The Voyages of Marco Polo
Designed by Simone Luciani & Daniele Tascini
Publisher Z-Man Games (English Edition) - 2015
Review by Jack Eddy
Players: 2-4 - Time: 2 hours
Every now and then something comes along that seems perfectly tailored to my exquisite tastes. Maybe it’s a band that sounds like Led Zeppelin meets Queens of the Stone Age, or it’s a show that somehow combines the whimsical fairytale storytelling of The Princess Bride with boisterous showtunes. Maybe it’s even a game that combines asymmetric player powers with dice-worker placement all complemented by adorable tiny wooden camels! As I write this, I’m chomping at the bit for all of these heavenly concoctions. Tragically though, it’s these perfectly crafted amalgams that can occasionally lead to the greatest of disappointments.
Who are you? (Who, who. Who, who?):
Off the bat, players draft character cards that will dictate how you play the game. These cards give you fantastic and unique game breaking powers, the kind that most asymmetric games only dream of, each wildly different than the rest. You really feel like you can lean into these abilities and craft a strategy unique to that character, yet the powers feel carefully planned, elegant and simple. This is the true achievement of Marco Polo, maintaining a delicate balance while managing a huge variety of character powers.
Setup continues with some relatively meaningless secret objectives that grant points if you visit certain locations on the map. I don’t mean that they are worthless, those points can be valuable, but this is one system that feels tacked on and arbitrary, as if the designer knew that players would be aimless throughout the game if they didn’t have some reward for traveling. It’s a startling contradiction to the deeply satisfying and thematic game powers I mentioned above.
From Soho down to Brighton:
Each round, players roll their dice and alternate assigning them to use actions on the board. Like most worker placement games, if you take up a spot, others can't freely go there. In many circumstances you can go to an occupied spot by paying money, but again, it's so expensive that even when necessary, the cost is discouraging. Most actions are more powerful with higher numbered dice, other actions require multiple dice placed at once to activate. The main flow of the game is collecting resources that allow you to move to new cities or fulfill orders, which give you **rewards!™** (points, resources, orders, movement, etc...) allowing you to do it again. As your merchant lands on new locations, you may gain access to new actions or receive more **rewards!™** on this future turns, which lets you move… and fulfill more orders… for more **rewards!™**.
Since it is unlikely that you will visit every location on the board, you are frequently deciding which path to take. Not only does the movement action cost resources, but most paths on the board have additional costs, making it prohibitively expensive to journey across. Do you spend your whole turn scraping together the resources to get where you want to go, or just change plans and go somewhere else or fulfill some orders because you have the resources available?
That’s the challenge of Marco Polo, constantly deciding if it’s even worth it to stick to a long term plan. If you want to make it to the other side of the board, you need to have tons of camels, money, gold, sponges*, poops**, high rolls, and the action spaces to be available at just the right time. Every action must result in a small but meaningful advancement toward your goals; goals that may or may not materialize because the game did not line up perfectly. Everything is part of a sequence of events leading to a much greater but also at the same time disappointing payoff, because it rarely feels like you are investing in anything, you are just gaining money to spend money, getting a few points along the way.
Speaking of money, there are several currencies in this game that are necessary to manage if you want to accomplish anything. Every turn is an exercise in measuring immediate costs and rewards, and careful calculation of the various resources is the most critical key to success.As you struggle to have exactly enough of each type of resource without waste, you will soon “see through the matrix”, and each chit, token, pawn, and hut might as well become variables in equations to get points. It’s unfortunate, because the game really does have a beautiful art direction with fun, thematic components.
No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man:
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the game is bad, it’s just a type of game that undermines my favorite aspect of it. I want the character powers to make me feel powerful, like I can really dig in and work toward a longterm strategy; yet throughout the game I always feel disempowered and unable to get the things I want. Almost always I’d settle for the easiest and most immediate way to get points, and it usually results in a higher standing at the end of the game. The far off cities on the end of the map, which seemed so welcoming and adventurous at the beginning of the game, just become dreams of the past as I settle for mediocrity. By the end of the game, my merchant is a jaded vagabond, occasionally roving from town to town, scooping up whatever opportunities he can before wandering on.
I will say this for the game, it’s a tight ship. There are so many ways of getting resources and mitigating unlucky rolls that the dice are rarely the problem. The player powers and victory point cards given at the beginning of the game line out a direction for you to go in. It’s just that everything is prohibitively expensive, I never feel like I get to play how I want to play. I never feel like I’m building an engine that makes it easier as I go. In life we work towards goals that may be challenging, but we hope that what we gain will assist us to meet even more challenging goals. In Marco Polo, you will struggle from beginning to end, and your rewards seldom ease the pain as you start all over again. There was no arc, and that just isn’t fun to me.
There are people who will love this game; it’s a heavy euro that somehow got squished down into a mid-weight form. The production value is excellent: the artwork is evocative, the symbology is pretty clear, and the components are great (especially those camels!). The game feels very competitive and balanced, which is an accomplishment considering how varied and game-breaking the player powers are. It is a meaty brain-burner of a game, with critical decisions to make, but by making everything so costly that you can’t truly lean into your role, it just never inspired me to enjoy the struggle.
View our "Check This Out" video on The Voyages of Marco Polo to see what's in the box