[REVIEW] Camel Attrition. The Voyages Of Marco Polo

[First published on Tabletop Tribe]

It turns out Marco Polo may have been full of sh*t, having never been anywhere near China and basically making his “travels” up. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame him. In my first play of the board game The Voyages of Marco Polo, I got nowhere near Bejing.

Having seen the Netflix series Marco Polo, I half expected the board game to be some Ameritrash affair with a load of minis, some creative torture and a smattering of tit-n-arse.

So imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be a thoughtful, trading, dice placement, Euro affair. Including loads more camels than I recall from the TV.

Cash and camels dominate your life in Marco Polo. You’ll need both to get anywhere on the map, and you need to get moving fast.

Not only is travel the only way you’re going to set up trading posts in outposts and cities, but as you’ll find out after pretty much your first game, you never seem to have enough time to get all you want done.

Components

The components are fairly standard Euro game fluff, with custom wooden meeple to represent your traders, along with wooden trade goods in three varieties, some wooden trading posts and a load of wooden camels.

The trade goods and camels come in two sizes, representing one or three items, with the latter slightly bigger. There isn’t quite enough difference between the two to really tell from a distance, necessitating me inking a ‘3’ on the underside of the larger pieces to differentiate quickly during play.

They look a lot more distinct when they’re next to each other, but even so…

Also (though a picky criticism), the gold bars look a bit like lumps of Red Leicester cheese. A quick spray with gold paint sorted that out quickly enough and since I was upgrading, I exchanged the cardboard coins with some Chinese good luck coins I’d found online (eBay and Amazon).

Hey, I like bling, okay?

In general though the components are pretty good. The cardstock is just the right thickness for the various counters, the cards are fine, the artwork is good and the various icons are clear and intuitive.

The very functional and thematic player boards.

Each player board resembles a merchant’s desk and works perfectly for organising your various goods and contracts during play. They might have been marginally better if die cut to actually hold your trading posts and dice, but it would add a fair bit to production costs I guess.

Set-up

The rule book provides not only a double page spread of the board and component set-up, but an additional page covering player set-up. These are augmented by a helpful player aid for Basic and Advanced set-up, and one for your additional actions.

You’ll need to print multiple Additional Action player aids out for one each — these are A5 and then laminated.

These are necessary for your first couple of plays as the board itself isn’t as immediately intuitive as other worker placements (say, Champions of Midgard) that have obvious areas for cards/decks to sit.

It’s worth bagging up the various player components by colour so all you have to do is chuck each participant a player board and bag of components and then move on to character choice.

There’s a reason they give you some baggies with the game… use them!

You can also speed set-up by having the piles of contracts already prepared in the box with a small *gasp* elastic band securing them. If that sounds like heresy then some loops of paper or dressmakers elastic will work just as well. Use some thematic cord if you’re feeling particularly nerdy.

Get the contracts bundled up at the end of the previous game and you’re good to go quickly out of the box.

All in all, despite the board and components looking relatively detailed and complex to the novice, it’s all pretty straightforward… something echoed in the gameplay!

Gameplay

Marco Polo is about dice placement: taking turns to use dice as workers to occupy various areas on the board. These allow you to do anything from travelling across the map, to visiting the bazaar to acquire trade goods, to gaining the Khan’s favour.

At the beginning of each round all players simultaneously roll their dice and place them on their player board, using anything from one to three of them each turn to activate various options.

I say ‘all players’ although one character (Raschid ad-Din Sinan) chooses the facings of his dice as and when he needs them. Sound like an amazing ability? It is! But every character in the game has a powerful unique ability, meaning you don’t know whether to be covetous of a neighbour’s or cackle gleefully at just how great yours is.

Everyone’s special ability is pretty great so don’t be too jealous of your neighbours!

For example you may get to have an extra die to place, or get a trade good every time a competitor visits the bazaar (you’re encouraged by the rule book to thank them profusely each time, just to annoy them even more) or even (if playing as Marco and his uncle) have two traders to move around the map.

These objectives are dictated primarily by three factors: firstly at the start of the game you receive two Goal cards, each showing two cities. If you can place trading posts at these locations by the end of the game you’ll get a glut of additional points.

Although you might think you’ve lucked out by only having to visit Kashgar once for both Goal cards, you’ll only be able to score at most 6 points for three destinations across the two cards.

Secondly there are your trade contracts, of which you can have two active at any time. Each lists various commodity requirements (goods and camels) for you to complete the contract and bank the proceeds, which might be victory points, gold, commodities or a combination of all three.

In addition if you have the most completed contracts by the end of the game you’ll receive an additional seven points. Woot!

Six new contracts will be laid out each turn, so if there’s one you fancy you’d best snap it up before it goes… or someone else snags it!

Lastly there is a benefit to be had by visiting Bejing. Not only does it allow you to convert coins into victory points (very handy in the end game), but also gives a victory point boon come final scoring, dependent on the order of arrival in the city.

Mechanics

So how do the dice work to get you what you want/need?

When it comes to placing your dice you have the option of either brown spaces where only one player’s dice can sit, or blue ones that can be used by multiple players (although you must first pay a fine of your lowest rolled die).

I enjoyed this change to the usual worker placement affair where options are simply closed off by another’s actions. It gives you more choices — how badly do you really need those camels or that roll of silk?

Choices are certainly not something in short supply in Marco Polo. If anything the choice might appear intimidating for a new player. However, so long as you keep in mind your primary objectives, your options narrow to a more manageable level.

Each space on the board shows you how many dice are needed to activate that space, and each space has a different reward based on the value of the placed die/dice. If you need to place more than one die then you always use the value of the lowest die.

Matteus Polo isn’t doing too badly. He’s banked some contracts, has an extra black die to go with his special ability white die and has a few camels and a couple of trade goods. With only two trading posts down it looks like he’s not moving very fast!

As mentioned above, you’ll also use the lowest value to determine how much of a fine in coins you’ll pay for using an already-occupied space. Several spaces allow multiple players to place dice without a fine, although one (gaining the Khan’s favour) requires you to equal or beat the value of a die already placed.

All this means that you’re not always looking to roll big numbers. Whilst that would gain you the largest prize at an unoccupied space, it means you’ll also be forking out big fines when you’re late to the party elsewhere.

This icon is worth keeping an eye out for. It gives you a free bonus move… worth its weight in gold!

Remember I mentioned movement was important? This is handled with the placement of two dice, again using the lesser value for the result, which allows you to move a certain number of spaces on the map. I also dictates how much money and camels the journey will cost.

These amounts can be further increased by fixed prices (in both coins and camels) listed on the map itself making movement an expensive proposition. So you want to make sure you have a travel plan rather than just aimlessly wandering the map.

The road to Kashgar is going to take a fair amount of camels whichever way you come at it!

This is why camels dominate your life so much in the game, as they’re a prerequisite for both trade deals and travel. What’s more the only way to reroll dice, adjust your die facings up or down, or procure one of the valuable black dice is by spending yet more camels.

Black dice — they’ll cost you three camels if you can’t win them another way, but that’s sometimes a bargain.

It’s easy enough to get more at the bazaar, but there are always so many more shiny things there that you desire more than a bunch of smelly old camels. But needs must.

Travelling is also the sole way of getting trading posts into outposts and cities, and it’s beneficial to getting to outposts first, as you’ll receive a bonus for doing so.

Trading posts in outposts also allow the placement of a single die as an action to activate their reward. It’s first come, first served (as it’s a brown space) and without a trading post you won’t be doing any business there at all.

Cities dish out stuff to anyone with a trading post in them at the start of each round, so shouldn’t be ignored either.

Each round of the game lasts as long as players have dice to place, at which point they’ll retrieve their dice and clear any unclaimed contracts from the last round before laying out a new selection from the remaining prepared piles.

Once you’ve worked your way through five such piles on contracts the game is over and it’s time for final scoring.

The Low-down

The Voyages of Marco Polo is a very satisfying worker/dice placement game.

Barring my few minor niggles over components, everything feels nice quality, the rule book is concise and filled with examples, the asymmetrical characters are engaging and make you want to try them all and the game doesn’t drag on for two long — about an hour and a half is probably the upper limit.

If anything I’ve always felt that games are over too quickly. If I’d just had one more turn to get to another city, or fulfill that final contract, or… but I guess that’s the nature of the game.

There are enough contracts spare to eek out more turns if all agree, but to be honest part of the game’s appeal is its compact length and sense of urgency. The tools are there if you want to string it out though.

Of course, as with many euro games, there’s precious little interaction between players let alone outright conflict. Even less so than in many other worker placement games.

Sure, the game is about merchants rather than, well, marauders(!) but trade has always been a fairly cutthroat business, and that’s not an aspect that’s explored in this game, so don’t expect industrial espionage, back-room Machiavellian schemes or trade wars.

What you can expect are satisfying mechanics in abundance from a game that nicely conjures the theme and delivers game play that surges along at a surprisingly urgent pace.

If it does leave you feeling like you need just one or two turns more… then I’d recommend simply starting a new game afresh for another thoroughly enjoyable hour or so of eastern travel, whether old Marco really went there or not!

Pros:

  • Good quality components.
  • Concise rulebook.
  • Helpful player aid/setup guide.
  • Good play length.
  • Satisfying mechanics.
  • Asymmetrical player powers.

Cons:

  • Large/small trade good pieces almost indistinguishable.
  • Contracts can see over-powered and thus movement pointless to the inexperienced.
  • Almost over too soon (though this can be house-ruled).
  • No aggressive/tactical trade possibilities.
  • Even less player conflict than other worker placement games.

The Bling

If you’d like to bling your components up using the same methods as me, you can follow these (affiliated) links:

Gold Bars — 400ml Rustoleum Brilliant Metallic Gold Spray Paint 
“1” Denomination Coins — 10mm Chinese Coins x100
“5” Denomination Coins — 23mm Chinese Coins x50
“10” Denomination Coins — 35mm Chinese Coins x5

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