I love it when a game comes along and surprises me. The Voyages of Marco Polo wasn’t even on my radar much at all when it got an “official recommendation” from the 2015 Kennerspeil des Jahres committee. Designed by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, the minds behind Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (another Kennerspeil recommendation) it’s certainly got some designer pedigree, and the theme appealed to me, but I didn’t give it too much thought until the buzz machine really started getting loud at the Origins Game Fair, just after the Speil nominees were announced.
But while at Origins and looking for a buzz-worthy, as-yet-unreleased new game to bring back to share with my customers, there was really no competition.
So, the game itself:
my initial reaction was not a good one. At its most fundamental level, Voyages of Marco Polo is a worker placement game of the die-rolling variety, not entirely dissimilar to something like Kingsburg.
The problem is, I hate Kingsburg. A lot. I find the die-rolling to be incredibly frustrating, as I don’t really have any compelling choices to make because they’re all limited by the die results. Long-term planning goes out the window and I often find myself thinking “whatever, I guess I’ll just do this.” The result is remarkably deterministic for a game involving so many dice. But Voyages of Marco Polo eliminates this problem in a number of intriguing ways, which I’ll get to in a minute.
As should be obvious from its title, the game is themed around the famous travels of brothers Niccolo and Maffeo Polo (and Niccolo’s son Marco) and the people that surrounded them at the end of the 13th century.
At the beginning of the game, you’ll be assigned one of eight different characters (they are drafted in the Expert Variant). Over the course of the next hour to hour and a half, you’ll be travelling the length of Asia with your camel caravans, and completing contracts for trade goods (pepper, silk, and gold) while attempting to reach up to four locations dictated by your hidden goal cards.
The basic mechanics of the game are in fact worker placement, with the “workers” in the form of dice. You roll your handful of five dice at the beginning of each round before taking turns placing one or more of them. You also have a number of optional “bonus” actions that you may take in addition to placing your dice.
Generally speaking, the number on the die determines the specific quantity or quality of the action you get to perform. Certain actions require two or more dice to be played together, but only the lowest value die is the one that counts. In the above photo for example, the green player will be receiving three silk for placing his pair of fours on the Grand Bazaar.
Unlike many other worker placement games, in most cases the presence of another player’s dice does NOT preclude you from placing on that same space. You do, however, have to pay coins (equal to your lowest value die being played) if you are not the first player on that space.
Not only that, but if after you first roll for the turn, the sum of your dice is less than fifteen, you receive the difference in coins or camels. So not only are low-rolling dice compensated for, but sometimes, given the payment requirement for placing on an already occupied space, low valued dice become desirable. It’s these two mechanics that more than make up for my frustrations in Kingsburg.
(Note, coins ≠ gold. Gold is a resource, used to complete contracts, and coins are money.)
The available die actions each turn include getting new contracts, traveling, acquiring coins and resources (including camels which are very important for travel), and earning the “Khan’s Favor” which is a clever way to get exactly the resources you need and prevent opponents from doing the same.
Traveling, is actually a very expensive endeavor, requiring lots of coins and often requiring the expenditure of camels, depending on the route. Thematically, this is appropriate, and really makes the idea of attempting to traverse the entirety of Asia really daunting. But if you want to get the points from your goal cards, that is often what you’ll have to do in an effort to visit all of your cities.
The bonus actions available to you each turn are all choices that you can make in any quantity and order, in addition to your basic die-placement action. These include completing contracts, and most interestingly, paying camels to manipulate the facing of the dice that you rolled! Camels, as should now be obvious, can become a very valuable commodity.
The variety of cities available is what really makes this game sing. There are two varieties of stopping points along the roads, large cities, and outposts. At each one, you’ll place one of your Trading Posts when you stop there.
The outposts each have a small reward that is granted at the beginning of each turn to every player that has a trading post present. These reward tiles are placed in a very specific order, but randomized in the Expert Variant.
The larger cities have City Cards that provide new options that open up to every player with a trading post there. These options are alternate places to put your dice for actions, similar to the way buildings work in Lords of Waterdeep. The game comes with a LOT of City Cards, way more than the eight cities on the board.
This giant stack of cards, combined with alternate Outpost placement, and the variety of characters all contribute to radically different game states and a utterly massive amount of replayability.
This is one of those games that I can’t stop thinking about. Every time I’ve played I have a completely different set of considerations spinning around my head. Do I spend the energy to attempt to make routes to all four of my goal cities? Maybe I need to go out of my way to take advantage of all the options available in remote, exotic Sumatra. Maybe I’m playing the merchant and I’ve got an excellent flow of trade goods, so completing contracts is my path to victory. Perhaps I’m playing Kublai Khan himself, and instead of starting in Venice, I start way across the other side of the board in Beijing!
It’s the new mix of concerns every game, and the multiple, valid paths to victory that have already brought this game to the table again and again.
-Paul Alexander Butler runs Board Game Tuesdays at Games and Stuff. He enjoys playing Voyages of Marco Polo with DVDs of Michael Palin’s world travels running in the background.
-[Card.Board.Box.] is Paul’s catch-all column about gaming for Gamesandstuffonline.com