The Voyages of Marco Polo
The Voyages of Marco Polo is a new worker placement board game that was published in spring 2015.
In Marco Polo you travel from Europe via different routes through Asia to Beijing. Through the worker placement mechanic you gather different resources such as money, gold, tissue, pepper and camels that you need to fulfill assignments and to travel.
At the beginning of the game players receive two bonus cards with two cities each that award extra victory points at the end of the game if connected by the respective player.
In addition each player starts with a character card with a unique ability.
The workers are dice that need to be rolled at the beginning of each of the five turns. Higher rolls allow the players to get more resources. In contrast to most worker placement games all players can still use a spot even if it is already taken by a die. However, in this case there are extra costs for using a spot that is already taken. The costs equal the number on the die in cash. Thus, small dice rolls are not only bad but give a certain advantage.
Fun: 6 out of 10
The board looks great and the wooden bits are top notch!
The worker placement mechanic feels fresh even though it is not the only worker placement game where one can still use taken spots (e.g. Euphoria is a bit similar in that respect). I like the map and the voyaging aspect because it makes the game more thematic than many worker placement games.
While the core mechanic offers more depth and still high flexibility (as you can use most spots even if taken) it also comes at some disadvantages. It is much more complicated to decide what die to use for which action while having to take into account the dice rolls of the other players and their extra abilities. A core benefit of the common, basic worker placement mechanic is simplicity and elegance which contributes to a relatively short playtime of fairly deep games. In The Voyages of Marco Polo there is a higher probability of analysis paralysis resulting in more downtime.
The dice rolls add depth but add more luck t the game. Most strategy gamers will prefer as little luck as possible once the game passes a certain level of depth and complexity. Despite the high initial praise this game received I can hardly imagine it will resonate as much and sustainably with strategy gamers such as Terra Mystica. The initial bonus cards also add some luck factor. Having adjacent cities as secret targets is a significant advantage.
The unique characters are very different and it is fairly probable that over time the community will find out that some are much more powerful than others, such as in Terra Mystica. I really like the auction patch in Terra Mystica: Fire & Ice that was offered to experienced players. Such an auction variant could solve potential imbalances but is missing as of now in this game.
The turn order is fairly important and the starting player of the next round is the one who traveled last in the previous round. After the starting player the turn order is clockwise. Becoming starting player requires planning and may come at the cost of passing on some resources. The player next to the starting player might have done nothing about the turn order and simply was lucky to be second. In contrast, the fourth player might have tried to become starting player and might have ended up being last in turn order. I think this is much more an issue than in the basic version of Terra Mystica, especially because the first players usually get one to two black dice to be used in addition in the current round. Being last in the turn order may result in not getting any black dice and being down two dice against other players. Again a similar patch of the variable turn of Terra Mystica: Fire & Ice would solve this problem.
Another thing I didn’t like was how players receive cash. There are two main spots through which you can get 3 cash (irrespective of die roll) or 5 cash (but most of the time 4 cash if the spot is taken and you use it with a die of 1). Sometimes you can get cash via the assignments. The decision how you gather money is not very interesting and the two main ways differ marginally. There are a few other sources of cash but players will still frequently have to use the two worker placement spots to get money.
Interaction: 7 out of 10
The interaction is higher than most worker placement games because you need to take into account the unique characters and the dice rolls. The unique characters are very different so the impact of certain moves of yours can be quite different for them. This contributes to interesting and nasty interaction.
The very fact that the turn order is not totally variable can contribute to unfair interaction though. Some characters have a unique ability that lets the players play against other players, some others are more peaceful. For instance, one unique ability lets the respective player choose the number for each die instead of rolling the dice. This player will usually try to block certain spots and play as mean as possible. The player on the left of this player will suffer much more in a 4-player game than the player on the right of the player with the mean character.
Replayability: 8 out of 10
The game is definitely quite deep, the unique characters and the bonus cards make sure that it will take a while for the game experience to feel repetitive.
However, my prediction is that the luck factor does diminish the ambition of many to master the game and compete against other players over and over again as it is the case in Terra Mystica.
The Voyages of Marco Polo is an innovative and fun worker placement game. I personally feel that the luck factor is too high for such a deep game. It could be reduced by letting players roll only half of their dice and matching the rest of the dice to make pairs that account to 7. Example: if you had 6 dice and you roll 1,3,5 then you would set the remaining dice to 6, 4 and 2. This way players would still have different dice rolls but at least the numbers on the dice would roughly equal each other in total (when you have 5 dice you can do the same for 4 dice at least).
It is neither a fast and casual strategy game such as Istanbul nor the ultimate deep and competitive game like Terra Mystica. Furthermore, I see a problem with some issues I mentioned above but most of them could be fairly easily solved using the patches I suggested.