New South Wales
Originally published here, do not replicate without permission or attribution:
Synopsis: You are one of several historical explorers replicating the historically notorious journey taken by Marco Polo into Mongolia and China. You will develop trade routes and other negotiations.
You win if you have the most points at the end. Many of your points will come from completing trades contracts, but there is also an abundance of points available through travel, through arriving successfully in Beijing, by getting all your trading posts established in foreign cities, and completing your secret missions.
Each turn, players roll a set of five dice. They will then take turns placing sets of dice on spaces available on the board. There are a range of general actions, including ones that gain money, and ones that gain goods. Beyond your main actions, you may complete a number of bonus actions. This includes completing contracts, or paying camels for various bonuses: rerolling dice, changing die values, or even gaining an additional die for that turn.
Some of the listed main actions are single die only and mutually exclusive (brown spaces); in these circumstance the die value is less likely to be relevant. In the spaces where the action is not mutually exclusive (blue spaces), the value of the die is very relevant. Significantly, gaining access to a foreign city is the primary way to gain access to some of the exclusive actions.
In such blue spaces, the value of the die determines how powerful the action is. For travel, it limits how many steps you can take on your journey, for the market it determines the number of goods you can take. If the space is already occupied, you can still claim these spots but then must pay an additional fee of the cost of the lowest valued die. This gives you more flexibility, but at a cost.
Commentary: One of the curious things about this game is the way its heaviness is disguised. The mechanisms of the game itself are rather transparent. It’s very easy to see the immediate effects of all your actions. However, given that you have such a small number of turns, you have a very intense pressure to economise on every action. This changes innocuous small actions into actions weighed with impact.
The game grows by turns, and your freedom to act is partly constrained by money, or your ability to generate other resources. Yes, it’s possible to spend your dice every round to generate and spam contracts, but I’ve seen more than a few games where this is undone. In having thrown my resources and sacrificing in the first round to capture key passive resource generators, I’ve been able to accelerate faster than the momentum I’ve lost in the subsequent rounds. You need to build your income generators and build them fast.
Admittedly, this means it’s easy for the game to go wrong. You can make suboptimal opening plays and this can bring your whole endeavour down. This takes us back to my earlier comment, about the deceptively shallow appearance of the game, when in reality the pressure of time turns the intensity up. This does mean there are some issues for first time players, but provided they’re willing to take on this admittedly small learning curve on, you should be good.
This is largely because there is a lot to do with your character. Each character has a unique but game breaking ability. It has been celebrated by other people before, and I join that chorus. It is wonderfully fun to have such a distinctively powerful feature that is all to yourself. Of course it dynamically affects your game play, but being able to do that one thing that can fundamentally subvert the constraints of the game is just that fun.
As a note, it’s great to see a vast cast of Mongolian and other Asian characters features in this game. There is also representation of women as character, and all of them are powerful traders. They comprise a mixture of historical and I think fictional personalities.
Verdict: If you allow yourself an easy learning game, you should find this coming back to your table on frequent occasion.
What is the sound of one card shuffling?
Love the way this game opens up as you play it repeatedly. The first few games it seems impossible to travel enough to outscore churning through contracts, but as you become more familiar with the mechanics and spotting synergies between the variable city actions/bonuses and the variable player powers you become able to squeeze out more and more efficient actions until you're decimating your old contract heavy scores. This is one of my favorite games for that feeling of accomplishment.
Admittedly, this means it’s easy for the game to go wrong. You can make suboptimal opening plays and this can bring your whole endeavour down. This takes us back to my earlier comment, about the deceptively shallow appearance of the game, when in reality the pressure of time turns the intensity up.
Right on! It is easy to lay out a solid plan based upon your objective cards, and then get distracted right away and start chasing squirrels. This game takes discipline and focus, plus the ability to recognize valuable opportunities and act on them. Great stuff.