Board Game Review: Marco Polo – Refined Dice Placement | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Marco Polo – Refined Dice Placement

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I always tend to perk up when they announce the winner of the Deutscher Spiel Preis. While other big awards are usually intended for different audiences, the DSP is one that tends to speak to me – especially my euro side. The most recent winner, The Voyages of Marco Polo, certainly did not disappoint.

The Basics. Players are traders along the same route and visiting the same cities as the eponymous explorer. At the beginning of each round, players roll five dice in their own color. Then, in turn order, they can use those dice as workers and gain a benefit.

They might use dice to go to the market. Higher value dice generate more goods and some, like silk and gold, take more than one die to activate. They might use a die to grab a contract. Or they might use a pair of them to send their explorer further along the trade routes. Making it to the next city is important because it give you access to more items. If you end up in a small city, you will get a specified income every round. Large cities provide access to new placements and abilities. Only those who have traveled to those cities can use them.

Importantly, if someone takes a spot you were looking for, maybe the camels, all is not lost. You can also go there and get camels. The only problem is that if dice are already there, the player must pay to use that spot. And he has to pay the value of the dice he is placing. So a big six might get you more stuff, but you’ll pay six coins for the privilege. So, saving those ones and twos might be worth it since you’ll pay less.

Actions take up the bottom half, traveling on the top

Actions take up the bottom half, traveling on the top

One of the main point generators in the game is the acquisition of contracts. Each contract requires you to turn in some amount of goods and camels and then bestows points and some other benefit. That other benefit might get you an extra die for the round, allow you to move your explorer, provide money, or even another contract.

Plus, at game start, the players draft a unique player power. Those powers are unbelievably strong. One gets goods whenever another player goes to the market. Others let the player pick his die values rather than rolling them, or eliminate the need to pay coins when placing where others have gone before. Huge, game changing effects and everyone gets one.

Play continues for five rounds. At the end, whoever has the most points is the winner.

The player powers are legit

The player powers are legit

The Feel. Wow. Just, just wow. Marco Polo doesn’t really bring a lot of new ideas to the table. Dice placement has been done. Turning resources in for points isn’t unusual. And heaven knows that renaissance era traders is anything but novel thematic ground. But this game takes those ideas that came before and combines them into one of the most enjoyable euro games in recent memory.

There’s great tension at the beginning of each round. Of course, there’s a particular order in which you may want to complete your actions in order to provide the maximum benefit. But if you rolled high numbers, you’ll want to get those down first – otherwise, you’ll be paying big coins to do so later.

Coins are essential in Marco Polo as you’ll be spending them to take actions where others have already gone. But coin generation is not easy or automatic. In fact, coin generation is typically uncertain or costly. Because the city actions are random (a subset of 9 are used out of a possible 31), sometimes you’ll see boards devoid of coins. Other times, there will be profitable spaces and players will contest them strongly.

Four of the many city card options

Four of the many city card options

Camels are another necessary currency. When traveling to a new city, you’ll always need to pay coins. Often there is a camel surcharge on top. Camels are also required on most contracts that will be filled for points. Maintaining a healthy income of camels can be as essential as keeping your coin purse full.

Unlike other dice placement games, the main actions can be taken by all players. There is no blocking. However, if another player has already gone to that spot, you have to pay money to take that action. This can have a huge impact on gameplay. While you may not prevent me from getting silk this turn, you can force me to pay more than I’d like. In fact, that extra payment might just as effectively deprive me of whatever action I’d planned to do next.

Marco Polo is also great in that there is more than one method of doing well. You can push on traveling, meeting your goals and dropping trading posts throughout. You can focus on contracts and earn points through trade without moving. Most likely, you’ll do a little of both and find income and city abilities that compliment your preferred strategy.

Individual player boards are always a good sign

Individual player boards are always a good sign

And the inclusion of the special powers is just brilliant. It isn’t necessary for the game to be considered good. But their inclusion really elevates the competition. All of the powers are huge – almost game-breaking. And they allow for different strategies and counters to what might otherwise be no-brainer, formulaic moves.

If there’s one thing to note it’s that the game can feel very different at each player count. Because there are more players between your turns, more of the board gets clogged up with other players’ dice. So the higher the player count, the more important it is to generate money.

Also, at my table at least, there was a tendency for the first player to take camels at the beginning, then use some of them to buy a new die. This effectively made camels more expensive for the other players and, when the board was short of coins, could really stymie the other players.

Fulfilling contracts is key to getting victory points

Fulfilling contracts is key to getting victory points

Components: 4 of 5. Marco Polo has solid bits. The dice are a nice weight, the trading posts are painted wood, and the player powers are on thick punchboard rather than cards. The goal cards are minis rather than larger cards, which is unfortunate. And the artwork is decent if nothing spectacular. But it is definitely the quality you’d expect from a finely produced hobby game.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. This is where Marco Polo really excels. Since the game runs on a dice engine, you’d think there would be a significant luck element. But it’s more about randomness than luck. With five dice, you’re likely to roll at least a few high numbers. And, having to pay to use dice means that high numbers aren’t always great. Plus you can adjust dice with camels and get compensation for particularly low rolls. The randomness of the roll is firmly balanced against player choice and decisions.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. The game is solid. I love that the designer added overpowered, game-breaking special abilities and the title absorbs it just fine. In fact, the experience is even improved by it. My one gripe is that I wish the game allowed for just a bit more income generation in a four player game.

Replayability: 4 of 5. Marco Polo comes with a lot of replay value in the box. There are random goal and city cards. But the cards (at least the city cards) don’t feel gimmicky. Instead, they allow for alternate methods of getting points, generating goods, or even grabbing coins. They have a profound impact on the experience and really make each new game feel like new (or at least newish) strategic territory.

Spite: 1.5 of 5. There are no “take that” cards and no direct attacks on anyone. However, there are limited resources and the players can absolutely engage in brutal competition. A favored move at my table is for the first player to grab camels from the market. This means camels now cost every other player money. So there is meanness, but it’s economic and untargeted.

I will fulfill my goals

I will fulfill my goals

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Marco Polo is a fabulous game. It’s one that I anticipate being in regular rotation on my table for some time. Fun drafting, intriguing decisions, and a changing landscape remind me of some of my favorite euros. In fact, this is probably the most entertaining, mechanically solid new euro for some time.

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