Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Marco! (Polo!)

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is one of my favorite board games of the last few years. And now the team behind it, Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, have released something new. Something entirely new, bearing little obvious connection to their previous effort: The Voyages of Marco Polo.

Players take on the roles of 13th century merchants, traveling throughout the Far East to deliver camels, pepper, silk, and gold. Players begin each round by rolling dice, then allocating their dice in turn to the actions they wish to take. The design makes sure there are uses for high rolls and low rolls, and plenty of pressure to get to actions before your opponents. And moving around the board takes a good deal of money -- yet another resource you must manage.

It's a hallmark of many German board games that you want to do dozens of things in a space where you have time only for a few. The Voyages of Marco Polo captures this feeling more than most. It lasts just 5 rounds, and you roll just five dice in each. With most actions taking multiple dice, you're likely only looking at 10 to 15 actions for the entire game. And when the game's rules have been explained to you, you'll probably wonder "how am I going to do all this?" It just doesn't seem like you'll have much time to get anything going.

Thus, it's a quite subtle and clever triumph of the game that things do develop, and quickly. By the end of the game, you'll feel like you were probably just one more round from doing most everything you could have done. And that feeling of leaving you wanting just a little bit more is what will likely drive you to want to play again. It's a quite deftly balanced bunch of game mechanisms.

But there is one mechanism that's harder to judge: each player takes on a unique character role, with a unique power to cheat a specific rule of the game. Roles are drafted at the start of the game in reverse turn order, making them a counterbalance for any advantage in acting first. How good each one is can depend a great deal on the board layout, which is randomized to some degree in each game. I would certainly imagine that the roles were thoroughly tested by the game designers for fairness and rough equality. But first-glance appearances certainly suggest one or two that are better than the others. And if one needs to be a skilled player to tell when a board layout or a different number of opponents shifts the balance of power to a different role? Well, that could potentially lead to a big skill gap.

I certainly don't have enough experience with The Voyages of Marco Polo to render a final judgment. But while I can't say with authority that the roles don't take anything away from the game, I'm not yet convinced that they add anything necessary, either. For the rest of the game, I give a B+. It remains to be seen over the long haul whether the roles move that up or down. Either way, I think it's a good effort, but not quite at the level of Tzolk'in.

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