The Settlers of Catan, Historical Scenarios I: Cheops & Alexander the Great
The Settlers of Catan, Historical Scenarios I: Cheops & Alexander the Great Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 30/11/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Two neat historical supplements that can be used with your existing Settlers of Catan game. Cheops provides fun gameplay, but Alexander is deeply flawed. Despite that, the price point is low enough that they're worthwhile for diehard fans.
Product: The Settlers of Catan, Historical Scenarios I: Cheops & Alexander the Great
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games / Kosmos
Line: The Settlers of Catan
Cost: $24.00 USD
Page count: N/A
Year published: 1998
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 30/11/02
Genre tags: Historical
In 1998 Kosmos Games in Germany started releasing Historical Scenarios ("Historische Szenarien") for their popular game, The Settlers of Catan. Fortunately for we Americans, Mayfair Games is now importing the Historical Scenarios to the United States, and including English translations of the rules.
The first Historical Scenarios box includes two scenarios: Cheops and Alexander the Great. Because the gameplay of the two variants is so different, each has been given its separate review below.
Each of these games requires The Settlers of Catan to play. In addition Cheops theoretically requires The Seafarers of Catan. The 5-6 player expansions aren't required because, as noted in the reviews, neither game supports more than 4 players (a definite minus).
Because this is a supplement to the Settlers and Seafarers games you might wish to read my reviews of those before continuing on:
die Siedler von Cheops
Cheops takes Settlers of Catan to ancient Egypt. Here, players will contend with each other not only to build cities, settlements, roads, and ships, but also to win the Pharaoh's favor by building him a mighty pyramid.
To play Cheops you'll need components from your original Settlers game, namely: roads, settlements, and cities for 3 or 4 players; resource cards; development cards; the robber; the dice; and building cost cards.
Cheops also supplies a number of new components, including:
Although not mentioned anywhere, Cheops also comes with a number of [cardboard] ships (8 for each color). These are presumably included in case a purchaser doesn't own Seafarers. In this case he only needs to know how to use them (at the least that he can buy them with a sheep and a wood).
These components are all on cardboard. The map is extremely heavy cardboard, the the rest of the components are somewhat heavy cardboard. They're not the wood you might expect from Catan but given the price point ($24) they're of higher quality than you would expect for the price.
Everything is printed 4-color, and the map in particular is very beautiful, with Egyptian pictograms running along the sides.
Cheops also follows the standard European practice of putting few to no words on the components, and placing rules on the board in an iconographic form. On the Cheops board that means the new items that can be bought (stone blocks) are clearly noted on the map and only the Pharoah/VP cards have any words on them ("Pharaos' Segen" and "Pharaos Fluch"). However, this should be of no concern at all to non-German readers because the intent of the card is clearly noted by the numbers (" 3" and "-2").
My only complaint regarding the components is that some serve purposes in both the Cheops and Alexander games (ie, the gold pieces are used in both places and the Pharaoh's VP cards have Alexander advisor cards on the back). The downside of this repetition is that you can't cleanly divide the components for the two games, and thus setup is slowed down a little bit.
The Game Play
The Cheops game essentially makes minor changes to the gameplay of Settlers of Catan to better portray the historical Cheops scenario.
Here's the big changes:
The board is set. This is true of all of the historical scenarios. You get a map board similar to what you'd see in a more traditional board game, with all resource hexes already arranged and production numbers labelled on them. Here's what's particularly interesting about the Cheops board: (1) There's a big pyramid building location to the west of the Nile; (2) There are a couple of "gold" hexes to the south; (3) all of the ore hexes are to the southeast, beyond the Red Sea; and (4) almost all of the wood is to the northeast, in Palestine.
Setup is constrained. All setup must be done along the banks of the Nile. This is of some importance because it means ore is totally unavailable at start and wood is largely unavailable.
You can build a pyramid. This is really the heart of the rule changes. For an ore and a brick you can put a block on the pyramid. Whomever has the most blocks on the pyramid at any time gets a 3VP marker; whomever has the least gets a -2 VP marker. Of note: you need to have a settlement adjacent to the pyramid building space to add these blocks to the pyramid.
Gold hexes generate gold. Unlike in Seafarers, gold hexes generate gold coins. These can be treated as a commodity that can be traded for any other resource at 4:1 (or at 3:1 with a general port). They can also be used for trade, which is described below.
There are trade routes. You may use other players' ports for trading (e.g., acquiring the 3:1 or 2:1 trade ratio) and may also use other players' settlements to allow you to build on the pyramid. To do this you must be able to trace a route through roads and ships from one of your settlements to either a settlement at a port or a settlement at a pyramid building spot. You must pay each player who's road or ship you use to trace this route a gold each time you use it.
Different Victory. Victory is slightly changed: you need 12 VPs. Longest Road is not available (essentially because road building is already rewarded because it allows you to get to the resources in the east and because it supports trade routes), but you have the 3/-2 Pharaoh victory cards. The game may also end when the pyramid is totally built (which can happen at a random time, as the pharaoh puts a black block on the pyramid whenever a "7" is rolled), or when all the Pharoah's own black pyramid blocks are used, in which case the fellow with the most VPs wins.
The Game Design
Overall, Cheops doesn't seem to play as smoothly as the original Settlers of Catan game, but some of the variations introduced in this game provide for fairly different gameplay and thus are kind of neat.
Some of the cooler changes include:
Those Trade Routes: The trade routes, in theory, seem to add yet another reason that you might want to build roads--which before only had two purposes, to extend a longest road, or to provide space for a new settlement. Having multiple reasons to make choices generally provides for more interesting gameplay even if it's not notably more complex. These trade routes can also, in theory, give players more control over their own fate, because they can acquire a connection to a trading port they need or to a pyramid building site even if they were shut out by other players. Finally the trade routes seem to balance the board; all ports are in the north, but there's gold in the south, which is what you need to access ports via trade routes. I say "in theory" and "seem" because trade routes were practically never used in the game of Cheops I played, though some of us definitely built roads/ships intending to make use of them.
That Pyramid: The pyramid uses a very nice reward/punishment structure to add another option to the main Catan decision matrix: what to build. Now, besides roads, settlements, cities, development cards, and ships you can also choose to build pyramid blocks. That decision matrix is starting to get large enough that it could be daunting to a player, but thanks to the rewards and punishments, decisions are fairly simple. If you need the reward ( 3 VP) or fear the punishment (-2 VP) or fear someone else getting the reward or losing the punishment ... then you build. Elegant, yet a totally new aspect to the game.
Strong Goals: Sometimes Catan can fumble about, especially in the early stages, because players don't start off with strong goals. Here they have it, in the need to strike out trade routes to the east and its plentiful ore and wood.
Some of the more problematic changes include:
Constrained Resources: At the start of the game ore is totally unavailable and wood is very rare. This unfortunately places all of the players in the position of needing the same thing. Catan is a strong game because it encourages trading by allowing players to adopt very different strategies and thus to desire very different things. When everyone wants the same things (wood and ore) then the trading starts to break down.
Slow Startup: Closely paired with the constrained resources was the fact that the start of the game was very frustrating. It was half an hour into the game before people starting being able to really build rather than just sitting by while resources didn't appear.
Overall Cheops is a slightly flawed but interesting variant for Settlers of Catan. The annoyances with constrained gameplay are fairly notable, because it goes against the central element of Catan play (trading). Nonetheless there's enough fun to be had here, building routes to the east, trading up the Nile, and constructing a pyramid that it's generally worth playing.
If I was just reviewing Cheops on its own, I would have found it worth the $24 entry fee and would have given it a 4 for Style (less than the combined game because the value proposition is a little lower) and a 4 for Substance (more than the combined game because Alexander the Great unfortunately drags this combined product down).
die Siedler von Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great takes Settlers back in time to the years 334-324 BC. Here the players take the roles of the advisors to Alexader the Great and follow in his footsteps, settling in the lands that he conquers.
Once more, to play Alexander the Great you'll need original Settlers components. This time around you'll be using pretty much everything from the original set other than the tiles and the numbers chits. Alexander also includes:
Pretty much all the discussions of Cheops apply equally here: nice components, a beautiful board, all done in cardboard but that's reasonable for the price, slight annoyance that pieces are shared between the two games.
The Game Play
Unlike Cheops, Alexander the Great largely revises the gameplay of Settlers of Catan. It adds a whole auction game aspect that unfortunately works quite poorly.
Here's all the changes:
The board is set. As is the case with all the historical scenarios. This board only has one really notable difference from the standards: a green path for Alexander the Great to follow: beginning in Greece, heading down to Egypt, then off to the Middle East, into India, and finally to Persepolis (where Alexander died). There are also gold spaces on this board, which produce gold, which is only useful as a 4:1 exchange good.
Setup is weird. No one gets anything on board at start. In addition all the resource cards are shuffled together (into the "provision deck"). Finally, special "event chits" are put on all the Alexander "event spaces" (more on them in a second).
Everyone gets free cards. At the beginning of each player's turn, every player gets a free resource card from the provision deck--until the provision deck is expended.
The movement of Alexander. Each turn Alexander moves along his path (along the hex sides, to the next hex intersection). If there is a special icon at the new Alexander space (which is true for most of them) an auction is initiated. There are two main types of Alexander spaces: temples and event spaces, the latter of which have event chits placed on them.
The auctions Every turn that Alexander lands on a special space, an auction occur after resource production and before the building/trading phase. In each special space only certain types of goods can be used for the auction. In a temple auction, anything but ore can be bid; in an event auction the chit is revealed, and then items may be bid depending on the type of event:
In any case you win an auction by bidding the most cards.
If you win a temple auction you get to place a free settlement on Alexander's curent space. If you win an event auction, you get the event chit, which is used to measure if you're first, second, or third advisor. Whomever has the most event chits gets first, the second second, etc. These are worth 4, 3, and 2 VPs respectively.
(Note that although many settlements are built through auctions, they can also be built in the normal way.)
Different Victory: Alexander goes to 14 VPs. Alternatively, the game can end if Alexander reaches Persepolis. (Die rolls of "7" are required for Alexander to advance the last few spaces, so that the exact ending time isn't known.)
The Game Design
Unfortunately, the game design of Alexander is largely degenerate, destroying most of the normal ways to play Settlers of Catan without really adding anything. Some of the main problems are:
Huge Variance: At the start of the game you're drawing your resources entirely randomly. Thus you never know what you're going to have, and can't plan in advance. Worse, because you're drawing so many cards, once you have a settlement or two, and are also earning cards through die rolls, you'll regularly top 7 cards in between turns, and thus can lose them to the robber very easily (and totally randomly).
Card Differences Are Entirely Devalued: Because anything but ore can be used to bid on temples, it doesn't really matter what cards you have if you want to bid on temples. Thus, there is very little incentive to trade with other players, and you don't really care what resources you get from die rolls ... only how many non-ore cards you have. This makes the game very boring in early play. (Clearly the game is intended to support card differentiation by the different resources needed to bid on event chits, but in practice bidding on temples is much more important than bidding on those chits, at least at the start.)
Road Building Is Largely Devalued: Because Alexander quickly moves across the board, and frequently gives you the opportunity to build new settlements at temples, roads are largely devalued. It's no longer important to build them to allow for the creation of additional settlements, so their only use is to try and win the longest road card. Thus this aspect of Alexander actually decreases the size of the decision matrix in Settlers (as does the lack of differentiation between cards, really).
Play Quickly Degenerates: Unlike in Settlers of Catan, there is a clear winning strategy: bid on only the temple auctions in the first quarter or third of the game, provided that you can get your free temple-settlements for 8 cards or less (the cost of a settlement plus two road segments); don't actually build; don't bid on event chits. This gives a quick and increasing advantage as the game progresses, but frankly isn't much fun.
Overall, the game design of Alexander the Great really doesn't work.
An Alternative Game
One of my co-players in this playtest suggested the following rules changes:
Those might help the game out some, but I'm not entirely convinced it'd make it fun.
Overall Alexander the Great is deeply flawed. The components are nice, but as they're presented they don't make an interesting game.
If I was just reviewing Alexander the Great on its own, I would have found it a waste of my time and money and would have given it a 4 for Style (less than the combined game because the value proposition is a little lower) but only a 2 for Substance (and that only because I think the variant suggested might start moving Alexander toward being playable).
When all's said and done, I'm happy I got this first Historical Supplement. I'm pretty sure I'll play Cheops again. I don't have the same faith in Alexander the Great, but others might, particularly with the suggested rules changes.
And, this game is really a great deal: $24 for really nice components that can be used to vary your existing Settlers of Catan games. I'm really pleased Mayfair is importing this supplement into the United States, and would recommend it to hardcore Catan fans.
my only other meta-complaint about these two historical games is that they top out at 4 players, which will be an annoyance for anyone which larger gaming groups.