The Cities & Knights of Catan
The Cities & Knights of Catan Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 17/12/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 3 (Average)
A supplement that increases the complexity and interactivity of The Settlers of Catan at the cost of some of the game's elegance. Most hardcore gamers will probably enjoy it, but casual Cataners may find it a bit much.
Product: The Cities & Knights of Catan
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games / Kosmos
Line: The Settlers of Catan
Page count: N/A
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 17/12/02
Genre tags: Historical
The Cities & Knights of Catan is the second core expansion for the much acclaimed German game, The Settlers of Catan. This one adds aspects of civilization building to the mix, and also slightly increases the ability if players to come into direct conflict with each other.
You must have The Settlers of Catan to play this game, and you should read my original review on The Settlers of Catan if you're not already familiar with the product:
Here's a quick synopsis of the Cities & Knights measurements:
The Cities & Knights of Catan comes with a large set of high-quality components:
The barbarian tile and the edge pieces are all made out of the same solid cardboard used for the rest of the Catan games. The barbarian tile is a nice little piece which acts as a timer for the barbarians that are closing in on Catan. It's placed at the top of the board.
The edge pieces are ridiculous puzzle pieces intended to go around your board and hold it together. They're a pain to put together and I don't know anyone who likes to use them. Though a waste of cardboard I can't complain too much because there is so much in this box.
The Victory Point, commodity, and progress cards are all up to the standards of the four-color cards found in other core Catan boxes.
The Victory Point cards are labelled "Defender of Catan" and show the normal flag icon for 1 VP. Nice consistency.
The commodity cards are meant to supplement the resource cards. There are three of them: paper, cloth, and coin. Certain terrain types produce these commodities (ie, forest produces paper), and Cities & Knights nicely matches up with the iconography of the basic game by putting new icons (ie, a book symbol) on top of the existing backgrounds (ie, the forest). This makes it easy to see the similarities and differenecs between the resources and the commodoties.
The progress cards replace the development cards and are separated into three types: science, politics, and trade. These are meant to link up with the commodity types, as discussed further below, and Cities & Knights tries to depict this by putting a colored flag on the back of the progress card (green, blue, or yellow), and then using that same color as an accent around the icon on the commodity card, but the accents are all very subtle, and actually don't help during gameplay unless you actually have your city calendar in front of you too.
The city calendar holds the whole game together, and does a pretty good job of it. It's a flip book divided into 3 sections: trade, politics, and science. Each section in turn has 5 levels of advancement. For example, the five levels for trade are: market, trading house, merchant guild, bank, and great exchange. As you make progress in the various areas, you flip the appropriate section of the book. This calendar also lists: all of the building costs for roads, ships, settlements, cities, walls, and knights; all of the progress advancement costs; and all of the benefits of advancement. The only annoyance with the layout of this component is that the special reward you get for achieving level 3 of advancement isn't shown on the 4 or 5 flips, and thus it's possible to forget about it.
This book is divided into the three sections by perforations which you pull apart the first time you play the game. The result looks a little cheap, and is a little flimsy on its wire binding. Still the book is done on nice, glossy, four-color cardboard, and one presumes Mayfair couldn't find a better way to put this book together than the perforations and wire binding.
The walls and squares are, of course, in wood. The walls are flats squares that go under cities. The knights are circular pieces that are put on hex corners. You have to put little stickers on the front and back of the knights to show levels of training and whether they're active or not. Since you have to match these stickers front and back and since you have to grab two stickers of each level for each player, it's easy to mess this up, so take care the first time you put your game together. These stickered knights are probably the biggest failing in Cities & Knights, primarily because the active and inactive sides of the knight are only differentiated by slight color changes, and thus it takes real work to figure out which knights are active and which aren't.
Other pieces of wood in the set include 3 golden arches, intended to slip over cities and mark them as metropolises; a dangerous, black barbarian ship; and a purple cone representing a merchant. These are all very nicely done, particularly the ship.
The dice are wood dice, just like in the original Settlers games. The red die is numbered one to six, just like the brown die in the original game. The event die is marked with color-coded symbols for politics, trade, and science, as well as with three barbarian ships. Overall, very nice, though the politics and science event symbols--identical icons in blue and green--were hard for some of our players to distinguish.
The rulesbook and alamnac are both four color. Unlike previous almanacs, this one is a 16-page explanation of the pieces in this game. Most of that is spent giving examples of the various progress cards, which is a very nice touch.
Overall, there's an impressive amount of stuff in the Cities & Knights box and it's all very high quality, minus minor annoyances over the perforated calendar, and major annoyances figuring out knight activation levels. Still, Cities & Knights gets a full 5 out of 5 for style.
The Game Play
Cities & Knights adds considerable complexity to the basic Settlers of Catan rules. As noted earlier, it cranks up both conflict and civilization building aspects in the game.
Before getting starting on those larger issues, though, it's helpful to note a few meta-changes that have been made:
Setup: Each player now starts with one city and one settlement. A barbarian hex is placed nearby to show the progress of the barbarians toward Catan. Before you get started you remove a couple of components from the basic Settlers game: the development cards (because they're replaced by progress cards), the building cost cards (because they're replaced by the city calendars), one of the two dice (because it's replaced by a red die), and the largest army card (because you're now incentivized to build knights to save your cities and can also get victory points from them via the "Defender of Catan" cards).
City Walls: Players can now purchase city walls:
City Wall: brick x2
These walls allow the player to have 2 more cards in his hand without being jumped by the robber. They turn out to be pretty important because of some of the gameplay changes that result from the addition of commodities to the game.
Moving on to the new conflict aspects:
Knights: Knights are no longer represented by cards; instead, they're nice little wooden tokens. Knights now have three levels of strength--basic, strong, and mighty--as well as two states--active and inactive. Here's what all the costs look like:
Knight Purchase: ore, sheep
Knights go on your board, just like settlements, at the corner of a hex. That means they can be used for the rather interesting strategies of blocking someone from building a settlement, or of breaking someone else's road, just like a settlement would (though, in honesty, I haven't seen either strategy used in a game).
Knights also have three functions they can perform if active: move; displace a lesser knight; or chase away a robber in an adjacent hex. Each activity deactivates the knight.
Barbarians: There are now barbarians slowly making their way to Catan. Every player turn there's a 50% chance they get closer (if the barbarian ship comes up on the event die). There are 7 spaces from the barbarians' departure to their arrival, meaning they show up every 14 player-turns on average.
Whenever the barbarians arrive at Catan you measure their strength against the Cataners. Barbarian strength is equal to the number of cities in Catan. Catan strength is equal to the power of the number of active knights in Catan (ie, a level 1 knight is worth 1, a level 2 knight is worth 2, etc). If the barbarians win, the player(s) who had the least active knight value each have a city sacked, destroying any walls and reducing it to a settlement; if the barbarians don't win the player who has the most active knight value gets a "Defender of Catan" card worth 1 VP. In either case, after the battle all knights on the board are deactivated and the barbarians are placed back in their starting position.
Moving on to the new civilization building aspects. This is where things get quite complex:
Commodities: Three of the terrain types now produce one resource and one commodity, instead of two resources, if you've built a city next to the terrain type. The other two still produce two resources, as normal. Here's the full chart:
Forest: Wood, Paper
Please note, that's all cities. Settlements still produce one of their expected resource type. Commodities are intended to be finished resources, and they're used to buy ...
City Improvements: There's five levels of city improvement in each of three categories--trade, politics, and science. Each of those levels of improvement is described as a specific type of structure. I already mentioned the trade buildings. Another example is the set of science improvements, which are: abbey, library, aqueduct, theatre, and university. Cloth buys trade improvements, coins buy political improvements, and paper buys science improvements. It costs 1 of the commodity for the first level, 2 for the second, etc. Since you need to collect up 5 commodities to get the last level of improvement, it becomes obvious why city walls are needed in this version of the game. City improvements give a special bonus at level three (ie, trade level 3, the merchant guild, allows you to trade commodities at a 2:1 ratio), and also allow you to draw ...
Progress Cards: Remember that event die which is 50% barbarian? The other 50% of the faces are city gate symbols, in blue, green, and yellow--and those are the three magic colors for trade, politics, and science. Every time a city gate comes up, you get a progress card of the appropriate type if the red die is no more than 1 higher than your current level of city improvement. That is, if you have that merchant guild trade improvement (trade level 3), if the yellow symbol came up and the red die was four or less, you'd get a trade progress card. This is all made really clear on the city calendar, with nice icons, so even if it sounds confusing, it's crystal clear in play.
Progress Cards are generally like development cards, but with more variety. Trade cards include monopolies and ways to improve your trade ratios; politics affect knights and force interactions with other players; science affects resource collection and building.
There's one other benefit to city improvements which is the ...
Metropolis: The first person to get to city improvement level 4 in each of the four categories can turn a city into a metropolis. He gets a little wooden piece to put over his city, and it's worth 2 Victory Points. This metropolis can be taken away if someone else manages to get to city improvement level 5 first.
If this wasn't all clear, here's how the civilization building aspect of Cities & Knights lays out, linearly:
Forest -> Produces Paper -> Buys Science City Improvements -> Earns Science Progress Cards
And that's about it. The only other major difference in Cities & Knights is that the game is played to 13 Victory Points.
The Game Design
As a whole, adding Cities & Knights in to Settlers of Catan is somewhat of a mixed bag. Some good, some bad, and some questionable game design decisions were made.
To start off with the good:
Nice Balance of Resources: The original Settlers of Catan game had an issue where late in the game certain resources would decrease in value. The exact resource could vary from game to game, but wood and brick were common "extras", as the need to build roads and settlements decreased in the end game. Cities & Knights makes grain more useful late game, thanks to the knight activation cost; it also makes brick more useful because you can build city walls. Finally, it increases the rarity of sheep, ore, and wood because you now get a commodity instead of that resource as your second card when you have a city. Effectively this has overloaded the value of all five resource cards with a new ability, and thus it becomes more likely that someone will always want each and every card.
Increased Interactivity: In the original Settlers game, adverserial interaction is pretty low. You can cut players off with your own roads or settlements, but that's your main weapon against the other players. Conflict and interactivity is cranked up just a little bit in this game, via some of the progress cards, and via the fact that you can use knights to jump in, attack other people's knights, and mess up other people's roads.
On to the questionable:
Increased Complexity: The complexity of Cities & Knights is greatly increased over basic Settlers. Some hardcore gamers might see this as a plus, but I'm not confident it actually increases the players' degree of control ... just the difficulty of making a decision.
A lot of cognitive work we've done over the last several decades has shown that the human brain is able to intuitively grasp between 5 and 7 objects ... whether those be physical objects or decision options. Thus, the original Settlers fit very well into our understanding of what the brain can do: there were 5 resources you could trade and 4 objects you can build (5 objects with Seafarers) ... both well within the scope of what the brain can intuitively process.
Cities & Knights gives you 8 different cards that you can trade. It also gives you 11(!) different things that you can buy: road, ship, settlement, city, city wall, knight creation, knight promotion, knight activation, and the three city improvements.
I expect the actual decision matrix for Cities & Knights can be defined by fewer points, such as: expand trade network (road or ship); increase resource generation (city or settlement); protect cards (city wall); increase martial force (knight creation, promotion, or activation); or improve cities (city improvements). Nonetheless, the game is still well into what I'd consider a complexity danger zone, and about half of our players complained about it. Continued play would probably help, but very clearly Cities & Knights isn't for the casual gamer.
Questionable Card Balance: I'm not entirely convinced that the three progress card types are entirely balanced. In particular the trade cards seemed massively powerful, while politics and science were just OK. I can tell that the designer tried to balance things by putting Victory Point cards in politics and science and not trade, but from my limited experience it wasn't enough (and after looking through the cards more carefully, while I did this review, I now think you could show statistically, on a resource-cost basis, that the trade cards do tend to be better than the other two categories, and it gets worse the more players you have in a game).
Here's what I saw as genuine problems:
The Risk Syndrome: In the well-known game "Risk", because of the increasingly large armies that you get from turning in card sets, the end game turns into a fairly crazy free-for-all with opposing players sweeping across the entire map from one turn to the next. You lose a lot of strategy as a result, and the winner of the game tends to be the person who got lucky enough to get the first army that was just barely big enough. Cities & Knights has a similar problem.
The closer you get to the end game, the more progress cards every player gets, so that by the last round, each player has 3 or 4 progress cards to use every turn, which can make a huge difference. It can also badly upset the plans of other players, since so many of the trade cards involve monopolies that steal cards from other players, and that can reduce strategy even more.
Increased Randomness: The use of progress cards is all very random too, because there's a fair amount of variance in each set of cards. Some can be used to win the game, while others are mildly helpful.
Speedy Barbarians: The barbarians move in just a bit too fast at the start of the game. They're pretty much guaranteed to win the first battle, and thus cripple any players who were too slow to get out their first activated knight. This crippling can be damaging through the whole game, because so much depends upon having cities.
Poor Seafarers Integration: The integration of this game with the first Settlers supplement, Seafarers of Catan, is poor at best. There is about one page of suggestions, on pgs. 11-12 of the almanac, but it's insufficient. No specific Seafarers/Cities & Knights scenarios are provided, and thus you have to guess things like how many victory points should be used in the game. Do you use the 13 points from Cities & Knights or the number from the Seafarers scenario? Or, do you use the greater of the values, the lesser, or the sum (minus 20)? The ideas on integration look like they were added as an afterthought without really thinking them through.
A game with both supplements can also get quite long. Finally, it's a bit of a nightmare to look up rules, since they could be in any of the three rulebooks. A combined rulebook with all of the rules, as well as bunches of scenarios would probably be a great sell to the Catan community (and there is at least a book of scenarios in Germany).
An Alternative Game
I think some of the problems with the game could be corrected with the following two rules changes:
Cool Web Sites
A few web sites of interest to Cities & Knights players:
If the goal of Cities & Knights was to greatly increase the complexity of Settlers of Catan in order to appeal to the truly hardcore gamer, then it was successful. The resulting game isn't as elegant in design as the original Settlers, and has some notable flaws, but the hardcore gamer will probably consider it a great addition to Catan.
For the casual gamer, Cities & Knights will probably be considerably less appealing. It's quite complex and increases the size of the Catan decision matrices sufficiently that it may well be more trouble than its worth.