Board Game Review: Trajan – Two Mini-Games Greater than the Sum
Unfortunately, the titular emperor does not appear in Trajan. Instead the game is theoretically a simple worker placement and action management game. There are few resources to concern players and only six actions. On top of this familiar structure, Trajan layers a mancala style action selection system. The interplay between these two games provides a deep and enjoyable experience.
The Basics. The game has six actions: Shipping, Conquering, Building, Senate, Forum, and Trajan. But a desired action may not simply be selected at will, instead each player is given a player board with pictures of each action arranged in a circle. Each picture has a bowl next to it and the game begins with two cylinders in each bowl. On a turn, the player picks up the cylinders in a bowl and, moving clockwise, drops one in each bowl along the way. The player can perform the action of whatever bowl gets the last cylinder.
In the beginning, players can select any action, but as the cylinders begin to pile up in different quantities, it can be increasingly challenging to take the action you prefer. It can be even tougher to plan it out so that you can take the next two or three actions in the order that you would like.
Add to this that the game takes place over four years, with each year having four seasons. A cylinder is moved along a time track, and it is moved based on how many cylinders the player just moved. In this way, players have some control over when each round ends. With the end of each season, the peoples’ demands are revealed. They can demand bread, religion, or entertainment. At the end of the final season, the players must meet the demands from the three previous seasons or face penalties.
Also at the end of each year, bonus tiles are handed out. Each tile has a gold “good” side and a silver “thanks for playing” side. The silver side is worth less bonus points at game end. The bonuses are given to the players with the most votes in the Senate. The leading player gets the first choice. The second player gets the second bonus, but not its good effect.
The game ends after four years, and the player with the most victory points winning.
The Feel. Trajan is one of those rare games that I simply cannot get enough of. In my very first play, I came dead last, and not by a small margin. But I fell deeply in love with the game. The mancala/rondel aspect takes some getting used to; it’s very dissimilar from just about every other game. And, whereas the scoring encourages you to repeatedly take the same actions, the mancala/rondel encourages (sometimes forces) you to choose other actions, especially laden with Trajan tiles. Managing this tension is a big portion of the game.
One key to victory is getting to take a single action multiple times in a row. In fact, players can pick up extra actions in the forum. If you get an extra Senate, for example, the next time you take a Senate action you can spend your extra action tile to immediately take another Senate action. Getting multiple actions is a key method for achieving just about any strategy.
And then there are the Trajan tiles. The Trajan action allows you to take a Trajan tile and place it on your board. Each tile gives you a number of points, and most also provide some utility during the game. Some make your bonus actions more effective, others allow you to add workers to the builder or legionnaire pools so that your next moves there will be more effective. Trajan tiles are added to your personal board next to one of the six actions.
Each Trajan tile also shows two colors in the corners. To trigger the Trajan and get the benefit, the player must take the action associated with the Trajan tile. When the action is taken, both colors of cylinders should be present in that action’s bowl. If those two requirements are met, the Trajan is completed and the player gains the benefit. The Trajan tiles are a great way to not only get points, but to make other actions more effective. In a game without money or goods (mostly), this is essentially the way to improve your “economy” during the game.
I continue to be enamored by the interaction between the scoring opportunities on the board and the individual mancala style action selection. It’s a fantastic example of game design. Plus, it does a great job of providing multiple paths to victory. For example, the Shipping action would appear, at first blush, to be the weakest. But in one game, everyone at the table was trounced by the player using a strong Shipping strategy.
There is a lot of competition between the players as well. There is often a scramble to get tiles from the forum, the builder, or the legionnaire areas before your opponents. While it is all indirect competition, it can be fearsome.
Components: 4 of 5. The game has excellent pieces. All the chits are on thick cardboard stock and ready to move. The cylinders necessary for the mancala portion are all wooden bits. Players even get a large monument to mark where the next Trajan tile will be placed on their board. All in all, there is nothing disappointing on this front.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Trajan is almost entirely a strategy game. Mostly, the game uses randomness in terms of forum offerings, peoples’ demands, and builder setup. But since those impact all players equally, it’s not really a luck issue. However, when it comes to Shipping and card draws, there is the potential for some luck impact. Similarly, the bonus tiles are drawn at random, and some might be more valuable later or earlier in the game. That said, Trajan is a game of strategy first.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. When I first heard that the game used mancala to determine actions, I was very skeptical. But the Trajan actually works wonderfully. It creates an interesting puzzle element that is not only satisfying to manipulate, but also encourages long term planning and thinking. Simultaneously, the need to get items before your opponents do encourages you to act quickly at the cost of your mancala engine. There are so many delightful tensions that really bring this game to life.
Replayability: 3 of 5. Trajan’s learning curve can be a little steep, which gives it some artificial replayability. There are several randomized elements to setup – including the building area, the legionnaire resources, and the forum. But beyond that, there are multiple strategies that are effective and worth attempting. The main worry is that, with no direct interaction between the players, it may be easy to get stuck in a rut of trying the same thing out every time. That could make Trajan feel stale and shorten its lifespan.
Spite: 1 of 5. The competition is largely indirect and there are no “take that” elements in the game. The only opportunities for spite are in taking forum or bonus tiles that would help your opponents more than you.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Trajan is one of the more clever euro games I’ve played in some time. The use of the mancala/rondel is inspired and wonderful to manipulate during the game. Either aspect of the game (board or mancala) would be pretty dull on its own. But with both of them together, Trajan is alive with interesting gameplay. I just hope it doesn’t burn out as quickly as I suspect.