“The mancala action selection mechanism is really fun, and you get points for everything, so it always feels like you’re making progress!”
Designer: Stefan Feld
Artist: Jo Hartwig
Game Type: Hand Management
Game Type: Area Movement
Game Type: Set Collection
Initial Year of Release: 2011
Age Range: 12+
Expected Playtime: 60-120 min
Number of Players: 2-4
Theme and What is it?
It’s set in the Roman empire at its height, and you’re attempting to gain the most power while still fulfilling the demands of the people. There are many avenues to increase your power – military influence (conquering provinces), economic influence (shipping goods), political influence (buying votes in the senate), or cultural influence (constructing structures).
The game has six possible actions for a player to take, though which are available to a specific player at any time are determined by the player’s action markers. The action markers are played with a mancala-like mechanism – a player picks up all action makers in a bowl places one marker in each bowl in a clockwise direction. The player then completes the action corresponding with the bowl where the last action marker was placed. Every action token played moves the time tracker forward, and if a player’s last action marker lands in a bowl where the action markers match the colors on the corresponding Trajan tile, the player also gets the bonus listed on the tile.
One of the six actions is the forum action, where a player can choose a forum tile that will help them fulfill the demands of the people (torch, helmet, bread), allow them to take a specific extra action later, or award them extra votes in the senate.
Another is the shipping action, where a player can draw commerce cards or play existing commerce cards for victory points.
The third is the senate action, where a player can move along the senate track for votes and victory points.
The fourth is the building action, where a player can recruit a construction worker to later build or build a structure, allowing them to gain building tiles.
There is the military action, which allows a player to either move their Leader (and take that province’s forum tile), recruit a military worker to use later, or move a military worker to the leader and gain VP.
The final action is the Trajan action, which allows a player to choose a new Trajan tile to place next to one of the action bowls.
When the time tracker crosses the starting position, a new demand tile is revealed. After three demand tiles, a quarter year ends. At the end of a quarter year, players must fulfill the demands of the people (or lose VP), and the board is reset. After four quarter years, the game is over and the player with the most VP wins.
This game is very light on theme, with little flavor text or explanation for thematic choices (why do the people demand a helmet?), but the rulebook is straightforward about all possible options so it’s easy to get started.
It’s hard to see a reasonable strategy at first and even harder to plan future actions with the mancala action selection mechanism. However, there are victory points for everything (really!) and another player doing an action doesn’t block you from doing it, too, so it’s very low stress.
Many of our early rounds focused on trying to get the action markers in the right spots to complete a Trajan tile (which actually is a decent strategy – the bonuses are useful!), so it gave us something to start with.
Game Build Quality
The components are standard but good quality – there are wooden meeples and action tokens, a linen bag for bonus tiles, and chipboard everything else. The wooden Trajan arch token is the most unique and interesting wooden piece, and action tokens are very colorful. The only thing missing is actual bows for the mancala mechanism – you have to be careful to place them gently so they don’t bounce into a neighboring bowl. Everything fits easily in the box once punched.
The art is functional – the iconography is helpful, but nothing is extremely engaging or interesting. However, the game is fun for its tactical nature, not for it’s immersive theme, so I think it’s acceptable in this case.
The mancala action selection mechanism is really fun, and you get points for everything, so it always feels like you’re making progress! Trajan is best for people who enjoy thinking a few turns ahead and medium competition games. You can also play the game and have fun without thinking farther ahead than the current turn, so it can be fun for more casual players as well. Players that enjoy high player interaction and drama probably would not enjoy this game.
Age Range & Weight
The recommended age range is 12 and up, which seems appropriate as there are many different actions to remember, but none of them are individually complicated. The game is medium-light to play if the goal is just to follow the rules correctly, but can get very heavy if the goal is to find the optimal strategy.
Trajan is a medium weighted game that’s very light on the theme. Much of the enjoyment of the game comes from trying to optimize multiple areas and find the ideal strategy. I would not recommend this to non-gamers, but regular gamers will pick up the rules rather quickly and enjoy puzzling out the best strategies. I think this is where Trajan really shines – players finish the game thinking about what they could have done differently and wanting to play again to try out their theories!