Roll dice, place workers. Plenty of other board games do it, but the added twist that The Voyages of Marco Polo brings is a cast of game-breaking characters that majorly break one of the rules of the game. But if everyone cheats, no one does… right?
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is The Voyages of Marco Polo, a dice-rolling worker placement game of conquest for 2-4 players. Let me show you how to play!
You and your friends play famous explorer Marco and his pals, setting off across Asia to fulfill contracts and establish trading outposts and trade routes. The game has a set of rules for how to play, and everyone plays a unique character that breaks those rules in some outrageous way. There are various paths to victory, and after 5 rounds, whoever has scored the most victory points is the winner!
Let’s look at the standard rules of the game, before those character cards come in and break everything.
Everyone starts the game with 5 dice and a little Chef Boyardee meeple up in Venizia. You have some unconstructed trading posts, and a contract to complete. You also have two goal cards that may remind you of Ticket to Ride, if you’re familiar with that game: build a trading post in the two cities depicted on the card to establish a trade route and earn extra points. You also start off with a couple of camels and some walkin’-around money.
At the beginning of every round, all players roll dice simultaneously and line them up on their player boards. On your turn, you take one or more dice and place it on an action space – either one of the ones printed on the board, or on one of the spots on the dynamically-dealt city cards, if you have a trading post there. The standard action areas allow you to shop at the bazaar, seek the Khan’s favour, take a contract, travel, or take money. Let’s zoom in on each of these, one by one.
To shop at the Grand Bazaar, place one die, one die, a pair of dice, or a trio of dice on one of these spaces. In spaces where you have to place multiple dice, look at the lowest number of pips you placed. If you play a 5, and a 3, the important number is 3. If you place a 6, a 6, and a 1, what matters is the 1. That lowest number decides what you get to take from that row in the bazaar. If your number is 6, you can have the goods from this space, or any single space before it. If your number is 2 and you place here, you can only take what’s in this space or this space. Usually, you’ll grab what’s in the most valuable space.
The symbols are beautifully clear: you can take camels, pepper, silk, gold, or coins in various amounts. This symbol means travel, and we’ll talk about it a little later.
On the Khan’s Favor space, any numbered die can go in this leftmost spot. Each die that’s placed after it has to be greater than or equal to that amount. Players who seek the Khan’s Favor get one resource of their choice, plus a pair of camels.
You can complete contracts on your player board to win cash and prizes. You start the game with one contract, but you have space for two. You can place a die here to secure more contracts. As before, the pip value on the die determines what you get. You can take one or two contracts. So if you play a 4, you can take any of these contracts and then, you can take any one of the contracts remaining in this range. Grabbing the contract from here or here if you’ve played a 5 or a 6 gets you a choice of extra money or camels. You can only have 2 open contracts at a time, so if you take a contract and it doesn’t fit, you have to discard one or both of your open contracts to the bottom of the special contract pile. You can’t send a contract straight to the special contract pile; it has to hit your player board first. After you take your 1 or 2 contracts, you slide the remaining ones over to fill any gaps.
If everyone else has taken all but one of the contracts before you get there, you can only take that one contract. If all of the contracts are gone before you arrive, you can deal two contracts from the special contract pile and pick from those.
Place a die here to take 5 coins.
To move your little Chef Boyardee around the board, place a pair of dice on the Travel action. As at the Bazaar, the lowest-numbered die in the pair decides which spaces you get to choose from. You also have to pay money. To move 3 spaces, you pay 12 coins. To move 1 space, you pay 3 coins. There are usually additional costs to travelling, depending on where you’re headed. If you move from here to here, you have to pay two camels. Moving from here to here will cost you 7 coins. Travel costs tend to get more steep the further East you move, and it’s prohibitively expensive to travel by aquatic camel.
Your movement always ends at a large city, a small city, or an oasis. If you wind up in a large city and you’re the first one here, you take the arched tile and claim the one-time bonus. Whether or not you’re first, you plant one of your trading posts in the city. Your trading post unlocks the action space in that city for you. It may also help you make a trade route connection on one of your goal cards. As you build them, your trading posts pop off in columns. If you get all the way over here, building these two trading posts gets you bonus points. If you’ve placed all your trading posts and you enter a city that doesn’t have one of your trading posts, you have to move one of your trading posts from another city onto it. And you can’t build any trading posts in the starting city of Venizia.
If you wind up in a small city, you immediately get the benefit on that city’s tile. The exclamation mark means that from now on, at the beginning of every new round, you’ll get that benefit again.
If you wind up on an oasis, you’re… on an oasis. Yaaaaay.
If you want to build a trading post or get the benefit from a small city, you have to end your movement there – you can’t drop a trading post in a camel drive-by. This means that if you’re here and you can pay for two travel movements, you should probably consider only paying for one.
If you do build a trading post on a large city, you can put a die there. Many of these cards have this bracket, which describes some kind of an exchange. This space lets you trade a camel and a gold for four points. And check this out: the number of pips on your die determine how many times you get to make this trade. Play a 4, and you can trade up to four sets of camels and gold to earn up to 16 points! You can move around the board however you like – however you can afford – which includes backracking – but you can never build more than one trading post in a single city. The first player to reach Beijing takes the top-scoring spot for their trading post.
That’s all fine and dandy, but this game does support up to four players, and a worker placement game is usually about fighting for spots. In The Voyages of Marco Polo, every blue symbol you see means that multiple players can use that space, but a brown symbol means the space is limited to only one player. So all of these city spaces, the 5 coins space, and each of the Khan’s Favor spots are first come, first served.
If someone has already placed their stupid dice on a blue spot that you want to use, you stack your dice on top of theirs. But you have to pay as much money as your lowest-valued die. So stack a 4 here, and you’re paying 4 coins for the privilege. Put a 2 and a 6 here, and you have to pay 2 coins. That means that even though you get 5 coins from placing here, if you’re not the first to the spot, you need to pay for the die you place here. Place a 1, and you have to pay one coin to get 5. Place a 6, and… well, don’t place a 6.
You can never play your own coloured dice on an action space where you’ve already played, but in some cases, you can acquire black or white dice. Those dice aren’t your colour, so they allow you to play multiple times in the same area.
Your player guide lists a suite of bonus actions. In addition to your main action of playing one or more dice to a single action space on your turn, you can perform any number of these bonus actions before or after your main action. Here’s what you can do:
Drop a die on this money bag to get 3 coins. Unlike this space, it doesn’t cost you any money, no matter how many dice pile up there, and you can place as many of your dice there as you like.
You can pay a camel to reroll one of your dice, or pay 2 camels to adjust a die face to any number you want.
You can pay 3 camels to take a black die from the supply and roll it. That die works for you this round, and it goes back into the supply when the round is over. It can be combined with your coloured dice to take action spaces, or used on its own. You’re only allowed to buy one black die per turn. Not per round, but per turn.
Finally, you can also complete contracts. Pay the price on the left, reap the reward on the right, and put the contract face-down on your player board. Unlike the bracket on the city spaces, this bracket depicts a one-time exchange; the contract can only be fulfilled once. Except for taking a black die, you can perform as many bonus actions on your turn as you like, as often as you like.
At the beginning of the round, if you got a crummy roll, you’re entitled to compensation. For every pip under 15 that you rolled, you can take either a camel or a coin.
Play continues clockwise until everyone is out of dice. Some players may get more turns than others, depending on how many dice they use on a turn, and whether or not they use black dice.
At the end of each round, everyone retrieves their dice. The last player to have travelled – so the player with their dice on top of this stack – becomes the new starting player. If nobody traveled last round, the starting player remains the starting player. Black dice go back into the supply. Scrap all of the contracts remaining on the board, and replace them with the contracts from a fresh pile. You can track the progress of the game’s five rounds by keeping an eye on these piles.
Now, a new round begins.The bonuses for all the small cities activate, and pay dividends to players with trading posts there. Any players with exclamation marks on their character cards get their round bonuses too. We’ll look at characters shortly.
After the final player places his or her last dice in the fifth round, the game is over. Flip over your goal cards. If you have a trading post in both of the cities depicted, you get the number of points on the card. If you didn’t, no points for you. But check out the table at the bottom of the card: if you have a trading post in one of the depicted cities, you get a point. If you landed in two different cities depicted on your cards, you get 3 points, and so on.
Every 10 leftover coins get you 1 Victory Point.
Score any points you picked up in Beijing for placing a trading post. Leftover goods aren’t worth any points unless you’re in Beijing, in which case you get a point for every 2 leftover goods, excluding camels. Nobody wants your filthy camels. Oh – i’m sorry, camels. Come back! Euch! No – i was right the first time. You stink, camels. Get out of here!
Score bonus points if you placed your last and/or second last trading post. Whoever completed the most contracts gets 7 bonus points.
The player with the most VPs wins. If there’s a tie, the tiebreaker is… (sigh) camels. Ugh. i’m not calling them back. I think they’re really mad at me.
So that’s the gist of the game, and that’s great. But here’s where it gets real good:
Everyone gets to play a character with a special power. The powers are insane, and they feel like cheating. But if everyone gets to cheat, then nobody does, right? Check out what this trade route-establishin’ sausage fest can do:
In a 4-player game, whenever anyone goes to the Grand Bazaar, the Mercator ex Tabriz gets another one of the goods that player takes from the supply, including camels. In a 3-player game, you get that perk plus a camel any time another player seeks the Khan’s Favor, and in a 2-player game, you get those two perks AND 2 coins whenever an opponent uses the Take 5 Coins space.
As Kubilai Khan, you get to start the game with your Chef Boyardee and a trading post in Beijing!
Matteo Polo gets to roll the white die as an extra worker, and he gets a bonus contract drawn from the special pile, every round!
If you are Raschid ad-Din Sinan don’t even roll your dice! You just pick the values you want your dice to have whenever you place them!
Berke Khan doesn’t have to pay any money for using an action space someone else is on. That’s only for blue spaces though – brown spaces are still single player only.
William of Rubruck gets two extra trading posts to place. If you build all 11 trading posts, you get an extra 10 bonus points, AND you can do drive-by trading post constructions, dropping trading posts in cities without having to stop your travel.
Whoever plays Niccolo and Marco Polo gets two Chef Boyardees to move around the map, and at the start of every round, gets a camel.
Johannes Caprini gets to treat oases like wormholes to warp across the map!
Holy … crap!
Just a few notes on strategy here. Obviously, you need to play to your character’s strengths. If you’re coming from Ticket to Ride, you might feel compelled to complete these goal cards, but listen: for a game that’s ostensibly about traveling around Asia, it’s extremely difficult to travel. It’s so expensive! Unlike Ticket to Ride, you don’t lose any points if you fail to make any of these connections, so if you can’t swing it, don’t sweat it. It’s very possible to win the game by doing other things, like collecting goods to complete contracts, or cashing in repeatedly on a really lucrative exchange tile in one of the large cities. Keep an eye out for places in the game where this travel icon appears: you can find it in the Grand Bazaar, on certain contracts, or in one of the large cities, depending on the deal. That icon lets you move around the board without paying the high coin cost of the travel space.
There are beginner and advanced variants for The Voyages of Marco Polo. To set up the game, randomly deal the outpost bonus tiles and city cards to all the large cities. Deal out the city bonus markers by matching the letter on the tile to the city. In the advanced variant, randomize these tiles. Put the black dice on the board. Use player count plus one black dice in a 3- or 4-player game. In a 3-player game, block off the first space of the Khan’s Favor with a 1-pip die of an unused colour. With 2 players, block off two spots, along with the Take 5 Coins space.
Make 5 stacks of 6 contracts each. The remaining contracts form the special contract pile. Flip the tiles from the first pile onto the contract spaces. Coins and resources line the side of the board.
Every player picks a colour and takes their player board, five dice, 9 trading posts, and 2 camels. One Chef Boyardee goes on the scoring track, and one goes in Venizia. The starting player is the last player to have taken a journey. That player gets the hourglass token and 7 coins. Every other player going clockwise gets one more coin than the last. Each player gets a starting contract from the special blue stack.
When choosing the character tiles, make sure you use the Marcator ex Tabriz tile that’s right for you, depending on your player count. If it’s your first game, the manual recommends a specific character setup. Otherwise, deal a character tile out to each player at random. In the advanced version, randomly grab player count plus one character tiles and, starting with the last player in turn order, draft the characters by passing the tiles back counter-clockwise so that the first player gets last pick. Each player gets 2 random goal cards; in the advanced mode, everyone gets 4 cards and chooses to keep 2. Take your extra stuff – the extra die, the extra guy – depending on which character you’re playing.
And now, you’re ready to play The Voyages of Marco Polo!
At 6:58, i included the blue “Take 5 coins” space with the exclusive brown spaces, implying that it can’t be used by more than one player. That was a mistake. You can see how that space can be used by multiple players at 7:34. Thanks to YouTube viewer Mateusz for pointing that out!
At 8:27, i make the outrageous claim that you can pay 2 camels to adjust a die face to whatever number you want. That’s not true. You can only adjust the die number up or down by 1 pip for every 2 camels you pay. And you can’t go from 6 to 1 or from 1 to 6. Shout out to YouTube viewer Christopher Sorich for catching that goof.
Get Your Own Copy of The Voyages of Marco Polo
i had heard such great things about The Voyages of Marco Polo that by the time i headed down to my friendly local game store to buy my own copy, it was sold out! From that day on, i resolved to never not buy this game. Heed my warning! Buy your own copy of The Voyages of Marco Polo using the Amazon link below, and i’ll receive a small commission.