Today I have played several games of this online on the Yucata website and finally achieved reasonable TrueSkill rating out there (1000+). It is time to share some tips and thoughts on this game, then play some more. I think the following should really cover the basic strategy, but I am looking forward to proving myself wrong as I hopefully progress through the ranks online and improve my live play as well. As a side note, I would like to mention that always follow your playstyle, as each game is different and unique. In fact, it might be a very foolish thing to try to come up with a comprehensive strategy for a game such as this one, but guess what? I will try anyway. :D
Strategy twists depending on the character
One of the main pros of the game are it's characters, each possessing a very unique ability. The immediate questions is which one is the best? There is no clear answer to this, but I will share my thoughts on every character and maybe add my personal subjective "rating" based upon my experience. Keep in mind that it all heavily depends on the particular setup of the board and is by no means a strict order. I will also consider a 4-player game, but most characters and mechanics work similarly anyway.
This guy allows you to place your die/dice on an occupied space without paying the additional cost. He is arguably one of the strongest characters, because his ability allows you to do one great thing: stop caring about what your opponents do. Sure, you still want to get your hands on the black die as often as possible, but you no longer have to worry about running out of money if someone travels first. Voyages of Marco Polo is a game with a lot of imperfect information given to the players. You do not know what travel quests the opponents have and therefore how fast or where do they want to travel. With this character, you simply do not have to care. You can focus more on your own game plan, hoard camels to convert to the black dice and so on. Also try to pick this guy if you anticipate weaker actions in the cities and bad options to earn money. If there are good city actions that generate money in easily reachable cities, there is a chance that this guy will be worse, because nobody will care that much about money anyway, making this ability less useful.
This character is slightly countered by Mercator Ex Tabriz as he tends to feed him a lot of camels and other resources. But it is easy to play and quite powerful no matter who you are facing. I will just point out here that for me it is relieving to play this character, but sometimes it actually turns out to be a bit boring experience and I also think he isn't the absolute best. My rating is 4/5.
Second character is a bit of an odd guy. He doesn't seem to get picked very often and when he does, he performs just right, but not really much more than that. He gets you 3 coins at the start of each round, effectively getting you a 15 coins bonus thorough the game, and can jump from oasis to oasis anywhere on the map. Bear in mind that this usually requires a move of 3 or more to be useful, as you simply do not want to move in any way but from a city to a city. The ability allows him to fulfill any pair of travel quests and reach Beijing pretty conveniently. I would still recommend not to pick the two highest value quests blindly at all costs, just because some destinations (Kochi in particular) just take a lot to get into and out of. The idea with this one is to grab some money first, then pick the good "!" bonuses and travel around the map using those oasis that can be accessed easily. Remember to grab contracts that reward you with a bonus move action. Those are very strong almost in any position for pretty much any character. It is worth mentioning that he gets countered by Kubilai Khan, who makes it less profitable for Johaness to get into Beijing first, as he steals the 10 point trade station spot. Overall, I like Johannes, but I do not consider him to be too strong and he doesn't fit my personal playstyle that well. I rate him 3/5.
Historically a ruler of vast empire, Kubilai starts in Beijing (represented in the game by a fictional city of Bejing AKA Misprint City), the seat of power of his dynasty in China. He starts with one station placed in Beijing on the 10 pts spot. That is it. This ability seems a bit underwhelming and truth to be told, I think it is. But let's try to evaluate what it does. You get 10 automatic points, but the value is relative, because any time a player arrives to Beijing, it decreases, as he gets some points for this, points that you cannot deny them. The ability effectively gives you a 3-point bonus against whoever comes to Beijing second. You also get quite important head start by having 1 station placed on the board. Makes it seem bit less impossible to place the remaining 8 I guess. Now consider the location on the board. You are only 1 step away from Xian, a small city with a recurring bonus. You are close to Sumatra, but movement from there is impractical and pricey, as well as from Kochi (especially in the first few rounds). I just think that no matter how you play this, even in the ideal scenario, this character just has limits to what it can achieve. I do not like this, as it kinda says "you might end up being second with a nice score, but you won't win". It is an interesting design and I love how it influences other players, but sitting here without any real ability and a minor one-time advantage isn't good enough for me. In fact, I think this is the worst you can get more often than not. Honestly wouldn't pick him if I were aiming for the win against experienced opponents. Might be just my opinion tho. My rating is 1/5.
Next up is the uncle of Marco Polo himself, Matteo Polo. His ability gives you an extra white die at the start of each round and an extra random contract. Having a total of 30 dice minimum over the course of 5 turns is an advantage on it's own, but he also gets a free contract every round. Sadly, his white die counts towards the 15-pip limit, which in turn screws him up a bit. To me, this guy seems to be the one to get his quests done, give up any points for the 8th and 9th station, and do his homework, or contracts to be more Marco Polo-related. I am the kind of guy who thinks that building a solid engine on the board is better than occupying the market. This character does absolutely nothing to promote that strategy. I find him very luck-dependant, if you roll low, it isn't low enough for the compensation, the contract doesn't seem to matter all that much as if you take new contracts, you get 2 most of the time, if you do not, you still only got one contract you probably do not focus on anyway, and those contracts are random, so they do not end up being very good too often. He might shine and he might sometimes beat Rashid in the beginner game, but I still think he is bad against solid opponents. My rating on this one is 1.5/5.
Let my put this clearly. I hate this guy. He is the parasite, the bad guy, who gets something for your effort while smiling and doing nothing. Every time someone takes and action in the market area, he gets one piece of the respective resource. Now what this ability really does? Let's say that it is a 4-player game, that is what we are considering anyway. Yes. The picture is technically incorrect, ignore everything but the first ability. Anyway, on average, you get about 3-4 resources a turn in a 4-player game. You clearly want to block the Favour of the Khan action, as it takes the player's attention away from the market, and you also hope that there is no good way to get resources and camels in the cities. Unless this is true, you won't be getting all that much. Also you get countered pretty hard by some characters that focus mainly on travel (notably Wilhelm von Rubruk or perhaps Nicollo and Marco Polo). The strategy should be to complete your quests and start a solid contract-fulfilling machine in the process. The good think is that others inevitably help you, even though you do not have much of a control over the timing of their unintended aid. I do not like to play against him, but he isn't extremely powerful unless in a very specific setup. I think he is easy to play to get a solid result but pretty tough to win with. I will rate this one 2.5/5.
Father and a son, and also an interesting set of abilities. This character offers you two separate meeples to move around the map instead of the usual one. This allows you to move to two cities at the same time using two dice only. The second ability seems very minor but it is in fact huge. You get a free camel at the start of each round. Now that includes the first round, which is where it matters the most, because 1.) you can guarantee a black die no matter what the first turn 2.) you can get yourself to both Alexandria and Moscow using a total of 4 dice, then perhaps get some pepper and fulfill the movement quest with black die+camels or just use those camels to get some dice in return and steal those nice one-time bonuses. The first ability also almost guarantees the placement of all 9 trade stations. The 12-cost move actions are your best bet.
I love this character for it's explosive start potential and I almost auto-pick it if I am to go first and there are some decent sources of money. You can dictate the tempo of the game, get to Beijing, easily complete your travel quests, do a contract here and there and build a healthy base. The disadvantage is that some players will block you and this strategy isn't suitable if there is an extremely money-dry scenario where you just do not get what it takes to travel for 12 about 4 out of 5 times you travel using the action. To me though, this is "objectively" the best one. My rating 5/5.
This is the most overpowered ability according to the first-time players. He may set the value of his dice to whatever he wants. This sounds incredible, right? I say that his dice have "high value". That means that he gets a lot done with one die, or more specifically gets to use each action to it's maximum potential, where other characters must roll well to do so. The question stands. Does it win you the game, if you can theoretically use each action to it's maximum potential? If we take them one by one and determine whether you profit a lot from this ability. The market-yes, always getting the optimal value helps. Take 5 coins-slightly, usually helps you get a single coin, almost insignificant. Travel-slightly, again, usually saves you a coin or two compared to your average character. Take contracts-quite a lot, allows you to generate camels this way. The Favour of the Khan-a lot, you can block this action and monopolize it, getting yourself a lot of resources. City actions-varies, generally those requiring higher values suit you better. Conclusion is that about 2/3 of actions are better for you with this character, however most of those get blocked easily by the other players. One think this guy doesn't have is money. Try to get the black die, contracts that reward cash and travel a bit to get your hopefully not too difficult quests, then contract the heck out of your opponents. Aiming for points rewarding for placing 8th and 9th station is IMHO almost always a bad idea and too ambitious of a plan with this one. Nonetheless, this is a solid and challenging character to play. I rate him 3.5/5.
This monk brings 2 additional black stations with him and a potential 10 point reward for placing them on board. Note that you must place them as your 10th and 11th station. He also only needs to go through a city to place a station in it. I think this character is very tough to play and quite easy to stop from winning, but if there is a decent source of money, you can still pull the win off. You want to make a big jump or two in the game, 5 or 6 steps each. That takes a lot of money and camels, so you'll need to prepare for this. It is a great idea to get the Anxi bonus ASAP, unless it is something like 3 VPs, because that is surprisingly no good to you at the start of the game. Also, you only have 2 realistic routes to take in my opinion. The first one is the upper route from Venezia to Moscow-Anxi-Karakorum-Beijing-Xian-Karachi-Ormuz-Alexandria-Adana-Kochi-Sumatra. The other one and the suboptimal one, but probably less contested one, is Alexandria-Ormuz-Karachi-Xian-Beijing-Karakorum-Anxi-Moscow-Venezia-Samarcanda-Kashgar-Lan-Zhou. The first one requires a total of 17 steps, 13 or 16 camels and 27 or 22 coins. The second one requires 19 steps, 22 or 25 camels and 12 or 7 coins. If we assume a camel is worth about 1 and a half a coin, the second route seems slightly more favourable. But the two additional steps and the relativity of this "exchange" rate make it less suitable, but not an impossible way to place your 11 trading posts. Overall, I think he is just average. Like him tho. My rating 3/5.
With characters out of the way, let's get into those tips. The first one is maybe the most important one. After you roll the dice, come up with a plan. A series of things you will do either no matter what (in other words, nobody can mess it up) or a series of plays you make if the previous scenario isn't possible. If the second point is the case, you will usually end up with several lines of play, based upon what you opponents has done. Also, at the beginning of the game, you should chose a path you will follow when travelling almost blindly. This isn't a game you can play without planning ahead. The order matters and to minimize the amount of things your opponent can do to mess with your actions, there is a concept called contested and uncontested action. The uncontested action is such action that will just sit there unoccupied and unused for you to be used at any time you choose. Provided you do not need the things you would gain by performing that action, this can wait. The contested action, on the other hand, is typically the camels in the market, if you do not take it, someone else will. If you had a plan at the start of the round, you should be able to determine which contested action to go for. Also, if you can afford and plan on paying money for performing an occupied action space, then this action should probably again be considered "uncontested", in other words, it can wait. Unless you need what you would normally gain by performing the action of course.
Never push your luck, and if you are going to reroll any dice, take it into consideration as soon as the round begins. As a rule of thumb, you should reroll a die only if you are desperate, have a useless 1 or maybe 2, or if you need anything else but a 6 (being too high for you to pay for placing a six on somebody else's die). If you have a one or two and need specifically a one-pip higher value, it might spare your money and camels if you just use the +/- 1 value of the die action. If you have a useless one and anything else somehow helps you without really aiming for anything specific, reroll it. You may keep rerolling as long as your overall amount of camels is sufficient for executing your general plan or you do not have any other choice. Other than losing the game.
So there are good contracts and the bad ones. Each contract serves a different purpose. The generally good ones are the ones rewarding camels, resources of any kind, the travel action ones. The bad ones are the random contract ones and the ones rewarding only a single resource. The money rewarding quests seem situational. Of course, you may still pick any quest if it denies your opponent or serves your goal (simply because you might only be capable of doing one specific contract). If you focus on winning the contract game and not so much on the travel, the ones giving you extra resources are perfect as they allow you to chain contracts without much effort.
I have already mentioned this in the article, but you shouldn't really ever find yourself outside of a city. It just isn't efficient to travel to an oasis and end your movement here. You do not place a station, do not get a bonus, no additional action unlocked, simply bad for business. Plan in such a manner that any movement you do, be it a travel action or a contract reward, will get your guy to a city. The honorable exception might be Nicollo and Marco Polo, as it doesn't make sense to place two 4s on the travel action and then only move 3 spaces with one guy because of this rule. The other exception might be Johannes, as he kinda likes oasis.
First of all, let's establish that those are contested actions as soon as there is more than 1 player in the city. There are some really good ones and then there is the thrash. Yes, different actions suit different characters, but the absolutely thrashy ones are: Anything that rewards both points and coins (with an exception of the gold one, that one is just bad). Anything that converts 2 same resources into points. Anything that converts only camels into points. Those should be avoided unless it is like the last round and they present the best way to make some final points. Also, actions that aren't listed here aren't always great. The really good ones are the money gainers, the small city bonuses activators, and the gold+camel=4 VPs, especially later in the game. Resource generating cards tend to be quite good and favour Rashid while simultaneously screwing up Mercator. The bad ones you should be avoiding are marked by a red "X" in the picture bellow.