The Settlers of Catan
The Settlers of Catan Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 27/10/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A simple game of resource accumulation and building. Very visual pleasing, and possessing surprising ability to support varied strategies.
Product: The Settlers of Catan
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games / Kosmos`
Line: Settlers of Catan
Page count: N/A
Year published: 1995
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 27/10/02
Genre tags: Historical
The Settlers of Catan is a game that's won award after award, including German Game of the Year for 1995 and US Board Game of the Year for 1996. Even better, it's a good game too that's equally playable with die-hard strategists and friends & family.
The reason that you're paying $38 for this box is because of the components. Since this game has high repay value, they're IMO, well-worth the cost.
The board is made up of a number of solid cardboard hexes which are (usually) randomly arranged into an "island". The board does tend to come apart a little bit in play, as the hexes randomly iterate outward, but that's a fairly minor issue. The play sides of the hexes have full color illustrations which are relatively pleasing, though not spectacular.
A set of circular chits labelled 2-12 go on top of the board, one per hex. They're also solid cardboard, and plain but utilitarian.
Two decks of cards are also included. The resource deck correlates each hex with a resource. For example, the "wheat" card shows the "fields" tile in the background and the "wheat" in a circle in the foreground. It's very easy to look at a card and see what hex produced it and what resource it includes. The second deck is the development card deck, which includes very nice illustrations. Both decks are on solid cardstock.
Each player's pieces consists of a set of roads, cities, and settlements, each of which is made of wood.
Finally, there are a set of cardboard cards. Four of them are labelled "Building Costs" and show which resources are needed to build which building. Again, the resources are shown clearly in circles, easily connecting them up to the resource cards. Victory points for each building are also clearly labeled on the card.
Two more cards, labelled "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" are used to mark special victory parts.
All in all, the design of these various components is excellent. Everything is laid out in intuitive and obvious ways so that even a first-time player has no trouble figuring out what's needed to build what building and what value that building has.
There are two rulebooks: a "game rules" and an "almanac". Theoretically, the first explains how to play the game and the second is a quick reference book which you can use to look up things like "robber" and "turn sequence". Unfortunately--and the only real failing of the Mayfair version of the game--the game rules book doesn't actually contain all the rules. Instead you have to look some things, such as how to start a non-basic game, up in the alamanac, which is quite non-intuitive.
At the cost of annoying advanced players, however, Mayfair has kept the gameplay very simple for beginners.
There's also a little color insert which shows how to set up the basic game and provides an overview. I don't think I've ever used it, though it'd theoretically be useful to someone who wasn't learning the game from a friend.
The Game Play
You re on the island of Catan. It's made up of 19 hexes, each of which is a specific terrain type and produces a specific resource. Here's the list of what produces what:
Numbered chits labeled between 2 and 12 are laid out on those tiles, one per tile. Each turn a player rolls a pair of dice, and the result, between 2 and 12, shows which tiles produce resources that turn.
Each player also has three types of buildings: roads, settlements, and cities. Settlements are built at the corners of hexes, and allow a player to collect 1 of the appropriate resource when any of the three adjoining hexes produces. Cities are upgrades of settlements; they allow a player to colecct 2 of a resource. Roads are built out from cities or settlements ... and are required to be able to build additional cities or settlements.
There's one final type of "building" which isn't marked by a wood piece: the development card. It contains soldiers, "progress cards", and victory points.
Each of these building types costs certain resources to build and is worth a certain number of victory points:
Road: wood, brick / 2 VP for longest road
Trading also is an important part of play. You can trade cards with other players, which you should--frequently (ie, "I've got a 'brick' if anyone wants to trade me a 'wood' for it"). You can engage in maritime trade by trading 4 of one card (ie, "4 wheat") for 1 of another (ie, "1 ore"). Finally, you can also build ports by the sea which give you better maritime trading ratios.
And, lastly, there's a robber. Whenever a "7" is rolled the player rolling the dice moves him. He can stop a hex from producing, by putting the robber there and also steal a card from one player adjoining the hex. Rolling a "7" also causes anyone holding more than 7 cards to lose half of them. (A soldier card, drawn from the development deck, may also be used to move the robber. This allows the player of the soldier to steal one card, but has no effect on people hoarding more than 7 cards.)
That's the game in a nutshell. At the beginning of the game, the board is randomized by laying out the hexes, then the number chits are placed on top in a specific order. Each player begins with two settlements and two roads. First to 10 victory points wins.
The Game Design
Overall, the game design of Settlers of Catan is very good. Here's some of the best features:
Controllable Randomness: There is a high random element to the game, as there's quite a bit of variance on a 2D6 die roll. However, Catan lets you at least feel like you're somewhat in control of this randomness, by choosing where to build your settlements, and thus what die rolls you'll require.
Even with the development deck, there's a high degree of control. Before choosing to buy a new card you can quickly assess, e.g., that about half the cards are soldiers, a quarter are victory points, etc.
Despite these superb efforts, the randomness of Catan is still a little high, and a streak of very bad luck can be very frustrating. This is the main reason that the substance is only marked 4 out of 5.
Good Victory Conditions: Catan does a nice job of combining visible and invisible victory conditions. You can generally be sure of how well each player is doing by quickly scanning the board, but there's some degree of uncertainty because a player could be concealing victory points in development cards.
Good Ways to Slow Winners: Because trading between players is very important in Catan, it's possible to dramatically slow winners by refusing to trade with them. In addition, there's some limited possibility to slow winners by blocking their building of roads and settlements on the board.
It works out very well, because other players feel like they can have some ability to determine the outcome, but they don't actually *roll back* a victor's points, like so many games do, and thus the game stays well bounded in time.
Multiple Paths to Victory: Catan is not just a simple game where you build A, then build B, then build C, and whomever does it the fastest wins.
Rather, there are multiple paths to victory. Some players will go for long roads, other for large armies and/or development VPs. Some players will build lots of settlements, and some will upgrade everything to cities. This all allows for good interactivity between players who each will have different short-term goals, and will thus value different resources in different ways (just about a necessity for a good trading-based game).
Here are just a few of the strategies that are used in Catan:
Independence. Try to collect all 5 types of resources using your own settlements and cities.
Overall, Catan gets very high marks in both game play and component quality. The game is visually pleasing and easy to learn. Yet, there's enough room within the game to allow for multiple strategies and thus extremely high replayability.
That replayability is dramatically increased by the variety of supplements out there, which I plan to review in turn over the next couple of months.