12th Sep2018

‘The Voyages of Marco Polo’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

marco-polo-box

When it comes to euro games, there are no shortage of options that focus on trading in a historic setting. Whether we’re talking about games focused on the Mediterranean during The Age of Antiquity, or later, perhaps during the Renaissance, with a setting in Asia or the far reaches of Europe. With a name like The Voyages of Marco Polo, you can be assured that the subject of today’s review is no different in terms of timeline or setting, but what it does do is create a mechanically sound and very tight experience around the well used theme of trading up goods and resources to fulfill contracts and ultimately, to score victory points.

The kind of trading games that I was referring to above also come in many different weights, with the likes of say Splendor or Century: Spice Road coming in at the lighter end of the spectrum and then more complex, heavily economic games coming in at the opposite end. The Voyages of Marco Polo slots nicely in between these two extremes, with a playtime of about ninety minutes and a reasonable level of strategic depth, forward planning and crunchy decision making thrown in to ensure that it remains interesting even over a protracted period.

Fundamentally, The Voyages of Marco Polo is a dice placement game in which each player represents a trader who either is Marco Polo (and his father) or one of his known associates. Each of the characters in the game will be drawn and drafted with an element of randomisation and some choice, but in all cases, the players will receive five dice, two meeples and nine trading posts in their colour, plus a handful of coins and some resources (based on their starting order.) The players also receive a contract card, a secret objective and a player aid. The special abilities that each character brings in The Voyages of Marco Polo do change the starting inventory, often quite fundamentally, but I’ll mention that in more detail later.

The board is an attractive and stylish (but arguably a bit samey, since it looks a lot like many games in this genre) and it depicts a map that shows North Italy on the far left, North East Africa on the bottom left and then outwards towards China and Northern India on the right. Below this, there are several dice placement locations which are clearly and thematically laid out. There are numerous cities ranging from Venice to Beijing shown on the map, with some shown as large cities and others as smaller (but nonetheless important) locations. In the large cities, reward tokens (for the first visitor) and dice placement slots will be placed randomly, with the slots becoming available for anyone who visits them and places a trading post there.

All players begin in Venice, except for if one particular character is in play. If he is, then he’ll begin in Beijing, which allows him to place the first trading post (worth 10 points) there immediately – he also begins his journey from the opposite end of the map (without competition) offering a significant advantage. It’s lucky then, that one of the other characters allows the player to set all five of their dice to any value, whilst two of the characters gain an additional meeple or an extra dice respectively. Another receives one or more resources every time someone else uses the shared market. As anyone who plays games like this will know, each of these is a huge benefit and I have to admit that I love how varied each of them is, whilst the game never seems to become unbalanced.

When the game begins in anger, the structure is fairly simple and lasts for five rounds, each of which is marked by the placement of a new contracts onto the board. When the last pile of contracts is placed, it signifies the final round of turns. On a turn, the active player simply takes an action (which will involve placing one or more dice onto a single location) and may take bonus actions as applicable. Any brown dice placement space indicates that only one player may use that location for the entire round, whilst any blue location suggests that multiple users can place their dice there – albeit follow on players must pay the value of their lowest dice used in coins to whoever used that space last.

There are a few simple spaces that exist simply to ensure that players always have an option. One space allows just the first player to use it to draw five coins, for example, whilst another allows any number of players to draw three coins (so this becomes more or less the worst case action.) The more interesting spaces allow players to do more powerful things, for example at the market. There are four different tiers of resource in the market, with the lowest tier being camels, then pepper, silk and finally, gold. The higher the tier, the more dice you’ll need to use. You’ll then look along the tier of resource that you’re entering into to see which column matches the value of your lowest dice value – that’s how many resources you’ll take. For example if you add three dice to take gold, you’ll only draw resources from the column that corresponds to your lowest dice value – so the best possible gold reward would require triple sixes, for example.

Another interesting option is movement, which also requires more than one dice, as well as a cost to be paid. The higher the lowest dice value, the further you can move – the further you move though, the more it will cost you. Not only does movement cost the value shown on the dice space, but it may also cost an amount shown on the board, depending on the specific route that you wish to take. Some of these costs will be money, whilst others will be camels, which The Voyages of Marco Polo essentially uses as a secondary currency in a number of different scenarios. Once all players have taken one action (and any bonus actions, which are things like completing contracts) then the first player takes another action and so on. The round ends once all dice are spent and no one is able to take another action.

One interesting thing about The Voyages of Marco Polo is that it is actually quite dense at the beginning of the game, especially when there are four players involved. There’s real competition for spaces and the big decisions come thick and fast – do you invest heavily in movement to claim early bonus tokens and place trading posts, or do you risk giving opponents an advantage by using the same space as them and paying for the privilege? As the players begin to separate on the board in order to pursue their own objectives, new dice placement spaces will be opened up, but only a select few are powerful enough to rely on, so this only adds to the heady mix of decisions that you’ll already need to consider each turn.

As I mentioned right at the start of this review, victory points is what the players are after and the prime way of getting them is probably through completing contracts. More often than note, these will be completed by trading in a number of camels and then one or more spices. Contracts that demand more from the players are usually most valuable and will often pay some combination of coins or resources back, in addition to points. The player who has completed the most contracts at the end of the game will also gain another seven points, so there’s a bit of a game there about whether to target high value contracts, or simply lots of them. In any case, you’ll still need to place your dice on the board to even draw them – but using a five or a six when doing so will allow you to take one to two camels or gold, which is a nice little sweetener to say the least.

The various decisions that I’ve been hinting at are really what makes The Voyages of Marco Polo an interesting concept. It presents a really tight board that forces players to either pay each other or make sub-optimal moves and because of that, it pushes everyone to venture forth (as if there wasn’t enough reason to anyway.) I think it’s a slight oddity that the game is focused on victory points rather than financial gain (and every ten coins is only worth one point at the end of the game) given that everyone is a merchant, but I guess that you could say that the victory points are simply a thematic representation of overall wealth and prestige, rather than actual cash flow.

There are also some mechanics that mitigate the effects of luck, which might otherwise be an issue in a dice defendant game like this. As an example, if a player should roll less than fifteen total pips on their dice, then they will receive cash compensation up to fifteen – so if you roll ten, you’ll be given five coins. This kind of thought, as well as the balancing of certain powers and other factors makes The Voyages of Marco Polo an exceptionally well balanced game no matter what player count you experience it with. it’s a little thinky to unleash on brand new gamers, in my opinion, but it certainly does deliver a deep and rewarding experience without masses of complexity. Or perhaps it’s better to say that what complexity it does have comes from decisions and strategies, which is something I really like in a game. As a result, it gets a high rating from me.

**** 4/5

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