Updated: Oct 28, 2019
Learn the complete history of the Silk Road, the Mongolian Empire, and of the leaders, explorers, and merchants that ventured the trade route.
With the new Agents of Venice expansion adding several new character into the fold, we have decided to explore the backstory of The Voyages of Marco Polo's various characters. The game now contains a suite of nineteen characters, but other than Marco Polo and Kublai Khan most live in historical obscurity.
We will begin by providing some historical context regarding the Silk Road, and then explore the lives of each character. Using the backstory of each character, we will attempt justify their in-game abilities; mostly sarcastically.
Before exploring the histories of the Silk Road, its nice to understand its namesake. Silk is produced by silkworms when they form their chrysalis. If harvested before the pupa emerges, the cocoon can be soaked and unwound into a long singular thread, which can be woven into textiles. China began domesticating silkworms for this purpose as early as 4000 B.C.E., and since the silkworms, and their exclusive food source, the leaves of the mulberry tree, are native to Asia, China controlled a near monopoly for thousands of years.
The trade routes giving rise to the Silk Road began development under the Han dynasty (c. 200 BCE), and continued for over a thousand years. Comprising of several trade routes, both terrestrial and maritime, and spanning from the Mediterranean to the Far East, this Silk Road facilitated a great deal of trade. Though rooted in the export of silk from the Far East, silk was not the only lucrative commodity being traded, with the cultural trade of religions, philosophies, and technologies greatly impacting the region's history.
The trade routes aided the rise of the Mongol Empire, which during the 13th century became the largest continental empire in history. Starting as a consolidation of the regional nomadic tribes under Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongol Empire rapidly expanded. The various khanates (a rough equivalent to a state or province) remained unified under a single Khagan until the death of Mongke Khan in 1259.
Mongke's death spurred several internal conflicts which would eventually fracture the empire. The first, the Toluid Civil War, was fought between Mongke's brothers Kublai and Ariq Boke to establish Mongke's otherwise undeclared successor. The Berke-Hulagu War, fought between the two western khanates, began shortly thereafter. Though Kublai was eventually crowned as the 5th Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, it was in title alone as his claim was not supported by the other khanate leaders.
This fragmentation birthed four autonomous khanates; the Golden Horde under Berke Khan, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate under Hulagu (and later Arghun Khan), and the Yuan dynasty, originally formed under Kublai Khan.
The crumbling of the Mongol Empire lead to a decline in trade along the Silk Road as the surround political entities became increasingly isolated. Eventually, the consolidation of the Ottoman and Safavid empires in the Middle East led to a revival of overland trade, until it subsided once again following the collapse of the empires in the early eighteenth century.
The Voyages of Marco Polo takes place in the late 13th century, but the game deviates greatly from recorded truth. Several characters in the game were not even alive during the same period, most notably Raschid ad-Din Sinad and the Polo Sisters. And the notion that all characters, specifically the Mongols, should begin each game in Venice is preposterous. But since it is a euro-game which makes no pretense of being encyclopedic, we openly indulge the glaring historical inaccuracies.
Mercator ex Tabriz
a.k.a Merchant of Tabriz
*not a distinct historical figure
Ability: Gain Resources when Opponents use Market Actions
Tabriz (present day Iran) was one of the most prominent trading centers on the Silk Road. The bazaar has operated since antiquity; becoming an inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. In the 13th century, the city was named the capital of the Safavid empire, and remained a prominent commercial center following the expansion of the Ottoman empire.
Mercator is Latin for merchant, as Concordia fans my recognize, and therefore this character does not refer to any particular historical figure, but rather one of many merchants trading within the historic bazaar.
Ability Justification: As a merchant, his in-game ability to gain resources when opponents use the market action is one of the most justifiable abilities from a thematic perspective.
Rashid ad-Din Sinan (1132-1192)
a.k.a. Old Man of the Mountain
Grand Master of the Order of Assassins
Ability: Manually Set All Die Values
As the grand master of the Order of Assassins, an Ismaili religious sect (branch of Shia Islam), Sinan was a prominent figure in the Third Crusade (1189–1192). During the war, Rashid aligned with his once enemy Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, to oppose Richard I and the other crusader forces attempting to reclaim the Holy Land.
His interaction with the Mongol Empire is simply through association, as the Assassin's were eradicated by the Mongol Empire's invasion of Khwarizm, in the later part of 13th century, long after Sinan's death.
Legend tells of Count Henry Champagne, meeting with Rashid, asserting he could eradicate the Assassins at any moment due to his army's 10:1 man advantage. Rashid rebutted, stating that his army despite smaller in size, was the most powerful. Proving so, by ordering one of his men to jump off the top of the castle walls. The man obeyed, convincing the count that Rashid's army was indeed the more powerful force, as his men were fully subjected to his will.
This legend somewhat justifies Rashid's character ability; allowing the him to order his dice to specific values without needing to roll them.
Johannes Carprini (1185-1252)
aka. Giovanni da Pian del Carpine
Ability: Teleport Between Oases during Travel + Coin Income
At the ripe age of 65, Johannes was sent by Pope Innocent IV, to deliver the Pope's letter, Cum non solum, to the Great Khan (then Güyük Khan). The letter protested the Mongolian Invasion of Rus, and inquired into the motives of the khanate. Apon reaching the Mongol capital of Karakorum, he became one of the first Europeans to enter the court of The Great Khan. Carprini's nine part account of this journey, the Ystoria Mongalorum (meaning history of the Mongols), became a prominent early Western account of the region and earned him an archbishopric.
At one point in the journey, Carprini and his corps traveled three thousand miles over one hundred six days, through rugged terrain and with limited supplies.
How could sixty-five year old friar such a difficult trek, if not for teleportation?
Kublai Khan (1215-1294)
5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire (1260-1294)
1st Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1294)
Ability: Start the Game in Beijing
Kublai, grandson of Genghis Khan, was a man two empires. He acted as both Khagan of the Mongol Empire, and emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. His rise to power began after the death of his brother Möngke, the reigning khagan of the time. Since Möngke named no official successor, the Toluid Civil War broke out as his brothers, Kublai and Ariq Boke, competed for the khanate. Kublai was ultimately victorious, but the war was the first of many such conflicts which began the dissolution of the empire. His reign ushered the Mongol Empire into a new direction. Despite being a Mongol, Kublai lead the first foreign dynasty to rule China and is largely responsible for reestablishing China as a unified military power.
The capital of the Great Yuan State was Khanbaliq (present day Beijing), so its very appropriate for Kublai to begin the game there, and to secure the largest scoring bonus.
Berke Khan (1209-1266)
Ruler of the Golden Horde (Altan Ord)
Ability: Do Not Pay When Placing Dice in Occupied Spaces
Berke Khan ruled the Golden Horde (Altan Ord), the western khanate of the Mongol Empire from 1257 to 1266, and formed the first official establishment of Islam in the empire. However his changed religious affiliation sparked the Berke-Hulagu civil war, after Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad and killed Caliph Al-Musta'sim. As a Muslim, Berke took great offense this attack and sought to stop Hulagu's southwestern military expansion, which jeopardized his fellow Muslims. Both men died before the conflict was resolved. The war, along with the Toluid Civil war, sent precedent for further infighting among Mongol leaders which ultimately fractured the empire.
Altan Ord (1227*-1396*)
a.k.a. Golden Horde
Ability: Receive Resources when Placing Trading Posts
A 'horde' is the regional equivalent to a tribe or clan, and in some cases gave rise to khanates.
The Golden Horde was formed by Batu Khan, who consolidated it from the White and Blue Hordes. Berke Khan succeeded Batu as ruler of the horde.
Following the fracture of the Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde, became an independent khanate, stretching from present-day Ukraine to Kazakhstan Originally two separate entities, the White and Blue Horde, Batu Khan consolidated the two into this larger entity, which was later ruled by Berke Khan.
As the Golden Horde expanded it increased in population and prosperity as well. This is manifested mechanically as growing rewards for placing additional trading posts.
Note: The timeline of the Golden Horde is not precisely documented. Our formation and dissolution dates are based on the coronation of Batu Khan, and the invasion of Timur, the event which fractured the khanate into smaller substates.
Wilhelm von Rubruk (1220-1293)
a.k.a. William of Rubruck
a.k.a Willem van Ruysbroeck
Flemish Franciscan Missionary
Ability: Able Place Trading Posts w/o Stopping + Two Additional Trading Posts
After accompanying King Louis IX of France during the Seventh Crusade, Wilhelm was sent on a missionary journey to convert the Tatars (Mongols and Turks) to Christianity, following in the similar foot steps of Carprini years prior.
His account, The Journey Of William Of Rubruck To The Eastern Parts Of The World, is considered a masterpiece of medieval geographical literature and documented many geographical findings and cultural notes of the region.
Leveraging the texts of Carprini, Wilhelm was able to traverse the Silk Road with exceptional speed. Yet, his ambition to write the superior journal spurred him to falsify the extent of his voyage. He claimed to visit many more outposts than he did in truth. The deception was ultimately successful, and Wilhem received extra victory points when his work was published.
Matteo Polo (1230-1309)
a.k.a. Maffeo Polo
Italian Traveling Merchant
Ability: White Die and Contract Income
Before Marco's birth, Matteo, and his brother Niccolo Polo (father of Marco), first departed their Venetian home to establish trading posts in Constantinople. They continued their travels through the Golden Horde, the court of Berke Khan, and eventually to the court of Kublai Khan. The brothers returned to Venice, to deliver a message from Kublai Khan to the pope.
Their second excursion began years later, following the election of Pope Gregory X. The Marco brother, this time accompanied by Marco, journeyed back to Khanbaliq. The family remained in China for seventeen years before Permanently returning to Venice.
To ease their first voyage from Khanbaliq to Venice, Kublai provided the brothers with a paiza, a tablet signifying Mongol authority (the same as depicted in the Khan's Favor action area on the game board). The paiza allowed nobles and select envoys to demand aid from civilians. Maffeo's white die is the mechanical embodiment of that privilege. Additionally, being such a prominent merchant, he receives a free contract each round.
Papa Gregoria X (1210-1276)
a.k.a. Pope Gregory X (1272-1276)
a.k.a. Teobaldo Visconti
Ability: Gain a Free Companion at Beginning of Each Round
Pope Gregory X was elected in 1271, after a three year papal election; the longest in the history of the Catholic Church. Upon election, Niccolo and Matteo Polo remitted to the Pope their letter from Kublai Khan, requesting a hundred missionaries and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher.
In response, Gregory sent two missionaries, along with the Polos, this time including Marco, back to Kublai Khan. He later attempted to form a Franco-Mongol alliance, however the initiative dissolved following Pope Gregory X's death.
He's the Pope.
Niccolo (1230-94) & Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Italian Traveling Merchants
Ability: Start with Two Travel Meeples
+ Camel Income
Marco was born while his father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo, were on their first trading voyage. However, after they fulfilled their commitments to Kublai and Pope Gregory X, the Polo brothers, and this time Marco was well, began their return to Khanbaliq (present day Beijing).
The trio lived in China for the next seventeen years. Marco gained the favor of the Kublai by becoming a skilled storyteller. In his accounts, Marco states that the Polos oft requested permission to return to Venice, but the Khan prized their presence in his court so highly, he did not permit them departure.
Marco dictated his accounts in the Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, earning himself historical fame and a 2015 euro-style board game.
While it would be more appropriate for Maffeo and Niccolo to be a joint character, it would be irresponsible to let a pubescent teen venture Asia alone. And being such a good tale teller, Marco is able to attract stray camels to his aid.
Arghun Khan (1258-1291)
4th Ruler of the Ilkhanate*
*Southwestern Mongol Empire
Ability: Bonus City Cards
Arghun is mainly known for his endeavors to establish a Franco-Mongol alliance, sending multiple embassies to Europe over his tenure. He hoped the alliance, supported by Pope Gregory X, would unite against their common enemy the Mamluk's in Egypt. Despite efforts from both sides the oft-discussed partnership was never realized.
Following the death of his favorite wife, Arghun Khan was promised the hand of princess Kokochin, who as was escorted by Marco Polo as part of his final diplomatic mission for Kublai Khan. Unfortunately for Arghun, he died before the caravan arrived. His son Ghazan married Kokochin in his place.
The Ilkhanate connected the Mongol Empire, and later the Yuan Dynasty, to Iran, allowing for culture cross pollination. This along with his contacts in Europe striving to solidify the Franco-Mongol alliance, provided Arghun Khan with access to unique regions and ideas, manifesting in the form of additional city cards.
Gunj Kokochin (1274-????)
a.k.a. Princess Kököchin
Mongol Princess of the Bayaut Tribe
Ability: Personal Travel + Favor Actions
Betrothed to Arghun Khan by Kublai, Kokochin was to travel to the Ilkhanate. According to Marco's account, Kublai released Marco from his service under the condition he deliver Kokochin to Arghun. Marco escorted the princess, but Arghun died before their arrival. As a result Kokochin instead married Arghun's son Ghazan, becoming his principle wife.
As principle wife of Ghazan Kokochin had access to the wealth and supplies of the khanate. However, it would have been unsavory for her a princess to hoard such riches for herself, so she shares with her peers. Furthermore, having acquired knowledge of the famed Marco Polo, she is able to travel more easily.
a.k.a. Rustichello da Pisa
Italian Romance Writer
Ability: Special Action Cards.
During the Venetian–Genoese wars, Marco Polo was captured and imprisoned. For several months to follow Marco dictated his adventures to fellow inmate, Rusticiano.
The resulting book Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, provided Europeans with their most comprehensive depiction of the Far East, building on the previous works of Carprini and Rubruk.
Marco's tales of Arghun Khan enthralled Rusticiano, For the remainder of his jail sentence Rusticiano's mental state slowly declined, until he was convince he himself was the Ilkhan. His 'Rusticiano cards' are his attempt to replicate Arghun's in-game ability and insert himself into the narrative.
Donata Badoer (1280-1333)
Wife of Marco Polo
Ability: Single Use Die Tokens + Camel Income
Following his release from prison, Marco Polo married Donata Badoer, in 1300. She was the daughter of a merchant, and part of an old and respected patrician family with influence among the political and economic elite of Venice. Following Marco's death, Donata became the primary owner of the family estate.
As Marco's wife, Donata was privy to his camel attraction methods, and became equally adept at alluring them, at least whenever stray camels meandered into the Venician streets. Her position in Venice society allowed her leverage her political capital for favors.
Bellela, Fantina & Moreta (c. 1300)
Marco's and Donata's Daughters
Ability: Utilize Unused Character Powers
Following Niccolo and Maffeo's purchase of a large palazzo, the Polo family amassed great wealth, earning them prestige and influence. As such, each of Marco's and Donata's three daughters went on to marry into other noble Renaissance families. Fantina, the oldest, married Domenico Auditore. Bellela, though keeping her name, married Bertuccio Querini. And Moreta, the youngest, married Renuzzo Delfin.
Enraptured by the tales of their father, the girls would oft reenact his stories, imagining themselves as the prominent figures of his adventures. Having been told the stories so often throughout their childhood the daughters had the keen ability to imitate the characters, and mimic their respective game abilities.
Piedro Tartarino (????)
a.k.a. Peter (of Tartary)
Ability: Begin Adjacent to Venice + Clear an Action Space each Round
For his return journey from the Mongol Empire to Venice, Marco was given a Tartar slave, named Peter, who traveled back and worked with him in Venice. On Marco's death bed he ordered Peter to be released.
Having lived most of his life in the Mongol Empire, its appropriate for Peter to start with a slight westward head start.
Due to cultural ignorance, Peter was often met with worried glances and people would avoid him when possible, allowing access to previously occupied areas (and action spaces).
*Note: Though we hypothesize that Piedro Tartarino represents Marco's Tartar slave of the same name, we cannot confirm.
Fratre Nicolao (????)
a.k.a Brother Nicholas (specifics unknown)
Ability: Receive Gift(s) at at Beginning of each Round
Note: Several historical figures could qualify as Brother Nicholas. This character could represent any or none of the below, though we list them in order of likelihood.
Ascelin of Lombardy: sent to the Mongols in 1245, who visited Mongol general Baiju. Ascelin's lack of respect to the Mongols nearly cost him his life, and prompted Baiju to demand the submission of Pope Innocent IV, whom he called, "a dog."
Nicholas da Molano: a member of the papal embassy to Kublai Khan in 1338.
Niccolò de Vicence: one of two friars selected by Pope Gregory X to join the Polos in their return to Kublai Khan's court, who later declined the voyage.
Nicolas Bonet: named to the papal embassy to Kublai Khan in 1338, but was was consecrated in 1342 and did not join.
It was common practice for travel parties to carry gifts for the ruling power they were venturing toward, and this was especially true for representatives of the Catholic Church. Based on the game ability of Brother Nicholas one could make a strong argument he represents Ascelin of Lombardy (Nicholas of Lombardy), as he notably deviated from this gift giving custom, ultimately offending the Mongols. He also refused to "bend the knee" in front of Mongol leaders unless they consented to baptism, inspiring further disdain. Instead of sharing gifts with the Mongols he met with, Nicolas kept them for himself, and on one occasion kept two.
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Bergreen, Laurence, and Gábor Valló. Marco Polo. General Press, 2007.
Dawson, Christopher. The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. AMS Press, 1980.
Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Order of Assassins. AMS Press, 1980.
Marshall, Robert. Storm from the East: from Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. Penguin Books, 1994.
Phillips, J. R. S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 2008.
Polo, Marco, et al. The Travels of Marco Polo. Harper & Brothers, 1874.
Twitchett, Denis Crispin, and Herbert Franke. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 6, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
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