Review of The Settlers of Catan

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

December 24, 2003


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A landmark board game design that still holds up well almost a decade later. Settle the island of Catan and produce the greatest civilization!

Shannon Appelcline has written 681 reviews (including 358 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Carcassonne: King & Scout.

This review has been read 78554 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: The Settlers of Catan
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Line: The Settlers of Catan
Author: Klaus Teuber
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $38.00
Year: 1997

SKU: MFG483
ISBN: 1-56905-091-0


Review of The Settlers of Catan
The Settlers of Catan, by Klaus Teuber, is the game that really began the German gaming revolution--and the game that brought it to the United States. Itís won award after award, including the German Game of the Year for 1995 and the US Board Game of the Year for 1996.

Players: 3-4
Playing Time: 1-2 hours
Difficulty: 3 (of 10)

The Settlers of Catan is also published in Germany by Kosmos, though this is not a simultaneously printed edition, as is the case with some other Mayfair games.

This is a revision/expansion of a review originally published in October, 2002.

The Components

The Settlers of Catan comes with a large set of components, including:

Tiles & Markers: The board is made up of a number of solid cardboard hexes which are (usually) randomly arranged into an "island". They're printed four-color on one side on solid card board with full color illustrations which are relatively pleasing, though not spectacular. More importantly, the illustrations are simple enough to clearly match to the resource cards. 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.

A set of circular number markers labelled 2-12 go on top of the board, one per hex. Printed under each number is a set of pips, between one and five, which indicates how frequently the number will come up on roll of two six-sided dice. This is a nice feature that is quite useful during play; to further make it obvious which numbers are good, the 6s and 8s are printed in red. The number markers are also printed on solid cardboard, and plain but utilitarian.

Wood Bits: Each player's pieces consist of a set of roads, cities, and settlements, each of which is made of painted wood. The three types of piece are each simple and iconic, and thus easy to represent on the building cost cards, which explain their purchase. The four player colors are: white, orange, red, and blue.

The robber is a large black wooden pawn.

The dice are also wood. They're numbered 1-6. Because they're wood they're very light and roll a bit loudly. Some players don't like them as a result, but that's pure aesthetics.

Resource & Development Cards: Two decks of playing cards are also included. They're just a bit shorter than normal card size, printed with rounded corners on slightly flimsy card stock.

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. Most of the cards are "soldiers", but others have various special effects. All of the effects are textually described on the cards.

Reference Cards: The reference cards are all printed on large pieces of cardboard.

There are four Building Cost cards, one per player. Each shows which resources are needed to build which buildings. 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 points.

Rule Books: 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 this 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. The rulebooks are printed black and white and in some cases look only photocopy quality.

The starting setup sheet is a nice, two-sided full-color overview of the game. On one side it shows a first-time setup island, along with basic info on player turns and on probability. On the other side it gives a ten-point overview of the game. I suspect this would be very useful for the first-time player.

Box: The Settlers box is printed on the semi-sturdy heavy cardstock used for most American game boxes. There's no tray to hold the components, which means you'll need lots of baggies and rubberbands for everything. (I'm very pleased that in more recent games Mayfair has gone with simultaneous European printing, which results in sturdier boxes with nice trays; perhaps Settlers will get the same treatment sometime in the future.)

Overall, I was very impressed by the components the first time I played Settlers. Compared to the average American game, which was the majority of my experience at that time, it was lavishly produced, full of neat components.

Since then, I've played many other German games, and though I still agree with the lavishness of the components, I now see that it doesn't have the same beauty as some other games; it's somewhat plain, and the pieces are laregly utilitarian.

Settler's biggest Style points, however, come from the design of the components. 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 structure and what value that building has. The hexes, the resource cards, the wood pieces, and the reference cards work together like intricate clockwork.

As a result, The Settlers earns an above average Style of "4" out of "5" in its current Mayfair edition.

The Game Play

The Settlers of Catan is a game of resource management. By producing resources from the bountiful lands of Catan you can build the settlements, cities, roads, and other developments which ultimately lead to victory.

Setup: The island of Catan is laid out to begin the game. It's made up of 19 hexes: one desert and three or four hexes each of five basic land types: hills, fields, mountains, pastures, and forests. Numbered markers labeled between 2 and 12 are then laid out on those tiles, one per hex. These refer to the number that must be rolled for that hex to produce resources.

The island is completed by laying out a selection of sea tiles and special ports around the edges of the island. The ports allow for the cheaper trading of resources, as further discussed below.

Ecah player then starts the game by placing two settlements and two roads on the board, each road connecting to a settlement. The settlements are placed at the corners of hexes (meaning that each is adjacent to three different hexes), while the roads are placed on the hex sides. No settlement can be placed closer than two corners away from another settlement.

Finally, the resource deck is separated out into 19 cards each for each of the five resources. The development deck is shuffled. Each player gets up to three resource cards--an appropriate resource for each of the hexes adjoining the second settlement he placed.

Order of Play: Each turn each player gets to take the following actions, in turn:

  1. Production
  2. Trading
  3. Building

Production: Each turn a player rolls a pair of dice, with a result between 2 and 12. As you'll recall each hex has a little production chit on it. When a number is rolled, all hexes with that number produce their resource. (With one exception: a hex with the robber on it doesn't produce; more on that in a second.) Each specific hex type produces a specific resource type:

Forest: Wood
Pasture: Sheep
Fields: Wheat
Hills: Brick
Mountains: Ore
Desert: nothing

if a player has a settlement adjacent to a hex that produced, he gets 1 resource card worth of that resource; if he has a city he gets 2.

If a "7" is rolled, the robber is activated. This robber, marked by a black pawn that initially starts in the desert, is moved by the active player to any hex of his choice (other than the one it currently resides on). He can then steal a resource card from any player who has a city or settlement adjacent to the robber's new home. As noted above, that hex won't produce in the future, until the robber is moved.

There's one other penalty for a "7" being rolled: anyone with more than 7 resource cards loses half of them. (And, finally, no hexes produce, because there are no hexes with a "7" production chit.)

Trading: You can next trade cards with other players--and you should, frequently (ie, "I've got a 'wood' if anyone wants to trade me a 'sheep' for it").

You can also engage in Maritime Trade (with the bank) by offering 4 of one card (ie, "4 ore") for 1 of another (ie, "1 wheat"). You can get better maritime Trading ratios by using ports. These are special sea tiles that you can access by building a city or settlement adjacent to tem. Some ports let you trade at a ratio of 3:1. Some let you trade at a superior ratio of 2:1 when you have a specific resource.

Building: Once you're done trading you can begin to build. You'll be able to build two broad classes of things: structures and technology ("development"). In each case you spend certain types of resource cards in certain combinations in order to build.

Structures. Each player has three types of structures he can build: roads, settlements, and cities.

Settlements are built at the corners of hexes, at least two corners away from any other settlements, and allow a player to collect one of the appropriate resource when any of the three adjoining hexes produces. They're also worth 1 Victory Point each.

Cities are upgrades of settlements; they allow a player to collect 2 of a resource. They're also worth 2 Victory Points each.

Roads are built out from cities or settlements--and are required to be able to build additional cities or settlements. The player with the longest road gets the Longest Road victory point card which is worht 2 Victory Parts.

The costs of these three structures are as follows:

Settlement: wood, brick, wheat, sheep
City: 2 wheat, 3 ore
Road: wood, brick

Technology. Players can also choose to "build" development cards, which are drawn from the development card deck. It inclueds "progress cards", which have any number of in-game effects, special victory points (which are saved until the end), and soldiers.

Soldiers are special cards which can be used to move the robber, shifting him from one hex to another, and also allowing the person who played the soldier to steal a resource card from a player with cities or settlements adjacent to the robber's new position. Whomever has the largest army of soldiers get a victory point card worth 2 Victory Points.

The cost to purchase development cards is:

Development Card: wheat, sheep, ore

Only one development card can be played per turn, and you can't play a development card until the turn after you drew it.

Winning the Game: The game goes to 10 Victory Points, which is won by adding up all the possible VPs, as follows:

Settlement: 1 VP
City: 2 VPs
Longest Road: 2 VPs
Largest Army: 2 VPs
Some Development Cards: 1-2 VPs

First to 10 wins.

Relationships to Other Games

The Settlers of Catan (1995), quite simply, is one of the most influential board games of the last several decades. It was one of the first really big board game hits in Germany, and it was one of the first German board games to be a hit in the United States too.

Although innovative and influential, Settlers (1995) remains part of an ongoing stream of game design. You can backtrack the idea of random hexes in a game to Magic Realm (1978) and the pre-game setup of an island shaped collection of hexes to Kings & Things (1986), the latter even including a lot of familiar terrains--including forests, plains, mountains, deserts, and the sea. Likewise you could track other systems to influential games like Civilization (1981) and a number of others. What Settlers does is integrate all of these in an innovative new way that's simple, yet allows for strategic depth.

Looking at games released more recently, Settlers has been hugely influential. There are games like Roads and Boats (1999), Morisi (2000), and Cannes (2002) that literally look like they were prototyped with the pieces from a Settlers of Catan game. Some recent hits like Puerto Rico (2002) and Age of Mythology (2003) were clearly influenced by Settler's ideas of resource management. We're even starting to see a second-generation of German games like Nautilus (2002) where the designers were brought into the hobby through Settlers.

Besides dramatically changing the shape of strategic gaming, Settlers has also spawned a number of more direct heirs. There are two full expansions for the game: The Seafarers of Catan (1997), which adds exploration of the seas; and The Cities & Knights of Catan (2000), which dramatically increases the strategic complexity of the game through limited technology trees, knights, and barbarians. Each of these three games (including Settlers itself) also has an expansion allowing 5 or 6 players to play.

There are also a whole slew of historical supplements, licensed products, card games, and other Catan-mechanic games. Rather than making this review intimidating through a long listing, I simply point to this list of Catan game reviews. The most notable other games are a number of truly independent games which adopt some of the Catan mechanics to widely different milleus. They are: The Settlers of Nurnberg (1999), The Starfarers of Catan (2001), and The Settlers of the Stone Age (2003).

Before closing out it's worth noting that Catan was originally pitched as a combination exploration/settlement/warfare game. Catan only developed the settlement aspect. Teuber later wrote an exploration game called Entdecker (1996/2001) and a warfare game called Domaine (1997/2003), sort of completing the trilogy (though all the games use entirely independent mechanics).

Though there are a lot of games related to Catan, you can play the core game just fine on its own, and get many hours of enjoyment out of it. If you really like it, however, there's room for expansion. In my opinion, that's the best of both worlds.

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.

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 Trade: Trade in Catan works quite well, because there's a differential in resources and a limited differential in what resources people want.

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. On the other hand, these offensives don't actually roll back victory conditions, a problem with many games.

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.

Here are just a few of the strategies that are used in Catan:

Here's some of the problems with the Catan game design:

Randomness is High: Though some work has been done to control the randomness of Catan, it's still there, and a bad streak of luck can totally ruin a game for a player.

Strategy is Slightly Limited: Though there are lots of paths to victory, as I've discussed above, usually which route to take is set pretty early in the game, and play can thus become a bit mechanical for an experienced player as he slowly works toward the goals he initially set.

Overall, Catan still remains an above average game with very high replayability, due to its reasonable playing time and its dynamic map, thus earning a "4" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

The Settlers of Catan is truly a landmark game, and it belongs on every board gamer's shelf. It really shines as a gateway game or a game for more casual players because of its core simplicity and its high replayability. Serious players will ultimately get less out of its because of that same simplicity, but they'll still be drawn to it from time to time when they're looking for a simpler game (and, perhaps, they'll find that some of the supplements increase the strategic compelxity enough to make it exactly what they're looking for).

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