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I saw this game was based on a Jules Verne novel that I had never heard of. Thirty seconds research on Wikipedia and I am informed it is the most popular of his books and according to many his best ever writing. I have missed out on so many good stories it seems as Verne wrote at least one, sometimes two, books every couple of years, around 65 novels in all. When I was young Jules Verne's name was synonymous with the Moon and under the Sea as far as I was concerned. Although I must have realised deep down that Verne had written more than the famous novels I had heard of and read, I had no idea that he had written so many books. So thanks to DEVIR and Alberto Corral my education has once again begun, this time through a game that according to the internet sources I have seen is honest and true to the Michael Strogoff story. The game is set out in 12 steps on the map for the players to travel across the land from Moscow to Irkutsk in a valiant effort to save the Grand Duke and prevent the Tartars invasion. The back page of the Rules Booklet details the novel in those 12 steps, outlining briefly what happens to Michael Strogoff on his journey.

This game is excellent fair for any number of players, from 1 to 5, and plays well no matter how many of the 5 are around the table. Once you understand the rules it plays easily within the 60 minutes game time, with every minute being entertaining and enjoyable for all.

Players should be aged 12+ but nowadays 9 or 10 is easily the 'new' 12 especially if those of that age belong to a family who already indulge in games playing.
Don't be put off by the title if like me you hadn't previously heard of Michael Strogoff; honestly the name meant absolutely nothing to me but the super front cover piece of art made me want to play the game. Not knowing anything about the story was good for me in a way because as I didn't expect anything I couldn't be disappointed by the omission of a place, action or character, though to be fair after having played several times I wouldn't have thought anything much of importance has been omitted (at least that's how I felt as I definitely got the gyst of the tale and the importance of the race. Plus getting there [Irkutsk] first (just once I managed it) gave me great satisfaction even though I had left myself too weak to complete the task and thus I didn't win. I never got quite as close in subsequant games, I seem to always manage to get myself stuck en route, but the fact that I want to play and play again even though I have yet to be successful as a winner shows the quality of the enjoyment the game exudes.

    

The components are solid card, beautifully designed card decks, dice and regular wooden people-meeples plus Pedro Soto has done marvels with the illustration and graphic design; it is an interesting and intriguing game with a neat mechanic controlled by dice and thoughtful play.

The cards have several icons on them, each explained clearly on the front page of the rules. There are 154 cards split into Route cards (92) Action cards (56) and Allies (6), and at a glance you can see any possible or immediate danger, penalties and abilities that may affect the voyage. On the cards there are eight different types of Danger Icons: Storms and Cold (Lightning), Wild Animals (Claw slashes), Tartar Patrol (Tartar Hat), Illness & Wounds (Bandaged hand), Russian Diplomacy (Red Seal), Lost the Way (a map), Disguise & Spies (Black mask) and Vehicle Damaged (Wheel - surprisingly not a broken wheel). There are three types of penalties - Discard an Action card, Lose an Energy point, Turn the card face down (currently unusable). The main Journey board shows the route, as a 12 section map, an inkpot, a stack of sealed letters, and an open book with pages marked A, B, C and D.

 

The Route cards are split by colour & illustration flip sides into five decks; Russia (green/grey buildings with minorets), Ural Mountains (dark grey rocky formation), Siberia (blue, desolate nomadic camp), Tomsk (dark grey, posh tents) and Irkutsk (reddish brown, bridge, river side). Each deck represents a new series of possible encounters and dangers. Players begin the game with a character board, a meeple and marker, 5 action cards, 6 energy points (marked on their character board) and a 'Russia' route card to begin their journey.

 

The game is played in two Phases; the Courier's Phase (the players) and the Traitor's Phase (Ivan Ogareff), all the players, in clockwise order have their go and then the Villain (aka the Traitor) advances and the actions on a flipped Action card are performed. These may have some advantages for the players but may also move the Tartars nearer to their goal or bring the Traitor's Spy (Sangarra, represented by a special card) into play, as a Route card. There is no Penalty icon on Sangarra but her Danger ability can cause serious trouble to any player whose journey she joins. What we like about the 'penalty' rule is that although most Route cards have a penalty icon on them that can look a little scary, they only come into effect if activated by the route having duplicate danger icons, thus they are influential in your decision making to a point but add a little spice to player's decisions. 

I mentioned that there are two types of Danger icons, Immediate and General. The 'Immediate' danger icons have a black background which shows they have to be acted on straight away by the player discarding a card with the same icon/symbol from their hand, cards not resolved immediately are flipped face down. This prevents the player's character from advancing any further along the 12 point track until the card has been flipped face up and resolved. Players have to 'Rest' to flip a card face up. Each time a player travels to a new space on their journey they take the top card from the deck for that area and place it by the side of their Character card - the newly placed card adds to their current journey. Resolved dangers have a token placed on them and the card remains en route until all dangers are resolved and then they are slipped under the player's Character board with their abilty (bottom of the card in a white box) showing and now available for the player to use.

 

There are allies (optionally used) who can help on occasion and when the player gets a little desperate. On the Book pages of the main board character cards are placed face up, visible to all, and their abilities can be used by playing one or two cards that feature the picture of that character. Allies are there to help but really only on occasion as they take cards out of your hand that may be important at a later time. Discarding and using cards is a skill that demands some thought.

 

MICHAEL STROGOFF is ultimately a 6-way race. All five of the players are out to win for themselves as is the game operated Villain/Tartar army. There is a little player interaction as you tend to help each other advertently or inadvertently clear the passage through to Irkutsk, but nothing in the manner of a true interactive game. There is the occasional opportunity for the players to slighly affect other players moves or play, but mostly you are 5 separate racers each playing your own game and hoping to be the first to warn the Tsar's brother and stop his assassination and the Tartar Horde. Getting to Irkutsk is a tough enough battle but once you get there, the Irkutsk cards come into play and they can be pretty deadly. We like the idea that it isn't just a race to a specific spot; it's a get there and then fight for victory.

 

The Michael Strogoff board game costs found on the internet game store sites run from £30.00 (used) to £61.00 (new). You should always check out your Local Game Store where you may be able to pick it up immediately and at a better 'new' price. 

This is an unusual game in as much as it combines various aspects that would normally be enough for a game each. There is strategy, racing, card play, resource management, decision making (this isn't a game where your next move is always obvious), Health management, and luck. A thoroughly entertaining and fun game that has the excitement factor without the frustration most games of this genre like to play on.

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015