The Roman Empire was the peak of western European civilization even a millennia after its fall. The warfare, trade, culture, and quality of life were impressive, but all of that required a complex and intelligent governing body.
In Trajan, you’re taking on that very task through a series of in-game mechanics. Compete with up to 3 other players and gain the most influence and power to win in this classic and very popular Euro board game!
Brief Overview of Trajan
Trajan can be classified as a tableau-building Euro game; a board game with a high focus on individual strategy and development and low player interactivity. It’s a game loved by many fans of the genre, but its high complexity creates a strong barrier to entry.
The game can be played by 2 to 4 players, with the estimated session time from 60 to 120 minutes. From my experience, games lasted a lot longer as my group was still inexperienced and took longer to make decisions.
Trajan has been aptly described as the “greatest hits” game because it incorporates the most popular Euro game mechanics. While this provides a lot of depth and replay value, it also makes Trajan a rule-heavy game, which certainly isn’t for everyone.
The game includes the following components:
- 1 Game Board
- 4 Arches of Trajan
- 16 Octagonal Action Markers
- 60 Small Player Tokens
- 4 Military Leader Tokens
- 8 Victory Point Discs
- 1 Time Marker
- 60 Commodity Cards
- 214 Assorted Tiles
- 1 Linen Bag
- 1 or 2 Rulebooks (English & German)
When you look at the components of Trajan today, in some ways you can see how it was a product of its time. After all, the game came out in 2011, and art direction has changed significantly since then.
Surprisingly, this does not work as a detriment to the game, because the theme of ancient Rome matches with the soft color scheme and faded appearance. This is illustrated by the player and game boards.
In contrast, the assorted tokens have a slightly more intense color palette which makes them pop when placed on the game board. Still, they do not seem out of place and retain that antique look.
The same cannot be said of the cards, which feel kind of basic. It’s not that it bothers me, but it feels odd not to go the extra mile with the components that you have to stare at throughout the game.
In terms of the quality of components, Trajan delivers a top-notch package. The game and player boards are made out of thick cardboard and are very durable. The markers, tokens, and workers are all made of wood, well sculpted, and painted in different colors for clarity.
Trajan components don’t have any wow factor to them, but they also do not disappoint in any way. The massive game board is well organized, as are the player boards, and it’s clear that keeping things functional was a design priority. Considering just how many mechanics are in the game, keeping things organized is a massive boon.
How to Play Trajan
Trajan is an interesting game to learn. In isolation, each of the six actions is fairly easy to understand, but when you put them all together, you get a large volume of information that you need to tackle.
For the best learning experience, you should read through the rulebook in its entirety. I’ll provide a brief rundown of what each of the actions does and the general flow of the game, so you can get a feel as to what the game is like.
The Flow of the Game
Thematically, Trajan is played over the course of one year, divided into four quarters. Each of the quarters is further divided into four rounds that can have a varying number of turns.
The length of the round is affected by the time track. Actions will progress the track at different rates, and once the marker completes a loop, that round ends.
The most important part of the player board is the mancala/wheel of actions. There are six actions in the game, and playing them relies on the 6 trays on the player board.
To play an action, the player will have to pick up the action markers from one tray, and distribute them clockwise, 1 by 1 in the other trays. The last tray to receive a marker is called the target tray, and the player may use the corresponding action during their turn.
To clarify, in Trajan, you do not pick the action you want to take; you pick the tray that will lead you to the desired action. This is, of course, not always possible, so you’ll have to plan ahead a couple of turns.
1. The Military Action
The military action allows the players to expand the borders of the Roman Empire beyond the Alps at the top of the game board.
Military conquest is quite simple; the players will have to relocate their tokens to the military camp and turn them into legionnaires. Their military leader can conquer an adjacent territory and seize a resource tile. The legionnaires can follow and occupy the territory, granting bonus points to the player.
2. The Senate Action
The Senate action is located a the bottom of the game map and is a simple points tracker that generates victory points based on progress. The track maxes out at 8 victory points, but the action can be played again during the next quarter.
3. The Trajan Action
The Trajan action allows the player to upgrade their actions with a special Trajan tile. To make use of the upgrade, the player must land in the corresponding tray during their turn and action markers that correspond to the Trajan tile.
If the condition is met, then the player scores victory points and performs the special action listed on the Trajan tile. They may still perform the regular action of that tray.
4. The Seaport Action
The Seaport action corresponds to the left side of the game board, where the harbor is located. The action revolves around collecting commodity cards and creating sets that will net the player the most points.
Depending on the ship, the player can gather multiple pairs, multiples of the same card, or a deck of unique cards to score points. The player can also score extra points at the end of the game by playing certain commodity cards face-up in front of them.
5. The Forum Action
The Forum is located on the lower right side of the board and involves simply picking up an available tile, and placing it on the matching slot of the player board.
6. The Construction Action
The final action is located on the center-right side of the game board, illustrating the city of Rome.
The players will have to fill their worker camp from their personal supply, and then play the worker on the board to collect a construction tile. These tiles are then placed in the corresponding slots of the player board.
It’s important to note that additional workers can only be placed adjacent to the existing ones. Additionally, while workers can share a space, only the first one receives the reward.
Progression & Game End
A lot of Trajan’s complexity comes from the way the game progresses.
For each of the action markers moved on their wheel, players must also progress the time marker the same amount of spaces. Because the time progression isn’t consistent, neither is the number of turns.
At the end of the first round, the first demand tile is revealed to signify which resource the players will have to gain to avoid losing victory points. The second and third tiles are revealed in subsequent rounds.
The end of the fourth round also signifies the end of the quarter. At this time, you’ll check if the people’s demands have been met and distribute negative points accordingly. Then you’ll have to reset certain game elements and start the new quarter.
The end of the game involves scoring all the commodity cards, workers, legionnaires, Trajan tiles, etc. Every action you take will contribute to the final score, but some are more valuable than others.
Your First Game of Trajan
The first time you sit to play Trajan, expect the game to last at least 4 hours as even the most prepped players will need extra time to figure out what they’re doing.
The best advice I can give is to just roll with the game without too much regard for strategy and the number of points you’ll score. By just taking actions, you’ll get a hang of the wheel/mancala system and gradually figure out what’s more beneficial.
Think of the demands as your primary objective, but don’t focus all your efforts on them. Timing is key, and if you plan out your turns correctly, you can sweep the demand resource while also collecting victory points left and right.
If you realize that nobody is collecting commodity cards or building, divert your efforts to these uncontested actions. You can get a head start and score more points than those that would follow you.
Lastly, if you’re truly interested in the game, give it some time. You may not enjoy the first or even the subsequent few games, but once all of the rules settle in, you’ll start to have a lot more fun with it!
Pros & Cons
- Depth of Play
- Near-Infinite Replayability
The reason why so many people like Trajan is because of just how much value it provides as a board game. There is never an obvious road to victory, and even though there’s low interactivity between players, each move you make can cause a butterfly effect.
The lack of a clear meta, unpredictability of players, and the range of strategic choices make for a game that can be replayed as many times as you’d like without the fear of it going stale. Trajan provides a compelling experience every time you sit to play it, and that’s an important factor for a game of its type.
- It’s a Complex Game
- Weak Theme
I’ve said it numerous times in this review and I have to mention it once more; Trajan is not an easy game to grasp. The independent scoring mechanics are minigames of their own, plus there’s the mancala system on the player boards. When you put it all together, there’s a lot for a new player to figure out.
Discussing the theme of Trajan is always met with counterarguments from people defending it. While I’m glad they’re finding the theme to be satisfying, a lot of players, including myself, find it to be lacking.
It feels as if the theme could just as easily be about ancient Greece, Persia, or even a sci-fi world. I have found that the smallest thing is actually bothering me the most: the progress of the game.
You’ve got 1 year divided into four quarters, so it only makes sense that the next logical step is 3 months. Instead, we get four rounds, divided into turns. Thematically, it doesn’t make sense to go from years to quarters to rounds.
If the game used a 4-year mandate, then at least the rounds could be quarters of a year and make sense thematically.
Trajan Review (TL;DR)
Trajan is a deep Euro game with high replay value and well-executed mechanics. Players will have to not only think of a plan for the next few steps but also come up with contingencies in case their original plan is spoiled by other players.
Despite not having a lot of player interactivity, each decision made will in some way impact the strategy of other players, which adds a lot of value to the game and prevents players from playing on autopilot.
Theme aside, Trajan is an excellent game and if the premise has caught your attention, don’t hesitate to pick it up!
I have mixed feelings about Trajan. On one hand, it’s a brilliant game in its own right, and from a mechanical perspective, I can’t say there’s anything flawed with it.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so many other games, but I just don’t find Trajan to be special. I’ll agree to play it at any time knowing I’ll have a satisfying experience, but at the same time, I’ll never be the one that’s going to recommend playing it.
The game certainly has its strengths, and if you don’t have a game of this caliber in your board game collection, Trajan is an excellent choice. You can also consider Through the Ages, Brass: Birmingham, or Concordia. They’re not quite the same experience, but they share some traits with Trajan.
We hope you enjoyed our Trajan review! This excellent Euro game offers endless possibilities and outcomes. With a lot of moving parts, it is certainly challenging, but is a fun historical game to try out!
Have you tried playing Trajan? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below and let us know what you think!