The Starfarers of Catan
The Starfarers of Catan Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 23/11/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
A good, if complex, adapation of the Settlers of Catan ideals to a totally new science-fiction game. Unfortunately tons of plastic pieces jack up the price point without adding a lot to the game.
Product: The Starfarers of Catan
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games / Kosmos
Line: Starfarers of Catan
Page count: N/A
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 23/11/02
Genre tags: Science Fiction Far Future Space
So, you've got a great pseudo-historical board game with solid game mechanics that's won all kinds of awards. What do you do next? If you're Klaus Teuber you adopt your Settlers of Catan game to the science-fiction genre as the totally new Starfarers of Catan game.
It's worth noting that Starfarers is a totally standalone game that in no way requires Settlers of Catan, though as you read through this review you'll probably note that the two games share some real similarities in gameplay.
Starfarers is (unfortunately) a $60 game, and that very high price point is due to the components included in the game, namely:
All of the cardboard components are of the quality that you would expect from the Catan series of games. The gameboard in particular is extremely nice solid cardboard that seems to be coated with something to resist spills. The rulebook and almanac are both 4-color, and the main rules are on solid cardstock.
Each of the resource cards match a planet color to a type of resource, and the iconography is very clear and easy to distinguish. Likewise, alien friendship cards include clear icons to explain benefits that they offer and the encounter cards, which are mini-multiple-choice-adventures, are extremely easy to follow. Each player also gets a game overview card which explains building costs, turn order, and certain movement results, something I adore in the Catan games. Care has been taken not only to assure the quality of all these components but also their ease of use (a benefit often associated with European games, since they come from a multilingual environment)
And then we get to all the plastic junk in the box.
Each player has a number of tokens in his color which are placed on the map as play proceeds: colonies, spaceports, transporters, and trading outposts. In addition each player has a honking big mother ship which is used to hold technological advance tokens: fame rings, cannons, boosters, and freight rings.
Intended to be nice and evocative, all these plastic bits instead strike me as cheap, and I've talked with other people who feel the same. The lurid coloring of the plastic pieces, and the ungainly, phallic mother ships make the entire product almost laughable.
Worse, everything is produced from a fairly hard plastic which is somewhat brittle. I have no idea how the smaller pieces will survive normal wear and tear, but the large mother ships are already beginning to break down after just a few games. For example, the clips used to hold the boosters on mother ships are so small that they easily snap off during regular use. In addition, due to inadequate gluing, one of our rockets fell apart during normal shaking after not too many games.
Unfortunately, even cheap pieces like these cost money, which is what has pushed the price point of Starfarers up to $60.
Overall, the nice cards and cardboard in Starfarers doesn't redeem the very high cost for chintzy plastic components, thus resulting in an only "average" style rating.
The Game Play
So, with that huge array of pieces, you're probably wondering what you do with all of them. Starfarers shares a core idea with the original Settlers game: you build settlements near resource production centers and then use those resources to build more stuff that moves you along the way to victory. However, it also diverges with a couple of other, orthagonal, types of gameplay.
1. Producing & Building
You are expanding out from the original Earth colonies. Space is marked off in hexes, most of which are empty, but some of which contain planets (planets are actually all grouped into triads--a triangle of three planetary systems).
Each specific planet type produces a specific resource type:
Green Planets: Food
[As a side note, one flaw in the otherwise solid iconography is that red and orange planets look similar enough from a distance that it's not east to distinguish them from across the board; I tried to give someone ore when they were supposed to get fuel more than once during the game.]
Numbered chits labeled between 2 and 12 are laid out on those planets, one per planet. They're face up for the players' initial colonies and face down for unexplored worlds (they'll be turned up when colonized). Each turn a player rolls a pair of dice, and the result, between 2 and 12, shows which planets produce resources that turn.
Each player also has three types of "buildings" they can create: trade ships, colony ships, and spaceports. A trade ship is a "transporter" spaceship placed atop a trading outpost; a colony ship is a "transporter" spaceship placed atop a colony. As I'll discuss in movement, below, those colonies actually have to be moved across the board by the transporter before they are officially "created". A spaceport is a little ring put around an existing colony; it allows new ships to be produced next to that colony when they're purchased.
Each of these "buildings" is created by spending a specific number of resources:
trade ship: ore, fuel, 2 trade goods
As with the original Settlers game, trading is very important to the game. You can trade cards with other players, which you should--frequently (ie, "I've got a 'fuel' if anyone wants to trade me a 'trade goods' for it"). You can engage in trade with Earth by offering 3 of one card (ie, "3 food") for 1 of another (ie, "1 ore"). [Trade goods can actually be traded at a 2:1 ratio]. Finally, you can also get better trading ratios through one of the alien races (more on them later).
3. Buying Technology
But those three types of objects aren't the only things you can purchase in Starfarers. The game also sneaks in a mini-technology system by treating it as "just another thing to buy". It's actually a very clever extension of the solid Catan mechanics. There are three technological items that you can purchase:
Freight Ring: 2 ore
Each of these items are represented by a little plastic piece that you put on your dorky mother ships. Freight rings and cannons can help you colonize certain types of planets. Boosters speed up your ship movement and both they and cannons help you out in encounters. Finally, freight rings are required to open trade relations with alien races. And we'll get to what that all means in a second.
4. Moving Ships
One major new system not found in Catan is that of "movement". You actually have to take your various ships, fly them across the galaxy, explore planets to see if they can sustain colonies (ie, by looking at how good their production numbers), and then finally drop your colonies off.
Each turn you determine how fast your ships move by shaking your mother ship. This causes 2 (of 4) colored balls to come into view. The balls (black, blue, yellow, and red) are worth a certain number of movement points each (0, 1, 2, and 3). Unless you have a black ball, you add those up, and that's your base speed.
If you get black balled, you have an encounter. A player next to you reads a card, and you encounter merchants, space pirates, other space ships, a worm hole, aliens, or something else. You're asked to make a decision (give them resources, fight them, save them, run away, etc.), which sometimes results in your dicing off against another player with ship speed (boosters) and ship combat ability (cannons) sometimes being added to the results. And then something good or bad happens to you.
If you have an encounter your base speed is considered 3. Whether you had an encounter or not, you add your base speed to your number of boosters and each of your ships can move that speed.
The colony ships are the most similar in concept to some of the original Settlers buildings, so I'll discuss them first. Basically, you flit them around to get them adjacent to planets and so look at their numbers. When you find a good pair of planets you drop your colony off at the intersection between them. At that point your ship is returned to your pile of available pieces and you actually get the victory point for the colony.
The only other thing to note is that some planets are hard to colonize. Ice planets require you to have a certain number of freight rings and pirate bases require you to have a certain number of cannons. You must "defeat" the planet (earning a victory point) before you can colonize.
5. Visiting Aliens
But you have another type of ship too, the trade ship, meant to establish trading outposts.
On the edges of the map are four different alien races. Each has five "trading" intersections, numbered one to five. If you have a trading ship and have a number of freight rings equal to the number of smallest empty trading intersection, then you can use a trading ship to drop a trading outpost off with that alien ... establishing trade relations.
Whomever has the most trading outposts with an alien race receive a friendship chip worth 2 victory points. In addition every time you create a trading outpost, you receive a "friendship card" from that alien which gives you a permanent bonus. (Clearly, each alien race has 5 friendship cards.)
These cards slightly change the rules of the game. For example:
6. Other Rules
There are a few minor rules in addition. For example, the game is speeded up at the beginning by each player getting to draw a random resource card every turn as aid from Earth, until he has more than 9 victory points. Conversely whenever a "7" is rolled, "Earth demands tribute". The roller can steal a card from anyone else and anyone with more than 7 cards loses half of them.
7. Winning the Game
The game goes to 15 victory points. These points are won by a combination of items related to outposts and colonies:
colony: 1 VP
Fortunately the board contains (1) a chart laying this all out and (2) a track used to monitor each player's current VPs.
The Game Design
If you've trudged through all of that, you've probably arrived at the conclusion that Starfarers of Catan is a complex game. And, you'd be correct. Fortunately, Starfarers has done a good job of isolating individual decision matrixes, so that their combined complexity doesn't overwhelm the game.
At any point you've basically got a three point decision:
Then each of those possibilities has a few decisions. It's a nice little decision tree that keeps the players from getting totally lost in different options. Likewise, turn order is used to further constrain rules complexity. Trading/building are one distinct turn, followed by movement/encounters.
I was a bit overwhelmed by the rules when I originally read them, but in actual gameplay they only seemed somewhat more complex than the original Settlers.
Beyond that, here's some of the factors that I appreciate in the Starfarers design:
Controlled Randomness: Starfarers tries to give you some control of the randomness implicit in the game by allowing you to choose which resource/planets you're going to settle upon, and which die rolls are associated with them. Likewise, the encounters allow you to make decisions which should be based upon your own technology.
Unfortunately this doesn't work as well as in the original Settlers because there are multiple levels of randomness which all can impact your decisions, including: production based on die rolls; random results of encounters; random production chits you discover upon unexplored planets; and random ship speeds, which can allow other folks to get to planets ahead of you.
The variance is slightly higher than I'd like but not as bad as in, e.g., The Seafarers of Catan, where a revealed production chit being bad can ruin turns and turns of planning (because ship movement is much more limited in Seafarers than Starfarers).
Good Player Balance: Considerable work has been done to balance out player success. For example, the "supplies from Earth" rule continues to benefit those people who are behind. Similarly certain alien friendship cards allow you to take stuff away from the leaders, including technological advances and resource cards. The fact that the alien friendship chips can be taken from other players by building additional outposts allows another way to set back the leader. Finally, like Settlers, individual players can choose to hurt the leaders by refusing to trade with them, something which has cost me victory in Settlers and Starfarers alike.
Decent Victory Conditions: It's a bit sad that there are no hidden victory points in Starfarers, as that usually benefits a game. However the way the victory points are laid out is overall well done. In general victory points can't be totally removed from the game, and thus the game is always on an upward trend (toward game end). Also, the amount that victory points can be moved from player to player provides only minor swings; you can stop someone from winning, but not put them totally out of the race, unlike in more poorly balanced games.
Multiple Paths to Victory: It looks to me that, just like in the original Settlers, there are multiple paths that you can take to victory. For example, I settled on a trade strategy originally, with the intent being to make friends with all the nice aliens. Other players weighed in toward colonies, and still other toward technological advance. Four of the five players in our game were fairly even near the end so I'd say that probably meant the multiple strategies did actually work.
Most of my complaints with Starfarers have to do with the components and with the somewhat greater level of complexity, which I'm not convinced notably enhanced the game. Minor qualms included:
Bad Naming: The fact that there were "trade goods" and "trading outposts" and "trade ships" and "trading with players" was a bit confusing. Maybe the Germans have a lot of words for trade and that translated poorly ...
Less Planning: Overall, I felt my ability to plan somewhat impaired in this game. Some of this was due to the higher level of randomness already noted. You never knew when you or another player might, for example, get a spacewarp to the other side of the board which would dramatically change their game play. This was particulaly the case at the start of the game when you were drawing "supplies from Earth", because you never knew what random resources you might end up with.
Annoying Player Variations: Starfarers requires different setups for three or four players (and even more for five or six with the supplement), which is always mildly annoying because you have to remember how to setup a bunch of different game types. However the three and four player games also had differences in in-game gameplay, which is even tougher to remember, because it has to be applied constantly. The fact that Starfarers plays slightly different for every number of players from 3 to 6 is actually a fairly notable flaw.
Overall the game design of Starfarers was solid and enjoyable to play. Somehow, though, it doesn't have quite the zing of the original Settlers game. I suspect that's due to the increased complexity; it may or may not improve with additional play.
Overall Starfarers does an excellent job of being true to the original memes of Settlers of Catan while also being true to the science-fiction genre it's based it.
I'm quite sad that the game is so expensive, thanks to the components, as that will probably keep me from picking this game up for quite some time (this playtest was done with a borrowed copy). Worse, the components don't sell me because they feel cheap rather than valuable.
Though complex, the gameplay is solid. Your mileage will vary depending on what complexity of game you enjoy.