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.
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.
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.
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.
Detail of Actions
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.