DESIGNERS: Stefan Feld
ARTWORK: Jo Hartwig
PUBLISHER: Ammonit Spiele
TIME: 60-120 MINUTES
Stefan Feld is one of those designers a lot of people have opinions about in the boardgaming world. On one hand, there is a great deal of respect for the way he gets gameplay mechanics to interlock. On the other, there are some who complain his style of eurogame is just themeless “point salad.” Point salad has even become a de facto genre in the BoardGameGeek forums. So let’s learn some history together before we get to the gameplay, shall we?
Trajan was a Roman ruler from 98-117AD. He was so good at ruling that the Roman Senate declared him optimus princeps, which means he is probably also the great-grandfather of the Autobots. This title also granted Trajan access into the exclusive “Five Good Emperors” club, which is saying something because there were somewhere around 100 emperors during the history of the Roman Empire. How does an empire get so big when only 5% of its rulers are considered good? I’ll leave that question for you to ponder.
But yes, Trajan was by all accounts a good leader. He built public buildings, developed a welfare program for poor children, and staged massive, bloody gladitorial contests. In the end, he made war like all good Romans and expanded the Empire to its greatest extent (sorry Armenia). But all men must pay for their war crimes and so Neptune struck down our beloved hero on his voyage home. Luckily, his successor Hadrian waited a while to tell anybody that Trajan had died and hired a Trajan impersonator to speak from behind a curtain. And that is how Hadrian came to know the Wizard of Oz.
But Hadrian is not our focus here, it’s Trajan. The Roman era is one that many board games have mined for theme because there was just so much going on: international trade, military domination, complex architecture, chariot races, and political intrigue. Rather than choosing just one of those elements to develop into a game, Stefan Feld’s Trajan opts for the whole lot (sans the chariot racing, sadly). In his clockwork system, players have the chance to march their legions around Europe to acquire provincial resources, vie for votes in the senate, embark on vast construction campaigns, and collect and acquire goods for merchanting purposes–amassing points all along the way. Choosing to do one means you’re not doing the others, so the game requires players to be creative opportunists and take advantage of what they can when they can.
“Very well then,” you might say, “I think I shall become a shipping magnate!” Good for you. Except, just like in real life, the simple fact that you’d like to do something doesn’t mean that you’ll get the opportunity to do so. You can’t just choose one of the game’s main actions and do it on your turn–instead, what you do (and what you are able to do) depends on how cleverly you able to manipulate the action rondell. Unlike real-world rondells, you can’t just whiz ’round-and-around this one. The game begins with random pairs of colored octahedron markers distributed around the rondell’s six action spaces. With six different colors of markers (two of each for twelve in all), there are lots of possible combinations. What’s more, this initial arrangement doesn’t particularly matter. Each turn, you pick up all of the markers at an action space and distribute them, one at a time, in clockwise fashion around the rondell. Where you end up is the action you’ll take that turn.
“Well that doesn’t sound so hard,” say the aficionados of planning ahead. Fair enough. But that’s only part of the challenge. One of the action spaces allows you to pick up “Trajan” bonus tiles that are slotted sequentially around your rondell. Each of these tiles has a pair of colored octagons represented on it–if you end your turn in that action space AND you have both of the required colored markers there, you gain a bonus (sometimes an action, sometimes a permanent resource, and sometimes points depending on which tiles you choose). Thus, if you content yourself with only doing the basic actions, you are missing out of the compounding effects of the Trajan tiles. Remember the old maxim: two actions in a turn is always better than one. Sequencing your rondell moves when the color of the pieces matters becomes a mind-bending process at times. But when you find a winning combination, you’ll feel like a hundred bucks. Or maybe a million denarii (I’m not sure of the exchange rate).
The rest of the action spaces on the rondell are related to the Roman things I mentioned earlier: moving your military around Europe to collect resources; moving your workers around a construction site picking up sets of things (stairs, doors, windows, fountains, and roof tiles–walls and floors are apparently for losers); shipping via card-drawing and set collection; moving your senatorial influence up a track; and gathering resources from a common forum. Why all of this resource collection? Well, it just so happens that in addition to all of the things one needs to do to keep an empire running, one also needs to keep their people happy. People have needs. In this case, they need helmets, bread, and flames. (Love and water don’t make the cut in this harsh world.) At the end of each quarter, if you don’t have the three demands your people are clamoring for, you’ll lose points.
Quarters, eh? Oh yes, the game is played over the course of a year. (Not a real year, mind you.) And here is another of Trajan’s ingenious design choices. For every octahedron you pick up and distribute around the rondell, you advance the turn timer by the same number of spaces. This can lend itself to some fun take-that moments: “Eight?!? Really? But I had so much planned!” But these rapid turn accelerations are just as likely to yield self-inflicted wounds.
All of this is to say, that in common Feldian form, there is a lot going on. You can busy yourself doing whatever your heart desires and feel like you’ve had a successful, productive time by the end of the game. My wife and I consistently revisit Trajan for this very reason. On top of that, it all feels exceptionally well-balanced–two-player games can be just as thrilling as the four-player affair.
So after all of that, and in a nod to those who complain about “pasted-on themes,” where does Optimus Trajan factor-in to the game? Trajan absolutely adored arches and was a prolific builder of the celebratory variety. Thus, you get the chance to move an arch around the outside of your rondell, depositing Trajan bonus tiles in its wake. The game could probably have any number of themes and still be exciting. But, in the end, it feels great to be counted among the five good emperors.