Part of Trajan is a pretty cool “points salad”. You pick some bit of the board and take tiles or move pieces. Your Roman legions are conquering the Germanic barbarians or your workers are building a Roman something-or-other or you’re vying with other players in the Roman Senate or collecting gladiators for the Roman bread and circuses. Each of these things gets you points. It’s very stately and boardgamey and Roman. You feel like you’re wearing a toga.
But there’s a price to pay in Trajan, a classic — I would say “infamous” — boardgame by Stefan Feld. Before you sample from the points salad, you have to scooch some colored doo-dads around a series of bowls. It’s called a mancala. Mancalas are an ancient African tribal thing that uses dried beans and gourds. It’s not very Roman. Why is this the price of entry for taking my turn as a Roman dude doing Roman stuff? Why did Stefan Feld put this between me and the rest of Trajan?
The mancala all but consumes Trajan. It’s not my turn yet, but like everyone else playing the game, I have my head down studying the bowls. Let’s see, if I move the pink bean two bowls over, then next turn I can move four beans three bowls over which will let me, no, no, that’s not quite right because then I’ll jump the bowl with the two beans I need to later on do the thing I need to do. I mean, really, fuck these beans. Sorry for saying that. But it has to be said. Fuck these beans.
Elysium, which is twice the game Trajan will ever be, is much less complicated but every bit as bad.
After the jump, damnable columny
I’m playing Elysium. It’s not my turn yet, but like everyone else playing the game, I’m peering down at the colored dots on all the cards and the brightly colored wooden columns on each player’s board that are used to buy cards. Let’s see, if I take the card with the red dot, he’ll have to take one of the two cards with the blue dot, which means the next player won’t be able to take Quest 3, but then he’ll have to take the card with the yellow dot, so I have to take that this turn, but will he use the blue or red column, which could mean the next player can get the card with the red dot and then I’ll have to take Quest 1, but I won’t be able to get either of the cards with a red dot afterwards? I mean, really, fuck these columns. Sorry for saying that. But it has to be said. Fuck these columns.
These colored columns in Elysium don’t mean anything. They don’t represent anything. This is no narrative or thematic reason for them to be in the game. They’re just some brain-burning busywork I have to do before I get to the stuff I like, the stuff with gameplay and theming, the stuff that forces me to make interesting “this or that?” choices, complete with artwork and cool titles. Imagine a game where you have to solve a Sudoku grid before you take your turn. Or do a tile sliding puzzle. Or pat your head while you rub your tummy. Once you’ve done that, you get to take your move. But don’t get too comfortable, because you’re going to have to do it again in just a sec.
The really aggravating thing about these columns is that the rest of Elysium is so good. The box comes with eight sets of cards, each thematically related to one of the Greek gods, each with artwork by a different artist, and each based on a specific gameplay mechanic. Whenever you play Elysium, you choose five of these eight sets. Shuffle them together to form the deck. What kind of game is Elysium? It depends on which five gods you’re using.
Apollo’s oracles let you see into the future, so when you use the Apollo set, you pre-play the next turn’s cards to a special area of the table. Some of the Apollo cards even let you interact with this area. The Poseidon set visits disaster on other players. Tidal waves, earthquakes, pirates, the Scylla and Charybdis, various treacheries. Ares introduces tokens that represent war, and everyone competes for a limited pool of these tokens. At the end of the game, victory points are doled out based on who’s collected the most war tokens. As the father of the gods, Zeus is all about compounding victory points. The cards in his set synergize with other parts of the game to make them worth more victory points.
Hades gives you all sorts of bonuses for moving cards into elysium. The overarching gameplay in Elysium is a “card market”. Each turn, a whole mess of cards are drawn from the deck and put face up in the middle of the table. Players take turns claiming these cards (limited by their available columns, but don’t get me started). Each card gives you some special ability, tweaking rules, bending rules, breaking rules, introducing special powers. But to win the game, you have to retire these cards into elysium, collecting them into sets that will earn victory points. You don’t want, say, a specific Apollo card just because of its power. You also want it because it will complement a set you’re collecting.
The act of transitioning cards from being in play to being worth victory points is thematically represented as recording legends. In Elysium’s sleek iconography, this is always a lyre icon. A card dies and loses its usefulness, but now bards sing songs of what the card did. The tension is between a card being useful and a card being worth points. It’s a great gameplay concept that forces difficult and interesting choices, and the Hades set is all about benefiting from cards dying, passing into legend, being collected into sets worth victory points.
You’ll need gold to move cards into Elysium. The set of cards for Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, gets you gold beyond the usual income trickle. Athena gives you some boon, but she also shares the boon with other players. How cooperative are you feeling? And finally Hermes, a fleet of foot trickster, lets you use cards that would otherwise be exhausted after one use. With Hermes, the other gods become twice as useful.
I love the variety and long-term replayability of games that only use some of their resources for any given session. The evolution cards in Archipelago. The city cards in A Study in Emerald. The location cards in Voyages of Marco Polo. The artisans in Troyes. Each game will be different because the machinery of the game, its inner workings, its fundamental economy, will be different next time you play. This is how Elysium works and it’s ingenious. The rules suggest you play your first few games with five specific gods. They even suggest god combos based on your preferred style. Or, heck, just do it randomly. Elysium is eminently adjustable and almost infinitely replayable.
Which makes it all the more aggravating that I’m spending my time puzzling out who has what colored columns and which cards have what colored dots on them. Such a great game locked behind a themeless gate of unjustified busywork.
Take on the role of an ambitious demigod who is trying to claim a place at the summit of Mount Olympus. Recruit heroes, acquire artifacts, undertake quests and earn the favour of the gods. Also, stare at a bunch of goddamn columns for a very long time.