Dontcha hate it when someone is legitimately excellent at something you suck at? Along they come, smug as you like, effectively rubbing your nose in your own squalid failings as they make apparently no effort to sketch a drawing, prepare a three course meal or play Agricola. And while your sweaty, sweary and fumbling exertions will result in indistinct smudges, inedible lumps of something, negative points, or any other outcome that would shame a baboon composed entirely of thumbs, this sainted paragon will churn out masterpiece after masterpiece while stifling a gentle yawn. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but just imagine what it must have been like to be a Roman emperor. It can’t have been easy not marrying close relatives and not letting cities burn to the ground. But how much harder to live with these transgressions in relative temporal proximity of the man who completed extensive public building projects, saw the empire to its largest geographical area, instituted progressive social reforms and, most impressively, did it all without pissing anyone off – well, except for maybe the newly conquered peoples?
Still. Bloody Trajan!
Trajan is a game from the labyrinthine mind of designer Stefan Feld, who also sired Castles of Burgundy, amongst others, into an unready world. Like many of his oeuvre the connection between the actual gameplay and the goodest of good emperors is perhaps tenuous, but you don’t buy a box of this many pastel wooden bits for a gung-ho weapon wielding imperial simulation, you buy it for the chance to experience the interlocking mechanics brought forth from the designers brain, and, given time, hone or even perfect your use of them.
If you are unfamiliar with this particular designer, it is perhaps worth noting that he is somewhat known for tying deceptively simple options together into a seething morass of strategic and tactical possibilities to allow the player the possibility of building up devastatingly effective combo-turns with massive point scoring potential. Also worth noting is that these games often have an unconventional or innovative driving mechanism to determine the options that become available every turn. With this in mind it is possible to regard Trajan as Stefan Feld’s logical conclusion.
Enough pontificating (although I hear there’s an opening just now), come along, let’s have a look at the damn thing shall we? The aforementioned unusual or innovative driving mechanism here is a mancala wheel of six ‘bowls’ each containing two coloured wooden markers at the start of the game. Each player’s turn involves taking all the markers in one bowl and dropping them off again, one at a time, in the next clockwise-adjacent bowl. The placing of the last marker allows one to take the action associated with said bowl. Simple. Until of course you somehow manage to end up with all twelve markers in the same place…
The available actions, though it would be perhaps more accurate to call them mini-games in their own right are:
- Shipping, which involves trading and stockpiling goods from a deck of cards.
- Building, which allows you to collect sets of monuments and take free actions, provided you have enough builders. You can also hire builders.
- Forum, where tiles supplying the needs of the populace, senate votes, extra turns and other such goodies can be acquired.
- Senate, this gives you some raw pointage as well as giving you a chance at first choice of bonus tiles at given intervals.
- Conquest lets you hire soldiers, move generals to get more of those lovely forum tiles, and then send armies to join the generals for more points.
- Finally the Trajan action gives you a chance to take a different kind of tile from the board that confers a permanent advantage when achieved (as well as more points). These are added to the mancala wheel until you land on the adjacent bowl and that bowl contains markers of the two colours printed on the tile.
There is one further function of the wheel… at the start of the game you’ll have no choice but to move only two markers, but as the game progresses and they pile up like some terrible motorway accident, you’ll have to move bigger and bigger handfuls of them, but for each and every one you move the game’s timer ticks along to one of the intervals where you must meet the needs of the people and, ultimately, the the game’s end.
The nice thing about Trajan is pretty much whatever you do will score you points one way or another. It feels lovely to score so freely, at least until you take a glance at your opponents’ score markers and wonder how the hell they got so far ahead…
The game rewards the ability to walk the fine line between identifying and executing viable long term strategy and being flexible enough to react to the times when said strategy is stymied by your opponents actions or, more often, the current configuration of your mancala. Indeed it is to this engine of empire we must turn to find the anima of this game. If you have the mathematical and prognosticatory ability to manage it in such a way as to ensure your desired options will always be available, well, then I doubt your humanity frankly. But it is the ability to at least bend it to your will for a turn or three in a row that will grant great rewards and leave other players agog at your skill. It’s these moments where you feel like Michael Fassbender’s character in a film I’m pretending was never made, manipulating esoteric alien control systems made of coloured blobs and effortlessly subjugating them to serve your desires. Pass the flute thingy.
There is also a pleasing immediacy to the effects of your actions on the board itself, as your legionaries sweep across Europe, your builders complete city districts, and your merchants exhaust trade routes leaving them less valuable to other players. There is satisfaction in using an engine of chaos to bring the order and glory of Rome to the map laid out before you. It is almost the opposite sensation to the one engendered by Burgundy, rather than building a little fiefdom in front of you by draining the central area of resources, you are using your own arcane device to change the world. A loudhailer rather than an ear-trumpet. Of course those are basically the same thing from a different angle.
Which is kind of my final point. Having heartily recommended Castles of Burgundy, can I suggest you need Trajan too? I think I can, albeit with a proviso or two. There is enough difference between the two, and especially between the two driving mechanisms, that Trajan is certainly worth a look. Rather than making the best of fate as you do with Burgundy’s dice, in Trajan, to quote a woman who knew what she was talking about, there’s no fate but what you make. All your markers only allowing you to reach the one target bowl? Shoulda diversified earlier. Not enough time left to accomplish your goals? Shouldn’t have been moving so many markers. And so on. Trajan also excels in one area that even the most doting Burgundy lovers (myself among them) will concede is lacking from that game. It looks gorgeous. The forced perspective map from an Italian POV is truly lovely to behold.
However… if you merely like Castles of Burgundy or Macao or any other Feld game (or, for that matter, find them soulless and inscrutable pieces of work) then I doubt very much Trajan is going to be the game that changes your mind about the man and may not be something you want to spend your hard-earned cash and time on when other options are available. In my case though, when it comes to depth, ingenuity, multiple paths to victory and clever new ways of using old components, Trajan is fast becoming one of my favourite games, and Stefan Feld one of my favourite designers. The swine just makes it all seem so…effortless.
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