Friday, 7 May 2021

Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan

When Allen, Han and I last played Marco Polo on BoardGameArena, we all enjoyed it. We wanted to then try Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan, and we read the rules, only to then discover that it was a members-only game. I recently started subscribing to BoardGameArena, so the first game we went for was Marco Polo II

The Game & The Play

The basic structure and rules are the same as Marco Polo. I will not delve into them much. If the series interests you, I would suggest starting with the original. Marco Polo II is an independent game and not an expansion, but it is slightly more complex. It feels very similar to the original. The story in Marco Polo II happens after Marco Polo has arrived in Beijing. So you are no longer traveling from Venice to Beijing. Instead, you start in Beijing. You don't need to travel back to Italy. In fact Venice isn't even on the map. 

In this screenshot above, you can see all the pawns starting in Beijing at the top right corner. The red pawns are Allen's. Having two pawns is the special ability of his character. 

The game is played over 5 rounds. Every round you have 5 dice in your colour, and you use them for worker placement. Placing them at different spots allows you to perform different actions. A round ends when everyone runs out of workers (dice) to place. In broad strokes, you do two things in this game. Firstly, you collect resources then fulfil contracts to earn points and other rewards. Secondly, you travel the world to gain various benefits like the ability to claim new contracts, more types of actions and bonus resources at the start of every round. 

One new element in Marco Polo II is the shields at the cities and towns. There are many different shields on the board. At game end, you score points based on how many different shields your trading posts are present at. If your trading post network only covers a few shields, this bonus won't be much. However the more you cover, the higher the point values go. At the start of the game, you draw a secret mission card which tells you shields which will count double. These will be attractive. 

Off we go! Allen (red) was first to embark, and he headed south from Beijing. I (green) didn't want to overlap with him, because we would end up bitterly competing for the first-to-arrive bonuses. So I went south west. Han (blue) went a different direction too - west. 

Water routes (in light blue) show sail boats with guild seal icons on them. Guild seals are a new element. One of the actions you can perform is to claim seals. After claiming a seal, you also need to pay the required resources to activate it. An active seal lets you travel on corresponding water routes, and also gives you bonus resources at the start of every round. Some locations on the board provide bonuses based on the seals you own too. 

There is a new resource type - jade. Traveling some routes requires jade to be paid. Jade is a special resource which can stand in for cash or camels at any time. 

In Marco Polo II, the characters are still one of the most important aspects. They are what stands out the most to me. The characters are very powerful. You really must adjust your play to suit your character. Make the most of them. This above was Allen's character. I Googled and couldn't find out who they were. I wonder whether they are fictitious. Are they husband and wife? Brother and sister? No idea. What's most special about this character (or characters) is you have two pawns instead of one. When you travel, you can split up, which is very handy. Traveling is expensive. The missions usually require you visit cities which are far apart, and this is tough when you only have one pawn. The extra pawn helps immensely. This character also starts with an extra $3, and whenever gaining bonus resources at the start of a round, you pick one of the bonuses to be received twice. 

This was the character I picked. I was last in turn order, so I got to pick first. At the time I had no idea how to evaluate the characters, so I just went with my gut. This guy turned out to be crazy powerful. Jackpot! His ability was free travelling - no need to pay cash or camels. However any jade cost still needed to be paid, and seal requirements for traveling over water still needed to be met. He had some weaknesses too. He could only use the weakest traveling action space on the board, which only allowed traveling one step. If I wanted to travel far, I would need to depend on special traveling actions on contracts, special cards or cities, which were harder to come by. 

This was Han's character. His specialty was guild seals. Normally to claim a seal you need to place two dice. This character only needs to place one. Whenever a seal is activated (by spending resources), he gets a piece of jade. At game end, he adds one to the location shield count. 

At the bottom left there are two special action cards. These are similar to the ones placed at some cities, except they are refreshed every round. This is something new in Marco Polo II. You have a bit more randomness. Sometimes these cards present lucrative opportunities. These cards allow you to perform a transaction multiple times, as long as you place a high enough die value and you can afford the transaction fee.

At the bottom right you can see the spot for claiming contracts. Contracts specify resources you need to spend, and how many points and other benefits you'll get in exchange. To use this contract spot, you need to have set up trading posts at cities offering contracts. You can only take contracts from these cities. This works differently from Marco Polo

At this point I (green) have visited four locations (green trading posts). Allen (red) had also placed four trading posts. Han (blue) only had one. My character's special ability was related to traveling, so I maximised that. I tried to do traveling at least twice per round. I could only use the weakest action spot, which meant I had to perform the action once with my own green die and once with a purchased black die.  

Along the bottom of the board are action spots for collecting resources. This aspect is different from the original in that half the spots will vary from round to round. In the original these are fixed. You will get to preview the combination of goods available for next round, so that you can plan ahead. 

The screenshot above was taken in Round 3, about 60% through the game. My (green) pawn had reached the bottom left corner of the map, and I had placed 7 trading posts by this point. 

This was near the end of Round 4. My (green) pawn had travelled along the southern path from west back to east, placing three more trading posts. Your 9th to 11th trading posts will score points. My specialty was traveling, so naturally I went all out trying to build as many trading posts as possible. I eventually managed to place all of them. I almost managed to claim all location shields too. There was one city action card which allowed me to travel. This was different from the standard travel action where I was restricted to travel just one step at a time. Unfortunately in the final round Allen beat me to that action. I was just short of one shield - the rooster which could be found in two cities in the north. 

This was the end of Round 5, i.e. the end of the game. Han's strength was guild seals, and he had collected and activated all of them (brown squares at the bottom right). Allen's (red) strength was having two pawns. That helped him place 9 trading posts, which was no small feat. I was surprised I ended up being the guy with the most completed contracts. I had not been focusing on contracts, and mostly fulfilled them as a side quest. I concentrated mostly on traveling. I tried to pick the easy ones, and not those with high point values. That might have turned out to be what helped me complete more of them. Having many trading posts helped too, because it meant I had more contracts to choose from whenever I had the chance to take a new one. 

I found my character very powerful and felt a little guilty about it. After the game I checked and found that indeed most players rank Gantulga Od the top character.  

The Thoughts

Marco Polo II feels very similar to its predecessor. If you like the first one, you'll most likely enjoy this one too. It is more complex. Some systems have been linked together, creating more interdependencies. There is more you need to consider. There is more variability and randomness too. The special actions will change every round. The resource collection actions too. I would recommend the cleaner original if you are new to the game family. 

No comments: