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Subject: Our First Play, Finally rss

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Brian V
United States
Lebanon
New Jersey
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I didn't back the Kickstarter for Marauders because I knew anything about the game itself or the creators. I also didn't back out of any grand notion of supporting new games or independent developers. No, I backed this game - I think like many others - because I saw two things:

1. Pirates! arrrh

2. $15!

It *seemed* like a pretty elaborate boxed game for $15. Even if we only got one or two plays out of it, I figured it would probably be worth it.

The game arrived on time and as described and I promptly unboxed it, reboxed it, and stuck it on a shelf for months. Every now and then we'd contemplate playing it, but by that point I'd taken a look at the rules and wasn't particularly excited about it. Also, the components were clearly prototypes, and in the intervening months I'd acquired many newer, shinier games with which to play. The last hurdle was that the game seemed clearly designed to be played with exactly four players, and it had been rare we'd gotten a group together with exactly four people ready to try something completely new. This past weekend I finally had an opportunity to play Marauders and I want to share my experience with everyone.

Marauders is a game for four players where each player is a band of, well, Marauders, searching an island for a lost artifact. Already the theme is a little wonky, since the box clearly shows pirates, but there's really no piracy at all to be found here. No ships, no battles, no bodices or ripping thereof. No colonies, no mercantilism, no nations. That's not all bad, though, just don't go into the game expecting anything really related to pirates at all.

Each player controls a party of two scouts and four guards as they search the island for gems and other tradeable goods, helpful resources like horses, cannons and fortresses, and ultimately the clues which point to the location of the lost artifact. Everyone's goal is to discover the four clues which point to the specific location of the artifact and then move one of their scouts there and paid one of each resource. The first player to do this wins and the game is over.

Each player is working towards the same set of six clues, which are set up pseudo-randomly at the beginning of the game. The Marauders game board consists of 16 terrain tiles randomly arranged in a 4x4 grid. Each tile has certain characteristics: land type (jungle, plains, desert, mountain), water type (lake, pond), and water shape (turtle, bear). In addition, each terrain tile has both a cave and a boulder, each with an X marked over it. The clues selected at the beginning of the game will end up pointing to a specific X among the 32 available on the board. For instance, if the four clues drawn were grass, lake, turtle, cave, then the artifact would be located in the cave on the terrain tile which has grassland and a lake shaped like a turtle. That’s four clues – the other two clues are “dead ends” which end up being annoying wastes of time.

Each terrain tile also contains a treasure chest. Each chest has within it a precious resource and a key. The resource is one of the five available (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, gold and silver) and there are three possible key colors (red, blue, yellow). As such, each treasure chest is different. There are the 15 combinations of resource and key as well as one “wild” chest. Players control chests by paying the appropriate key card color (or using a wooden “master” key), flipping the chest over to reveal its contents, and then placing one of their four guard markers on it. From then on while they still control the chest, they will receive its resource whenever it’s rolled on the dice, which happens once per turn.

The game progresses as players move their scouts around the board unlocking chests, collecting gems, and buying clues and resources. This part of the game plays like a bit of a mixture between Settlers of Catan and Clue, with players controlling certain resources but needing dice rolls to gain anything while trying to unlock the clues needed to win the game.

What Marauders adds is an interesting mechanic that echoes the prisoner’s dilemma. In order to find the artifact, players are prohibited from guessing at a clue – they *must* have discovered them all, either by paying the appropriate gems, using a spyglass resource card, or by trading clues with another player. During their turn, players can trade gems, keys and other resources with other players without restriction. If they want to trade a clue, however, each player plays one of their two decision cards: one showing a handshake, the other showing a skull and crossbones. If both players shake hands, the trade goes on as agreed. However, if only one person shakes hands, the other has stabbed them in the back and received their promised clue without having to surrender anything! It makes negotiations tricky, but rewards skillful diplomats by giving them a shortcut to victory.

In addition to the clue trading, decision cards are also used when two players decide to form an alliance against a third. The handshake/backstab mechanics here decide which player (or players) will lose all of their cards, making alliances a high-risk, high-reward maneuver which can quickly swing a game.

We had a good time with Marauders. While the setup and explanation was pretty tricky, once we got into the flow of the game, things made a lot of sense and we didn’t have too much difficulty, even with two players who were relative novices to this style of board game. We did run into a few situations where the rules weren’t very clear (what happens when two scouts want to occupy the same space), but overall the game made a lot of sense.

Would I recommend it? I’m not quite sure. The game is very slow for what it is – I feel like offering more incentives for clue trades and better ability for the scouts to move around the map would probably accelerate things. In addition, if you play with a random board (as we did), there’s a huge opportunity for one player to have a significant built-in advantage based on the terrain and resources he ends up with close by at the beginning, let alone the location of the lost artifact. I feel like there are probably a lot of opportunities for interesting house rules to help correct some of these issues.

If you have an opportunity to play Marauders, it’s worth giving a look, but I’m not sure I’d spend a lot of time or effort tracking down a copy of the prototype. That said, the core of an interesting game is here and a final version that corrects some of the problems could be a lot of fun.
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