Review – Trajan from Ammonit Spiele
Designer: Stefan Feld
Graphic Design & Illustration: Jo Hartwig
Thanks to Coiled Spring Games who provided a review copy of this game.
Special Thanks to the ace Tony Bellringer for providing this review!
Ancient Rome. Has this been gamed to death? Or is it still very ripe for new gaming approaches? Well respected board game designer takes a crack at it with his game Trajan.
From Boardgamegeek –
Set in ancient Rome, Trajan is a development game in which players try to increase their influence and power in various areas of Roman life such as political influence, trading, military dominion and other important parts of Roman culture.
OK, we have a main board, individual player mats, various wooden pieces for each player (including a nice little Arch of Trajan, of course!), a deck of cards, and lots of chits of various shapes and sizes – the latter comparable to the amount of chits you’d find in ‘old skool’ hex and counter wargames! All looks very nicely produced, with some basic, but clear and good standard artwork and iconography on the board, cards and chits. The one down side I found is that with so many bits serving different functions in the game, it takes a fair old time to set up. It might have been me, but I wasn’t clear what the six categories were that you use to make the piles of square chits on the Trajan Arch section of the main board, but I finally worked out they are: 1) pure VPs; 2) draw two commodity cards; 3) recruit troops (green circle); 4) recruit workers (orange circle); 5) popular satisfaction (bread/games/religion); and 6) gain +2 marker. Once done, you should look something like this:
Oops, a few mistakes in my main board layout picture above: 1) should have one of the small meeples from each player in the orange circle in the centre of the board; 2) the ‘tombstone’ shaped chits at the bottom right should all be in the supplied draw bag apart from the two already laid out on the board; and 3) the green circle chits at bottom right should all be face down at this point. Sorry – my bad!
Timing and the Mancala move. The timing of the game is broken down into four ‘quarters’, each of which will itself consist of four ’rounds’ of a time track. The time tracks are on the bottom of the main board, and length will vary with the number of players. On a player’s turn they first make a ‘Mancala’ move, using the ‘tray and dish’ array on their player mat: choose a dish with at least one coloured piece in it, pick up all the pieces in it, then move round the dishes clockwise from there, placing one of those action pieces in each dish until you run out. The number of action pieces you pick up from a dish determines the number of spaces the time marker moves on the main board time track. Once the time marker reaches the start position again (the arrow), that denotes the end of one ’round’, and one of the popular demand markers (green circular chits) is turned face up (more on those later). At the end of every fourth round, instead of turning over a popular demand marker, you turn up the next sequential roman numeral marker (I through IV) to show you’re moving into the next ‘quarter’.
Trajan tile bonus? On your Mancala tray, look at the last dish you placed an action piece in during your redistribution (the ‘target dish’). The first thing to look at is if there is a ‘Trajan tile’ on the outside of that dish. If there is, and if any two of the coloured action pieces now in that dish match the two marked on that tile, you get the benefit of that tile: all give you VPs; and all but one type (pure VPs) also give you an additional benefit. All Trajan tiles are one-shot and go out of the game once used, except the popular demand type, which are placed on the matching spot at the upper left of your player mat for ongoing effect (the +2 tiles are swapped for a +2 chit which is then attached for the rest of the game to an action type of your choice at the bottom left of your player mat).
The main order of business. Now, look at the small hex on the inside of that dish. This indicates the basic action you can now take on the main board, as denoted by the icon on the hex (helpfully replicated on the main board), as follows:
- Pillars. Go to the forum section of the main board, and take any of the square chits remaining there. Yellow-backed ones are always ‘extra action’ tokens – they go on the matching space at lower left of your player mat. Green-backed ones are sometimes also extra action tokens, but could also be: green popular satisfaction tokens (place on matching space at upper left of your player mat); purple vote tokens (place at lower right of your player mat); or ‘wild’ tokens (place these at middle left of your player mat, and use as a one-shot whenever you like as any icon within the ‘type’ of that colour, e.g. a green wild can’t be used as an icon from the commodity cards, but can be any of the three icons in the popular satisfaction type)
- Legionnaire helmet. Either: a) raise a legion by recruiting a meeple from your player mat to the military camp (green circle) on the main board; or b) move your legion commander (big meeple) from his current location to a neighbouring province, and get any chit that is currently in that province; or c) move one of your legions from the military camp to the current location of your legion commander (no more than one of your legions in any province), scoring the VP value of that province (3 less VPs if another player already has a legion there).
- Trajan Arch. Take any of the six Trajan tiles currently on top of the stacks in the Trajan Arch section of the board, and place in the free space on your player mat currently occupied by the Trajan Arch marker, then move the marker clockwise to the next free space.
- Fasces. Secure support in the Senate, by moving your marker from its current location in the Senate section of the board one space to the right, and gain VP value of the new space. If another player’s marker is already there, make sure yours goes on top of theirs, as this could make the difference in the Senate vote (see later).
- Hammer. Either: a) recruit a work gang, by moving a meeple from your player mat to the worker camp (orange circle) on the main board; or b) send one of your work gangs on a job, by moving it to a space in the worker section of the board, taking any chit there and placing it on the far left of your player mat. For the first building chit of each of the five types you collect, you also get a free action (which action is denoted by the little hex on that building icon space on your player mat). The first work gang deployed can be placed anywhere, but all subsequent ones must be placed orthoganally adjacent to one of your own meeples. You can go into a space already occupied by another player’s work gang, but obviously there will be no chit left to take from there (you might still do this to get to a prized chit by the most direct route).
- Ship. Either: a) Draw two commodity cards into your hand from the face-down pile and then discard any card from your hand; or b) take the top face-up card from one of the two discard piles; or c) play one or two cards from their hand face up to the table in front of them (potential VPs at game end) and draw that number of cards into their hand from the face-down pile; or d) ship commodities by discarding cards in the right combination to match the requirements on one of the ship pieces on the board (i.e. between one and four identical or unique individual cards or pairs, depending on the ship), receive the corresponding VP value, then if the scored ship is colour side up, flip it to the grey side (same requirements but less VP reward).
Extra actions! Whenever you take one of these six basic actions, if you have an ‘extra action’ chit of the same type on your player mat, you can discard it to take an extra action of the same type immediately. Even better, if you have a ‘+2’ marker (gained from the Trajan tiles) attached to that action type on your player mat, you can take a further extra action (the basic extra action tile is discarded, but the +2 stays – you can’t use the +2 until you have the trigger of the basic extra action tile of the right type).
End of a quarter. At the end of each fourth round of the action track, instead of revealing another popular demand token, every player has to meet the three demands already revealed so far in this quarter. Check the upper left of your board for popular satisfaction markers that match the demand (both one-shot square chits and permanent Trajan tiles). For each demand token revealed you must have a matching satisfaction icon on your player mat (NB: you must pay on a 1 for 1 basis, e.g. you can’t use one bread satisfaction icon to match two revealed bread demand tokens). Fail to fully meet the demands of the plebs, and you lose VPs: -4 for missing one, -9 for missing two, and -15 (ouch) for missing all three! There is then a Senate vote: each player adds up the votes they have in the Senate, i.e. the number they have reached on the Senate track, plus any bonus votes on the bottom right of their player mat. Ties are broken in favour of the person highest up the Senate track, and if this is the same, then in favour of the player whose piece is above the other in the stack. The winner of the Senate vote gets to choose one of the two revealed ‘tombstone’ markers, which provide for VP scoring at the end of the game, based on meeting certain objectives. The runner-up takes the left-over ‘tombstone’ marker, but crucially flipped onto its grey side (same objective, but less VP reward). There is then some housekeeping with leftover and used Senate voting and forum chits removed, new chits placed in completely empty provinces and the forum, new bonus ‘tombstone’ tiles placed in the Senate, and all ship tiles turned back to their coloured side.
End of the game. At the very end of the fourth quarter, there is an ‘end of quarter’ meeting of the peoples’ demands and Senate vote, then there is an end game scoring, with 1 extra VP awarded for each: commodity card still in hand; worker or legionnaire still in camp; Trajan tile on the player board but unfulfilled. 10 VPs are scored for having a set of three identical building tiles on your player board (20 VPs for four identical). Finally, bonus VPs are scored according to the ‘tombstone’ tiles each player won during the Senate voting (these are all unique, but most relate to commodity cards that a player has played onto the table during the course of the game), or score popular satisfaction chits that a player has leftover (NB: Trajan tiles don’t count for this).
Did it work for me?
There is a LOT going on in this game, as you can probably imagine from the amount of ‘Gameplay’ text above! You really need to be thinking about where you want to go and what you want to do, and as with a number of involved ‘Euro’ games, there are many paths that you might follow, and generally speaking choosing a particular strategy and pushing it through will be what wins you the game, rather than going for a broad-based approach.
I think there has been a bit of criticism of this game as being too abstract with a ‘pasted on’ theme, but for me I thought it worked really well: most of the actions seemed to fit well with the theming for them, whether that was raising legions to secure resources from conquered provinces, chasing votes in the Senate, building your way to greatness with your work gangs, establishing yourself as a commercial powerhouse, or working your contacts in the forum. As a student of ancient history, I liked the feel of being a ‘mover and shaker’ in ancient Rome, pursuing one of these paths to power, but particularly the mechanism to remind you that you ignored the plebs at your peril!
Oddly enough, the one thing that we all felt was really abstract was the Trajan action and the associated matching of the colour action pieces to the Trajan tiles on your player mat. For our particular group, the general feeling was that this was one step too much in terms of complexity in the game, as demonstrated by the fact that we all sooner or later gave up on trying to plan our Mancala moves and distributions so as to fulfil the Trajan tiles, and consequently also began ignoring the Trajan action, so as to focus on the other five actions in the game.
All in all, the feeling round the table was that this was a good solid Euro game, which should appeal to those who like their games towards the upper end of the complexity scale. Much like Agricola or Dominant Species, this isn’t so much about complexity of mechanisms (there are a few, but once you start playing they seem to flow pretty well), but more about the amount of thinking and planning you have to put in to be in with a realistic chance of coming first.
Boardgames in Blighty rating: 8 out of 10
This game is neither quick nor light, and to enjoy it the players will need to have patience, commitment and be able to think strategically, juggling with multiple options. So, not one to play with children, unless you’re talking pretty cerebral mid-teens as a minimum! Those with no great love for Euro games should also steer clear, but Euro fans up for a challenge should enjoy this.
More information: BoardGameGeek webpage for the game
Reviewed by Tony Bellringer (Tulfa on BGG)