W. Eric Martin
Stefan Feld's Trajan is the first release from new German publisher Ammonit Spiele, but if you didn't see Feld's name on the box, you'd probably recognize his design style once you learned more about the game.
At heart, Trajan resembles Feld designs like Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon and Macao in that players each manage an individual tableau while also competing in a shared space and indirectly affecting other players. Each of those games has a design hook – card drafting for actions in Notre Dame, action shuffling and selection each round in Year of the Dragon, the funky cube-distribution wheel in Macao – and Trajan has a similar design hook, that being the use of Mancala-style bit distribution to govern a player's choice of actions.
In Trajan, a player has six possible actions – building, trading, taking tiles from the forum, using the military, influencing the Senate, and placing Trajan tiles on his tableau – all depicted above iconically. At the start of the game, each player will have two differently colored pieces in each of the six sections of his tableau. On a turn, the player picks up all the pieces in one section and distributes them one-by-one in sections in a clockwise order. Here's an example from publisher Rüdiger Beyer:
The green player's tableau at the start of his turn
Choosing and distributing pieces, with the location of the final piece determining the player's action for the turn – the Forum, in this case
To explain the last image further, one of the possible actions is to place a Trajan tile on your tableau. If, on a later action, your final piece is placed next to a Trajan tile – and the colored pieces on that action space match the pieces shown on that tile – you take the special action on that tile, which in this case is receiving two goods cards. This action is in addition to the Forum action itself.
"Good planning is essential," says Beyer. "This is a new mechanism for determining actions, which requires skill to plan two or three turns ahead, and because each player has his own 'Feld-Mancala', learning to use it well takes pure strategy. And if you prepare your movements in the circle well, you can possibly take the same action 4-6 times in a row, if you really want to, of course..."
Given the final situation above, for example, the player could next move the green piece on space V in order to take the build action on space VI in addition to the Trajan tile action on that same space. The player might next move the pieces on space II, dropping the yellow piece in IV, so that on the following turn he could move the pieces from space VI in order to take two actions in space IV.
So what are trying to do with all these actions? Acquire victory points (VPs) in whatever ways are available to you – and since this is a Feld design, you try to avoid being punished, too. At the Forum you try to anticipate the demands of the public so that you can supply them what they want and not suffer a penalty. In the Senate you acquire influence which translates into votes on VP-related laws, ideally snagging a law that fits your long-term plans. With the military, you take control of regions in Europe, earning more points for those regions far from Rome.
Oh, did I not mention that Trajan is set in Rome? From the basic game description here on BGG: "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." That said, I've never felt that I was in Paris while playing Notre Dame or living the part of a European explorer in Macao, so I don't expect to relive the days of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Feld's strength in game design isn't recreating the nuances of whatever setting surrounds the game, but rather creating compelling game systems that challenge you as a player to outthink and outplay everyone else in this artificial world that he's created. I expect nothing less in Trajan and look forward to exploring the Feld-Mancala at Spiel 2011.
Prototype of the shared central game board