The Settlers of Catan
The Settlers of Catan is one of those nearly perfect board games: it has an extremely high replay value, your non-gamer friends can enjoy it as well, the components are both well made and well-designed, and the true play comes in the meta-game of interaction between players. It doesn't take long to play (90 minutes to two hours) or to learn (quicker than the average snack run). It has few drawbacks- really just nits. Settlers requires a bit more than a square yard of clean tablespace, it comes with tempermental dice, and you'll need to devise your own rules for mixing two sets.
In this game, three to four groups of settlers are simultaneously trying to control the rich resources of the island of Catan. Each player starts with two settlements and two roads. Eventualy, they may control ports, cities, armies, or the longest road in the realm. Catan is built up randomly for each game out of different hex tiles, each producing a different resource: Mountains (ore), Forest (wood), Hills (clay), Plains (grain), Pastures (sheep- er, wool), Desert (zilch), and water. A set pattern denotes the general layout, but the positions themselves are different for each game. Depending on each tile's placement, the different resources will vary in their relative rarity.
There's no true money or violence in Settlers. The resources of the island dictate the barter and trade system between the players, as they each try to develop along their own agenda. The rate exchange is freely negotiable between players. If the market is bereft of a certain resource, you can go to the harbors. Most will trade three of one resource for one of another. There are also resource-specific harbors, two of a given resource for one. For the desperate or the friendless, the constant 4:1 maritime trade may be used.
As much as you will find yourself wanting to throttle your neighbor, sitting on all the wood in the game, or perhaps being excluded in a particularly sweet offer for clay, you can't take direct action. This isn't a game of TacNukes or guerrilla sabotage on foreign roads or cities. There is, however, the Robber. The Robber stops production at a tile, and the player who moved the Robber has the option of stealing a card from an adjacent player. The Robber will move each time a seven comes up on the dice, or by the playing of a Soldier card.
Other Development cards include Monopoly (take all X in play), Road Builing (two free roads), Year of Plenty (two free resources), and Victory point cards (win win win). The dice dictate production only- each player rolls before their turn, and whichever numbered hex comes up produces that turn for anyone who has built on the tile.
A few more words on what you get for your 35$. All of the buildable pieces and the Robber are painted wood, a nice change of pace from chits and plastic. The tiles are sturdier than cardboard, with nice full-color art too boot. All of the cards- both the Resource Cards used to keep track of the flow of goods, as well as the Development Cards bought as perks during the game- shuffle well, hold up under heavy use, and have art that looks good and isn't too cluttered. The numbered production tokens haven't yet been lost, due to the thoughtful inclusion of plastic ziplock bags. (Hoody Hoo!)
Of the dozen or more players we've introduced to Settlers, a good third of them have gone on to purchase copies of their own. I've seen it for sale in a few non-hobby stores, and any con dealers should have a few copies for sale, if not tourneys in the open gaming. the Settlers of Catan has won an Origins award for US Board Game of the Year for 1996, as well as a Spiel de Jahres German Game of the Year for 1995. Mayfair also puts out a non-collectible card game for two players, as well as an expansion: The Seafarers of Catan. I originally bought Settlers on a near-whim; I'd seen the box before and only heard good things. It's a damn fine game.
Style: 5 (Excellent!)