Two Feld Games: Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy

Trajan box


Castles of Burgundy

The Castles of Burgundy

Stefan Feld is a prolific game designer, with at least three new releases scheduled for this year. As two of his recent designs show, though, he manages to keep the quality high. The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan may obviously come from the same design approach, but they feel very distinct from each other.

What is the same? Well, both offer a unique way for players to choose among several available actions each turn. The actions generally involve taking items from a common pool or racing to a goal, which provide the player interaction for the game. Additionally, many actions involve giving you another action of a different type. This isn’t over-powered, as spending an action to gain an action doesn’t automatically give you much, but a well-planned combination will provide big rewards. And while these two games have little of the engine- or empire-building common today, they instead have an open-ended nature that overwhelms the players with choice. The actions provide points or new abilities in different ways, and the game’s internal clock moves too fast to let players take advantage of every opportunity. The different paths are well-balanced, with no one strategy being dominant every time, so each game becomes a matter of finding the best opportunities in the current set-up.

The Trajan player board.

The Trajan player board.

When comparing the action-selection mechanisms, Trajan definitely comes out ahead. Each player has a personal board with twelve markers spread over a ring of six spaces, and they move these pieces around as in a game of Mancala. Each space represents a different action, and the one that you end in determines the action you can take. Further, those markers in the Mancala board come in six colors. Sometimes, you’ll get to place a special tile by one space. If you later trigger that space’s action while two markers of specific colors are present, then you earn a bonus. This means that you’ll need to plan ahead a few turns to make sure you can do the needed actions in the needed order, but you have some ability to shift suddenly if the situation on the board changes. As a simple example, perhaps you planned to use the “Shipping” action next turn, and that would set thing up for you to next take the “Senate” action. If an opponent first plays cards to claim the Shipping points that you wanted, then you may want to wait until that bonus is available again later. But do you have a different way to lead up to the “Senate” action you still really want to play?

In contrast, The Castles of Burgundy’s action-selection is simply done by rolling two dice. Most of the game involves claiming tiles from a central area in one action and then adding them to your “princedom” on a later action. Specific numbers are required in each case, and not always the same for each of the two actions. (For example, you may want to claim the City tile that’s in the “4” area, but the space you’ll later play it to is marked “1”.) Despite some ways for players to tweak dice, this feels more arbitrary than Trajan’s deterministic system, and dice just usually aren’t that interesting. More troublesome, this game can have a surprising amount of downtime as players consider the different options they have for their two actions each turn. (Trajan also takes some thinking, but it’s usually more interesting to watch, and you have more to plan yourself while waiting.)

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

The defense of Burgundy would be that it has the more interesting actions. Though neither has a strong sense of empire-building, Trajan has none at all. That game’s actions are just sources of points with a pasted-on theme. Burgundy at least has the feel of putting together an abstract fiefdom. The board has a pre-determined plan for what types of buildings can go where (with many different boards to choose from, and a typical game filling up at least two-thirds of the spaces), with rewards for completing areas or being the first player to finish off a tile type. Of course, the tiles give different types of bonuses when played, from points to the chance to perform another specific action (not limited by numbers). One tile type provides new “technologies” that give players different abilities or ways to score.

I find Trajan’s actions interesting in a different way, though. Despite the lack of theme, there is an interesting interaction between them. Many resources can be gained from more than one action, and some actions provide benefits to others. Because the Mancala movement lets you skip over actions, it’s possible to play an entire game without using all six action types, and realistically, your strategy will lead to using one or two of them very rarely.

The full Trajan board

The full Trajan board

Regardless of the differences, both games are put together excellently. If you want a balanced game of moderate player-interaction, rewarding the most efficient tactical choice out of many possibilities, then you will enjoy either. I give the edge to Trajan, which most perfectly fits the “default” Feld style explained at the start of this article. It features interesting decisions in which your current move determines what choices will be available in the next one. Even so, it definitely doesn’t make The Castles of Burgundy obsolete. These are both different enough to be worth playing.

Trajan: B+

Castles of Burgundy: B A (I have updated my opinion)

(Trajan images taken by me, while the (better) pictures of The Castles of Burgundy are from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the originals and photographer credits.)

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