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The Voyages of Marco Polo

Reviewed by: Joe Huber

(Z-Man Games/Hans im Glűck, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 40-100 minutes; $59.99)

marcopolo1For me, the question of the most consistent publisher is a fairly easy one. Other than the single designer publishers, I’ve found no publisher who finds as consistently interesting designs as Hans im Glück. Whether classic games such as El Grande, Euphrat & Tigris, and Goa, or more recent games such as Bruges and Russian Railroads, they have been the original publisher of an amazing array of games. This is both a testament to their skill at finding good designs and to their skill at game development.

So when I had the chance to play The Voyages of Marco Polo, designed by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, I quickly got myself into a game. Themed around Marco Polo’s travels, the game is a dice game, with the rolled dice used as workers in a worker placement game. The game board is split into two halves, with one half focused on the destinations to be visited and the other on the actions available to be taken. Some of the destinations offer additional actions but only to those who have visited them. Players all start in Venice, with a variety of paths available to start down, and start with one contract they are looking to fulfill by providing the required camels and goods in order to earn victory points and sometimes other rewards. Each player also chooses two route cards, providing bonuses for completing both cards on a route, and for the number of different cities on the card visited.

The Voyages of Marco Polo is played over five rounds. At the start of a round, six new contracts are made available and, after the first round, the first player marker is awarded to the LAST player to have traveled in the previous round. All players roll their dice; anyone who rolls a total of less than 15 on five dice is compensated by a camel or a coin for every pip below 15 rolled. Players then take turns with each turn consisting of bonus actions (if desired), a main action, and then additional bonus actions (again, if desired).

At the start of the game, there are five groups of main actions available. There is a market where goods can be taken. Silk and gold, being better goods, require two and three dice, respectively, but it’s always the LOWEST die that determines what can actually be taken. There is a purse, giving the player choosing that action 5 coins regardless of the die used. There is a space with as many available actions as there are players, awarding two camels and one good but each die placed there must be at least as large as the previous one. There is a contract space where players can take their choice of 1 or 2 contracts but only the contracts in the slots no larger than the die they use there. And there is a travel space, requiring two dice, allowing players to travel 1 to 6 spaces across the board but at a fixed cost (based upon the number of spaces) and with additional costs (in camels or coins) as shown on the path taken. When travelling, a player may place a trading post in the city where they end their movement, providing some combination of immediate benefits and future options. A player may use an occupied space so long as no dice of a color previously used are involved but must pay the number on the lowest die used in coins to the bank in order to do so.

There are five bonus actions available, to help a player along. A contract may be completed, earning the victory points and any additional rewards. A die may be used to take 3 coins, while still allowing for a main action. One camel may be given up in order to re-roll one die, and two camels may be given up in order to increase the value on a die by one. Any of these four actions may be taken multiple times, as desired. The fifth bonus action may only be done once per turn – spending three camels to take one of the black dice (assuming any remain), rolling it, and adding it to his or her available pool.

2009(1)The real heart of the game, though, is the characters. Each player has a character that breaks the game in a significant way. One character allows the player to set their dice to any value, when they actually use them. One allows the player to place dice on an occupied space at no cost. Another one gives the player a resource whenever another player collects that resource from the market – and there are five other characters in the game. Players draft their characters from a randomly selected group of one more than there are players in the game, with the player going last in the first round receiving the first choice, and proceeding counter-clockwise.

The game continues until the last player has used all of their dice in the fifth round. Players then score points for goal cards, for each 10 coins remaining, for trading posts in Beijing, and for remaining goods IF they have a trading post in Beijing. The player who completed the most contracts receives a bonus of 7 points. These are added to the points scored during the game, mostly for completing contracts, but also for placing an 8th and 9th trading post and for some of the placement actions in the cities on the map. The player with the most victory points wins.

When I first played The Voyages of Marco Polo, I was extremely pleased with the game; I quickly got in a second and third play and I thought it had the potential to be the first game since 2013 to become one of my all time favorites. But I knew I needed to play it more, before making up my mind. The designers, you see, were also behind one of the bigger hits of 2012, Tzolk’in The Mayan Calendar. While I enjoy that game, after more plays I found it to be flawed. Not fatally but, for me, the god tracks are too critical to the game.

Perhaps not surprisingly, with more play I’ve found that Marco Polo might have a similar issue: contracts are too important. But I suspect that in this case, it’s even less of a detriment to the game than the importance of the god tracks in Tzolk’in since all players can readily participate in completing contracts while varying other aspects of their play. The only unfortunate aspect is that fulfilling contracts is the least interesting element of Marco Polo, forcing players to balance between good play and fun play.

I’ve also discovered that Marco Polo is not as clever a game as Tzolk’in. The use of the gears in Tzolk’in requires a large degree of strategic forward thinking and the choice of using gears is a mechanically brilliant way of providing improving options over time. Marco Polo is a much more tactical game as players have to balance paying to use an action already taken versus taking a less preferred action for free. But while I don’t feel Marco Polo is as clever a game, it still has a lot to recommend it.

The limited ability to move around the board forces players to carefully consider their options and focus. Route cards give a focus but are not so rewarding that players have to aim to accomplish them and the tradeoffs between actions are consistently interesting. But what really makes the game is the characters. They are ALL broken but in the best of ways; each offers a wonderful, and different, experience. The most broken character, of course, is the one another player wins with!

After my initial plays of The Voyages of Marco Polo, I thought it was the first game in a while to have a chance of becoming one of my all-time favorites. With six plays under my belt now, I’m no longer quite so enthusiastic about the game. I like the game – but I’m really not sure if it’s a passing fad, as Pantheon was for me, or a game that will continue to delight. I am certain that I want to try all of the characters out before I pull the plug on it, and in the worst case I expect to get ten plays of the game before I let it go – a success by most measures.

Marco Polo is a professionally produced game with solid rules and nice wooden components. The one issue I’ve seen with the components is that the large goods (worth three of the good) are almost indistinguishable from the little ones. There’s also one wording on the player summaries which can cause confusion (suggesting that the action to take three coins with a die can only be done once) but it’s easily clarified, and is clear in the rules.

But The Voyages of Marco Polo is definitely a game folks should seek out the opportunity to try. The game has gone over consistently well, even with those jaded by decades of European games. The game does have the advantage of working well on the first play, which always helps. And I’m sure that for many, The Voyages of Marco Polo will not just be a passing fancy, but a permanent addition to their collection.


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