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Played this game for the first time last night, and people rarely wanted to play "their" merchants, I guess because they didn't want anyone to attack them.
Is this normal?
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It's normal, but it's not good strategy. They'll be left with handfuls of merchants at the end of the game, which are all negative points. Or else they'll suddenly dump merchants at the end of the game to avoid that, in which case the smart players will have handfuls of pirate ships and will snap up a bunch of points very easily.
Playing the merchants is all about timing. Do you have some pirate cards in your hand to play on one of your own valuable merchants? Do you have the admiral and a valuable merchant? Are there already a lot of merchants in play, allowing you to maybe sneak one through with little or no attention? Is the end of the game in sight, and you still have several merchants in hand? These are the best times to play merchants.