Posted by: gschloesser | January 28, 2014


Design by:  Stefan Feld
Published by:  Ammonit Spiele
2 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 


NOTE:  This review was first published in Counter magazine

Trajan served as Emperor of Rome from 98 – 117 A.D.  He is best remembered for his extensive building campaign, which resulted in such famous landmarks as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column.  However, he also continued the expansion of the empire, conquering and annexing significant amounts of territory, including Armenia and Mesopotamia.  He is remembered to this day as one of Rome’s more virtuous rulers.

While the actual Trajan has a rich and intriguing history and legacy, the new board game named in his honor does precious little to recreate the mystique or accomplishments of this towering historical figure.  Indeed, the theme is veneer-thin, failing to evoke much if any feel of Trajan or the Roman Empire.    While this is nothing unusual for many European-style games, Trajan feels particularly bereft of atmosphere.

Let me be fair:  Trajan, designed by Stefan Feld and published by new game company Ammonit Spiele, does have some aspects of Trajan’s accomplishments present.  Players can send workers to construct new buildings and monuments, and send forth legions to conquer new territory.  These, however, are handled in such an abstract manner that they, as mentioned, fail to evoke any atmosphere. 

Considering what I’ve just said, it will likely come as a surprise to hear that I actually enjoy the game.  It is certainly very clever, giving players a wide variety of paths to pursue in their quest for victory.  But enough of the assessment for now – let’s take a look at the game itself.

The large board depicts several distinct areas wherein players will execute their actions.  The north depicts the provinces wherein players will send Trajan - boardtheir legions.  The remainder of the board depicts various areas within Rome, including the Forum, construction areas, docks and the Senate.  The time and victory point tracks complete the ensemble.

Each player receives a personal mat which depicts the action circle and has areas for their worker / legion tokens and collected tiles.  Players begin with fifteen tokens, twelve action markers (two each in six different colors), three Trajan tiles and a nifty miniature Arch of Trajan.  Since it plays a critical role in the game, it is important to describe and understand the action circle.

The circle has six trays, each one associated with a roman numeral located along the edge.  Trajan tiles will be placed onto these numerals during the course of the game.  In addition, each tray is associated with a specific action.  During the game, players will move action markers around the trays and take the corresponding actions.  To begin the game, two action markers are placed into each tray, and players draft three Trajan tiles from the six different types, placing them next to trays II, IV and VI.  Similarly, players draft three commodity cards and receive one bonus tile at random.  The game begins.

The first action of each turn is the most important, as it determines the other action(s) a player takes during the turn.  The active player chooses the action cubes in any of the six trays, and in a clockwise direction, places a cube from this group into each tray until he has placed all of the cubes.  The last tray that receives a cube is considered the active tray.  Before the player takes the actions associated with that tray, the time marker is moved a number of spaces equal to the number of cubes placed.

After moving the cubes and determining the active tray, the player first checks to see if he has fulfilled the requirements of the Trajan tile – if any – located next to the tray.  Each Trajan tile depicts two colors, and if the player has action cubes of those two colors located in the active tray, the requirements are met and the player gains the ability or power depicted on the tile.  There are six types of Trajan tiles and they give the player abilities such as drawing commodity cards, placing workers into the worker or legion camps, taking an extra action marker, gaining nine victory points or fulfilling a specific demand of the people.  Most tiles are discarded, but the “demand of the people” tiles are kept on the player mat, as they can be used each turn.

Next, the player executes the action associated with the active tray.  There are six actions:

1)      Take a Trajan tile.  The player takes one of the available Trajan tiles and places it on the space occupied by his Arch of Trajan.  The Arch is then moved to the next open space on the action wheel.  Trajan tiles are very important as not only do they earn the player victory points, but they often allow the player to perform more than the regular action associated with a particular tray.  Plus, the “demand of the people” tiles help meet the demands of those pesky citizens, thereby saving the player the loss of victory points.

2)      Place a worker.  The player either moves one of his tokens to the worker camp, or deploys a worker from the camp to the construction site.  There are twenty-four construction tiles displayed in a 4×6 grid.  There are six different types of construction projects, each giving the player two-to-five victory points.  Players also gain points for collecting sets of three-or-four identical tiles.  Further, they get to execute a special action for the first of each type of tile they collect.  Thus, there are ample incentives to collect these tiles.

However, players cannot simply take the tiles they desire.  The first worker they deploy can be placed on any space and the corresponding tile is taken.  However, future workers must be placed adjacent to a previously deployed worker.  This creates a sort of stepping-stone pattern, as players spread out across the grid in attempts to grab desired tiles before they can be scooped by their opponents.

3)      Seaport.  The player may take a new commodity card – either from the face-down deck or one of the face-up cards on the two discard piles.  Alternatively, the player may ship goods.  The three ships at the seaport depict the combination of like or different cards that can be shipped and the victory points they grant.  For example, shipping three identical commodities earns the player twelve victory points, while three different pairs of commodities earns the player fifteen points.  Cards remain in front of a player and will earn more victory points at the end of the game.  Once a player uses a particular ship to transport commodities, the ship counter is inverted, which reduces the number of victory points earned on future shipments.

4)      Forum.  The players take one of the eighteen forum tiles, placing it on their mat.  These tiles provide a variety of benefits.  Most are used to satisfy demands of the people (more on this later), while others serve as wild cards, give votes in the Senate, or give the player additional actions.

5)   Military.  The player may deploy a token to the military camp, move his leader to an adjacent territory (taking any tile present in that territory), or move one of his legions from the legion camp to the province occupied by his leader.  In this latter case, the player earns the victory points depicted in that province, less three points for each competing legion present.  

6)   Senate.  The player moves his marker up one space on the Senate track, earning the victory points depicted.  At the end of a year, the player with the most influence in the Senate chooses one of the two available bonus tiles.  Extra Senate votes are earned via certain forum and province tiles. 

As mentioned, each time a player takes an action, a marker is moved around the time track.  When it reaches or passes the starting location, one round is completed.  A demand tile is revealed, which indicates the demand of the people.  This could be bread, games or religion.  There is an equal assortment of each in the stack of demand tiles, but three are removed secretly at the beginning of the game so players cannot perfectly anticipate the remaining demand.  Players must attempt to meet these demands – of which there will be three per year – at the end of each year, which takes four rounds to complete.   It is important to attempt to satisfy these demands by collecting matching Trajan or forum tiles.  Failure to do so will result in victory points being lost – from four-to-fifteen points, depending upon the number of unmet demands.  This is significant.

After revealing a new demand tile, a new round is conducted in the same fashion as described above.  A year is completed after four rounds.  After each year, each player must satisfy the demands of the people, discarding any corresponding forum tiles used to meet those demands.  The player may keep the Trajan tiles used in this fashion, as they remain with him for the duration of the game.  The player with the most votes in the Senate, which includes the mandatory use of any senate forum tiles collected, chooses one of the two face-up bonus tiles.  The runner-up gets the second tile, but it is inverted, thereby reducing the number of victory points it potentially awards.  Certain areas of the board are reset – new tiles are placed in the forum and in unoccupied provinces, new bonus tiles are revealed – and the game continues.  This process continues for four full years, which is a total of sixteen rounds.  At this point, final victory points are earned and the winner is determined.  The entire game takes approximately two hours to play to completion.

At game’s end, players receive additional victory points for commodity cards (1 VP each), tokens in the worker and military camps (1 VP each), sets of construction tiles bonus tiles (10 or 20 points for sets of three or four, respectively) and bonus tiles.  These bonus tiles generally grant points for the possession of specific commodities, workers in the construction fields or legions in the provinces, or the possession of other bonus tiles.  Points here can be quite significant, so players should attempt to gather these tiles and fulfill their requirements.

Let me emphatically state that Stefan Feld is an extremely creative designer.  He is known for designing and injecting clever mechanisms into his games.  The action circle mechanism is a creative re-booting of the rondel wheel found in other games.  This new twist feels radically different and fresh.  It has a puzzle-like quality and a strong feel of the classic game Mancala.  It is quite the challenge to arrange and rearrange the action cubes in order to be able to execute the actions you desire and fulfill the requirements of the Trajan tiles you acquire.  This puzzle aspect is quite challenging and rewarding, but often frustrating.  If one doesn’t get the knack of properly and optimally moving and arranging the cubes, he will have a very tough time performing well in the overall game.

That being said, the mechanism seems out of place here.  It seems, well, artificial.  While it is unquestionably clever, it bears no relation to the remainder of the game, particularly the theme.  Just what are those action cubes?  Why are certain combinations required in order to fulfill the requirements of a Trajan tile?  Simply making the cubes represent specific resources would have helped a bit.  Even then, however, the constant rotation of the cubes around the wheel (what the heck does that represent?) is starkly out of place in this setting.

I do enjoy the time mechanism, wherein the marker moves around the time track based on the number of action cubes players move on their turn.  This causes the length of each round to vary, and does give players some control over the duration.  The only drawback is that it is quite possible – and indeed likely – that players will not all have an equal number of turns.  That is troubling.

For the European-style game aficionado, there is much to like here.  There are numerous mechanisms, an abundance of tough choices to make, and a wide variety of ways in which to earn victory points.  Luck is present, but only in small amounts.  There are definite strategies to pursue, and it would take many games to investigate all of the possibilities.  All of these are trademarks of a fine European-style game.

Sadly, there may be too much going on.  There are so many aspects to the game that it just seems, well, too many.  The myriad of mechanisms just do not blend together well.  More than one person with whom I have played have commented upon this and found it a hindrance to fully grasping and enjoying the game.

The biggest drawback for me, however, is the almost complete disconnection between the mechanisms and the theme.  As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the mechanisms and actions bear little or no relation to the theme.  One really never gets the feel that they are in Rome or are doing anything remotely Roman.  For such a rich subject matter, one would hope the game would evoke a more suitable atmosphere.  Sadly, it fails to accomplish this, even remotely.  The game feels like a collection of mechanisms onto which a theme has been thinly pasted.  Yes, this has been said about many a European game, but is seems much more pronounced here.  For some reason, I have found myself having great difficulty getting past this situation.  I don’t mean this to be completely damning, however, as I do enjoy the game and find it quite challenging.  I also greatly appreciate the clever design.  For those willing and able to look past the virtually absent theme and appreciate the combination of mechanisms and the challenges they present, you will find Trajan to be quite intriguing.

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