Menu

Trajan

Reviewed by Joe Huber

(Ammonit Spiele, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; about $70)

 

trajanboxOver the past few years, Stefan Feld has firmly established his reputation as a designer of gamer’s games and, as the most published designer in Alea’s noteworthy catalog. His string of successes – from Notre Dame to In the Year of the Dragon (featured in the Spring 2008 Gamers Alliance Report) to Macao (Spring 2010 GA Report) to The Castles of Burgundy (Summer 2011 GA Report)– have reached the top 200 on BGG, and have frequently been cited as being among the best games of their respective years by fans of Eurogames. At the same time, Feld’s games have been decried by fans of American games for the pasted on themes, particularly in the egregious example of the floating capitals of Europe that populate Macao.

But everyone can agree that Feld has incorporated a clever central mechanism into each of his games. The dice-compass of Macao is perhaps the best example; I had the opportunity to play an early prototype of the game, and while the rest of the game needed work, the dice-compass stood out as clever, interesting, and innovative.

Trajan starts with a similarly clever mechanism – albeit one not new to gaming. The central mechanism of Trajan is the same mechanism that drives the game Mancala; you take the stones at one location and distribute them one at a time in the spaces until you’re out of stones. In the case of Trajan, this drives player actions.

But as with Feld’s other designs, it’s hard to summarize what players are actually trying to DO in Trajan. In simplest terms, players are trying to earn the most victory points through a wide variety of actions related, more or less directly, to the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan by increasing their influence – and power – throughout disparate elements of Roman culture. The distribution of stones determines first gives the player an opportunity to complete a public work or, in game terms, a “Trajan tile”. The twelve Mancala pieces come in six different colors, with two in each color. If the right two colors – or, in some cases, two pieces in the same color – are in the last space to receive a piece, the Trajan tile next to that space is completed. These tiles are worth between one and nine victory points; most of these tiles offer some additional advantage upon completion. Next, the action associated with the activated location is taken.

There are six different actions in Trajan. First, there is the shipping action. A shipping action can be used to acquire goods, to display goods without shipping them when a player has an end game bonus, or to ship them for victory points. The forum action allows players to collect various useful tiles. Most allow a player to meet the demands of the people while others allow doubled actions or other benefits. The war action allows a player to move his general, to acquire more soldiers or to deploy his soldiers with his general for victory points. The senate action earns victory points, more for each visit within a year. The Trajan action allows players to acquire more Trajan tiles. Finally, the worker action allows a player to acquire a worker or to place a worker, earning victory points and possibly bonus actions.

trajanbackTrajan is played over the course of four years, each year consisting of four seasons. (Actually, the game states that there are four seasons and each season includes four quarter-seasons. Since this makes no sense, I’ve taken to teaching the game as years and seasons.) In a turn, a player announces how many pieces are in the space in their action circle that they are moving from, the season marker is moved that many spaces and the player distributes her pieces. The player completes her Trajan tile if possible and then takes her action. If the season marker has completed one full loop, the first demand tile is revealed. This continues through the second and third demand tiles and then for one more loop. Then players must meet the demands or lose victory points. The players with the most senate votes earn shields which provide bonus points at the end of the game for meeting certain requirements and the board is reset for the next year. After four years, end game points are awarded for unused resources (soldiers, workers and unshipped goods, for large sets of tiles collected by workers and for the bonus shields). The player with the most victory points wins.

Trajan is very firmly in the German gaming tradition; the interaction is in the form of a race for certain locations or benefits rather than via direct attack. That said, there are multiple areas where players are competing such that the game feels very much like a multiplayer game rather than multiplayer solitaire. At the same time, the game has a wonderful and refreshing method for selecting actions wherein a player can only blame herself is she is not able to conduct a required action when needed. The Mancala system works brilliantly; players typically have a choice of 3-4 actions but there are ways to set up to do the same action many times in a row and it’s not uncommon for a player to largely ignore one or two actions.

The theme of the game took me awhile to warm to and I must admit that it’s still not a favorite. It feels more like “do a lot of things and get points for them” than a clear objective. But as I’ve learned more about Trajan – it all works. The actions, while not tightly integrated, are logical and there are no issues such as the teleporting goods in Macao to distract players from the theme.

Trajan is, incongruously enough, a game prone to both fast play and analysis paralysis. Turns are, inherently, quick. You either complete a Trajan tile or not and then you take an action, frequently with no decisions or trivial decisions in the execution of the action. However, since your problems are your own doing, players typically want to look ahead to their next few actions and this can lead to slower play.

It took me a bit longer to get in a play of Trajan because groups learning the game seemed to get bogged down in the rules. But, having taught the game after a single read through, I’m not sure just why. It’s not a particularly complex game and while there are a reasonably large number of moving parts, they don’t interact in ways that make the game difficult to pick up. It does takes a play or two to understand the implications of the rules but not to get started. Finally, there are some random elements in Trajan but they tend to have small impacts such that any but those who avoid any randomness in games are unlikely to be bothered. And while there are “war” actions, the game is in no manner a simulation or wargame.

Trajan is a game that took a while to sink in for me. I wasn’t convinced, on my first play, that I was going to enjoy the game. It looked like what I think of as a “kitchen sink” design, where a large number of diverse elements are brought together. Usually, these games don’t sit well with me as they tend to lack cohesion. But while the cohesion isn’t clear, Trajan has grown to be more logical for me. The best proof of this is that, with repeated attempts, explaining the game has become easier and easier. Five plays in, I’m enjoying the game. It’s not yet at the level of being an all-time favorite though perhaps it will get there with more plays and more time. But, as with Castles of Burgundy, I’m very happy to have it in my collection and to continue bringing it to the table. I suspect that fans of complex Eurogames will take well to it; those who prefer more straightforward games or more direct interaction can likely pass on it. With no US distribution at this time, it’s expensive enough that it’s not an ideal speculative purchase but even for those not so fond of the genre, it’s a good enough game to be worth trying if you have the opportunity.

 


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


Spring 2012 GA Report Articles

 

[In this issue we welcome Kevin Whitmore, a long time gamer from New Mexico. Kevin has hosted a game night that meets every week since 1999. Kevin plays many different styles of games, including wargames, card games, word games, abstracts, Euros and train games. Kevin admits he isn't the sharpest 18xx player in his local games community, but this just keeps him coming back for ...
Read More
Reviewed by Andrea "Liga" Ligabue (Z-Man Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 47-120 minutes; $54.95) Sci-fi is one of the great gold veins where designers and publishers dig out endless games. In the last years I was impressed by many good titles. Eclipse, Race for the Galaxy, Battlestar Galactica, Earth Reborn, Claustrophobia, Galaxy Trucker, Alien Frontiers are all in the BGG top 100 joined ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2-5 players, ages 13 to adult, 90-120 minutes; $59.95) It seems that even fantasy lands have to deal with the bungling of bureaucracies. In this particular kingdom, it turns out there has been an "error" by the powers that be in doling out the job of constructing the castle of Belfort, the veritable jewel in the crown of ...
Read More
Reviewed by Chris Kovac (Sierra Madre Games, 1-4 players, ages 12 and up, 180+ minutes; $72) Bios Megafauna is a fairly complex gamer's game with a strong theme of evolution designed by Phil Eklund. This is an updated and streamlined version of Mr. Eklund’s earlier game called American Megafauna with better pieces and faster game play. The object of the game is to have the ...
Read More
Right Jobs Steve Jobs, the guy who put the "i" in genius and then applied it to us (in the form of such well received items as the iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTouch etc.) said: "People don't know what they want until you show it to them." That was his job and he did it well, getting those ideas from the mind onto the drawing board ...
Read More
Reviewed by Jeff Feuer (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 45-60 minutes; $39.95) Eminent Domain is a deck-building card game by designer Seth Jaffee but, while a deck-building game like Dominion (Winter 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) which pioneered the genre, it has little in common with it. You do start with a set of 10 cards, which are shuffled and then you ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Indie Boards & Cards, 2-6 players, ages 10 and up, 45 minutes; $39.99) Even as a child, I always had respect for those among us who had the incredible courage to not only face danger but put themselves in harm's way to save others. Firefighters are part of that select group. Instead of running from a burning building, they run towards ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Minion Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $49.99) In the annals of Biblical history, King Solomon occupies a special place. As a king fabled for his wisdom, he ruled over the land known as Israel and presided over a time of peace and prosperity. Players, as governors serving the king, compete to increase that prosperity by constructing buildings, ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Educational Insights, 2 players, ages 8 to adult, 10 minutes; $19.99) There are a lot of games out there competing for your attention and leisure spending dollars so it helps if you can make your game stand out. Nowhere to Go, a Hank Atkins design, certainly achieves that goal with its eye-catching hexagonal box and its striking orange and black motif ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Mayfair Games/FunFair, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; $15) Pick up and deliver games are a well received genre in gaming. Basically, they are what they sound like. You pick up a cargo in one place (whatever it may be from wherever it may be) and deliver it someplace else. Usually, the idea is to get the stuff to ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (Columbia Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 2 to 3 hours; $59.99) With the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War upon us, it is no surprise that there has been an uptick in the number of games exploring this already popular subject. Shenandoah: Jackson's Valley Campaign is one of these with the game centering on the campaign waged between ...
Read More
Reviewed by Herb Levy (dlp Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes minutes; $70) When Cole Porter was writing the score for Silk Stockings, the musical that centered on a beautiful Russian commissar (played by the stunning Cyd Charisse in the film) being wooed by a charismatic Westerner (none other than the incomparable Fred Astaire in the movie) who seduces her to the ...
Read More
Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser (Pearl Games/Z-Man Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $44.99) In baseball terms, designer Xavier Georges is batting around five hundred for me. In baseball, that is a terrific average that has never been obtained over the course of a career, let alone a season. As a game designer, that average is, well, average. His first breakout design ...
Read More
Reviewed by Joe Huber (Ammonit Spiele, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; about $70) Over the past few years, Stefan Feld has firmly established his reputation as a designer of gamer's games and, as the most published designer in Alea's noteworthy catalog. His string of successes - from Notre Dame to In the Year of the Dragon (featured in the Spring 2008 Gamers ...
Read More
Reviewed by Pevans (Giochix, 2-4 players, ages 13 and up, 120+ minutes; $49.95) I was intrigued by Upon a Salty Ocean when I first saw it at Spiel ’11. The initial attraction was the good-looking artwork depicting the principal buildings of the French city of Rouen, on the banks of the river Seine, in the 16th century. When I was told it was about developing ...
Read More

If you enjoy games, then Gamers Alliance is right for you!