Review: Settlers of Catan
August 01, 2002
I don’t care how many geeks out there swear fealty to LAN Parties. I don’t care how many geeks praise the glory of playing console games with friends, either. I would, given a spot of alcohol, some munchies, and a handful of friends, choose to play a board game over anything else. (We’ll ignore the existence of drinking games, for the moment.) After all, sitting around a table is, inherently, a more social activity than staring into a TV or monitor.
It wasn’t until Ratatosk came by and reintroduced me to the beauty of board games that my long-dormant love for tomfoolery returned with a vengeance. This wasn’t the tomfoolery normal gamers participate in, but rather the tomfoolery one engages in when you give them a potential weapon to demasculinate a friend. It’s one thing to frag someone in a computer game, but it’s another entirely to make them your bitch when you’re face-to-face.
DrMantis: Another point about board games is that they aren’t just tests of how fast you can point and click (RTSes) or how many bugs you can exploit (CS) or how insanely fast you can aim and shoot (Quake 3), but they give you a chance to slow things down and use your head for once.
DrMantis: Most board games are more than point and click adventures, and the abstract nature of things makes for interesting voyages for people who don’t mind thinking and aren’t afraid of using their imagination. In a world where games are ultra-violent and ultra-fast, a more cautious approach is sometimes lauded as in such critically acclaimed games Deus Ex and Thief.
Settlers of Catan carries on the tradition of owning your friends as all other capable board games do. What’s more, it’s a prime example of a perfect board game, and it better be. After all, a game heralded as the German Game of the Year (1995) and US Board Game of the Year (1996) has to be good, especially when this game was placed in the Gaming Hall of Fame for repeatedly kicking the competition’s ass. However, these awards mean little until a game has withstood our own in-house tests, and that’s why we’re bringing you the first ever mendax.org Board Game Review, to give you the absolute scoop on the Settlers of Catan.
Though a board game, the first thing you need to realize is that Settlers of Catan, alongside other board games of excellent quality, cannot be purchased just anywhere. Chances are, this has something to do with Americans only being smart enough to play underdeveloped board games. Or, perhaps it has more to do with people thinking that board games are for kids, so only simple board games ever make it onto shelves where board games are sold, which tends to be toy stores. Either way, I smell stupidity on someone’s behalf, and that pisses me off, because it’s keeping people from being exposed to plenty of cool games.
In any case, finding Settlers of Catan may not be as simple as we’d like. Hobbyist gaming stores tend to carry it, as do a number of online retailers. Rest assured, most places that carry wargames and miniature-based wargames would be good starting spots for yout Settlers of Catan search. Don’t be confused by the other titles bearing the “Catan” label, however, ‘cause there are plenty. Settlers of Catan has a number of expansions, to both increase the maximum number of players, and to add rules and change the board layout. We’ll discuss the expansions later in this article. What you’re looking for (and what this review is about) is a red box labeled “Settlers of Catan”. If you see the word “expansion”, you’re probably holding the wrong box.
DrMantis: There is also a space-themed version of Settlers entitled “Starfarers of Catan” that costs much more, but has ueber-rad space ships and other such nonsense. While we own Starfarers, I haven’t yet played it, though I’m sure when the semester starts, the urge to slack will take hold and I will be playing enough of it. Look for that review in the future.
Published by Mayfair Games, Settlers of Catan retails for just under forty dollars. That may seem pricey for a board game, but Settlers of Catan will last you a long while unless you’re stupid and lose the pieces. Plus, as I alluded to before, screwing your friends over in-game is priceless.
Like other good board games, Settlers of Catan comes in a box that’s filled with pieces. You get your normal two dice, three types of wooden pieces (settlements, cities, and roads) in four colors (one color per player), a good quantity of numbered cardboard discs, five stacks of resource cards (there are five resources in the game), and a stack of development cards. The actual “board” of the game is made up of a number of cardboard hexes, upon which is drawn one of the five resources, water, or a desert. These hexes are arranged in such a way so as to make a huge hex, upon which the game is played.
DrMantis: The initial sight of most modern board games scares the uninitiated. Mounds of abstract pieces, cards written in some weird code, and 35 cardboard sheets with pieces that pop out can drive any “n00b” crazy. Never fear board games, however, as they tend to be 50 times simpler than the initial look would let on.
To be more specific, without repeating the rules at length, the resource hexes are shuffled along with the desert hex. This randomizes the landscape. The water hexes are likewise shuffled and arranged around the land hexes. This adds harbors to certain key land hexes. The numbered discs are then shuffled and placed on the land hexes, so each hex has a number associated with it.
Players determine who goes first with a dice role. The player to go first places a settlement of his color on a hex intersection, followed by placing a road attached to the settlement. The idea is to place settlements on resources that you will need to build new settlements, upgrade settlements to cities, build new roads, and to purchase development cards. Once all players have placed a settlement, the last player to place his settlement places a second settlement, and each player thereafter (in reverse order from last player to first) places their second settlement. Upon placing their respective second settlement, the player receives whatever resources that settlement is adjacent to (which hexes it is touching).
DrMantis: There are many other ways to setup a Catan board thanks to the additions made by fans and the expansions. This is one board game that truly never plays the same way twice.
At the end of this setup phase, each player will have a couple resources in their hand, and will have two roads and two settlements built. The whole setup phase, once you have it down, can be completed in about five minutes if you need to take everything out of the box, shuffle the development cards, et al. While the setup board doesn’t take up too much space, expect to need a table that is large enough to accompany not only the board (approximately the size of a checkers board), but the bank of resource cards, the development cards, the extra pieces for each player, and the Largest Road and Largest Army cards.
DrMantis: We’ve played four player games on a normal sized dining room table with more than enough room. I’d probably say that Catan takes up less space than a monopoly board and actually is more accessible due to the limited interaction with the board itself. I do, however, recommend that you roll your dice in a box or get one of those bubbled die rollers like in the old game, Trouble, so that you don’t inadvertently destroy Catan.
The premise of the game is simple: settle Catan. Doing this isn’t particularly difficult, but it requires a little time, some negotiation, and a penchant for screwing over your friends. To win, you need to acquire 10 Victory Points (VPs) which can be accumulated in a number of ways. New settlements are worth one VP, and cities are worth two VPs. Certain development cards also give you free VPs, and the player with the longest road, as well as the player with the largest standing army, receives two VPs.
At the beginning of each turn, a player rolls the dice. If the number of the dice match a number on one of the hexes, anyone with a settlement or city on that hex gets the resource depicted on the hex surface. You use combinations of resources to purchase stuff, and different resources will be more meaningful at different stages of the game. For example, early on, brick and wood are very important, whereas later on, grain and ore will be more important, though sheep is useful, to a lesser extent, throughout the course of the game.
DrMantis: This is the biggest part of the strategy in Catan. You want to be on hexes that give you all the resources you want, of course, but you also want to be on hexes that have numbers with high frequencies of occurrence, otherwise you’re sitting there getting nothing while everyone else reaps the rewards of Catan. It’s a delicate balance and, in my experience so far, really is aided with more experience. The fact that relative importance of resources chances throughout the game makes it even more interesting.
On every round, players may build/purchase things if they have the resources to do so and may trade for resources with other players. It’s this trading that makes the game interesting, since you can deny other players necessary resources, or screw certain players over in favor of more benign players.
DrMantis: Again, this is something that comes with experience. You really need to pay attention to who has what resource due to race to 10. If you trade away ore too early in the game, someone might start upgrading settlements to cities gaining both another VP and the ability to garner 2 resources from any adjacent hex when the number is rolled.
A few surprises will show up throughout the game also. At the game start, the desert hex (there’s only one) is occupied by a piece known as “the thief”. If a seven is rolled, anyone with more than seven cards loses half of what’s in their hand, and the thief can be placed on any hex on the board. This “blocks” players from collecting resources on the thief-occupied hex, and whoever placed the thief can steal a random resource card from one player who has a settlement or city adjacent to the hex on which the thief now resides. Similarly, certain development cards will allow you to move the thief as well, allowing you to stop other players from collecting important resources, and stealing their resources piecewise while you’re at it.
DrMantis: The thief may also be manipulated with Knight/Soldier development cards. The player with the most of these (so long as it’s more than three) gains the largest army card and 2 VPs. This adds yet another variable to the game: go for settlements/upgrades or go for development cards with knights and progress cards.
Harbors, if occupied by settlements and cities, allow you to trade resources cheaply with the bank. Normally, players may trade four of any resource for one of a different resource, but harbors make these ratios more favorable. Common harbors change the 4:1 ratio to 3:1, while specialized harbors allow you to trade a specific resource at a ratio of 2:1.
DrMantis: Yet another strategy is to go for harbors. While harbors have a max of two bordering resource hexes, the ability to trade with the bank at better rates might turn out as a huge benefit for you at any possible point in the game.
It took about half a day for us to realize that though incredibly cool, the pieces could be infinitely cooler. While the quality of the pieces was not much of an issue under normal conditions, the board and numbered discs were nonetheless made of cardboard. This prompted us to consider building, at one point, a more robust set of hexes made of ceramic tile. In fact, with a little talent, one could conceivably put together a real kickass Catan board, complete with matching discs, settlement/city/road pieces, and maybe even resource and development chits in lieu of the laminated cards.
DrMantis: Someone put together a good set of 3D Catan pieces and put up a how-to online. Though the cost is fairly prohibitive (nearly $200!), it would make for an awesome project. Considering how elaborate and expensive some fancy chess boards can be, a well-done Catan board could make a great decoration in the house of a gamer.
That said, there’s nothing /poor/ about the included pieces. The painted wooden settlement/city/road pieces are small and simple, and obviously not machine-made to specification. The road pieces, for example, are long wooden rectangles of negligible height difference. The ends, furthermore, are not perfectly flat, but this has no effect on game play or setup, since they’re not nearly long enough to reach from one settlement to the next anyway (hex corner to hex corner).
Though the pieces aren’t supposed to be moved once placed, they just sit on the cardboard, so they can easily be moved with drunken dice rolls, or if a ferret were to run across your Catan board. Normally, this shouldn’t happen, but I’m gonna point out the possibility anyway. All the more reason a spiffier board could be put together.
DrMantis: If anything, this has to be my only real complaint about Catan. The randomness of the board is a great thing, but when Wyld’s ferret does run across the board, I start to wonder what the ferret would taste like stir-fried.
The rules of the game are pretty streamlined. With minor exception, we didn’t need to question the rules at all, in fact, and after running through the game once, we had them down cold. I can’t be too hard on the way the rules are written, however, since Mayfair Games has already shipped clarified rules with the latest edition of the game. In addition, this new version includes alternate rules to change the Catan experience. These new rules are partially based on fan-made changes, which have gotten reasonably extensive. If anything, this is a testament not only to the community support the game carries, but flexibility of the game as well.
DrMantis: The rules of Catan really are simple. Once you play your first game through, you’ll already consider yourself a master and can easily teach anyone new at it. The abstracted nature of the game does make that first run through a bit hairy, but the same can be said for nearly any game you play.
*DrMantis: *As for variants, there are many, but the most intriguing one (for me) is the Armed Settlers of Catan variant, making the game a “real” wargame.
As mentioned, community support for the game is fairly significant. You’ll find strategies and rules variations on a number of web pages, and with only a little creativity, you’ll find yourself developing your own after only playing a couple times. For instance, after only a couple games, I quickly developed two drinking variants: each turn, drink once for every resource that enters your hand, or drink whatever dice number was rolled if you receive resources that turn. While most rules variants you find online will be more extensive than that, you’ll see that even minor changes can make the game more fun.
DrMantis: Most variants made by fans are a little more in-depth than Drunks of Catan, but really change the way the game is played. I particularly like the “Sheep Sacrifice” variant found on this page of variants.
Official expansions can be either extensive or simple. There are two “scenario"-based expansions, which alter the map layout of the board to resemble a historical setting. Each expansion actually includes two historical scenarios. Alexander and Cheops, and Troy and the Great Wall, both retail for about $25 a piece.
There are also two expansions that add new rules to the game. Seafarers of Catan allows you to traverse the seas and explore new land areas, while Cities and Knights of Catan allow you to build new structures and defend Catan from barbarian invasion. Both of these expansions cost around $40.
Finally, there are expansions that increase the maximum number of players from 3-4 to 5-6, for about $20 a piece. The downside is that for every rules expansion you purchase (Seafarers, Cities and Knights), you need to purchase the respective player expansion in addition to the normal player expansion if you want to use your rules expansion sets. So, assuming you already dished out eighty bucks for Seafarers and Cities and Knights, expect to dish out another sixty for all three player expansions if you want to play the complete game with 5-6 players. All these expansions really do is give you new hexes, cards, etc, so there are enough resources and land areas to work with. Generally, these expansions won’t change the core rules, however.
There’s also a remarked Settlers of Catan, which is, really, the “new” edition of the game with the clarified rules. The actual player pieces are of a different color than previous Settlers of Catan player pieces, which means if you have both sets (new and old) you can play an 8-player game of Catan with a /huge/ map. The downside of this is that if you want any of the rules expansions, expect to buy two of each if you want to continue playing with eight players. Obviously, this will get expensive. For those of you deprived of a mathematical background, a complete eight player Catan game will run you $240, while a complete six player Catan game will run you $180. Forgetting about the money issue, the other downside of the eight player package is that without cutting everything in the box in half, you’re stuck playing either a 3-4 player game, or a 7-8 player game.
DrMantis: While this sounds a bit pricey, remember that four player games already last quite awhile. I’ve yet to play even a six player game, but I don’t imagine it being short. If you have enough people to readily get together to play an eight player Catan game, the cost would be $30 per person, and a few eight player games of Empires of Catan (that’s Cities and Knights plus Seafarers) would probably give you more bang for your buck than most other activities.
Since Settlers of Catan is originally a German game, you may discover that certain Catan products aren’t available in the US yet. This appears to be the case of the Troy and Great Wall expansion, though I’ve seen Mayfair Games’ branded expansions for the US audience for every other title. That said, I’m hoping we’ll see more, as German derivatives are going strong, with a special travel-edition of Settlers of Catan sold in stores (for instance, allowing you to play Catan at the beach without losing all your hex pieces).
There’s also a card-game based on Settlers of Catan available for both US and German audiences, and an expansion for it as well. Mind you, this is a separate game entirely, though has some similarities. German audiences will also find PC games based on both the card game, and the board game, the latter of which I would love to get my hands on, especially if there’s a multiplayer option for play on the Internet.
DrMantis: Something I found out only recently is that Capcom is releasing Catan for the PS2 with online support. The game appears to be only vanilla Settlers of Catan with a max of four players, but the production value looks to be superb. Gamespot has a slight bit of info on the game as well as a sample video available.
Fortunately, with community support as big as it is, there are a couple of projects underway attempting to bring Catan online. As examples, I’ll present to you the Java Catan applet, and WanCatan, a stand alone client/server implementation. Unfortunately, neither of these implementations are entirely bug-free, and will still need some polishing before they can accurately reproduce Catan gameplay.
DrMantis: While WanCatan is still quite buggy, it has support for all official Catan rules. If you wanted to give Seafarers a try before buying it, try a sample game using WanCatan. Community support for this game continues to grow, and the release of the PS2 Catan game will probably only strengthen it more.
Klaus Teuber’s brainchild, Settlers of Catan, set a standard for many of todays board games. Competitors will need to meet the high expectations Catan has put on similar products, and we look forward to playing all those that do. In the meantime, we’re glad to have Settlers of Catan in our gaming library.
Wyld, Wyld Rumpus Rating: 9.0 outta 10.