Games: Trajan

Earlier this week I reviewed The Castles of Burgundy, a recent design from Stefan Feld that I quite enjoy. Now let’s turn our attention to Trajan, a second 2011 release from Feld with which Castles shares many similarities.

Trajan is really a collection of mini-games, bolted together by a central mechanism called the action circle. The action circle dominates the right side of each player mat, and is composed of a six cups numbered I-VI. Two tokens are placed into each cup at the start of the game. On a turn a player selects a cup with at least one token in it, takes into hand all of the tokens from the chosen cup, and then places one token into each cup that follow the selected one in clockwise order, until he has none left to distribute. If cup II contains three tokens, for example, a player might take these three and place one each into the III, IV, and V cups, leaving the initial II cup empty as a result. The target cup — that is, the cup into which the last token is placed — determines which of the six possible actions the player can perform.

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A player mat, with the action circle on the right

This form of action selection has, to the best of my knowledge, never before been used in strategy game of this caliber. But you may also recognize it as mancala, a game that predates recorded history. In other words, Trajan has a central mechanic that feels both familiar and strikingly original.

The six possible actions allow players to further their influence in ancient Rome, the milieu in which the game is set. The senate action gives the player political influence and a handful of victory points; the Military action allows a player to march his soldiers around a map of Italy, appropriating resources and scoring points; a player can draw cards after selecting the Seaport action, or redeem sets of these cards for points; and so forth.

Of particular interest is the Trajan action, which allows a player to claim a special tile and place it next to one of the six cups in the action circle. The tokens in the action circle come in six colors, and each Trajan tile shows the two colors necessary to trigger its effect. When the target cup has a Trajan tile next to it and contains tokens of the same color as those shown on the tile, the special effect occurs, granting an immediate advantage in one of the minigames and instantly awarding the player points.

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The goods, which are acquired and sold using the Seaport action

If you noticed a preponderance of the word “points” in the preceding paragraphs, that’s because Trajan awards them for nearly everything a player does. I raised this as a concern with Burgundy   that a player could concentrate on a few elements of the game and largely ignore others — and it’s even more pronounced here, where there is even less bleed-over between the mini-games. Burgundy at least provides cohesion in the form of a player’s estate, where all of the various tiles must coexist, and which forces a player to switch focus when regions on his board are full. In Trajan, on the other hand, a player could (for instance) pursue a Senate and Building strategy, and never once select the Military or Seaport actions. Some players might find this freedom liberating; I, however, prefer a framework for play, even something as abstract as “fill up your estate”. 

Trajan is also similar to Burgundy in that players are given both a menu of possible actions and constraints on their choices. Burgundy does this through dice, the values of which dictate what a player can do; a player of Trajan, meanwhile, can only take an action that he can reach via the action circle. The constraints in Burgundy tend to reduce over-analysis, as players do the best with the values they roll. But unlike dice, the action circle in Trajan is not random. A player can work out his moves several turns in advance, and usually attempts to do so.

Put another way, Trajan is considerably more strategic than Burgundy. That’s not a bad thing, obviously. In fact, many (and perhaps most) gamers will prefer Trajan to Burgundy for this very reason. But in my experience, the action cup mechanism does not facilitate the game so much as become the game. I become so intent of figuring out how to work the action circle to my advantage that everything else — the building, the buying and selling of goods, the politicking — falls away. I eventually feel like I am just playing mancala, something I could have done without Stefan Feld’s help.

I like Trajan. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best games I’ve played in recent years. And although Castles of Burgundy is currently the higher ranked of the two on Boardgame Geek, I won’t be surprised if that changes in the coming years as Trajan reveals itself as the more durable design. But there is a line at where a game becomes too abstract for my tastes, and Trajan falls a few inches on the wrong side.

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