[In this issue, we feature Humboldt’s Great Voyage which uses the gameplay of Mancala as its primary moving force. But this is not the only game to successfully appropriate that game’s core mechanism and make it its own. Game designer Stefan Feld explored Mancala‘s possibilities when he came up with Trajan. Here, from the Spring 2012 Gamers Alliance Report, we “flashback” to game designer Joe Huber’s view on what Feld did!]
Reviewed by Joe Huber
TRAJAN (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 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.
Trajan 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. – – – – – – – – Joe Huber
Copyright © 2012, all rights reserved.
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