After my last article about Marco Polo here, someone suggested looking at this expansion, too. I have personally only played with proxied version of this and only one game playing each character, so unlike the previous article, this won't be base upon any kind of serious experience, but it will be more of a theorycrafting exercise. What I am about to share is just my opinion, and might turn out to work pretty differently in an actual game. So, let's have a look at what the expansion brings:
The first thing you probably notice besides those new characters are the new round tokens. Those are called gifts, and can be obtained by completing some new contracts, by travelling to a small city with the new small city bonus tile, or by being one of the new characters. More about the characters will be said later, but let's have a closer look at those gifts first. There are two kinds of gifts. The first one has a lightning bolt depicted on it (Harry Potter reference) and the bonus depicted on them is acquired as soon as you get the gift. The other kind is kept in front of the player until he decides to use the gift, at which point it typically allows him to "one time use" an ability of one of the characters from the basic game. The gifts seem to be pretty neat bonuses and those contracts (especially the non-gold ones) appear to be really good! The only problem is randomness, but imagine the 1 camel 3 pepper quest getting you a reward of 2 camels, 2 points and a black die, or 5 coins, or a free travel, a resource of your choice... No matter what you receive, you cannot really end up being too unhappy, unless you were looking for a specific thing. Since you have to plan ahead in the game, that might be the case quite often, but you can keep track of which gifts are left in the pile and then take say 2 out of 6 chance of getting camels or so, obviously depending on the situation. Design-wise, I think this adds more randomness to the game, but given the amount of those contracts, I do not think it is gamebreaking. What sucks for me is that Berke Khan, Rashid and Wilhelm von Rubruk each have 1 specific gift that doesn't do absolutely any good for them, as it represents a one-time use of their existing abilities. Similar feature appears in Bang! Gold rush, and I like it, because it "stacks" in Bang!, but in Marco Polo, those gifts are worthless to their respective characters. They could have just added an option to say discard a gift to get a camel instead or something like that, or just add this to those three specific gifts. Plus as you will soon discover, it is not a good time to weaken the original characters, as they might find themselves struggling against the new ones.
To me, the more appealing part of the expansion, those characters once again bring some "out of the box" thinking, as they get quite nice and not previously seen abilities. The thing is that those abilities seem quite strong as far as I am concerned. I will rate them as was the case with the original characters, but again, this isn't really something I could back-up with some serious stats or experience, just my estimation, or as one could say, best guess. Anyway, here they are!
Let me put this clearly. I like building an engine and improving it every time I move on the board. This character lets you do exactly that! In theory. The ability says "after placing the first trading post, gain a victory point. After placing a second trading post, get a coin and all previous bonuses. After placing a third trading post, get a camel and all previous bonuses. And so on as shown in the picture. If you place all seven, or even eight or nine posts, you get yourself a total of 7 Vps, 6 coins, 5 camels, 4 sacks of pepper, 3 pieces of silk, 2 gold pieces and a single black die. This is your ability at its best.
Note: For placing the 8th and 9th station, there is no additional bonus to the usual 5, respectively 10 victory points.
It seems overwhelmingly good, as it allows you to complete about 2 contracts for free just for travelling around. It essentially gives you an increasing one-use bonuses in every city on the map just for you. The problem I have is that there is nothing at all that will help you get this running at the start of the game. If you play against characters focused on travel, you might find yourself being too slow compared to their start. Or at least that is what I am concerned about. I would still love to pick this against Kubilai, just because I think this suits my playstyle more, but I believe this is just average. The one think really worth mentioning is that as long as you can guarantee that you will travel to a city (see what I said about travelling in my previous article? :D ), you can also guarantee getting the specific bonus. And if your opponents somehow do not mess up with you in the first round or two, the game might be over. For this hopeful line, I will estimate a rating 3/5.
Here is the "one more monk/priest joins the party" package. His ability gives him a choice of three random gifts at the start of each round. He picks and keeps one of those gifts and discards the other two. To increase his power a bit, he may once per game keep two of those instead. So he gets six free gifts a game. How powerful are the gifts? I think they are pretty solid. The fact that he gets to choose makes it so that he might be able to get what he needs, like the money +5 or the 3 camels. I would generally say that the gifts are worth one die. If there was an action that says "place a die of any value here to get 3 gifts, then choose one and discard the rest", I would say you would try to squeeze a die there here and then. Problem is that anything you might get can be somehow achieved on the board without having to worry about random gift distribution. Yes, you theoretically get every gift in your games during the game, but will you get the free move now, or in round 4? Nobody knows. And while I said I like the gifts, they do not do enough to make this the best character. However, I think he is slightly above average to potentially very good, if you get lucky. I rate him 3/5.
Finally! A female character was given to us! And more good news coming, because I think this is a pretty awesome girl (and just by a coincidence happens to be a Mongol princess). She has 2 main actions just for herself through the game. Both are simple, the first one turns any single die into 2 camels and two any resources of her choice (they can be both the same kind). Then everyone else receives any single resource from the common pool of resources. This feeds your opponents resources, but can give you invaluable gold or silk for a single day AND it gives you camels. Use this carefully, but without any doubt, this can get you a contract done for a single die without having to worry about your opponents dice. The second action requires one die of any value too, and gives you a single free move. This is huge in my opinion and can get you to a lot of places, especially combined with your ability to get camels no matter what everyone else does. Yes, both of those are uncontested actions at all times. I just think that if you get a solid bonus in Anxi (+5 money or the "?" bonus in this case, but camels aren't bad either), then you should be able to place all stations, travel fast AND do a contract here and there. It all sounds ambitious and maybe gets slightly worse if against characters that travel a lot, but I think she isn't meant to be a purely contract-based character as Mercator is, even though she could probably slow down travel-wise and roll contracts. Maybe she will turn out to be the jack of all trades and master of none, but my rating for now is 5/5.
Kököchin's would-be husband and a mighty ruler, he surely had a lot of influence. Game-wise, his influence is represented by 6 city action cards randomly drawn from the deck, known to the players before the characters are selected. He can use one of those cities once a turn as a if it was a bonus action, then discard the card. He doesn't need to use any die on this and he counts as having played a six-pip die when using any of those city actions. Basically, he has a kind of round bonus. Now there are 9 city cards that require nothing (well, one of them takes a coin) but a die. I am talking the take 2 coins for each pip on the die you place here action, the actions that give you resources (and are great if you have a 6, which you "have"), and the small city activators. I think that very often, he bad cards will be drawn and he won't be picked. But if you see like 2 or 3 good cards and or a solid combo, I think he comes into a consideration as on of the stronger characters. Ideal scenario might be round one +12 coins, round two +3 gold, round three +3 silk and then convert them into quests and get +6 victory points for the 1 point a quest card in round four, then perhaps activate 2 small cities for free AS A BONUS ACTION. I just feel that this won't really happen very often, and even though those actions are uncontested, you still have to pay for them to activate most of the time, because most require camels and something else. If he gets picked with the good cards, he might very well be one of the best characters in the game, but other than that, I think he has effectively no ability most of the time (like Kublai) without getting much of a compensation. I will consider the average state of things and rate him 2/5.
The expansion brings new things without really changing the way the game feels. The characters are fresh but compatible with the old ones, albeit some of them seem bit too strong, but they certainly have weaknesses and can be beaten. Any character might still end up being THE best one for some particular setups. The gifts mechanic seems a bit random, but I think it is an acceptable level of randomness which also brings some new options into the game. I wouldn't mind some slight adjustments, most notably the three gifts mentioned above, but even as it is, I think this is a must-have if you like the game.
+New characters are cool and bring new options and playstyles
+The gift mechanic is quite nice
-Questionable balance of the characters
-Some gifts useless to certain characters
-Not widely available yet
Overall: 8/10, appears to be a great mini-expansion