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.


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.


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.

Games: The Castles of Burgundy

Until recently, designer Stefan Felt was primarily known for In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame, and Macao, three games that were well-regarded at the time of their release, but that have been fading from memory ever since. In 2011, however, Feld released two new games that may outlast their predecessors. One of them, Trajan, has received ample buzz, was crowned “Game of the Year” by GAMES Magazine, and received the 2012 International Gamer General Strategy Award. But after extensive play of both, it’s Castles of Burgundy that I’ve come to prefer.

Burgundy is in many respects an old-school Euro, a set-collection and tile-laying game with lots of routes to victory and low player interaction. Each person owns an estate, printed on a player mat and composed of 37 hexagonal spaces of six different terrains. The mats also have three hexagonal spaces in the lower-left corner, known as the player’s reserve.

The central game board has depots numbered 1-6, into which hexagonal tiles are semi-randomly distributed before each phase. The depots also hold the six varieties of goods that come into play as the game progresses.


The central board, the players mats, and many of the components

Six types of terrain, six types of goods, six central depots  what’s with all of the 6s? The answer, and something that sets Burgundy apart from many heavier-weight euros, is dice. Each player has two, rolls them before each round of the game, and then uses them to perform actions. Though the player is free to choose from any of the four available actions, the value of the die used constrains how the action is performed.

The four actions are:

  • Gain a tile: Take a hexagonal tile from the central board and place it into reserve. The depot from which the tile is taken must have a number equal to the value of the die used.
  • Place a tile: Take a hexagonal tile from reserve and place it onto an estate. Each space in an estate bears a number from 1-6; the tile must be placed into a space with a number equal to the value of the die used.
  • Sell goods: Players will accumulate goods over the course of the game, with each of the six types having a different number. Only the goods with the number matching the used die can be sold.
  • Gain worker tiles: Before using a die for any of the other three actions, a player may modify the value up or down one for each worker tile spent. A player gains more worker tiles by selecting this action, which grants him two. 

A player may also, once per turn, spent two coins to purchase a hexagonal tile from the central board. The game continues in this manner for five phases of five rounds apiece. After each person has had 25 turns, the player with the most victory points wins.

Many points are scored when tiles are placed into estates. The hexagonal tiles come in six different colors, and can only be placed in spaces of the same hue. Each color of tile also does something different upon placement. Beige tiles are buildings, and have an immediate, one-time effect, such as allowing a player to take a tile from the central board and place it in his reserve, or place a second tile from his reserve into his estate for free. Yellow tiles represent knowledge, and confer onto a player either a new ability (e.g., collect four worker tiles instead of two when selecting the “gain worker tile” action), or an end-game bonus (if certain conditions are met). Grey mines produce money; blue ships allow a player to gain goods; light green pastures instantly award points;, and the dark green castles permit a player to take an additional free action, as if he had a die of any chosen value.

When a player fills all of the spaces in a contiguous group of like-colored hexes, he immediately scores points based on the size of the region and phase of the game. He will also score bonus points if he is the first or second player to fill every space on his board of a single color, regardless of whether they are connected.


A player board, with many hexagonal tiles placed

Castles of Burgundy is one of those games that sounds way more complicated when explained than it feels during play. It is a testament to Feld’s skills as a designer that the seemingly disparate systems described above are so well integrated that everything seems intuitive once you internalize the fundamentals.

The method of providing lots of options, and then limiting those options through the use of dice, is generally effective at preventing “analysis paralysis”, in which a player locks up while thinking through all the possible permutations of their turn. The randomness of die rolls skews the play more toward the tactical than the strategic (although this is in turn tempered by the worker tiles), and makes for the kind of brisk, medium-weight game that I prefer. That said, the four-player and three-players games can feel overlong — there is so little interaction that additional players beyond two increase the playing time while leaving the dynamics of play essentially unchanged. The game is listed as “best with two players on Boardgame Geek entry, and I agree with that assessment.

My nagging concern with Burgundy is that is sometimes feels like one of those do-whatever-you-want-and-score-points-for-everything kind of games. A player can focus on maximizing their score through pastures, or through yellow knowledge tiles, or by completing regions, or by accumulating and selling goods, and ignore (at least temporarily) the areas of the game that don’t interest him. This is not necessarily a bad thing  multiple routes to victory is often the hallmark of a rich and replayable system. But the only significant form of interaction between players the the taking of tiles before others can claim them, and a player denied something he wants is as likely to shrug his shoulders and switch his focus to something else as he is to gnash his teeth and curse. The end-gaming scoring even awards points for unspent money, goods not sold, and worker tiles not used. I recognize that these incentives allow for meaningful decisions in the last few turns of the game, but it adds to the perception that the game just doles out points for everything, even failure.

Still, Castles of Burgundy is my favorite Euro of the last few years. I’m sucker for tile-laying games to begin with, and I find the filling up of one’s estate to be an oddly satisfying experience. It’s even something that can be introduced to and enjoyed by non-gamers, though they will likely be terrified by the time you make it through the rules. Simply assure them that they will understand everything after the first few turns, and will be eager to play again after their inaugural game is over.

Trajan review to follow.  Stay tuned …