Wednesday, August 21, 2013

So, a Centuries Old Mechanic And the King of Euro Designers Walk Into a Bar...

In this week's post, I want to introduce you to one more game by designer Stephen Feld and that game is Trajan.  Now, as I've noted in previous posts, Stephen Feld well is known for having designed some of the most 'euro' of eurogames.  Additionally, 2013 has very much been the year of Feld as he has released four titles this year including Bora Bora, Bruges, Rialto and Trajan.  Thus far, I have spoken about Castles of Burgundy -- which is a brilliant medium weight euro that stands out as one of Feld's best medium weight euros.  I have also written about Rialto, which is one of Feld's lighter titles.  Today, I'm hope to introduce you to Trajan -- which is definitely one of Feld's heavier euros.  It's also one of my favourite of Feld's designs!

In Trajan, you will be attempting to develop and strengthen various segements of the Roman Empire.  You'll be able to influence the activities of the Senate, expand the borders of the Empire militarily, construct buildings and infrastructure within the borders of the empire, as well as trading various commodities around the Mediterranean.  At least in theory that's what you get to do.  Because, to be perfectly honest, the theme of this game is really, really pasted on -- as is the case with many of Feld's titles.  But, let's be honest, if you're part of Feld's target audience then you weren't looking for theme anyways!  Trajan is unreservedly, unapologetically all about generating VP as fast and as efficiently as possible.  This game is so euro you could just call it Sven!  Know it, love it, embrace it!

In terms of game play, Trajan represents a fusion of a centuries old mechanic with modern game design practices -- and, in my mind, this is what makes the game worthy of particular note.  The ancient mechanic is the mancala or 'sowing' mechanic.  Contrary to popular belief the term mancala doesn't refer to a game -- but to a mechanic.  In games that employ this mechanic, players have a board that is divided into a number of individual bowls, each of which contains a number of seeds.  Players will take all of the seeds in a bowl and then sow them one at a time into succeeding bowls until they have no more seeds in hand.  Surviving evidence suggests that the mancala mechanic emerged sometime in the 6th-7th century AD, and it's been employed by numerous games around the world since that time.  Feld's decision to make use of this ancient mechanic and to place it at the heart of modern euro game is simply brilliant!

In Trajan, each player has their own player board which depicts six bowls -- bowls that will be filled with two, coloured tokens at the begining of the game.  On your turn, you'll choose a bowl and take all of the tokens in that bowl into your hand.  Then, you'll sow those tokens, one at a time, moving in a clockwise direction, from bowl to bowl.  Each bowl is associated with a particular action and when you place the last token in your hand into a bowl, you'll take the action associated with that specific bowl.  But wait, there's more!  Each of the bowls not only has an action associated with it, but also the potential to grant access to powerful Trajan tiles.  These Trajan tiles grant you points and particular benefits -- but to acquire these tiles you'll need to engineer the placement of your tokens so that that the colours of tokens that you've placed match the colours indicated on the Trajan tile associated with a particlar bowl.  In order to maximize the benefit that you get from each of your "sowing" actions, you're really going to need to think ahead and strategize about how to move your tokens not just this turn, but in the next turn or two to come.  There's more to this game (collecting and shipping goods, constructing buildings, influencing the Senate) but it all revolves around this central central mancala mechanic.

So, what do I love about Trajan.  First of all, I love the fact that this is a dyed-in-the-wool, VP getting euro.  Now, this might not float your boat, but it's certainly my kind of game.  Second, I love that there are so many ways to acquire those VP.  The rules for the game are really very straightforward, but in terms of what you can choose to do during the course of play, there are just so many paths to follow.  Further, I love the fact that there is a racing quality to the game.  There are significant bonues for being the first player to accomplish certain goals: eg. shipping goods, moving legionaries into the provinces) and you need to be aware not just of what you are doing, but what all the other players are hoping to accomplish.  Additionally, this is a game that makes you think -- really think!  There are just so many decisions to be made -- each of which is not that significant on its own, but all of which compound together to shape both your strategy and determine your performance.  If you want to really stretch your mind and get in a good, solid, thinky game -- well Trajan is title you should check out.  Finally, Trajan plays very well with any number from two to four players.  Although it's probally at it's best with three or four (because of the increased competition for resources) what's surprising is that Trajan turns out to be a really, really solid two player game.  Overall this is fantastic title -- and I would highly recommend checking it out!


Michael Poplawski said...

As someone who likes to see theme in the boardgames he plays, it saddens me to learn that the Trajan era predates Mancala by about six centuries.

Good review!

Eric Lalande said...

Finally picked this up, then ran into your review!! What up!!

Phil said...

I was lucky enough to find this game for 50% off at a local game shop today. For $27.50, I think I got my money's worth!

Your review reenforced my opinion, thanks!