Is Voyages of Marco Polo a jewel that belongs in your boardgame collection?

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From the moment I started playing Voyages of Marco Polo, I knew I would like it. And the more I play — I’ve played at least 20 games in the short period of time it’s been out — the more it climbs its way into my favorite games of all time. Today, it may very well be among the top five. It does about a dozen things I look for in a boardgame and it does them all spectacularly well. How do I love thee, Voyages of Marco Polo? Let me count the ways.

After the jump, look out, China! Here I come!

One of the greatest things about Voyages of Marco Polo is something you won’t realize until you’ve played it a few times. It is meticulously crafted from about ten different systems, and each is intricately involved with the others. This makes it difficult to write about, at least in terms of describing it. Because as I describe one thing I like — the variable economy, the rules-busting character roles, the prohibitively expensive but lucrative travel, the gloriously colorful theming, the checks and balances to the tyranny of dice, the snappy pacing and consistently short playing time — I get halfway into the paragraph and realize I now have to describe a couple of other things. Suddenly I’ve written a thousand words about stuff that’s basically in the rules. If you wanted to read the rules, you’d read the rules.

Not to say it’s a complicated game. What it takes me a thousand words to write about are covered in a hundred words in the rules, but here I am droning on about how it all connects, man. But this is a far simpler game than some of my other favorites, like Archipelago, Study in Emerald, or Terra Mystica. I’ve never had a problem teaching Voyages of Marco Polo to more casual players. In fact, the theme, presentation, and pacing make it ideal for the casual. Not necessarily Apples to Apples casual, but certainly Settlers of Catan casual. A player can make gratifying things happen even if he’s still the kind of guy who thrills to Catan’s D6 rolls. He won’t win, which is something else I appreciate about Voyages of Marco Polo. While it’s not complicated, it certainly rewards familiarity. You get better at it the more you play, the more you learn it, the more you develop the skill of playing Voyages of Marco Polo. A lot of casual-friendly games are ruthlessly democratic, which I find frustrating. For some of us boardgamers, blue shells are more punishment than catch-up mechanic. Don’t Harrison Bergeron me, bro.

It’s also different every time you play. The variability begins with the way the map is laid out, using only a third of all the possible cards (I admire a game with the courage to leave most of its components in the box). For instance, sometimes Alexandria is a rich source of silk. Sometimes it’s a place to convert camels into victory points. Sometimes it’s a veritable money tree. Sometimes none of these things is anywhere on the map. Sometimes Alexandria is completely irrelevant to anything anyone is doing. And sometimes it’s the lynchpin of your strategy. Sometimes you need to make a beeline for Karachi. Every time you play, each city will have a completely different contribution to the gameplay, which ties directly into travel, the economy, the theming, the character roles. An important skill in Voyages of Marco Polo — again, here is where you get better the more you play — is looking at all the pieces before the first player takes her turn and anticipating the ways the game can unfold. Some boardgames don’t reveal themselves until you’ve played for a while, until you’ve turned up a bunch of cards from a deck, until a tech tree has been climbed, or until armies give the map its shape. Voyages of Marco Polo is an expressive tapestry of possibility laid bare before the first turn even starts.

It’s a heavily dice-based game, since the dice function like workers in a worker placement game. But it gives you ample opportunity to mitigate the tyranny of the random number gods. It reminds me a bit of Troyes, which lets you buy dice from other players. Did you get a crappy roll in Troyes, or did you not get the colors you wanted? No problem! Just use your filthy lucre to buy someone else’s die! But wait, did someone buy the die you were going to use? Well, at least they had to pay you some filthy lucre. That’s a significant part of the Troyes experience and it means the rolling of the dice is just the beginning. Voyages of Marco Polo works similarly. You can pay camels, which are the foundation of the game’s economy, to manipulate dice by re-rolling them for a single camel, or directly incrementing them up or down for two camels. And if you’ve got three camels to spare, just buy a whole extra die. Furthermore, lower numbers can be more useful than higher numbers in some situations. And if you get a really bad roll, Voyages of Marco Polo gives you a compensation bonus that might include camels to help you get better rolls. The randomness is still there. Your rolls matter. But you have options.

Which is another reason this is an accessible game. There’s not a lot of outright blocking. There are almost always options. This isn’t a game like Agricola where you’re locked into a brittle strategy. You will not starve. You might stall. You might end with only forty or fifty points. But you will still make things happen.

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One of the game’s greatest design choices is the character roles. Each player chooses among historical characters in the “European” “discovery” of the “Orient”. I put those words in quotes not because I have a problem with the European perspective on history. I’m a guy who can’t get enough of exploiting the New World! I put them in quotes because Voyages of Marco Polo shifts the usual Euro-centricism about 3000 miles east. It does this largely with the characters, who include Mongols and Arabs alongside its dead white men. Each character gives its player a unique power. And not a unique power like, hey, you spend two fewer florins when you travel or, hey, get a free camel every turn. Instead, a unique power that arguably breaks the game. For instance, one character is Rashid ad-din Sinan, a Shia leader represented in Medieval lore (such as the Marco Polo fable) as the mysterious leader of the Hashashin, or Assassins. His ability is that he doesn’t even roll dice. He just picks whatever number he wants whenever he uses a die. Usually six. Sometimes not. It’s up to whomever is playing as him. Ridiculous, right? Game-breakingly ridiculous. Imagine a card game where you just get to pick whatever card you want. That’s how the roles in Voyages of Marco Polo work, and in every game, you will variously suspect someone else’s role is totally overpowered. But when every role breaks the game, then no role breaks the game. That’s the idea and it’s a marvel of great game design in Voyages of Marco Polo.

Being a Z-man game, the production values are top-of-the-line, from the components to the board to the rules. The board is eminently functional so that you’ll never have to look something up once you’ve read the rules, which are thorough and smartly written (another Z-man hallmark). And what lovely evocative artwork. This map isn’t a fantasy place, nor is it the usual Europe, or even a section of the globe. It’s a stylized presentation of what’s known as the Silk Road, which isn’t just a road. The Silk Road is a network of routes from Venice to China, dotted with oases, treacherous passes, and costly overseas legs (including some sort of ocean between Mongolia and Beijing that has apparently evaporated in the last thousand years or so). Do you take the relatively direct route across Russia and Mongolia? Do you thread your way among the Himalayas? Do you splurge on a cruise from Yemen to India to Indonesia? Because you know you want to be in Sumatra. What a jewel of commerce and wealth! In a dramatic bit of geographic asymmetry, Sumatra is literally three times the city of anyplace else in Voyages of Marco Polo. Beijing? Pfft. Sumatra is distant, exotic, and brimming with riches that will vary from game to game.

One of the ways I know I love Voyages of Marco Polo a little irrationally is that I even like its flaws. In the first edition of Twilight Struggle, a totally for serious study of the Cold War, Chile is labeled “Chili” on the map. I can’t help but look at that and tut. It would be like Kissinger pronouncing nuclear like noo-KYOO-ler. But when Voyages of Marco Polo, a gameplay-first presentation of Medieval lore about a watershed intersection of East and West, spells Beijing as “Bejing”, I think it’s kind of cute. Frankly, I assumed it was some sort of antiquated spelling or transliteration issue. Nope. It’s just a mistake. My favorite mistake is that the space for 48 points on the victory point track is missing its numeral. By a strict reading of the board, when you have 48 points, you actually have zero points. I had a girlfriend once with a chipped tooth. She hated her chipped tooth. I loved her chipped tooth. I honestly didn’t want her to get it fixed. When I feel that way about a boardgame, it may be time for an intervention.

  • The Voyages of Marco Polo

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • At the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo sets off with his father and uncle on a long voyage to the East. They will journey far and wide, master the mercantile trade, and gain favor with the great Kublai Kahn. Will you follow in the footsteps of the great Marco Polo or carve your own destiny in the annals of history? And will you like the game as much as Tom Chick?
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