I’ve heard several pirates openly mock the Merchant Voyages in Sea of Thieves, claiming them to be useful only for bored solo players for “easy” or “low risk” work.
Nay, I tell you! For Merchant Voyages are the highest stakes in the game, and are truly endgame. The toughest pirates of them all are the ones that fear no snake, and always deliver on time.
Merchant Voyages are the only voyages that have left me angry enough to ragequit, multiple times, so it’s possible I’m just defensive.
Narratively the Highest Stakes
In Sea of Thieves there are three trading companies (“factions”) which offer you Voyages, the most orderly quests for progression in the game. Of the three I think it is plainly the Merchants that offer the highest stakes narratively speaking that the game has to offer in organized play.
The Gold Hoarders seek to accumulate gold, and their voyages ask players to find and dig up the loot of infamous NPC pirates. This is presumably, based upon their name, to fill a giant vault somewhere in the sea so that some pirates may dive into said vault to swim in it in the fashion of one Scrooge McDuck. For all we know, the leader of the Gold Hoarders is Scrooge McDuck. This is a fine goal, but a few coins lost to Davy Jones’ locker or stolen by some other pirate isn’t going to slow things down very much or make the existing hoard any less swimmable.
The Order of Souls asks pirates to hunt undead skeleton crews that haunt the islands, so that they may study their magically infused skulls for Pirate Science. This is absolutely laudable as a goal. Yet too, any one particular skull isn’t likely to advance the cause much, and skulls stolen by other pirates likely still help the cause in the end. (Aside: given no obvious citrus fruits in the game, perhaps it needs an Order of Scurvy to fight that dread problem?)
The Merchants voyages give you a request from some unseen NPC for an arbitrary assortment of chickens, pigs, snakes, bananas, gunpowder kegs, etc. At first, these seem like simple requests, and somewhat silly. But these requests want these things by a certain date at a certain receiving island. It seems to me that these NPCs are doing the best they can, with what resources available, to plan parties and feasts in this age of sail. Each stolen gunpowder keg is one less fireworks display for a party; each chicken ruthlessly murdered or sunk is one less meal at a feast.
I may pretend to be a heartless pirate sometimes in the game, but I don’t want to be the ruin of some kind stranger’s party or feast. I take murdered chickens very seriously, and that is why I have quit with the utmost of rage. You might think the chickens are silly little annoyances, but these are the game’s toughest stakes. But you don’t have to take my word for it, the game itself seems to agree with me in its progression mechanics.
Sea of Thieves Progression Primer
Because not everyone may have an intricate love/hate relationship with Sea of Thieves allow me to provide a brief primer on its progression mechanics.
The core gameplay loop is simple: find objects and return them to the appropriate trading company to progress most of the reward streams: gold, reputation, and some of the available commendations/emblems. Gold is a currency stream to bootstrap the gameplay loop and/or buy cosmetics. Reputation and commendations/emblems unlock additional cosmetics for gold to buy.
Many of the objects you can turn into the trading companies may be found through simply searching random islands and shipwrecks for them or thieving them from other pirates.
The trading companies provide Voyages to direct this loop towards something a little less aimless. For a nominal fee that increases with reputation-based rank (and thus voyage complexity/risk/reward), Voyages offer specific object targets to feed into the core gameplay loop. The remaining commendations/emblems are only unlocked via Voyages.
I’d also argue that the simple Voyage Complete banner is the most satisfying reward in the game.
Merchant Voyages Have the Most Complicated Objects
Order of Souls Voyages direct you to specific islands to stumble into multiple waves of skeleton pirates to fight until their named Captains show up. There are some slight variations to the type of skeletons to fight: leafy pirates are strengthened in water, gold pirates rust in water, and shadow pirates can only be hurt in the light (of day, of a campfire, of a crew mate’s raised lantern). Kill skeletons. Collect the dropped skulls of dead named Captains. Rinse, repeat.
Gold Hoarders Voyages direct you to specific islands to dig up chests. Often this is as simple as find the location of the X marked on the map and dig. (Fight any skeleton waves that pop up.) Sometimes the complication is that the map is instead a riddle which asks you to have some awareness of features of the island on which you have already been directed, and count some paces from some of them.
Merchant Voyages request specific objects, but do not give you specific islands where they might spawn. They are the only voyages that ask you have awareness of chains of islands and relative island spawning populations. These objects are complicated in further ways:
Pick up dependencies: You can’t just pick up live animals, you need the appropriate coop, cage, or basket. You can’t just sell bananas straight from the kegs in your ship’s hold, you need a crate. Merchants on any outpost island will provide the first set of these dependency objects, but they spawn only irregularly on the islands themselves so replacing lost or stolen ones is complicated.
Care and feeding: Pigs need to be regularly fed bananas, or they whine and then die of (presumed) starvation. Snakes need to be handled with care, and like to be mollified with a sea shanty. Their spit is obnoxious to nearby pirates, and deadly to any other nearby animals.
Merchant Voyages Are the Hardest to Progress
Order of Souls Voyages progress every time one of the named skeleton Captains is killed. It does not matter even if it is you or your crew that kills that particular Captain. The Voyage completes when all named skeleton Captains are killed. It does not matter if any of the acquired skulls are actually turned in (by you or opposing crews).
Gold Hoarders Voyages progress every time the requirements of a riddle stanza is met, and every time a chest is dug up. The voyage completes when all chests are dug up. It also does not matter if any of the acquired chests are actually turned in.
Merchant Voyages progress every time a requested item is sold to a specific Merchant vendor on a specific named island. The voyage completes only when all items are sold.
Merchant Voyages have a due date. They are the only Voyages that have a failure state.
There are no intermediate progressions offered simply by collecting the needed items on an island or in one’s ship. Every stolen, murdered, or sunk item is a major setback against a ticking clock.
Merchant Pirates and Merchant Captains Are the Real Heroes
I think commendations/emblems for completing Merchant Voyages are the hardest rewards in the game. I respect any pirate in Sea of Thieves that accomplishes that. I will continue to laugh at any pirate that tells me they think Merchant Voyages are “easy”. Despite their silly cargo (chickens are definitely silly), they are the most taxing and hardest to accomplish of the game’s voyages. Eventually I suspect the taverns will fill with the well-earned bravado of the toughest Merchants in the Sea, but it may take some time for some folks to be swayed to agree. And sure, those tales of bravado are still going to have their light-hearted moments of chasing pigs into the ocean and playing lullabies for snakes, but for a pirate sometimes those are best stories when you can get a laugh and build tension at the same time.