The Voyages of MARCO POLO: the Basic Game
A German Game of the Year for 2-4 Players Aged 12 +
Daniele Tascini & Simone Luciani for Hans im Glück
The Voyages of MARCO POLO is a resource management boardgame where the players are competing to gain the most Victory Points through clever use and manipulation of the goods available to them. This review is of the Basic game with mention of how it may change when all players are familiar with the game mechanics.
It is another of those games where the designer has, most probably after problems during play-testing, designated that at the beginning from the Start Player (chosen by whichever method suits the players) onwards each player gains one additional coin, thus going first gives you the most options (for your first Action) but also gives you the least money to activate the chosen option.
For your first few games it is also suggested that you use the characters prescribed in the rules, thus Player 1 has Raschid ad-Din Sinan who never rolls his dice but instead chooses the desired number(s) when required; quite powerful you may think. Player 2 has one extra coin, making his tally 8, and the character Matteo Polo who has an additional die to roll each turn and can take a free Contract each turn if required and space allows. Player 3 is Berke Khan who can occupy already occupied spaces outside of the City without paying the generally assigned cost, and finally Player 4, Mercator ex Tabriz (there are specific cards of this character depending on the number of players) who gains one resource every time someone else (another character) visits the Marketplace, though it has to be the same resource as taken by the opponent.
On the face of it being able to turn your dice to whatever numbers you want sounds very powerful and indeed it does allow you to basically do whatever you want/can afford to. But the downside is that if the other players roll their 5 dice and score fewer than 15 they gain free resources to the value of the difference Raschid ad-Din Sinan does not, even if the player turns the dice to lower than 15.
Having an additional die each time sounds weak but is actually extremely powerful especially as the second part of the character’s abilities is taking a free Contract. It saves the player from wasting dice and money going on buying Contracts, though they still may if they wish, giving them room to visit more spaces than the other players.
Not paying for using an occupied space is quite good but it only counts in the lower part of the board, not the City. This is helpful but maybe not as good as it sounds, possibly the third best of the four start-up characters, Matteo being number 2 and the best being Mercator ex Tabriz as the player with this character starts with the most money, going last, and gains free resources as previously noted. In every game we have played using the basic game setup the player with Mercator has won and won by a large margin and the player who is Raschid has lost, so badly that Mercator hasn’t been far off lapping him on the score track, and we are all experienced board games players.
So hopefully you will have gleaned from those first few paragraphs that in our opinion and experience the setup game is biased and unbalanced, but it does do what you want it to do. It whets your appetite to play again using some of the other characters available and it opens your eyes to the possibilities of the game and how to understand and utilise the mechanics to your best interest. The game changes quite considerably, although obviously the mechanics are the same, when you introduce new characters.
The Characters all begin on the map in Venice and from there they may travel along the roads to various Towns and Cities. Movement is restricted by either or both the number of camels you have and the amount of money you have, once again the first player is even more limited on their ability to move as they have the least money. The roads are marked with Oases which are just spaces that count as a movement point spent and cannot be stopped on, the journey between Cities and Towns must always begin and end in a City or a Town. You may pass through a City or Town if you have enough movement points to get to the next one and once you decide to stop in a Town or City you lay down roots there by building an Outpost. The first player into each City gets a special bonus and all players with Outposts in Cities or Towns gets the bonus or the opportunity to use the bonus associated to that settlement.
I have mentioned Contracts a couple of times so let’s continue by looking at these. Contracts give you bonus points and cash and possibly other assistance in return for Goods. Each player begins the game with one Contract, except Matteo Polo who gets a free one as well. To fulfil a contract you need to spend the necessary resources as shown on the card. Once completed you keep the contract face down as there is an extra bonus at the final scoring for the player who fulfils the most.
Players also begin with two Goal cards each. These have two Cities or Town on them and may contain the same City/Town on both. They are also worth a number of Bonus points per card plus bonuses for each of the Towns/Cities on the cards that you reach. Therefore having to reach the same place for both cards is a boon but it also means you cannot get the full bonus for reaching all four places on the cards (as there are only three to reach). In general the places on the cards are quite far apart and on different roads which means that dedication is required to plot your route between them.
The Voyages of Marco Polo is a game with a lot of options but it is also about gaining the most points and to do this you need to obtain as many of the extra bonuses as you can. It is not usually a good idea to go head down after one specific possibility but on the other hand if you spread your actions too wide you will also struggle. You need to find that often mentioned happy medium which in some games leads you to discovering a routine which when followed almost undoubtedly brings success. If there is such a routine/tactic/strategy for The Voyages of Marco Polo we have yet to find it, other than as previously mentioned, the Mercator start character in the suggested game start setup.
The Voyages of Marco Polo is an excellent game with enough possibilities to ensure it is enjoyed each time it is played, with no “going through the motions” about it whatsoever. Highly recommended. Just one note of caution if you buy the German version (I believe Z-Man have the rights to the English language version) you can find the rules online but they will use a lot of your colour toner or ink as they are quite bright and colourful, rather like the game actually.
Thanks for the review. A truly great game, and one of our favourites.