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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Feld Brings Mancala Over The Top!

pic1054375_mdTrajan Review
At last I am ready to review this game. It’s been on my collection for a long time and I’ve played it quite a lot. Trajan is (IMO) the best of Stefan Feld’s games. Oh yes, it beats Castles of Burgundy or Amerigo or Notre Dame or In The Year of The Dragon.
So what is Trajan anyway? What kind of title is that? Well, I knew nothing of it before, it sounds weird and alien in my ear. Trajan is in fact, a person’s name. He was a Roman emperor  from 98 AD until his death in 117 AD. Officially declared by the Senate as optimus princeps (“the best ruler”), Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He is also known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which earned him his enduring reputation as the second of the Five Good Emperors (the other four were Nerva, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius) and who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.

So what’s good about Trajan and why it can be my number one from Stefan Feld? I hope you’re onto long reading.

Game Components
The game has standard rectangular box like Agricola or Stone Age, has full packed content and the box is very heavy for its box size. The main reason might because of tons thick card board components. The card board tiles are thick, its player boards also has the same thickness (unlike The Castles of Burgundy’s player boards). There are many wooden tokens for player’s meeples, Trajan arches and action markers.

Artworks
It doesn’t have the best art for a board game but it serves pretty well in term of game play. Like other Stefan Feld games, Trajan has a very good iconography spread all over the game. It’s very functional and nicely designed. Though this lead to dry and abstract visual aesthetic aspect from the game. But as classic Euro should, the mechanic is what makes the game.

Trajan was published in 2011 after Castles of Burgundy, which has good ratings among Euro-gamers. Trajan is a game about managing you empire, to get most points during 3 years time, each year has 4 quarters, which in summary, players will play 12 rounds in the game. At the end of each year the scoring happens, and players need to fulfill people’s demands or else get penalty.

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Flow of Play
In these 12 rounds, players need to assign markers in their player board within Mancala system to take specific actions provided in the game. There are 6 actions in the Mancala system, these actions are Ship, Senate, Forum, Military, Trajan and Build.
In turn order, each player declare how many markers he will take from one bowl (of the available 6 bowls) and move all those action markers in clockwise order, bowl by bowl and in each bowl passed he must drop one of his picked-up markers. When the last action marker is placed, he check for completed Trajan tiles (if any) in that bowl. Then resolve the action corresponding with that bowl, for example Ship or Build.
Other player will advance the round marker in exact amount declared by the active player. If the round marker ends or passes the starting space, the quarter comes to an end and after the active player ends his turn, one demand tile is revealed. If the quarter is ending while there are already 3 demand tiles, do not open another demand tile, but proceed with end of year scoring and resolution. Players need to fulfill the 3 demand tiles and get penalty if they cannot complete all (the penalty amounts are varied by the number of demand that they cannot complete.

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Detail of Actions
1. Senate
This action lets players to advance their markers one step in the Senate track and get points from the value below their marker after advancing. In truth, the function of this Senate is not only the points it generates, but there are 2 other functions. During the end year scoring, while resolving Senate track, the player with most votes (number of votes received from the Senate and the Senate tiles combined) will get to choose one of two available Bonus tile for end game scoring, the 2nd most will get the other but in a face-down (lesser) tile. The other function is to break ties.

2. Forum
This action lets players to take a Forum tile from the available Forum spaces. The tiles are reset each year, so players need to plan what they want to get and how important the tiles based on the drawing. There are 2 kind of tiles in the spaces, basic Forum tile and extra action tile. The setup maintains that there are minimum of three extra tiles in each year, but there is possible to have more from the basic tiles. Extra tiles is used to get extra action of the specific action listed on the tile and can be modified / boost with +2 action, so you can use it double. The other tiles are mainly need and voting tiles and also wild / joker tiles that can be used as different types.

3. Trajan
This action lets players to get Trajan tile from the supply. There are 6 types of Trajan tiles (in 6 stacks) with each different color markers combinations. When a player takes this action, he choose the top tile of the available 6 types and put it in his player board, beside the bowl where his Trajan marker resides, and move his marker to the next empty space in clockwise direction, if there is no empty space (full with Trajan tiles), he put it in the central of the Mancala. He cannot take anymore Trajan tiles and need to complete one of his first to get another. There are tiles that give players 9 points, give players 2 cards, give players +2 extra action modifier, give permanent need tiles, give builders and also soldiers.

4. Military
This action lets players to choose one out of several possible actions, either to place 1 soldier from his player board to the Army camp, to move his general to adjacent province / region, or to score a region with one of his soldier in the camp.
If players choose to move their general, they can only move to adjacent region and if there is a tile available, they take the tile and place it on their board.
The scoring action lets players to move one soldier to a region where has their general and score points based on two restrictions. A player score full points from the listed points on the region if he is the first player to score this region (it can be seen by the soldier in that region, if there is none, it means he is the first. If there is already one, then he is the second and so on. If he’s not the first, firstly check how many soldiers already exist in the region (note that each player can only score once in each region) and then deduct 3 points for each soldier already in that region (this exclude any general in the region). For example, the region worth 10 points, a player choose to score that region but he’s the third player doing that, so he only gets 4 points. If later there is another player wants to score that region, he will only gets 1 points, which is not a wise decision. Players cannot take this action if they do not have a soldier available in the camp.

5. Build
This action also similar like Military action, which provides several possible actions. The first is to place one worker from player’s board to the worker camp. The second action is to claim a building tile. If it’s the player’s first claim, he can choose any available tile and move his available worker from the camp to replace the tile he claim. The tile he takes is placed on the corresponding space in his player board. If it’s the first tile of that type, he gets building bonus action, which varies depending the building type. There are 5 building types. His consequent building action will have to follow the restriction of orthogonal adjacent tile from the already existing worker in the building area. If the space already occupied by another worker, the space is not blocked, the player can still place his worker there, but since the tile is already taken, he doesn’t take any.

6. Ship
Ship action lets players to take one of the possible actions. The first action is to draw two cards from the draw pile and place in hand, then discard one card. The second is to take one card from one of the discard pile, the third is to place one to two cards to the display and draw one to two cards from the draw pile. The last is to ship the resource cards based on three different ship tiles, Each different, each same type and different pairs, Once one of the shipping tile is used, it’s flipped face down, which show lesser amount than the face-up tile. The tile can be flipped face-up again at the start of next round. When a player do this, he place his corresponding resource cards to his display but do not refill his hand.

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The game ends after the last year ends and score points based on several things:
1. Number of cards still in hand (1 point per card)
2. Number of incomplete Trajan tiles  (1 point per tile)
3. Number of soldiers and workers still in camp (1 point per worker or soldier)
4. Bonus tiles (set collection for the commodity cards in table is probably the most lucrative if you can focus on that. Since there are limited amount of cards, there’s also possibility that your opponents are blocking / holding the cards you need.
5. Joker tiles (1 point per tile)
6. Building set collection (3 tiles of a kind gives you 10 points, while 4 tiles of a kind gives you 20 points). This is powerful if you managed to get 4 tiles of a kind.

My Thoughts
I think the game core mechanic is not new but indeed innovative and has novelty. Stefan Feld applied innovative mechanic in the old Mancala system and made it more interesting. Not only you take and place action markers, but the there are 6 different kind of colors for the markers which really need considerations to complete Trajan tiles (not only to take an action).  This gives the game a small puzzle game but impacts greatly on the game play. Some feel (me too, a bit) this as the brain-burner element in the game.
It has lots of options and chain combo with the extra action and bonus action from building tile and that make the game more interesting. Though it has lots of options to consider the game play still has clear coverage, since all that you can do is solely based on your Mancala and the distribution of the action markers. The common sense for returning players is about how they manage the setup for the action marker distribution, which in some cases impose debates on how to maximize the setup. But I don’t really care, just distribute them randomly and plan after that. One note though, I intend to keep the markers in different color for each bowl, not saying that I’m trying to set something up, but just for the sake of random (evenly distributed).

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In Trajan, since it’s also considered as a point-salad game, you can see many different ways to get points but there are some considerations for what strategies you should after. Either you go heavy on shipping or building or military or getting senate and bonus tiles as your trumps. Based on my playing experiences, players can go and grab 1 or 2 strategies but not all, since getting all of them into the plan proved to be unwise, since they cannot utilize all of them to get the most of them. Players will not have enough time, for example collecting 4 building tiles of one kind also need hard efforts, especially if the tiles are not strategically placed (it would be wise to choose other type of building that is strategic) so if you also after Shipping, things could be hard to maximize them both. Some players found that Shipping strategy is quite powerful and easy to gain points in the end game combined with Bonus tiles. Building can also provide you bonus actions and also huge amount of points. But I believe each strategy is quite balanced and each one relates to each other, you cannot play with only one strategy without taking others.

The game also has dynamic turn sequence, different for each player. Since players are mostly take actions based on their personal considerations, the game plays very differently for each player about how many spaces each turn will take. At first each player will absolutely take 2 spaces in each turn, since the distribution of the markers is fixed. But during in-game or once the game progresses, there are varied amounts of markers in each bowl, so the number of space that a player will take is different from other players and this often makes the game unpredictable (you can predict it though if you observe other players carefully (and also guess what their plan next turn).

I think Trajan is way much better than Castles of Burgundy, because it offers more depth and planning than Castles of Burgundy. Castles of Burgundy has smaller scope with only 2 dice to allocate, though it could be many different options but still 2. In Trajan you need to consider 6 different bowls for your plan and it connects together for each turn and also there are also combos to think about so you can take your turn more efficiently.
The player counts are also good, you can play a 2-player game as good as in a 4-player game, the differences are the number of action spaces each round, cards distribution, forum tiles, military expansion and also blocking in the construction site.20150627_100957-1.jpg

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Posted by on February 24, 2015 in Board Games, Euro Games, Reviews

 

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Instant Deck Building

Star Realms Review
What is deck building? For those who don’t familiar with the term, deck building is a mechanic involving players to build their deck into substantial amount of cards with better or improved ability than their starting deck. So during the game they will try to acquire more cards which are better than what they have and use these cards to generate points or complete objectives in the game.

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Usually when we talked about this mechanic, we cannot exclude the famous Dominion from Donald X. Vaccarino which was published in 2008. Dominion is the origin of deck-building, many other games adopted or follow the deck-building system that was designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. It’s still very popular til now among board gamers or deck-builders. Another popular deck-building games are Thunderstone and Ascencion.

Now, based on the same system, sinplified to its core, White Wizards Games published a fast-paced 2-player deck-building game with the title Star Realms. Designed by the famous Magic Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty, who is the co-founder of Ascension. The game was published recently, in 2014 and already in rank 62 on BGG. What more interesting is it fits in your pocket.

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The game comes in a small box that can fit right in your pocket, it only consists of a deck of cards. In the game, there are 2 sets of starting cards (one for each player), deck of cards, improve units and authority cards.
Starting the game is simple, you need to separate the two sets and give each player one (each set includes 8 coins and 2 ships), shuffle the main deck of cards and draw 5 face up in the middle of the table. Each player also given out 50 worth of Authority cards as starting hit points. The first player draw 3 cards after shuffle his starting cards, while his opponent draws 5 cards. They can start the game.

How to play is very simple (seriously). On a player’s turn, he can play cards from his hand to the table. These played cards are mainly used for 2 things, purchase cards or attack your opponent. But there are other uses such as heal, discard, destroy a card or draw cards. Players total all of his cards first and then take the corresponding action. Players can purchase as many cards as they want from the available (5 cards), with one restriction, empty slots are not refilled before a player’s turn is over. Purchased cards are placed into the discard pile. After that players can attack opponent with hit points, same as coins, tally up the hit points and reduce opponent authority cards equal as the total hit points.

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The main deck consists of 2 type of cards, ships and buildings / fortresses.
There are 4 different factions in the game, these represented by different type of ships (with different banners). Each faction has different play style, which gives more exploration on building your deck. Ships with same faction banner unlock combos aside from the usual effect / ability. Aside from the combos, some cards are possible to have additional features to trash or discard for one-time benefits.

Fortress comes into play by placing it in front of the players, it stays there until an action destroy it or players decided to remove it from their table. Fortresses give players more flexibility by adding additional faction banner for combos while also provide different abilities. Some even have Outpost attribute that force opponents to assign hit points to it before assign it to hit player’s authority and other Fortresses.

In players turn, they play cards in front of them. They can buy cards with coins from the display, and also activate effects (if any) and then attack opponents with accumulative hit points. The goal is to eliminate opponent by reducing their authority points from 50 to zero (though players can heal their Authority points even beyond 50 points).

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My Thought About The Game
Star Realms is very simple deck building game, for 2 players (you can play tag team with 4 players but you need extra copy of the game). The game plays very quick if players already know all the cards, since some cards have moderate in-game texts. As soon as players familiar with the card abilities and combinations, a session usually takes 15-20 minutes. So it’s very fast to spend the time between meaty games. This is also a very good choice in order getting to know about deck-building. How clean the design, to get more cards, utilize them and scrap unused cards to create more efficient deck.
The different faction abilities and play styles are interesting, though as different they may be, they do not cause restriction in player’s deck. They all are applicable with rewarding combos and no penalty for having any of them.
I find the Authority cards kinda bit wonky, since both sides of the cards have different value (which understandable to save production cost) which sometimes give you the knack to make a mistake in distributing them. I made my own custom Authority tracker, by using a card and two small markers, easier to implement and remove the fiddly issue moving around the cards. The cards are perfectly fit the box, so if you decide to sleeve all the cards (make sense since it’s a deck building game), you will have to find a bigger box.

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Replay Value
At first, the game seemingly provides good deal of  replayability and combinations, but after several plays, you will realize that the combinations just lacking and seems not impressive enough from time to time. In the end the card combinations seemed set by default and player’s strategy is guessable. I do not say it’s not a good game. It is a good game, considering what it brings to the table for strictly 2 players (yes I haven’t try this with 4 players) under 30 minutes and plays very simple with small print and save space in the table. You can expand the game with more variations from the expansion packs but I still have not try them yet.

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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Board Games, Card Games, Reviews

 

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