Posted by: pschuck | October 29, 2011

Thoughts on Trajan

Trajan is a semi-worker placement game that received a lot of hype during Essen.  It has a unique mechanism for choosing actions, a mancala type rondel.  Instead of stones, they have 12 barrels (6 colors, 2 of each) that you pick up and distribute in clockwise fashion around a 6 “cup” circular mancala (I use the word cup because I have no idea what you call the indentions that the stones are usually placed in and this is a board so it’s only a picture of an indention).  Each cup has an adjacent action and the cup in which the last barrel was placed is your action for that turn.  Thus, depending on your skill with mancala, it’s difficult to repeat the same action with a high frequency.  The mechanism is unique and it’s a theoretically clever way to encourage people to use a more balanced strategy, but it distracts from the theme and for me, trumps the strategy of the game.  Changing the title from Trajan to “Mancala on Steriods” would be more descriptive of how the game is played.

When I finish playing a strategy game, I want to glimpse the strategy design space.  I want to see actions in which I played suboptimally.  I want to have ideas flowing in my head on how I could have done things better.  This propels me to want to play the game again and again.  With each subsequent play, I’m slowly exploring the strategy design space and improve my play.  That is what I like most about strategy games.  If I don’t get that feeling at the end of the game or I don’t see a different pathway that I could have taken that would have had a significant change in how the game was played, I’m left unfulfilled and I don’t have a desire to play again because I feel that I’ve already enjoyed everything the game has to offer.  Unfortunately, that’s how I felt at the end of Trajan.

Stephan Feld designed the game, and I really like his game of Luna.  Trajan did receive a lot of hype, so maybe this game does have some potential.  For those unfamiliar with the rules and the game, I’ll briefly review.

The game is played in 4 years and each year has 4 seasons.  At the end of each year and season there are ways in which the board is updated.  After each year you have to meet the needs of the people with three randomly selected goods (fire, bread, or armor) that are revealed after each season.  Failure to meet these needs is minus victory points.  During a player’s turn he does the mancala action to pick his desired cup.  If a trajan tile is on the outside of the cup and the 2 color requirements are fulfilled (this is where the 6 different barrel colors come into play), then the players uses the tile for a one-shot bonus.  One group of the trajan tiles provides a permanent “need of the people” bonus.  Then, you perform the action associated with the cup.  Then, if you have an extra action tile for the action you just performed, you can do the action again.  If you also have an ‘x2’ tile for that action, you get to take the extra action twice.  That’s the mechanics of the game.

The meat of the game is in the actions.  The 6 actions are 1) Shipping, 2) Construction, 3) Legion (military), 4) Senate, 5) Forum, and 6) Get an trajan tile.  Shipping, construction, and Legion while different, are effectively the same for getting victory points.  The more times you perform this action, the more VPs you should theoretically get.  The senate gives pure VP; the VP increasing each time its performed during the year.  It also provides votes in which you can win important end game bonus tiles.  In the forum, you select “people’s needs”, extra action, wildcards, and senate vote tiles.  These 20 tiles are replaced each year.  The trajan action lets you place tiles around your mancala board and when the trajan tiles are fulfilled they give VP and one shot bonuses for shipping, legion, construction, or an ‘x2’ tile, plus the permanent “people’s needs” tiles.

So what’s the best strategy?  There’s very little engine building in this game  Only the permanent “people’s needs”  and ‘x2’ tile make later actions more effective.  So it’s really boils down to spending as much time as possible in the shipping, construction, and legion actions while balancing actions in the forum to get tiles to meet the “people’s needs” and going to the senate to get the end game bonus tiles for your particular strategy.  The wildcard is the trajan action.  I think I had around 40 mancala actions during the game, but I only completed 7-8 trajan tiles.  There’s probably a way to increase the completion percentage.  The more trajan tiles that you complete that supplement your strategy, the better off you’re going to be.  In fact, I think that is the main strategy such that when people are familiar with the game, the winner will be the best mancala player.

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Responses

  1. I played Trajan last night. It is extremely complex, and I felt it was complex just for the sake of being complex. The mancala-like rondel must be figured out just to play the actions you want in the actual game. Actually I found playing with the rondel more fun than the resource collection and worker placement aspects. Theme is absolutely meaningless in this game unfortunately. This game needed some more pruning. I had fun playing, though. I rate it 6/10.

  2. I played in the game with Zach and had similar feelings. I liked the mancala rondel but I had a lot of analysis paralysis trying to see 2 or 3 moves ahead with the multi colored barrels. I did not pick up many Trajan tiles and felt like that would be one way to improve my score next time. I rated it a 7 but think that could go either way with another play.

    • I played a second time at BGG.CON. It was much easier to see the consequences of moving the barrels the second game. I still lost but felt like I had more control. (7/10)


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