Game Buzz: Trajan

On to ancient Rome and:

image by BGG user Bernd

Trajan was designed by Stefan Feld and released at Spiel 2011 by Ammonit Spiele.  It’s a 2-4 player game, meant for ages 12 and up and taking 90 minutes to play.  In the game, you’re trying to gain influence and power in ancient Rome.  It’s a theme that’s been done to death, but there are a couple of things that interest me here: first, Stafan Feld is on fire and almost always produces something worth looking at; second, the central mechanism is based on Mancala, the ancient pits and pebbles game.  Seems like an unusual combination.

Game Board - image by BGG user W Eric Martin

In the game, you get a board, plus four player mats showing your six trays for actions.  There are 60 little guys, 4 big guys (military leaders), and 8 discs, each divided into the four player colors.  Each player also gets an Arch of Trajan.  There are four sets of 12 octagonal markers – 2 yellow, 2 orange, 2 light green, 2 white, 2 pink, 2 blue – that go in your trays.  A time marker is used to mark elapsed playing time.  There are 60 commodity cards, consisting of 5 cards of 12 different commodities.  There are also a ton of tiles – 54 Trajan tiles, 70 Forum tiles, 12 extra action tiles, 20 construction tiles, 24 +2 markers, 15 demand tiles, 3 ship tiles, 12 bonus tiles, and 4 quarter year tiles.  Additionally, the game comes with a bag for drawing bonus tiles.

Player Board - image by BGG user Bernd

At the start of the game, each player places one disc on the start space of the senate track (in player order from the bottom up), and one disc on the VP track (order doesn’t matter).  Each player draws a bonus tile, and two more are drawn for the board.  The commodity cards are shuffled, and two cards are turned face up, one on either side of the deck to form two discard piles.  Each player draws three commodity cards.  You can take from any pile – when a discard pile is empty, fill it with a card from the draw pile.  Each player may also select three Trajan tiles of different categories and place them on spaces II, IV, and VI of their player mat.  Each tray on your player mat is filled with two octagonal markers of any color.

The game is played over the course of one year, divided into four quarter-years (seasons).  Each round lasts as long as three cycles of the time track (months), so there may be a different number of turns from round to round.  On your turn, you follow this sequence in order: rearrange action markers and move the time marker, perform Trajan tile action, and perform one action.

REARRANGE ACTION MARKERS: At the start of your turn, you must choose one tray on your mat and remove all action markers from there.  The time track is advanced as many spaces as markers were removed.  If it crosses the start space, the round ends after the current player’s turn ends.  After picking up your markers, you’ll drop one in each tray in a clockwise direction until you run out.  The target tray is the last tray that receives markers.

TRAJAN TILE: If there’s a Trajan tile next to your target tray, and colors in the tray match the colors on the tile, you’ll get to do the action.  These could let you draw new commodity cards, send workers to camps on the game board, gain a +2 token so you can take special actions twice, or help you meet demands at the end of the round.  Trajan tiles also have points associated with them (1-9 – the 9 has no special action).

PERFORM ONE ACTION: Depending on the target tray, you now may take one action.  Each tray has an action associated with it, so you’re really choosing the action when you rearrange your markers.  This is not mandatory – it could be that you were just going for the Trajan tile.  Here’s what’s available:

  • Seaport – Here, you have several choices.  You may draw two commodity cards from the face down pile, then discard one from your hand; you may draw the top card from either discard pile; play 1-2 cards in front of you in your personal display for possible VPs at the end of the game, refilling your hand from the face down pile; or ship commodities on one of the three ships for points.  Ships will give points for identical cards, pairs, or different cards.  The points change, depending on how many cards you commit and on which side is face up.  If the colored side is face up after you ship, flip it over (leave it if it was already gray).
  • Forum – Take a tile from the Forum and put it on your mat.  Senate tiles give you 2-5 votes; demand tiles are used to meet demands at the end of the round; extra actions will allow you to do the action you just did again; wilds will substitute for commodities, demands, construction, or extra actions, depending on the symbol.
  • Military – Again, you have several options: move one small player token from your personal supply to the military camp, where it becomes a legionnaire; move your leader to an adjacent province (your leader and one small player token start on the board); or move a legionnaire from the military camp to wherever your leader is as long as you don’t have legionnaires there yet.  This gives you points that are reduced by other player legionnaires on the space.
  • Trajan – Take the top Trajan tile from one of the six stacks and place it on the space currently occupied by your Trajan arch (it starts on I).  The arch then moves clockwise to the next empty space.  If there are no empty spaces, the arch goes to the center until a space opens up.
  • Senate – Advance your disc one space on the Senate track, sitting on top of any discs that are already there.  You’ll immediately gain the shown VPs, though you can’t go past 8.
  • Construction – Two options here: move a small player token to the worker camp, where it becomes a worker; or move your worker to a construction site.  Your first worker can go anywhere, though future workers must be adjacent.  If there’s a tile, you take it, place it one your mat, and gain the points and additional action.  You only get the action for the first tile of a type your collect.

If the time track reaches or crosses the first space, the player takes their full turn, but the round is over.  A demand tile is revealed and the game continues.  Once three demand tiles have been revealed, the quarter-year is over, and it’s time for a scoring.  Each player must spend one matching demand tile for each revealed.  You may use Trajan tiles that match demands without discarding them, but you can only use them once per season.  Not meeting one demand costs you four points; not meeting two costs you nine points; not meeting three costs you 15 points.  You’ll then check the balance of power in the Senate, adding up your votes on Senate tiles and your position on the track.  The winner takes one of the two bonus tiles; second place gets the other.  Ties are broken by the player higher up on the stack.  Finally, you remove all forum tiles used to meet demands, all Senate tiles (whether used or not), and all tiles from the forum.  Ships are flipped back to their colored side, the forum is refilled, and you begin a new quarter.

The game ends after the fourth quarter.  Scoring is as follows:

  • Commodity card in your hand = 1 VP
  • Each worker in camp = 1 VP
  • Each legionnaire in camp = 1 VP
  • A set of three construction tiles with an identical icon = 10 VP
  • A set of four construction tiles with an identical icon = 20 VP
  • Bonus tiles are worth…whatever.

The player with the most points wins.

Stefan Feld seems to have, once again, come up with a really unique game.  Upon hearing that the Mancala mechanic was used in this game, I didn’t really know how that would work.  But seeing it seems to make a lot of sense.  It really adds a new twist to action selection.  Having different colors of markers to match Trajan tiles, plus the number used affecting the time track, plus specific actions associated with each tray really adds a huge strategic layer to your choice.  Do you try to speed up or slow down the game?  Do you not care, really needing a specific action or wanting a specific Trajan tile?  Lots of options there.

I recently played Notre Dame again, which was the first Feld game I ever played.  That game had a similar feeling of choosing your actions to maximize your potential, but one of the things that has always stuck out to me was how clever the plague track was.  It seemed like such a small thing, but if you neglected the rats, you’d be in deep trouble.  The demands here similarly can be a big problem for you if you don’t pay attention to them.

In short, I’m looking forward to playing the game.  I hope a domestic publisher picks it up – it would work well at Rio Grande or Z-Man.  Thanks for reading!

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