The Seafarers of Catan
The Seafarers of Catan Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 09/11/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
A slightly flawed supplement to Settlers of Catan that will offer decent value to advanced players but may not work well for casual players.
Product: The Seafarers of Catan
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games / Kosmos
Line: Settlers of Catan
Page count: N/A
Year published: 1998
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 09/11/02
Genre tags: Historical
The Seafarers of Catan is the first supplement to the widely popular and successful Settlers of Catan game. If you're not familiar with the basic game, my reviews of it can be found here:
Seafarers supplements the original game by allowing the construction of boats, and thus the exploration of new lands, over the seas from Catan.
Players: 3-4 Age: 12 Playing Time: 1-2 hours Difficulty: 2-3 (of 7)
As with Settlers of Catan, you're paying $38 for the quality of the components. Unfortunately, unlike Catan, many of the components seem like filler required to bulk the box out to its appropriate size, while important components are missing.
Here's what you get in the Seafarers box:
The edge pieces are intended to "hold" the board together. You arrange them in a rectangle, and then you place the hexes inside. For the life of me, I can't figure out why the designers thought these were necessary here when the original Catan got by fine without them. Sure, the board shifts a little bit in play, but if this supplement had been cheaper or more useful stuff had been included, I would have lived a happy life without these little chunks of cardboard.
The new tiles are perfect matches for the original, intended to offer expansion out into new realms. The gold hexes are totally new with Seafarers and discussed below in "The Game Play".
The 8 victory point chits are simply markers used to keep track of when you get bonus victory points not shown on the board by your buildings or cards. They're simple, yet pretty pictures of flags. Kosmos and Mayfair have done a pretty good job of using this particular icon for bonus victory point markers in most of their Catan games, which gets definite points for consistency.
The 10 number chits are used for resource production, just like in the original Settlers. These ones are easy to distinguish from the others because they don't have letters on their front. They're meant to be placed on distant, newly discovered islands.
The harbor tokens are the other thing that seems wasteful in this set. They're little triangular beacons that you put where land and sea meet, to mark harbors for maritime trade. Players will note that this is a duplication of the water/harbor hexes from the original Settlers. Now, instead of laying out a water/harbor hex, you lay out a water hex and put a harbor token on top of it.
Why the two different approaches? I don't know. I personally find these little beacons much more convenient than having the harbor markers printed straight on the water, but again wasting cardboard in this expansion is annoying.
The ships are wooden pieces that match the roads, cities, and settlements that you get in Settlers. Very nice.
Finally, you come to the rulebook which lists the new rules for Seafarers (5 pages), then lists 11 different scenarios for either 3 or 4 players. The rulebook has one major flaw which is that it displays maps showing how to layout tiles for the scenarios in black and white. There's almost no way to distinguish between a couple of the terrains without carefully and repetitively examing the tiles.
The major component missing from Seafarers is some type of Building Card showing you the price for ships. One of the beauties of the original Settlers game is that all the important rules are right there, in front of the players. Forcing players to memorize the cost and value of the ships, no matter how easy that single item is, is a pretty remarkable change from the original Settlers game.
Overall, the components of Seafarers remain very high quality, just like Settlers, but the inclusion of repetitive or largely useless components, combined with the black and white rulebook and the lack of Building Cost cards brings the overall Style down to only "Average", rather than "Excellent".
The Game Play
Seafarer's first notable change to the gameplay of Settlers of Catan comes in the setup. No longer can you enjoy setting up a totally random board. Instead, you must pick a scenario, and lay out some, most, or all of the board according to a diagram in the rulebook.
The various scenarios tend to involve a couple of different islands separated from each other by ocean. A couple of the scenarios also leave some space within the "frame" blank, allowing for exploration (ie, tiles are revealed during play). Whatever island the players begin on also tends to be smaller than the original Catan island.
Theoretically, once you've got your board laid out, have placed your initial settlements and roads, and have started the player turns, you could play Seafarers exactly like Settlers. You could build roads, settlements, and cities, and try to rise to ascendancy in your little mini-Catan.
However, you also have an alternative. You can build ships to explore the oceans and other islands. As with anything else, ships cost resources to build: a sheep and a wood. They may be built on any edge of a water hex (including a water-land edge) and must be built adjacent to either a ship or a city-settlement.
Ships have one special rule: they can be moved (or "twiddled" or "flipped" according to my gaming group). Essentially, you can flip the ship at the end of a Shipping Lane (a/ka "the Ship Road") to the adjacent hex edge which also connects to the ship before it in the Shipping Lane.
The main purposes of ships are to explore and to allow the construction of cities overseas. When you are playing scenarios which have "exploration areas" as soon as a ship comes adjacent to an empty hex, that hex is randomly inserted. As for building: settlements may be built adjacent to ships, just as they may be built adjacent to roads.
Shipping Lanes may also be used to count as "Longest Road". This could be through a single long Shipping Lane or a Shipping Lane that connects up to a Road through a city. (Shipping Lanes touching roads without a City in-between are not considered connected.)
So why would one bother to build ships and begin exploring distant lands?
There's only one other new rule of note: the pirate. This is a black ship which may be moved instead of the robber when a "7" is rolled or a soldier card is played. After moving the pirate, the player who did so gets to steal a card from a player with a ship adjacent. The pirate also prevents ships from being built or moved on his hex edges.
The Game Design
Overall, Seafarers of Catan is a somewhat mixed bag game-design-wise. On the good side we have the following:
Good, Simple Expansion: Seafarers of Catan recognizes the fact that a good supplement to an existing game offers new rules which are parallel to existing ones, but are also fairly singular in nature. In other words, we generally want to add one more choice to an existing decision matrix. And, that's exactly what Seafarers does. On the "building decision matrix" we now have one more option: to build a ship or not to build a ship. That choice has a number of ramifications involving gold mines, longest roads, victory points, and what might be discovered overseas, which is good, but the decision itself is a singular and simple one. Seafarers also adds a single decision to the "robber decision matrix", as the pirate may now be moved instead. Again, this singular choice has a lot of ramifications including: blocking ship building, blocking fleet movement, and continuing to block an existing resource that the robber is sitting on. But its at heart still a binary choice: robber or pirate.
Supports Weak Strategies: Seafarers also helps balance the original Settlers game because it adds support for what until then had been a weak strategy: collecting sheep. In the original game, those wooly beasties were usually overabundent in end-game. Now, there's a use for them: more ships. A very nice catch.
On the other hand, Seafarers also makes a number of misteps in its expansion of Settlers. None are anywhere near fatal, but many are annoying.
Paradigm Confusion: A good supplement should extend the existing paradigm of a game without changing it--unless a very different type of game is being explicitly and clearly created. Seafarers pretends to be a simple paradigm match for Settlers, but in actuality changes the basic themes of the game. Where Settlers is almost always built on random maps, Seafarers instead requires choice of pre-generated scenarios. Given the way that Settlers works, it's fairly amazing to note that there isn't even any type of random option given, other than the couple of scenarios which have some blank hexes at start. Most hardcore gamers will quickly see how to play Seafarers more randomly, but they'll probably be disappointed to learn it doesn't work that well (see below on "Increased Randomness"), because the game hasn't been balanced in that fashion. And, players playing a non-supported game type like this is exactly what's going to happen when you undertake a major paradigm shift from game to supplement.
Confusing Rules: The way that ships relate to roads is fairly confusing. They're considered somewhat equivalent, since they can be combined to form Longest Road, but ships must connect only to ships or cities (just as roads must connect only to roads or cities). You can't connect up a ship to a road. I can see some balance reasons for this, but someone also makes this mistake just about every time Seafarers is played, which is my prime criteria for whether a rule is good or not.
Poor Incentives: In many of the Seafarers scenarios there isn't sufficient incentive to actually explore distant islands. All of the possible incentives are included in the game rules: number chits, which could offer more common numbers overseas; victory points which could be won; and gold hexes. But they're not quite put together in an ideal fashion in the game as it ships.
Increased Randomness: In any game which involves filling in blank tiles within the game (ie, the two scenarios in the book, and the totally random/"rogue" variant which I'm sure many Cataners play), you suddenly have a situation where there's a whole new level of randomness in game. You flip a hex and it could be a sea hex or a land/production hex. And then you put down a number and it could be good or it could totally suck. This acts as a sort of multiplier to the existing level of randomness in Settlers (the die roll which control production), upping the variance, and thus giving even more possibility for a really bad run of luck for a player. In the last "random" game we played, the winning players won because they discovered abundant lands over sea, while other folks lost because they found sea hexes and/or bad number chits.
Overall, Seafarers offers an interesting addition to Settlers of Catan. If you're playing with advanced players, in particular, who will be able to get past the change in paradigm, will be able to deal with the occasionally confusing rule addition, and who will be willing to experiment with how to create more random setups, you'll probably have a lot of fun playing this as alternative to basic Settlers sometimes.
On the other hand, if your Catan group is not hardcore, it might be better to give this one a miss.
I also think the price-point on this supplement is too high for the value received from the components, but given there's a monopoly on Catan supplements, you just have to decide if you can afford the forty bucks or not.