Larry Levy: Review of Marco Polo II

Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan

  • Designers:  Simone Luciani, Daniele Tascini
  • Artist:  Dennis Lohausen
  • Publisher:  Hans im Glück
  • Players:  2-4
  • Age:  12+
  • Time:  60-120 minutes
  • Times Played:  4, all online

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Italian-designed games.  Simone Luciani, in particular, has created some terrific games over the past 10 years, with The Voyages of Marco Polo (which he co-designed with Daniele Tascini back in 2015) being one of my all-time favorites.  So when the two of them released a sequel last year, cleverly called Marco Polo II (which I will henceforth refer to as MP2), I obviously was the first one in line to buy it, right?  Well, actually, no.  See, another of my gaming quirks is avoiding expansions, spinoffs, and sequels of existing titles.  I love exploring new things, so I’d much rather devote my limited gaming time and budget on brand new designs.  The rules for MP2 made it clear that it shared an awful lot in common with MP1, so I was in no hurry to check it out.  However, Boardgame Arena recently came up with a beta version of MP2 for online play.  A friend of mine tried it and said he really enjoyed it, so when he asked me and some others to check it out, I happily agreed.  Getting the chance to try something new in the midst of my personal lockdown was something to look forward to, sequel or not.  So, did the irresistible force of a Luciani game overcome the immovable object of my prejudice against spinoffs, or was it the other way around?

Rather than keep you in suspense, the tl;dr answer is:  I loved it.  MP2 is one of my favorite designs of 2019 and the only real question is if I prefer the original or the newcomer.  Let me explain why this sequel worked, while so many others didn’t.  But first, I need to go over the workings of the game.  I’ll focus on the things that are different between MP2 and MP1, but for the benefit of those of you who haven’t played MP1, let me briefly list the mechanisms that the two games share.

  • Both games are set in the late thirteenth century, and themed around the travels of Marco Polo along the Silk Road between Italy and China.  The map represents this area and shows major cities and the trade routes which connect them.
  • Each player is represented by a single figure of their color which can be moved on the map.  When the figure moves to a city, the player can place a trading post there.
  • There are three types of goods (pepper, silk, and gold), together with coins and camels, which the players can acquire and use for a variety of things.
  • The principal ways that points are scored are by placing trading posts and by acquiring and completing contracts.  Contracts are completed by turning in the specified goods and camels (hey, they didn’t exactly have Maseratis to lug all those goods around back then!) and getting VPs and other things in exchange.
  • These are Worker Placement games, which use dice as the workers.  Each player has 5 dice in their color, which are rolled at the beginning of every round (players receive compensation if the sum of their dice is unusually low).  Each action requires from 1 to 3 dice.  The power of the action is usually dependent on the value of the lowest of the dice applied to it.  Most actions can be used by more than one player, but subsequent players have to pay coins equal to the value of that lowest die.  So high dice are usually good, but since they can be expensive, you sometimes are happier with low rolls.
  • You can use camels to reroll dice, modify die values, or buy black dice.  Doing the latter is expensive and can only be done once a turn, but it gives you an additional worker that translates into more actions.  You can’t do the same action more than once using dice of your color, but you are able to do so with black dice, so that’s another benefit.
  • Each city has a card at it which is randomly dealt out at the start of each game.  Any player who has a trading post in a city can use a die to activate that card’s ability.  Many of them are quite powerful.
  • Each player selects a character to play at the beginning of the game.  Every character gives their player an extremely powerful ability.  Making the best use of your character’s ability is one of the principal skills in the game.

So that’s what the two games have in common.  Here are the major differences between MP1 and MP2.

  • There’s a new good in MP2:  Jade.  This is needed for some contracts and for traveling over some trade routes.  It can also be substituted for a coin or a camel.  It’s principal use, though, is for obtaining goods and camels at the Marketplace.
  • The Favor of Khan action works almost the same in MP2 as it does in MP1.  However, instead of the player receiving camels and a good, they receive camels and coins.  The inability to grab the good of your choice cheaply definitely alters the strategy of the game.
  • The Marketplace works entirely differently in MP2.  There are now three different areas.  All dice can be placed in the first area, which is the best place to get pepper.  You need dice of at least value 3 for the second area, which features silk.  And you need dice of at least value 5 for the third area, which is where gold is available.  Each area has four rewards you can choose from.  Two of them are free.  The other two require you to trade one or two jade for the reward and these have the larger benefits.  The two jade trading rewards in each area change every round, but you get to see what next round’s rewards will be, so you can plan.
  • The procedure for getting new contracts is also changed.  Now, instead of them being available in a single area, they are associated with the cities.  Five of the cities have two contracts apiece displayed on the board.  For the cost of one die, you can choose up to a total of two contracts from any cities where you have a trading post.  So, unlike MP1, in MP2 you need to travel if you want to get contracts.
  • The changes to the travel action are quite substantial.  There are now three different areas dedicated to travel.  The first costs 1 die and lets you move one space at a cost of 2 coins; the second costs 2 dice and lets you move 1-3 spaces; and the third costs 3 dice and lets you move 1-6 spaces.  In addition, you can’t move more spaces than the lowest die used.  The 3 dice space also lets you place one trading post somewhere along your route, in addition to the one you can drop at the city you end your turn in.

    The only travel space that costs coins is the first one (a big change from MP1), but you’ll still probably want to save up if you intend to do much moving around.  That’s because every road now costs you something, including coins, camel, and jade (and sometimes, all three).  So while traveling may be easier in the new game, it will still put a big dent in your pocketbook.
  • Something that is brand new in MP2 is guilds.  There are four of them and there is a 2-dice action space where you can acquire them.  A prerequisite for traveling over some roads is owning a specific guild.  In addition, each guild can be improved by paying specified coins and goods and doing so gives you income each round.  The improvement costs aren’t cheap, but the payoff is worthwhile.
  • There are now different kinds of cities.  Some have city cards, and some give you income, just as in MP1.  Others feature contracts.  Then there are special cities, which have income and some special actions, which are tied to specific improved guilds.  There’s a lot to be earned through traveling, but you need to carefully scan the board to see which goodies are most important to you (and what it’ll take for you to get to them).

The flow of the game remains the same as the original, with each player taking one action in clockwise order.  When everyone has exhausted their dice (including any black dice they may have acquired), the round ends and each player earns income and rerolls their dice.  After 5 rounds, the game ends.  Bonus points are awarded if you visited lots of different areas on the map.  There are also goal cards which give you points for having trading posts in certain areas or having certain improved guilds (each player starts the game with a goal card).  Most contracts earns a bonus and there’s now a lesser bonus for the player with the second most contracts.  Most points wins.

I once wrote a review of a game (it was a little remembered older title called Cuba) in which I said that it’s what you would get if you took all the parts of Puerto Rico and put them in a blender.  I meant it as a compliment.  Well, my best pithy description of MP2 is it’s what you would get if you looked at all the parts of MP1 through one of those big funhouse mirrors:  everything somewhat warped and distorted, but still recognizable.  Again, it’s intended as a compliment.

Yes, it’s definitely Marco Polo and the excellent central dice mechanism remains the same.  But almost everything else is modified enough that the two games feel quite different and a new set of strategies and skills are very much required to play MP2 well.  And that’s exactly what I want—a relatively new game experience, as opposed to something that feels like an elaborate expansion.

Overall, the biggest difference between the two games is that MP2 feels more open and forgiving than the original.  It’s still a tough, rules-heavy game and not for the faint of heart.  But MP1 really makes you work to get things done and has a significant learning curve.  There are certain actions that feel essential and you have to prepare properly in order to accomplish them.  Whereas with MP2, on most turns you have multiple attractive actions you can take and the skill lies in figuring out which is the best and most efficient one to do that helps you fulfill your overall strategy.

Which is not to say that MP2 is a carefree walk in the lotus-scented park.  In some ways, it’s more challenging than MP1.  Goods tend to be harder to obtain; you no longer have the option of grabbing a needed gold by plopping a low-valued die on the Favor of Khan space.  The MP1 Marketplace could be expensive, but at least you had the prospect of getting big caches of goods or camels there.  Such options are usually not available in MP2, so other tactics are required.  Cities that bring you goods income and contracts that reward you with goods take on a greater importance.  More than anything, jade can be really essential, as the best rewards from the new Marketplace are only available if you can provide that lovely green mineral in trade.

Then there’s travel.  Before I get to that, let me set the record straight about some of the things being said about MP1.  I’ve seen a number of comments that MP2 “fixes” MP1, which is “broken” because it can be won without traveling at all, which seems strange for a game about the “Voyages” of Marco Polo.  This is very much Fake News.  Yes, traveling is definitely expensive in MP1.  In fact, it can be so hard to do that, that in a game with beginners, players can sometimes win without traveling.  But after just a few games, you realize how important travel can be; in particular, the city cards can be quite powerful.  In the many games I’ve played with experienced players, winning without traveling a reasonable amount is virtually impossible.  MP1 is in no way broken, which should come as no surprise, since the game is still in the Geek’s top 50.

Traveling in MP2 is certainly easier than it is in MP1.  It’s still pretty expensive, though, so it often requires some preparation.  But with three action spaces available, you can usually tailor the actions you take to your exact travel requirements.  This is another example of the new game having a more open and less scripted feel than the original.  But the most significant thing is that travel is more important in MP2, since the different types of cities provide so many varied benefits.  For example, if you want any new contracts (and contracts are still an important source of VPs), you’ll have to visit at least one city that provides them.  Other city types are equally useful, so moving about is very rewarding and often essential, despite the costs.

The new elements in MP2 blend seamlessly into the gameplay.  Jade is a great addition and is featured throughout the design.  The guilds feel a little bit more like they were bolted on, but I like their inclusion and they give the players yet another thing they can focus on.  The way endgame points are awarded for cities visited is less straightforward than it was in MP1, but it does achieve its goal of encouraging players to venture far and wide.  MP2’s design feels a bit clunkier than the original, but neither game is particularly elegant.  However, nothing feels superfluous in either game and they both feel complete and very well designed.

The characters continue to be a focus of the Marco Polo experience.  In general, the new ones aren’t quite as interesting as the originals, since all of the more basic, and outrageously powerful, abilities were utilized in MP1.  Still, they did come up with some fun and impactful specialties and learning how best to utilize your unique abilities continues to be a critical skill.

Three of my online games were with 4 players and one was with 2.  I think I like the 4-player game a little bit more (I feel the same way about MP1), but the game scales very well and I would happily play this with any number of players.

So which game do I prefer?  I tend to like challenging games, so I think I have a slight preference for MP1.  But I think they’re both great.  And with MP2 being more accessible, more open, and less punishing than the original design, it wouldn’t surprise me if many gamers wind up leaning the other way.

Since I’ve only played this game online, I can’t truly critique the components.  But I’ve seen enough on the Geek and BGA to provide some thoughts.  First of all, I’m very happy that Hans im Glück once again used the very talented Dennis Lohausen for the art.  MP2 has the exact same look and iconography as MP1 (Lohausen was the artist for that game as well), which to me is a major plus.  There’s no getting around the fact, though, that MP2’s board is a bit cluttered.  I don’t see how it could be otherwise, given all the information it contains, but it still needs to be pointed out.  Once again, HiG provides slightly larger versions of the goods tokens and camels to substitute for 3 of that item; this continues to be a less than ideal solution, but I got used to it in MP1 and I’ll get used to it in MP2.  So I have a few niggles, but overall, MP2 is a very attractive game with clear and consistent iconography, just like its older brother.

Are there things in the game I have issues with?  Only a couple, and both are more annoyances than major flaws.  One of the characters (Filippo Vitello) receives any Outpost bonus tiles earned by his opponents and gets to use them once apiece as a free action.  It’s a nice ability, but it’s clearly more valuable at higher player counts (since there are more opponents to feed you bonus tiles).  Despite this, there are no adjustments based on the number of players for this character.  Consequently, he really should be avoided in 2-player games.  I’m puzzled why they didn’t make any player number adjustments to the character, particularly since they did exactly that for one of the characters in MP1 (and went so far as to provide three different tiles for that one character).  Once I get a physical copy of the game, I plan to add a house rule to place Filippo aside in 2-player games (and maybe even with 3), but I would have thought that they could have buffed this character a bit and made it equally attractive regardless of the number of players.

My other issue has to do with the tiebreaker rules for number of contracts.  Recall that VPs are now awarded for first and second place in contracts completed (8 VPs for first place and 4 VPs for second).  These are “super-friendly” ties, so that 8 VPs are awarded to all players with the highest number of contracts and 4 VPs are given to the player with the next highest number, regardless if there was a tie for first or not.  I don’t like this rule at all, as it can be a disincentive to complete contracts.  Let me illustrate this with an example.  Suppose that I (Larry) am playing a game with Moe, Curly, and Shemp.  It’s the last round of the game and Curly and I are battling it out for the win.  Moe has the most contracts, I’m one behind, and Curly will finish third.  The question is, do I try to tie Moe for most contracts or do I devote my actions to other areas?  If things stay the same, the contract VPs will be awarded as follows:  Moe (8 VPs), me (4 VPs), and Curly (0 VPs).  If I tie Moe, then the awards will look like this:  Moe (8 VPs), me (8 VPs), and Curly (4 VPs).  Despite me tying for first place, I didn’t gain any ground on Curly, the player I care about (in both cases, I earn 4 more VPs than he does).  In fact, if I tie Moe, Curly magically earns 4 VPs, despite not doing anything at all (not even the Curly Shuffle!).  This isn’t a strictly academic concern, either, as the issue has come up in two of my games.  I’m genuinely puzzled about why this rule was implemented, since you would think that getting first place in contracts should always be rewarded.  Now Luciani and Tascini are great designers and Hans im Glück is a first-rate publisher, so presumably they have their reasons for breaking ties this way.  I’d love to hear what they are, but right now, I can’t say I’m a fan of this rule.

Those are obviously not major issues and overall, I’m delighted with the game.  Taking such a distinctive design and using it as the basis for something that has such a different feel couldn’t have been easy, but that’s just what Luciani and Tascini have accomplished.  It’s deep, challenging, and tremendously fun to play.  The implementation on BGA (which just came out of beta testing and is now available for general play) is excellent.  I’m happy to report that when MP1 calls out “Marco!”, MP2 responds “Polo!” and it sounds just as strong and clear as the original.  So despite my usual negative feelings about spinoffs, I have to admit that sometimes the sequel truly is the equal and in this case, I’m very glad it is!

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Korner: First off, a quick disclaimer: I did the English translation of the rules for the publisher and received, as part of my payment for same, a contributor copy of the game. That ‘physical’ copy of the game is still sitting in shrink on my shelf, mind you, while I’ve played the online implementation on BGA going on a dozen times now. Side note: It is no longer in Beta on the site, and it really is a pretty seamless and impressive implementation of the game.

Okay, now for my comments: I really, really, like this game, for many of the reasons Larry noted above (Three Stooges references aside, I guess you have to be of a certain disposition to like that kind of thing). It’s more than a fresh coat of paint, it’s more like a full remodel – the bones are still there, but some walls have been taken down, some new appliances grace the kitchen, etc. One of the things I really like (other than better thematic integration between travelling and trading, which always felt a bit ‘forced’ to me in MP1) is that now, rolling terribly isn’t actually terrible. 1 and 2-value dice can be hugely valuable in getting a wider variety of goods (as long as you have Jade in tow), travelling a single spot without breaking the bank, etc. This smoothing out of the luck of the roll is welcome, as low rolls were pretty uniformly awful in MP1.

I also quite like the fact that yes, you can mix and match your gameplay experience between the original and the expansion, i.e. you can use MP1 characters in MP2 and vice versa (with a few exceptions). The rules have a pretty thorough summary of which combinations will work well and which are best avoided, so the new game even breathes a bit of life into the older one.

One final comment: A small expansion for the game (the Caravans) is now also available to use on BGA, and really mixes up the game with some new characters and a new ability to load goods on caravans and then move them about the map, getting either points or more goods when your character meets up with your caravan on the map. Well worth trying.

Dan Blum (1 play online): After one play of the finished game (I also played a prototype) I like it somewhat better than the original; the changes to traveling and contract acquisition I think are improvements. I’d still play the original, however, and neither is going to be one of my favorites. They’re both solid designs.

RJ Garrison (a number of plays of both MP1 and MP2 on BGA):  I was introduced to both MP1 and MP2 on Boardgamearena.  I enjoy both games, but unlike Larry, I find MP1 easier and more forgiving than MP2, which I feel has a tighter economy.  The games are different enough in game play to me that I’ll play either.  However, they are similar enough that if I were purchasing games for my collection, I don’t think I would need to own both, as they both seem to scratch the same game playing itch. 

Mitchell Thomashow: I’ve played MP2 around twenty times, almost exclusively the two player game. I am a huge fan of MP1 and the Italian designer games in general. My wife and I take great pleasure in MP2 as well. Larry’s excellent review mentions the seminal changes and I agree with his assessment. The 2 player game places a greater emphasis on travel for sure, and the fact that certain routes are locked brings additional strategic interest. We like both games so much that we will often play them over several weeks, with back-to-back best of seven series. We did this over the summer and will do so again soon. With all the game choices out there, it’s always hard to play a game enough that you know it really well and then continue to enjoy it. That describes our MP1 and MP2 experience.

Craig Massey (4 plays – two face to face and two online): I really enjoy the original and was nervous that the follow up would feel unnecessary for lack of a better word. After a handful of plays it does not feel unnecessary at all. Rather Marco Polo 2 stands on its own. I will continue to play and enjoy both.

Simon Weinberg (2 plays online):  I have played MP1 tons of times and I would not have been interested in MPII if I had not had the chance to play it online. I think Larry said it all: MP2 is really a new game rather then an expansion or reimplementation and I’d recommend it strongly for fans of MP1. I haven’t played it enough to judge if it’s better or worse than the first game, which I love, but I’d certainly say it’s intriguing and different. It’s much harder to get goods and while it still  favours higher rolls it is less straightforward to get goods in this game than MP1. I’m not sure I like the travel as much as MP1, I still need to figure that out and I suspect that it’s probably just because I know MP1 so much better. Recommended!

Joe Huber (2 plays, one of the prototype, neither online): My first play, of the prototype, did not go well, but playing the published game it became clear that Hans im Glück had – once again – done an excellent job of developing the game.  Unfortunately, that solved only half of my problem – the sequel had brought out an issue for me with the system in general, which decreased my interest in the game to the point of letting the original go.  I could still play either, but both have too many of what I see as negative elements of worker placement in them for me to really enjoy.

Tery Noseworthy (1 play online, many plays of the original both in person and online): I like worker placement games, and both versions of this game. Like others have said, the basics that make MP1 what it is are still there, but MP2 streamlines a few things to make them work better or differently, so it feels fresh; the travel is an improvement to my experience. It also adds a few new elements. I enjoy both and look forward to trying this one again.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it! Larry, Patrick K, Mitchell, Simon

I like it.  John P, Nathan Beeler, Dan Blum, RJ Garrison, Tery, Craig

Neutral. Joe H.

Not for me…

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