Long Form Review: Michael Strogoff

Publisher: Devir Games

Designer: Alberto Corral

Artist: Pedro Soto

A copy of Michael Strogoff was provided by Devir Games for review. I want to thank them for giving me the opportunity to work with them.

Father of Science Fiction

Jules Verne is a well author who is responsible for some of the best science fiction novels ever written. With titles such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days, there is a case that he is the “Father of Science Fiction.”

The Courier’s Journey

Michael Strogoff is one of Verne’s best sellers, but one of his lesser know titles. The theme is set in Russian toward the end of the 19th Century.  Michael Strogoff is a semi-cooperative game where players act as couriers racing from Russia to Irkutsk, Siberia, to warn the Grand Duke of the incoming invasion by the traitor Ivan Ogareff and his Tatar allies.

The Recipe

  • Hand management
  • Press your luck
  • Quick turns
  • Solo play
  • Semi-cooperative/cooperative play

Card Anatomy

The Ally Cards share similar character art with each action card the players will use to resolve Route Cards. Each ally character has a specific power that activates when they chooses to discard an Action Card with the matching picture on it.

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Ally cards are placed in the top left corner of the board. Their ability is an optional activation on a player’s turn. Ex. Capt. Strogoff, discard two matching Action Cards with his portrait and gain two additional actions.

Action Cards are used to resolve everything in the game. Their main action on the Courier Phase (player’s turns), is to play matching danger icons on Route Cards using the Resolve action. Action Cards also have a dual function. On the bottom of the cards, there are three commands for the used during Traitor Phase.

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Route Cards have immediate and normal dangers that prevent the couriers from reaching their destination. The icons at the bottom of the card show the penalty and ability that is awarded after resolving the card (based on player choice). There five different of Route Card “sets” that represent locations on the board. The colors of the cards match up with locations on the board so players understand which deck to draw from.

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The Route Cards on the board are drawn as players advance based on their matching color spaces. Green 1-4, Purple 5 only, Blue 6 thru 11, Bronze 12 only.

 Let’s Ride

Turns in Michael Strogoff are quick and will test your hand management skills. There are a lot of icons in the game, but most of them are either labeled on the Player Aid or the abilities can be found on one page in the rule book. What you have is a nicely paced game with little down time for all player counts.

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Ready for a race? Player’s begin the game with a Player Board, one Route Card, five Action Cards and a Player Aid

Courier Phase (Player’s turn)

  • Ally Help: Each ally has their own useful way of contributing to your journey. In order to use the ally’s action, you must discard a card with their matching picture on it. There are six Ally Cards and only four spots on the board to place them. If the cards are taken out during the Traitor Phase, they are gone from the game. There is a bit of unpredictability to when the Ally Cards come out and when they will suddenly get taken out of the game. I’ll touch on this again in my final verdict.
  • Advance: Take one take a wound and pull a Route Card from the deck with the matching color of  the player’s current location. The revealed Route Card may have an immediate danger that needs to be resolved with one of your Action Cards. Each time you advance, there’s a press your luck element to it. If any danger icon matches with any danger icon in your player area, a penalty is activated on ALL of the Route Cards you currently have. Penalty icons such as take a wound, card flip, and discard a card are show by icons at the bottom of the card. You can’t advance until every card is Route Card is flipped over, you have at least one health, or you don’t have any repeated danger icons. At some point you will get burned for taking a risk for trying to advance every turn, but that’s the thematic part of the journey. As you move deeper into your journey, danger icons can double up, which forces you to rest or chip away at your current Route Cards before risking busting. Advancing multiple times in a row feels like you’re playing a game of blackjack and hitting on a 17.
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Example of a penalty after advancing: I Advanced one space and drew the Bear card, which has matching symbols from my first card. I “bust” and lose one health, flip the second card, and lose an action card. I must take the rest action to progress.
  • Rest: At some point, you have to recover your hand,  health, and deal with flipped over cards. You have the option of doing two resting actions and they can be the same ones. Drawing two Action Cards, gain one energy (health) and flip over a card.

Resolving Dangers: The danger icons are used to slow your couriers down or bring you to a complete halt. If you get a little lucky and don’t draw any cards with matching danger icons, you still have the growing burden of dealing with the growing row of Route CardsRoute Cards get resolved from right (most recent) to left and you have multiple options to resolve them. The way to resolve your most recent Route Card (right most) is to play an Action Card that has a matching danger icon. Additionally, you can play any two matching symbol Action Cards and/or lose one health point to place a resolution token on any danger icon in your player area (journey).

IF you completely resolve any Route Cards during a resolve dangers action, you may take one and only one of them to tuck it under your player board. The abilities you’ve gained are active during Traitor Phase IF the die result matches your. This mechanic makes Michael Strogoff feel less like “lucky” game and gives players the opportunity to plan for activation combos. Die results during the Traitor Phase can benefit to everyone and activate multiple abilities at once. Take a look at the example below of the resolving action.

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Traitor Phase

In this phase, the bottom of the Action Cards provide directions for the Traitors. The first symbol represents the movement for Ogareff (1, 2,or 3 spaces) and two additional actions follow. Depending on the icons, players may receive an additional card to their hand, add an ally card on the board or a chance to roll the action die (White) to activate your abilities. All tucked cards can be activated if the die result matches one of the numbers you have. Resolving more cards awards you with more opportunities to acquire new abilities, so it’s important to acquire as many abilities early and often. The Sangarra icon represents Ogareff sending out his Gypsy spy to slow down your journey. She’s added to your player area on the rightmost space to become your most recent Route Card. She can be resolved like any other Route Card. 

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Tartars

The Tartars are represented by a black die on the board. Depending on the number shown during the Traitor Phase, the Tartars’ die will move back and forth from spaces 8 thru 11. The location space of the die is adjusted based on where it moves (+1,0,-1).  If a player lands on the same spot as the Tartars’ die during the Courier Phase, they can attempt to dodge them by rolling to beat the current value of the Tartars’ die or higher. During the Traitor Phase, things don’t turn out so good. Apparently, the Tartars take you captive and blind you with their “burning saber.” The Tartars Route Card with two danger icons is added to your now troubled journey. With this card added, there are more opportunities to suffer penalties for matching danger icons. On top of that, you can’t resolve the Tartars’ Route Card until the final showdown in Irkutsk(Space 12). Bummer!

The Final Showdown

When a player limps into Irkutsk, they must complete some pre-showdown tasks. All Route Cards, including Sangarra and the blinded card from the Tartars, must be resolved if they are present on either side of their player board. THEN the player will draw cards from the Irkutsk Route Cards equal to the location of Michael Strogoff on the board. Usually it’s between three, four or five cards. The cards are drawn one at a time and each one needs to be resolved as normal. If the player can’t resolve the danger icons on each card as the come out, the player is wounded each time. If a player loses all their health in the showdown, THEY ARE DEAD. The player is out of the game permanently and play continues. If the player has at least one health, victory or everyone!

If Ogareff reaches the Irkutsk, he send the Tartars back across the board toward Siberia on each Traitor Phase. The white die is rolled and the result moves the Tatars towards Russia. At this point of the game, two bad rolls in the Traitor Phase puts the Tartar die in Russia which loses the game for everyone!

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Showdown: All of the Route cards (right) and the Tartars card (left) have to be dealt with before I face off with Ogareff (bottom right). I would draw these one at a time. Don’t worry I didn’t win here.

The Verdict

Michael Strogoff is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. I say this based on how much fun I had with the highs and lows of every card flip in all of my playthroughs. I like the blend of mechanics in the game because they match the sense of adventure from the source material. Everything you do in the game feels risky, but the payoff is exciting. Unfavorable cards and bad die rolls can be prepared for by resolving Route Cards so you can slowly stack your abilities as you head to the final confrontation.  Speaking of the final confrontation, while I like the idea of a final showdown, players may be a bit turned off by the perma-death. Once again I’ll say it hits the theme of racing to defeat Ogareff and losing. You may have been victorious, but some brave couriers lost their lives. 

Michael Strogoff works at all player counts since the game based on the “we win, we lose” conditions of the game. The game is a straight up racing game, so each player is playing their own game with others. What I found in my two and three player games is an exciting ramp up to dodging the Tartars and hitting that final confrontation.  You end up cheering everyone on to defeat him. If you’re a primarily solo player, I think this game is a no brainer. Michael Strogoff is a thrill ride experience that will see a lot of table time. Don’t wait for a sale, BUY IT!

I hope you enjoyed today’s long form review. How do you feel about long form reviews? Do you have any questions? Please comment below. Thank you for your time.

 

 

 

 

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