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Subject: Trajan - Innovative and Interesting rss

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GeekInsight
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Unfortunately, the titular emperor does not appear in Trajan. Instead the game is theoretically a simple worker placement and action management game. There are few resources to concern players and only six actions. On top of this familiar structure, Trajan layers a mancala style action selection system. The interplay between these two games provides a deep and enjoyable experience.

The Basics. The game has six actions: Shipping, Conquering, Building, Senate, Forum, and Trajan. But a desired action may not simply be selected at will, instead each player is given a player board with pictures of each action arranged in a circle. Each picture has a bowl next to it and the game begins with two cylinders in each bowl. On a turn, the player picks up the cylinders in a bowl and, moving clockwise, drops one in each bowl along the way. The player can perform the action of whatever bowl gets the last cylinder.

In the beginning, players can select any action, but as the cylinders begin to pile up in different quantities, it can be increasingly challenging to take the action you prefer. It can be even tougher to plan it out so that you can take the next two or three actions in the order that you would like.

Add to this that the game takes place over four years, with each year having four seasons. A cylinder is moved along a time track, and it is moved based on how many cylinders the player just moved. In this way, players have some control over when each round ends. With the end of each season, the peoples’ demands are revealed. They can demand bread, religion, or entertainment. At the end of the final season, the players must meet the demands from the three previous seasons or face penalties.

Also at the end of each year, bonus tiles are handed out. Each tile has a gold “good” side and a silver “thanks for playing” side. The silver side is worth less bonus points at game end. The bonuses are given to the players with the most votes in the Senate. The leading player gets the first choice. The second player gets the second bonus, but not its good effect.

The game ends after four years, and the player with the most victory points winning.

The Feel. Trajan is one of those rare games that I simply cannot get enough of. In my very first play, I came dead last, and not by a small margin. But I fell deeply in love with the game. The mancala/rondel aspect takes some getting used to; it’s very dissimilar from just about every other game. And, whereas the scoring encourages you to repeatedly take the same actions, the mancala/rondel encourages (sometimes forces) you to choose other actions, especially laden with Trajan tiles. Managing this tension is a big portion of the game.

One key to victory is getting to take a single action multiple times in a row. In fact, players can pick up extra actions in the forum. If you get an extra Senate, for example, the next time you take a Senate action you can spend your extra action tile to immediately take another Senate action. Getting multiple actions is a key method for achieving just about any strategy.

And then there are the Trajan tiles. The Trajan action allows you to take a Trajan tile and place it on your board. Each tile gives you a number of points, and most also provide some utility during the game. Some make your bonus actions more effective, others allow you to add workers to the builder or legionnaire pools so that your next moves there will be more effective. Trajan tiles are added to your personal board next to one of the six actions.

Each Trajan tile also shows two colors in the corners. To trigger the Trajan and get the benefit, the player must take the action associated with the Trajan tile. When the action is taken, both colors of cylinders should be present in that action’s bowl. If those two requirements are met, the Trajan is completed and the player gains the benefit. The Trajan tiles are a great way to not only get points, but to make other actions more effective. In a game without money or goods (mostly), this is essentially the way to improve your “economy” during the game.

I continue to be enamored by the interaction between the scoring opportunities on the board and the individual mancala style action selection. It’s a fantastic example of game design. Plus, it does a great job of providing multiple paths to victory. For example, the Shipping action would appear, at first blush, to be the weakest. But in one game, everyone at the table was trounced by the player using a strong Shipping strategy.

There is a lot of competition between the players as well. There is often a scramble to get tiles from the forum, the builder, or the legionnaire areas before your opponents. While it is all indirect competition, it can be fearsome.

Components: 4 of 5. The game has excellent pieces. All the chits are on thick cardboard stock and ready to move. The cylinders necessary for the mancala portion are all wooden bits. Players even get a large monument to mark where the next Trajan tile will be placed on their board. All in all, there is nothing disappointing on this front.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Trajan is almost entirely a strategy game. Mostly, the game uses randomness in terms of forum offerings, peoples’ demands, and builder setup. But since those impact all players equally, it’s not really a luck issue. However, when it comes to Shipping and card draws, there is the potential for some luck impact. Similarly, the bonus tiles are drawn at random, and some might be more valuable later or earlier in the game. That said, Trajan is a game of strategy first.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. When I first heard that the game used mancala to determine actions, I was very skeptical. But the Trajan actually works wonderfully. It creates an interesting puzzle element that is not only satisfying to manipulate, but also encourages long term planning and thinking. Simultaneously, the need to get items before your opponents do encourages you to act quickly at the cost of your mancala engine. There are so many delightful tensions that really bring this game to life.

Replayability: 3 of 5. Trajan’s learning curve can be a little steep, which gives it some artificial replayability. There are several randomized elements to setup – including the building area, the legionnaire resources, and the forum. But beyond that, there are multiple strategies that are effective and worth attempting. The main worry is that, with no direct interaction between the players, it may be easy to get stuck in a rut of trying the same thing out every time. That could make Trajan feel stale and shorten its lifespan.

Spite: 1 of 5. The competition is largely indirect and there are no “take that” elements in the game. The only opportunities for spite are in taking forum or bonus tiles that would help your opponents more than you.

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Trajan is one of the more clever euro games I’ve played in some time. The use of the mancala/rondel is inspired and wonderful to manipulate during the game. Either aspect of the game (board or mancala) would be pretty dull on its own. But with both of them together, Trajan is alive with interesting gameplay. I just hope it doesn’t burn out as quickly as I suspect.

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot)

(For all my reviews, check out the GeekList)
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Bryan Thunkd
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Overall a good review. Just a few quibbles.

MyParadox wrote:
One key to victory is getting to take a single action multiple times in a row. In fact, players can pick up extra actions in the forum. If you get an extra Senate, for example, the next time you take a Senate action you can spend your extra action tile to immediately take another Senate action. Getting multiple actions is a key method for achieving just about any strategy.


Taking a single action multiple times in a row isn't necessarily a key to victory. In general you don't need to take the same action multiple time to benefit from it. Even in the senate, where the votes increase in victory points as you score, as long as you get the actions in the same quarter, you still reap the full benefits. The great thing about the extra action tiles is that they give you extra actions, not necessarily that they all come in a row. If they gave you three different actions they'd still be as powerful. That being said, there are very definitely specific moments where being able to take the same action multiple times via the extra action tiles lets you win a particular race to claim a certain province, build a certain building, claim a forum tile, etc, but I still think the main advantage is getting more actions, rather than the timing being all in a row. If for example we made a deal where you could take the same action four times in a row and I got to have four extra actions anytime during the game, but they couldn't come in a row, I'd prefer the latter.



MyParadox wrote:
Spite: 1 of 5. The competition is largely indirect and there are no “take that” elements in the game. The only opportunities for spite are in taking forum or bonus tiles that would help your opponents more than you.


Only? How about racing them to win the senate vote? Or claiming a province they wanted (especially when you use the +2 extra action to steal a march on them and slip into the high vp province). Or shipping goods before them, which flips the shipping token and makes subsequent shipments generate fewer vp (particularly effective in the fourth stage of the game). Or taking a juicy Trajan tile that just became available. Or building a building before them, cutting off their easy expansion. Hey, whaddayaknow, you can actually compete in every type of action (albeit some more indirectly than others)
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The Dave
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One more comment about spite...

The Wife absolutely abhors watching me stockpile markers in one bowl because she knows KNOWS that I will choose that bowl and end the quarter at the most inopportune time for her, usually the turn before she would get the required tiles to meet demands or senate votes to take first place in the senate.

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GeekInsight
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You're absolutely right about the extra actions. Maybe I was inarticulate, but I meant that getting to do the extra actions one right after another (without other players getting a chance to intervene) is one key towards victory.

When I measure Spite, it's a measure of back-stabby "take that"-ness. It's also a measure of how much the game focuses on you doing things that hurt others rather than things that help you. So Munchkin would have a high Spite. Diplomacy would have high spite.

In Trajan, all of the competition is indirect. And while sometimes you can nab a quick tile (a favorite is to nab the extra forum action from the forum and use it immediately to get another forum tile), mostly it's just a rush for shared resources. There are no "take that" elements or cards that give minus points. Is spite absent? Absolutely not. There are some good moves here or there, but it is by no means the focus of the game. 1 of 5.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
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Bryan Thunkd
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MyParadox wrote:
You're absolutely right about the extra actions. Maybe I was inarticulate, but I meant that getting to do the extra actions one right after another (without other players getting a chance to intervene) is one key towards victory.


Again, I don't care if the opponents intervene in between actions. As long as I end up getting more actions, I don't care about the timing so much. It's getting to do more things that makes more of a difference than the fact that they come in any particular order or in a row (although it can be great when they do, for previously mentioned reasons).


MyParadox wrote:
In Trajan, all of the competition is indirect.

Are racing for the senate win and taking provinces indirect competition? Racing to build certain buildings first, or take certain forum tiles first don't really feel all that indirect either. Sure you can't attack each other in this game, but you there are many situations where you both want the same thing and it's a question of who gets it first. You're pretty directly competing for those things.



MyParadox wrote:
And while sometimes you can nab a quick tile (a favorite is to nab the extra forum action from the forum and use it immediately to get another forum tile)

Unless you have the +2 modifier, that isn't really achieving a whole lot.

MyParadox wrote:
mostly it's just a rush for shared resources. There are no "take that" elements or cards that give minus points.

You are correct, you cannot attack another player or directly move their score backwards.
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GeekInsight
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Thunkd wrote:
MyParadox wrote:
In Trajan, all of the competition is indirect.

Are racing for the senate win and taking provinces indirect competition? Racing to build certain buildings first, or take certain forum tiles first don't really feel all that indirect either. Sure you can't attack each other in this game, but you there are many situations where you both want the same thing and it's a question of who gets it first. You're pretty directly competing for those things.


I think this is just a semantic dispute. Direct competition means that I can actually tear my opponent down. Indirect competition is where my opponent and I are merely racing for the same resources. Direct competition example: Chaos in the Old World (or any area control game, really). Indirect competition example: Dominion without attack cards in the setup (just a race for provinces).

Maybe I should rephrase it as indirect interaction?

Thunkd wrote:
MyParadox wrote:
And while sometimes you can nab a quick tile (a favorite is to nab the extra forum action from the forum and use it immediately to get another forum tile)

Unless you have the +2 modifier, that isn't really achieving a whole lot.


Correct. That's what I mean by "spite." Spite is where you harm someone else even where it doesn't get you much. So, taking that forum tile essentially deprives it from everyone else without doing much for you.

Spite moves are limited, though not absent, in Trajan.
 
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boardgamemuse
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A truly outstanding game. Hypnotic and therapeutic even.

Thanks for the review laugh
 
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Loren Cadelinia
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Thunkd wrote:
MyParadox wrote:
You're absolutely right about the extra actions. Maybe I was inarticulate, but I meant that getting to do the extra actions one right after another (without other players getting a chance to intervene) is one key towards victory.


Again, I don't care if the opponents intervene in between actions. As long as I end up getting more actions, I don't care about the timing so much. It's getting to do more things that makes more of a difference than the fact that they come in any particular order or in a row (although it can be great when they do, for previously mentioned reasons).


I understand what you're saying, more actions is like more workers in a classic WP game, whoever has more actions will have an advantage.

I think there is much merit of how the OP had described it. The crux of the game (for me at least) is stringing together those actions for those huge point turns. The player who strings together the actions that best take advantage of the current gamestate tends to win, and hypothetically, would win over those who have an equal number of actions (not as opportunistic or strategically planned) or maybe even a player who has more total actions.

From a strategic standpoint and from just overall satisfaction in playing the game, stringing together actions in a row (without other player intervention) is the key to victory. That is being able to snake your way in the construction and complete the sets you want, leapfrogging a military leader or two and planting your legionaire for 10 VP, grabbing your shipping needs and flipping 2 ships to the gray side, using a +2 action in the forum and grabbing everything good, etc.
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Bryan Thunkd
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dyepbr wrote:
The player who strings together the actions that best take advantage of the current gamestate tends to win, and hypothetically, would win over those who have an equal number of actions (not as opportunistic or strategically planned) or maybe even a player who has more total actions.

I'd agree that using your actions better, given that you have the same number of actions, should result in a win. And sometimes it may be better than having more actions. In general though, having more actions is going to end up being better. But by all means, get more actions and use them better.

dyepbr wrote:
stringing together actions in a row (without other player intervention) is the key to victory. That is being able to snake your way in the construction and complete the sets you want, leapfrogging a military leader or two and planting your legionaire for 10 VP, grabbing your shipping needs and flipping 2 ships to the gray side, using a +2 action in the forum and grabbing everything good, etc.

I agree those are great moves. But I'm not convinced that being able to do the same thing three times in a row is the "key to victory". Certainly there are times when it is great. But if there were a way in the game to take the bonus actions of different types, I think it'd be just as powerful. Imagine being able to steal a forum tile, take a province and win the senate all in one move. I think the "key" here is getting the extra actions. Obviously there are times when being able to do the same thing three times in a row is huge, but there are other times when you aren't really in competition for that action where it's not critical. But it's always better to get more actions.
 
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Loren Cadelinia
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Thunkd wrote:
dyepbr wrote:
The player who strings together the actions that best take advantage of the current gamestate tends to win, and hypothetically, would win over those who have an equal number of actions (not as opportunistic or strategically planned) or maybe even a player who has more total actions.

I'd agree that using your actions better, given that you have the same number of actions, should result in a win. And sometimes it may be better than having more actions. In general though, having more actions is going to end up being better. But by all means, get more actions and use them better.

dyepbr wrote:
stringing together actions in a row (without other player intervention) is the key to victory. That is being able to snake your way in the construction and complete the sets you want, leapfrogging a military leader or two and planting your legionaire for 10 VP, grabbing your shipping needs and flipping 2 ships to the gray side, using a +2 action in the forum and grabbing everything good, etc.

I agree those are great moves. But I'm not convinced that being able to do the same thing three times in a row is the "key to victory". Certainly there are times when it is great. But if there were a way in the game to take the bonus actions of different types, I think it'd be just as powerful. Imagine being able to steal a forum tile, take a province and win the senate all in one move. I think the "key" here is getting the extra actions. Obviously there are times when being able to do the same thing three times in a row is huge, but there are other times when you aren't really in competition for that action where it's not critical. But it's always better to get more actions.


I agree with you regarding the 3 same actions vs 3 different actions. I think the emphasis is in the "in a row". In your example, the specific forum tile and the specific province, for example, may not be available had those 3 actions been separated by other players actions. The fact that you get to do those things in a row ensures you accomplish everything from the 1st action to the last. Timing when to pull the trigger on your "big" turn, including monitoring other players mancala, is what makes one turn score more points than the others.
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