Glory card

That’s a whole lot of glory.

The rumour cards have a large and well contrasted icon that shows the skill check required, but this is accompanied by a much smaller indicator of location and the kind of action that must be undertaken to succeed.

Rumour cards

I heard a rumour. Apparently they’ve heard you have a broken heart. They’re really want to make sure you’re okay.

The largest problem here comes in the mission cards, which are mini-novellas and thread key information throughout.   There is no clear distinction between game information and flavour text, it’s all rolled up into one dense chunk of writing.

The sea-zone information is well contrasted, but Merchants and Marauders comes with a large six-fold board.  Some of those zones will be quite far away, and the effects they have are highly asymmetrical. You’ll eventually become familiar with all the idiosyncrasies of any given location, but until that happens you’re going to be spending a lot of time wandering around the board or making use of assistive aids to interrogate at a distance.

The money in the game is in four denominations – ones, twos, fives and tens.   There is zero attempt to offer tactile differentiation between them – they’re all exactly the same size.

Coins

Let’s start cutting these up!

Here there is a missed opportunity, because the game currency is also irregularly shaped.  Some tokens have dents and dings in them, which seem designed to simulate the aesthetics of the roughly cast currency of the time.  It’s great!  Your coins have character, and feel like they had a life before they were punched out.   This could so easily have been a killer accessibility feature if they had irregular castings but also made use of distinct tactility – a notch for a one, a dent for a two, and so on.  Irregularity of coins is, I assume, not a manufacturing defect because it so neatly fits the aesthetic.  It just needed carried forward to an accessible conclusion.

It could also have been solved by leaning more heavily into the context of the time and just creating pieces of eight.  We use that term a lot when talking about pirates, but rarely consider what it means.  The ‘piece of eight’ was a Spanish coin that was often fractioned into smaller coin.   The value of currency during this period wasn’t defined by monetary fiat or a speculation market, but instead by the actual content of precious metal.  Cutting a coin in half, or into quarters, or eighths was common practice.  Thus, ‘pieces of an eight’ because the Spanish dollar was worth eight Spanish reales.

So… why not actually give us half, quarter and full coins for the denominations?  It would be educational, it would be thematic, it would be novel, and it would be extremely accessible.  Our mantra in this site is that good accessibility benefits everyone – here’s a great example where that would be true.  We’d all have a more thematic game with more accessible money.

It’s not all bad though – the game makes use of models that permit tactile differentiation, although some of the ship classes will require a bit of careful fingering to fully tell apart:

Ship profiles

You might need to really finger the poop-deck to tell which is which

The game makes use of non-standard dice, but they’re just d6s with the five and six faces replaced with skulls.  You don’t even really need to use a lookup table if you want to make use of external accessible dice solutions.

Nonetheless, we can’t recommend Merchants and Marauders in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

We couldn’t possibly offer a recommendation here in either category of cognitive accessibility.  It’s probably obvious from the reviewas to why, but let’s break it down anyway.

First of all, there’s an attached reading level, and the reading level is high.   You’ll need to read and evaluate relatively complex passages of interwoven rules and flavour, and relate what they outline to your ship captain, ship disposition, and location on the map.   There’s an attached numeracy level, which is not quite so high but still involves a regular amount of arithmetic that can change based on context.   The value of goods is variable, and the way you execute standard merchant raids needs not only arithmetic but an understanding of the probability of drawing further hits and escapes.

The game state is very complex – for every player you’re keeping track of a boatload of things:

  • Your current missions
  • Your current rumours
  • The glory cards you have available
  • The ship and captain you have
  • The cargo in your hold
  • The goods in demand in various sea zones
  • The ship modifications that may be distributed around the game
  • The location of NPC ships
  • The availability of merchants to rob
  • Your money
  • Your bounties
  • The health of your ship
  • Any specialists you’ve hired

And so on.  And then if you want to play wisely and carefully, you need to have an idea of all of that kept in mind for every other player too.  If they’re playing pirate, you’ll want to know the risk they pose.  If they’re playing merchant, you’ll want to know if they’re going to beat you to lucrative opportunities.  If you are playing pirate you’ll need to know not only the value of your targets but the risks posed by players turned bounty hunter.

Game flow too is complex – you have four possible actions you can take, but one of those actions may be made up of as many as eight different steps.   Storms will change the number of actions you have available, and may require re-evaluation of flow on the fly.  If you’re at sea when there’s a storm, you’ll take damage – that has the effect of making players think ‘Well, I really only have one action here because I can’t get out to sea and to a new port before the storm hits’.

The way in which enemy ships will scout for players is determined in part by the presence of bounties.  Pirates won’t hunt other pirates, but naval ships will hunt in a priority decided by bounties, and may roll different dice for their checks depending on how many bounties you have.

Combat between merchants and players is very quick and easy.  Combat between players and players, or players and NPCs, is much more involved and requires a constant assessment of risk, possibilities, and the probability of success.

There are lots of tokens involved in the game – bounties, ship flags, special weapons, modifications, resources, cargo, and more.   They’re all shifting in and out of importance and persistence as time goes by, and as a consequence of the actions of the players.  Selling an in-demand good, for example, will change the demand of that port.  There’s nothing you can really rely on turn to turn.

There’s no real rule synergies to think of, but there many conditional rules that need to be observed.   You can stash gold, if you’re in your home port.   You can enter a port as an action if you have no bounties of that nation.   You can a glory point for upgrading to a Galleon or Frigate if this is the first time you’ve done it.   You get a glory point for selling cargo that’s in demand if you sell three at a time.   You get a glory point for raiding a merchant if you got twelve or more gold in the process. There are a lot of these, and then you have to layer on the special rules that pertain to any given sea area, or on the combination of ships in an area.  Pirate ships won’t scout for players if they’re in the same space as a naval vessel for example.  NPC ships are frigates unless they’re at war, at which point they are changed to the Man O War.

You can’t even rely on scoring, because money stashed counts towards secret glory points, and scoring happens for a wide variety of reasons.  Each time you score gets you a glory card too, which gives you more options but also adds in another thing you have to consider when you play.

It’s a complex game, in other words, and as such not at all appropriate for anyone with cognitive impairments.

Emotiveness

Oh, this is going to be a fun one.

Remember when we talked about Survive: Escape from Atlantis and I said it was the most competitive game we’d yet encountered?  That remains true, because the competition is baked into its bones.  But Merchants and Marauders has a different kind of competition – asymmetrical, optional and non-consensual player versus player.

You absolutely don’t have to attack other players in Merchants and Marauders.   There are enough NPCs and other opportunities to occupy your time.  That doesn’t mean you won’t want to, because the rewards can be spectacular.  They lose almost everything, if you win, and you get to merrily scoop possessions off of their player board and into your own ship.  And since your own ship probably won’t be large enough to hold everything, you’ll be casually discarding the effort they put into the game over the past couple of hours.   In doing that, the game can flip from being swashbuckling fun to a mercilessly mean and cruel session of what seems like drive-by bullying.  It’s hugely dependent on your group, of course – but man, it can be dispiriting to see all that work go to waste.  Louis CK, in one of his best comedy sections, talks about how dark a Monopoly win can be.

Merchants and Marauders manages to harness that crushing domination element of Monopoly and make it all the darker for its completely unnecessary element.  When one player decides you’re their victim, you don’t get to say ‘No thank you’.   It is explicitly targeted.  They wanted to fight you, and they absolutely weren’t forced into doing it by core game mechanics.

Even if none of you are directly attacking each other, whenever a player goes to war with an NPC it’s another player that controls the enemy captain.  Even the NPC PvP is player PvP – they’re just working with someone else’s ship.  All they’re doing is rolling the dice and ensuring the enemy chooses a fair strategy – after all, if you go to decide you’d probably just say ‘Oh, they’re fleeing’ every time and rip them to shreds.   But when you see your galleon sinking slowly beneath the waves, some of the resentment of your loss is going to transfer to the bastard that rolled the dice.

You don’t get eliminated, that’s true.  But I think what happens is even worse – you start off largely from the beginning.  You keep your glory, and your stashed gold, but nothing else.   If it happens a couple of turns in, you can roll with that and have no serious penalty for play.  If it happens an hour in, well – good luck, buddy.   You’re stuck watching everyone else make serious progress while you’re still schlepping goods around for a few scrapings of coin at a time.

The game is also absolutely full of ‘take that’ moments.   Some are facilitated by game mechanics such as beating a trader to an in-demand good or a lucrative mission.  Others are just straight up ‘screw you’ cards you can play for no reason other than to mess up your opponents.  Seriously, you often don’t even get a benefit for doing it.  You just inflict a penalty.   Sometimes you even need to pay money to do it.

Take that

Teehee

It’s a game that permits ganging up, but it’s also a game that tends to disincentivise it.  After all, once one player has robbed you of everything you had, what’s the point of anyone else piling in?  But, there are more passive-aggressive ways a table can work together against a front-runner, primarily by making sure that they cannot take advantage of opportunities.  You can collaborate with regards to beating them to in-demand goods, raiding merchants before they get to them, and so on.  It’s a limited problem, and one that stems more from group dynamics than it does from the game design.   It’s still another aspect that makes the game notably inaccessible in terms of emotional impact.

So, no – we don’t recommend Merchants and Marauders in this category.

Physical Accessibility

You spend a lot of time in Merchants and Marauders engaged in physical activity.  You’re rolling dice, a lot.  You’re moving ships around the map, a lot.  You’re drawing and discarding cards, a lot.

The biggest problem with moving ships is the busyness of sea zones, and if you’re responsible for moving a naval ship you’re also going to be moving it along with its identification marker.  This might mean navigating it around a number of obstacles.  If you’re moving a sloop, they have a tendency to fall over very easily if you don’t place them in just the right way.  You’ll almost certainly need to ask people around the table about the specifics of particular zones and ports – if there is a physical restriction you likely won’t be able to easily move around the board to examine the far edges.  The tiny tokens are a problem here, because they really do need you to get up and close to tell them apart.

There are so many tokens that you’re working with, so regularly, across such a large board that we’re going to mark it out as largely inaccessible if you’re needing to play with meaningful agency.

One special element worth mentioning though – the treasure chests you get for your stash are fantastic, but they do create an accessibility issue.  Now, they’re only to hide the value of your stash so you can use a cup or a bag or even just a hidden bit of the table.  But man, those treasure chests are props of pure glee and it’s a shame to lose them.  They need assembled each game, which isn’t hard, but they also need relatively fine control to slot your money into them.

Verbalisation is easy – you have each area clearly identified, and you can easily articulate routes by reference to directions.  ‘Sail north into Tortuga’, for example.  All the actions you take have specific terminology, and even if they didn’t you can explain what you want to do without reference to the game jargon.  ‘Arrr, I’m going hunting for booty’ is as unambiguous as ‘I want to scout for a merchant’.  That’s all great.

The problem really comes in with assistance without leaking game information.  If you want to buy goods at a port for example, you need to draw six cards and then discard any in demand, drawing back up to six.  You’re not supposed to indicate to anyone what you have or what you bought, although there is a rule provision for verification in case you say something like ‘I’m buying all six for one gold piece each’.   You only need to assess the cards briefly, so you won’t be holding them for long. If that’s not a problem, it’s great.  If you have a physical impairment that makes card management difficult or impossible you’re going to need someone to hold them up for you, or manipulate them regularly in and out of a card holder.  It’s an inconvenience, not a show-stopper, but it would have an impact.

We do think though that you can play this, with support, provided you are happy with verbalising physical actions for others to undertake on your behalf.  You will likely need a more accommodating group than is usual for this though because of the specific flavour and variation of support required.

Communication

The game doesn’t require any actual communication, but it does require a reading level and a reasonable familiarity with the game’s language.  You can’t get by with just a few reminders or a crib sheet.   That’s going to render it inaccessible to mixed-language groups.   For a lot of the text it can be read out by someone else, but the concepts and flow of gameplay that they indicate still need a strong command of the language to understand.

For those with language or reading impairments, we don’t recommend this at all.  For those with articulation or hearing impairments, it should be fine.  As such, we’ll average this out to a tentative recommendation.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

It’s nice to be able to say something positive about Merchants and Marauders here.  Look at the roster of captains:

Diversity

This is a Benneton advert I’d be glad to see.

Isn’t that awesome?   There’s a broad panoply of not just men and women, but also intersectional diversity that blends ethnicity and gender.  True, it doesn’t manage to tick every box but that’s an unreasonable expectation.   The game represents well the glorious geodiversity of the golden age of piracy, and does so without tokenism or stereotyping.  It’s great.  While some of the artwork may not represent the most practical of attire, I’d also say that it spreads the flesh around across both genders, and I’d say manages to stay safely at the ‘sexy but not sexualised’ edge of the spectrum.    The manual tends to contextualise instructions based on purported captains, and as such modulates between male and female pronouns.

True, the box does show a gender bias, but let’s be honest – it’s not like this is particularly glorifying the guy on the cover:

Pirate on box

Dad!

Merchants and Marauders is, in other words, an exemplar for best practise in inclusive board game design and I’m delighted to see it.

I will make an observation here that I’m going to suggest you discount entirely, because it’s not a viewpoint to which I ascribe.   I do know though that this is an issue for certain groups, especially parents looking to inculcate certain moral values in their children.

We can’t ignore, from our safe perspective, how horrendous piracy was.   Pirates were terrible people, by and large – murderers, thieves, rapists and little more than sea-based terrorists.  And yet, we have adopted a societal glorification that identifies the period as being one of rich romance.  We’ve made pirates into cultural icons to be admired, and not vilified.   They’re figures of fun, not figures of fear.   Look at the jolly man above – he’s so happy!

This isn’t true of all cultures, and it’s not done at all symmetrically.  The Spanish for example still revile Francis Drake as a cutthroat pirate, whereas he is something of a naval hero to the English.   But certainly in the United Kingdom and America we refer to it as the Golden Age of Piracy not the Dark Age of Plunder.

This doesn’t bother me because it’s like getting upset at mafia movies, or the medieval conception of chivalric warfare.   We all know that what we’re seeing when we watch Goodfellas is a romanticised dramatization of a corrosive socioeconomic cancer.    When we watch movies of daring knights, we know that the crusades were little more than ecclesiastically sanctioned acts of attempted genocide.  We can know this, and still enjoy the sanitised cultural products that are generated.   If you don’t like this commodification of historical horror, then Merchants and Marauders may not be suitable. It makes no attempt to reflect the true unpleasant context of the time.  It’s certainly true that piracy does not pay, as you’ll find out when you lose a naval battle to a powerful NPC admiral.  But neither does trade, if you fall foul of a pirate frigate.   There’s no explicit reinforcement of the link between immorality and punishment.  It’s just like real life in other words – sometimes bad things happen to good people, and not every criminal is going to get their just rewards.

But let’s assume that’s not going to bother you – this is a pricey game.  It has an RRP of £50, and supports a maximum of four players.   £12.50 per player, in other words.  That’s a lot and won’t scale up to larger game nights.  But, what you get for the money is staggering.   Any given game session is going to spin out to at least two hours and you’ll have a half dozen sessions under your belt before you start running out of things to do for the first time.   There is an astounding amount of content – you’re not just buying a board-game here, you’re buying a sandbox you can play around in for many hours.   That is, if you can fit its play-time into your schedule.  If you can, I wouldn’t baulk at the price in terms of raw value.

We strongly recommend Merchants and Marauders in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

The board size introduces a number of intersectional complexities when it comes to visual and physical accessibility.  The top of the board contains active naval and pirate captains, which is important information for all players.  It’s also where the temporary damage grid for NPCs is located.   There’s going to be cross-referencing required that may be difficult if you can’t get close enough to the NPCs and damage grids although you can at least bring the captain temporarily closer to the affected players.

The game does support a degree of dropping in and out, because the game is played against a timer and there are only a few things that players might accumulate that would be removed from play in their absence – mainly specialists, modification, rumours and missions.  There are enough of these elsewhere that the effect will be limited.    That’s good, because given the play-time it’s not easy to schedule around physical discomfort or modulating conditions.  You’re in this for the long haul.  It’s so big that it’ll take up a full, reasonably sized table – so it’s not even as if you can set it up and come back to it later unless table surface is a disposable commodity in your house.

There is a considerable degree of downtime, although there are techniques for managing it.   Port actions and battles though are time-consuming, and you spend most of your time in Merchants and Marauders waiting for your go to come around once more.  True, you can’t ignore what other players are doing – especially if their heavily armed pirate ships start veering off to where you are.  Most of the time though it won’t make much difference to your plans.  This can make it difficult to keep those with cognitive impairments focused, or those with control issues invested in play.  On the other hand, we’ve already said the game isn’t at all accessible to either of these groups so to an extent the intersectional issues don’t really matter.

The largest intersectional issue is the bloodthirsty nature of the direct player versus player competition and the penalties associated with losing in an encounter.   Competition is an issue across the board in mixed ability games because it disincentivises collegiate support.   It’s highly group dependent, but can lead to people not pointing out missed opportunities, not confessing to overlooked negative game effects that impact on them, and interpreting game actions in the way that most broadly disadvantages opponents.  They’re competitors, after all.   Our common advice here is ‘play games with those as interested in the collective fun as in their own’, and that guidance will serve you in good stead here.

Conclusion

Merchants and Marauders is a great game – it got four stars in our review, and would have gotten more were the rules just a bit more streamlined.  Unfortunately, it’s also deeply inaccessible to many categories of potential players:

Colour Blindness B
Visual Impairment E
Emotiveness E
Fluid Intelligence E
Memory E
Physical C-
Socioeconomic A
Communication C-

That said, it deserves considerable credit for its approach towards diversity, and how it does this without fanfare or self-congratulation.  It treats inclusivity as no great thing, and in the process serves as the perfect exemplar for how to do it right.

Radar chart

Merchants and Marauders radar chart

I couldn’t recommend Merchants and Marauders to many people with all its fundamental inaccessibilities, but it’s in the strange position of being a game that I will hold up as being a sterling representative  example of ‘best practice that should be emulated’.   There is scope here too for its accessibility to be significantly improved in the future, in another edition.   Merchants and Marauders could be a much more accessible game, and I’d love to see it being modified into feasibility for a greater number of people.


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