Reviewed by Herb Levy

MICHAEL STROGOFF (Devir, 1 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 60 minutes; $34.99)


Jules Verne is one of the authors who lives on in his work. Nearly everyone has heard of the classic novels 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. But despite their contemporary success, not every one of his novels has the same name recognition today and it is one of these lesser known novels that serves as the inspiration for the new game designed by Alberto Corral: Michael Strogoff

This Verne novel is a thriller. It is Russia at the end of the 19th century. The traitorous Colonel Ivan Ogareff has conspired with the Tartars to invade the empire, cutting communications between Moscow and Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia. Michael Strogoff has been tasked by the Czar to deliver a message to his brother, the Grand Duke in Irkutsk, to warn him of the coming threat. Players are couriers racing across Russia to deliver the message to the Duke and stop Ogareff and the Tartars. 

The mounted board shows a 12 space path from Moscow to Irkutsk. The black meeple representing Colonel Ogareff begins on the board’s perimeter (at the designated space depending on the number of players) while everyone else begins in Moscow. The black die representing the Tartars is set at a value of 3 and placed in Tomsk (space 9 on the path). The white die supplied with the game has a different purpose as you will see. Players also get a player board with a matching colored disk (set at 6) to chart a player’s “energy”. 

Route Cards and Action Cards play key roles. There are five decks of Route cards, each with a different back (Russia, Ural Mountains, Siberia, Tomsk and Irkutsk) to indicate dangers to overcome in those areas when traveled and these are separately shuffled and placed in their assigned spaces. Each player draws a Russia Route card as the first card on his/her path where it goes to the right of his/her player board. Players are dealt a starting hand of five Action cards. The player who last mailed a letter goes first.

Two phases make a turn: The Couriers Phase and the Traitor’s Phase. There are three options available in the Courtiers Phase: Rest, Advance or Resolve Dangers. 

When a player chooses to advance, his/her meeple moves ahead one space on the road to Irkutsk, spending one energy and drawing the top card from the appropriate Route deck. Route cards display one (or two) icons which symbolize hazards the intrepid courier faces ranging from wild animals, inclement weather, getting lost etc.  If the Route card shows one of these dangers in a darkened circle, the player may IMMEDIATELY play an Action card with a matching icon from his hand to neutralize it. (Neutralization is shown by placing a black “resolution” disk on it.) Route cards drawn are placed to the right of a player’s board without effect UNLESS a matching icon appears. In that case, the player is “busted” and penalties suffered. 

Penalties appear on Route cards and can result in the loss of an Action card, a loss of energy or having a card flipped over. (The drawbacks to losing a card or energy is self-evident; having a card flipped over prevents that player from any further advancement UNTIL the card is flipped back!)

Rest allows you to do TWO actions (either different or the same twice) including drawing 2 Action cards, gaining 1 energy OR flipping over 1 face down card. 

Resolving Dangers is how those accumulated Route cards can be removed. If the Route card is the last one drawn (i.e. the one farthest right), ONE Action card is all that is required to negate that icon. (If this is the only icon on the card, the card is removed; if there are two icons on the card, then both have to be resolved before its removal.) Alternatively, you can play two matching Action card icons (even if they don’t match the Route icon) to cancel it OR lose 1 energy.  If you’re lucky, you will be able to remove two or three Route cards in one Resolution. 

If you do manage to negate a Route card, you can claim its special ability, noted on the bottom of the card. These abilities can allow you to draw a card, increase your hand size (there is a hand limit of 7 Action cards), advance twice on a turn, gain energy or a resolution disk (to place on a revealed hazard) when a certain die number is rolled. (One of the cards for Siberia shows an ability that resembles an exploded black disk! This is a misprint. It should be a NON-exploded black resolution disk!) But no matter how many cards are resolved on a turn, only one may be claimed for its ability. 

Once all players have taken their turns, the traitor gets his chance. 

On the Traitor’s turn, a card is drawn from the top of the Action deck and the spaces at bottom of the card are immediately triggered. The first space advances the Colonel 1, 2 or 3 spaces. The third space moves the Tartars. As mentioned, the Tartars begin on space 9 with a die value of 3.  This space will indicate a numbered path space where the Tartar die will move and, depending on the space, either maintain, raise or lower, that die value. When Tartars and players meet, another obstacle must be faced.

If a player voluntarily enters a space where the Tartars are, that advancing player rolls a die. If the roll is equal to or greater than the current Tartars value, that player draws an Action card as a reward. Fail, and an energy point is lost. But if the Tartars move into a space occupied by one or more players, all are considered “blinded” and must draw a card from the Tomsk Route deck. These cards show TWO icons and, unlike regular Route cards, these may NOT be resolved until the end game – but they can still cause a player to bust if duplicate icons are revealed.  (Fortunately, this penalty is a one time deal. Even if the Tartars encounter that player again, no further damage occurs.). But it is the second space that triggers even more chaotic action. 

The second space will show one of three things. A white die may appear (which indicates the white die is to be rolled with players activating any special abilities they may have that matches the roll). It is possible that a letter (A, B, C or D) will appear and this means an ally of the players comes into play. 

There are four slots on the board, labeled A, B, C, and D, reserved for allies. A small deck of Ally cards is shuffled and one of these characters is randomly revealed and put into the A slot at the start of play. If a letter appears, a new ally card is drawn and placed in the specified space. If that space is occupied, that particular ally is superseded by the new one. If all allies have appeared and another letter drawn, discards are shuffled so that a new ally may appear. Allies have helpful abilities and, as long as the ally is there, players may use his/her ability to aid them in their quest by handing in 1 (or 2, depending on the character) Action cards with that character’s picture on them. These abilities allow you to discard one card and draw two, roll the white die an extra time to gain bonus abilities or do TWO different actions on a single turn and so on. The third possibility is the appearance of Sangarra. 

The sultry Sangarra is a spy in the employ of Ogareff. Her card begins off the board but when she appears on a drawn Action card, she will attach herself to the player farthest along the path to Irkutsk. She carries with her one of the danger icons (the mask which denotes spies) and, if the unlucky player happens to already have that icon exposed on his Route cards, she will cause that player to “bust”! Fortunately, she can be removed by playing the appropriate icon from an Action card. (Even better, if Sangarra is already in play and she appears again on a drawn Action card, she will leave that player voluntarily to “report” back to the Colonel.) 

Play continues until either one or more players or the Colonel reach Irkutsk. At that point, we enter the end game and the final struggle begins. 

If the player enters Irkutsk first, the player MUST remove EVERY remaining danger icon he has amassed on his journey by playing an IDENTICAL icon from his Action card hand OR spend 1 energy. Then from 3 to 5 cards (based on Ogareff’s position on his track) are drawn from the Irkutsk Route cards with the player applying Action cards or spending energy to remove them.  If, after drawing and resolving all of these cards, the player has at least one energy left, he has defeated the Colonel, defended the Empire and wins the game! But if the Colonel gets to Irkutsk first….

Players take their normal turns but when it is time for the Traitor, the white die is rolled. Any benefits due the players are distributed – but the number rolled moves the Tartars that number of spaces closer to Moscow! If the Tartars enter Moscow, everyone LOSES!

While not a cooperative game, all players share the same goal – stopping Ogareff and the Tartars – so even if you, personally, don’t defeat him, you still bask in the shared victory. But make no mistake: this is a tough game to win. It might have been a good idea to help the potentially cooperative nature of the game along, intensify the bond between players and make victory a bit easier if cards could be swapped when players are in the same position on the board. This would allow for an easier time in eliminating dangers. Also, since Ogareff is always moving each turn, you could “shave” the odds in your favor by having him NOT move for a turn or two or start him a bit further back on his track.

Allies are an important asset that players need to use, particularly Maria Strogoff (Michael’s mother) whose ability permits players to use ANY card with her picture as ANY danger icon – a huge help in the final battle! (Sometimes, Mama will appear early in the game where her ability is useless. As the game progresses and more allies appear and circulate, discarded allies will be reshuffled and reappear so, even if she appears early, she may resurface – IF you are lucky – at the opportune moment.)

Michael Strogoff is a beautifully produced, from the nicely done artwork to the three-dimensional figure used to remind players when it is time for the traitor to move, game of semi-controlled chaos. Armchair generals and serious strategists will find this frustrating. Long range planning – even short range planning – is subject to the whims of a card draw or die roll. Playing conservatively allows Ogareff too much time to get to Irkutsk before you and unleashes the Tartars for their attack on Moscow so, to win, you HAVE to press your luck. Because of this, the game maintains a tension where every turn is a risk and every choice filled with danger! If you manage to win, you feel both drained and elated – a mark of a good gaming time!  – – – – Herb Levy

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