Merchants & Marauders: Broadsides was one of those games which caught my attention instantly. 2-player games tend to be simple affairs, and from the awesome components, the player boards, the tokens and cards, it looked like Broadsides would be more than that – a glamorous tumult of cannon fire and shattering hulls, of sailors bravely swinging to broken masts to affect desperate repairs even as the ship’s bow threatens to snap and the first mate falls into the briny depths and the guns thunder away, endlessly hungry to rain down death and destruction with every blast.
What we have in Broadsides is a game with boatloads (HAH!) of potential. Two pirate captains square off on the high seas, each ship equipped with a pair of cannons and a loyal, if expendable, crew. In turns, players will set their sights on the enemy, zero in their guns, and fire away, hoping to send their opponent to the deeps before the same can be done to them.
The key mechanisms in Broadsides are centered around card-play. Each turn is played over the course of 3 stages; Actions, Fire!, and Draw/discard.
In the Action phase, players will take 2 actions, one of which must be Aim!. The actions are (punctuated! for! emphasis!):
- Aim! – commit an aim card to one of your cannons , trying to improve your aim
- Hold! – draw a card
- Broadside! – discard a flush to blast the heck out of your opponent
- Sheer Off! – discard a straight to make your foe lose cards
- Reload! – discard cards to refill your cannons
- Repair! – send your crew to repair your damaged ship
After taking their two actions, players may optionally Fire! their cannons. Fire!ing is another multi-step process (7 distinct things!) which involves determining potential damage, spending ammo, accounting for your targeting cards, and giving your opponent a chance to evade.
This back and forth, of players zeroing in on parts of their opponent’s ship and blasting away, repeats until one ship is either damaged beyond repair (10 missing hull planks) or has lost both the Captain and First Mate. The surviving ship is the victor!
Andrew: One of the things that struck me about Broadsides is just how much randomness there is in the game. Since so many actions require card plays, the luck of the draw is literally a constant factor of consideration.
Jess: Yeah, for sure. It’s totally possible for you to plan an attack over the course of two or three turns, only to have your opponent flop down a good hand of cards to either evade your attack of force you to discard, etc.
That said, there are a few mechanisms in Broadsides which prevent it from going around endlessly in circles. Each time you take certain actions (Broadside!, Sheer Off!, and Evade), the cards you used (either their values or their suit) get blocked off, and you can no longer take that action with those cards. So even though Broadside! is a powerful action (and when you name your game after it, it darn well should be), you can do it at most 4 times per game, once for each suit.
Andrew: I actually really liked that mechanism. It means that, as the game goes on, your options naturally narrow, preventing a lucky player from always having just enough cards to Evade every cannon attack.
Jess: I agree, it’s a cool mechanism that keeps the game from dragging. Another thing that limits your actions is that, as your ship gets blown up around you, it steadily accrues penalties to the various actions you may take (like lost sails penalize Evasion, and missing crew makes cannons less accurate).
While those mechanisms ensure that the game keeps progressing towards a conclusion, Broadsides is occasionally a frustrating game. There is a lot of randomness, thanks to the reliance on the luck of the draw, and in the early game especially, it is possible to make a big attack, commit lots of cards, only to have your opponent shrug it off.
Jess: I noticed that it felt like the first player to make an attack tended to win, since the defending player burned up cards to evade and therefore had fewer cards to attack, and also had fewer options for future evasions.
Broadsides is a brawl, plain and simple. The decisions made boil down to which cannon you will fire and what area of your opponent’s ship you will target. Beyond that, much of the game comes down to what cards you have at any given moment.
Adding a bit of flavor is are the Reputation and Dirty Trick cards, intended to be added once players are comfortable with the base game. Reputation cards are unique player powers which will give your Captain unique traits for the game. Dirty Trick cards are 1-time use abilities that break the rules, and you’ll draft 3 at the beginning of each game.
Andrew: I liked Broadsides, but I wanted to love it. The presentation is so slick and its core concept is really neat. In practice, though, I felt like it fell flat in a few areas. The gameplay felt a bit samey after a while, and it’s a bit of a meat-grinder.
Jess: Yeah, I have to agree. It’s functional but fussy, and while I I think the Reputation and Dirty Trick cards add some depth, ultimately it comes down to just tossing cards at each other, hoping to be the last one standing.
Merchants & Marauders: Broadsides has some neat ideas to go along with its great aesthetic. For fans of its particular brand of fistfight, it’s a fun, albeit a bit fiddly, experience. That said, it didn’t quite float our boats (ok, I’m sorry), despite having so much going for it.
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(Gameosity received a review copy of this title. We were not otherwise compensated.)