Gwen had to work a little later than normal this week, so I didn’t make it to game night until nearly 8:30 on Tuesday evening. And, as is usually true when I’m later than normal, I got to walk around and watch for a while before finding a game to join in with. And unfortunately, all of the games were ones I’d like to play: VIllage, Wallenstein (the new version), and Power Grid: The First Sparks.
Eventually, though (a little after 9:00), games ended and I was able to get into a game myself. And while I’ve been desperate to actually get in a play of the freaking Game of the Month! (Castles of Burgundy), I was perhaps even more desperate to finally play Stefan Feld’s other hot (and still mostly unavailable) game from last year…
What makes Stefan Feld such an exciting designer is that he’s always looking at ways to introduce innovation, or more accurately, to take older mechanics and ideas and then transform them innovatively into something new. As you may have heard, the mechanic that he used in Trajan is the core of perhaps the oldest known game, Mancala.
The way that works is that the first thing you do on your turn is to pick up all of the little wooden bits in one “well” of your action chooser thingy and begin to place them, one at a time, into the next however-many wells. Wherever you place the last one tells you what action you’ll perform that turn. There’s a lot more that goes into it (including which colors of the wooden bits may be present in that well), but that’s the main driver in the game.
Beyond that, playing the game comes down to figuring out how to plan your actions from turn to turn to build the strategy you want in the game. With 6 action spaces, and some of the spaces actually having 2 or 4 more specific actions that you can choose, there’s a ton of moving parts in the game, and, presumably, a lot of room to explore how to best fit them all together.
Since it was my first time playing, I chose my strategy based on the starting “goal/bonus point” tile that I was randomly dealt. It had to do with getting more of the bonus point tiles, which you acquire by winning the vote at the Senate, so I did whatever I could figure out to maximize my position on it in every phase. And in the end (despite me totally misunderstanding how the whole shipping/card-play part of the game worked), I actually edged James out for the win.
Time: 78 minutes
Score: Norton* 129, James D 127, Stacy 114
Ratings: Norton 8, James D 7, Stacy 9
First of all, I like Trajan quite a bit. It think it’s going to be a really good candidate for me to explore a lot more, both in terms of just playing with the mechanics and in trying out different strategies. There are just so many knobs and dials to turn in the game, and it seems pretty reasonable that you could pretty much totally ignore some of them and still be fine, which makes variety even more possible.
I’m a little concerned about a couple of things, though. First of all, the Senate action seems pretty strong. I mean, not only do you get pretty good points for each step you take on the track, but then you’re rewarded with the chance to get even more points at the end of the game from the bonus point tiles. Sure, most of them also rely on another aspect of the game (like counting the types of cards you’ve played), but I could definitely see a Senate/Shipping strategy being pretty hard to beat. But that could also just be my naivety with the game speaking.
Trajan also seems to be one of the most “gamey” games that I’ve played from Feld. Now, integrated themes aren’t exactly his speciality, but at least in Macao, for instance, I could see a good reason for what the dice mechanic and windrose were trying to generally simulate. But the whole Mancala thing seems to just be neat for neatness sake. I mean, I liked the whole planning and pulling off cool sequences on it very much, but never did it have anything to do with the theme of the game.
And finally, admittedly after just my first play, my last concern is that, just maybe, it’s all a little too much. There’s a lot of setup, a lot of actions to think about, a whole puzzle-type of thing to figure out with the mancala mechanic, and a ton of ways to score little bits of points. What could be a really cool space to explore all the variety could also, for some, be a confusing jumble of fiddly mechanics. But again, this was just after one play, so I’m not going to jump to conclusions in either direction.
The Castles of Burgundy [BGG]
Thankfully, after Trajan was done, I was able to actually get in a game of Castles of Burgundy as well. And while my copy of the game has been played at least a half-dozen times, I myself have only been involved in one of those plays, so I’m still a total newbie at the whole thing. And then pile onto that the fact that I rolled doubles (probably the most limiting thing you can do in the game) a laughable number of times in the game and seemed to always be in an unenviable initiate order (despite my best efforts) causing the one thing I wanted to get in many, many turns to be stolen away from me just before I could get it, and you can guess that my game didn’t go so well.
Kenny did much better, putting together the “super worker” combination he got 4 workers from spending any die and was able to modify die rolls by +/-2 with each one. He also completed a lot of areas and generally scored lots of points. But despite using an “advanced” board, James did even better, jumping ahead with his end-of-game bonus points to take the win.
Time: 102 minutes
Score: James D (advanced board) 205, Kenny 187, Norton 168
Ratings: James D 9, Kenny 8.5, Norton 8.5
Regardless of how I actually performed in the game, I still had a lot of fun. To be primarily a “dice-driven” game, Castles of Burgundy probably does the best overall with managing the balance between limiting your choices with the die rolls but never making you feel like you have nothing worthwhile to do. Mostly, I just need to get better at it, I suppose.
It’s pretty cool that, even though I haven’t played as much Castles of Burgundy as I’d like this month, I have managed to play three different Feld games so far. So it’s almost more like a Feld-a-thon more than just a single GotM! Maybe I’ll only bring Feld games one of the last weeks of the month…
Other Games Played
Time: 30 minutes
Score: Matt 67, Shawn 56
Ratings: Both 10’s
Castles of Burgundy
Time: 74 minutes
Score: James E 210, Chris 204, Tommy 156
Ratings: Chris 9
Time: 41 minutes
Score: Matt* 109, Shawn* 100, James K* 87, Scott* 65, Chris* 62
Ratings: Matt 8.5, Shawn 8.5, James K 8.5, Scott ?, Chris 8.5
Power Grid: The First Sparks
Time: 64 and 58 minutes
Game 1: Jay* 13, Shawn* 11, Matt* 11, Chris 10
Game 2: James K* 13+, Chris 13-, James E* 12, Tommy* 12
Ratings: Chris 9
Time: 43 minutes
Score: Sean 48, Matt 21, Shawn 19
Ratings: Sean 10, Matt 8, Shawn 8
Roll Through the Ages
Time: 20 minutes
Score: Chip 26, Kenny 24
Ratings: Both 8’s
Time: 105 minutes
Score: James D* 65, Sean* 59, Stacy* 57
Ratings: James D 8, Sean 7, Stacy 8
Wallenstein (2nd ed)
Time: 190 minutes
Score: Kenny 46, Britt* 45, Darren* 44, Chip* 38
Ratings: Kenny 8, Britt 8.5, Darren ?, Chip 7.5
* First play for that Person