Monday, April 25, 2011

Settling Catan

Perhaps the game most responsible for a resurgence of board gaming enthusiasm (at least in the States) is Settlers of Catan. In fact, it seems strange not to have begun any discussion on modern games with Settlers of Catan (sorry, readers; I've let you down). In many ways, it is the great gateway game--a way to introduce people who think all board games are like Monopoly, Life, or Clue to enjoyable games that involve (gasp!) interesting decisions to make on every turn.

Like Mary Poppins, Settlers of Catan is practically perfect in every way--elegant, simple, intuitive, interactive, and fun. But, again, like Mary Poppins, even practically perfect can get old. And like Mary Poppins sings, while a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, you don't always want to drink medicine.

In Settlers of Catan, players are--you guessed it--settlers on the newfound island of Catan. The board is modular, that is, it changes every time you play the game. It is composed of hexagonal pieces depicting one natural resource per tile (and one barren desert tile, which produces no resources) and water tiles, some of which have trading ports, around the outside. Each tile on the board has a token numbered 2-12 placed on it (these numbers are modular as well), representing the total of a dice roll. The game ends at ten victory points, which are gained by utilizing the natural resources on Catan to build settlements, roads, cities, and developments.

Building settlements along the borders of the natural resource tiles allows you to gain the pictured resource (wood, wheat, wool, brick, or ore) when whatever number is placed on that resource gets rolled. (For example, if your settlement is on the border of a wheat tile that has an eight on it, you receive one wheat resource whenever someone rolls an eight. And the dice are rolled at the start of each player's turn.) The number tokens list the probability that each number will be rolled, meaning that resources bearing the higher-probability numbers are more sought after.

The robber stops a resource's
production, so it's a good idea to
place him on a resource the
leading player long as
that's not you, of course.
One number conspicuously absent from the number tokens is the number seven, the number most frequently rolled (probabilitywise), which doesn't produce a resource but moves the robber pawn. The robber pawn blocks a resource from producing (so, in the example above, if an eight was rolled and the robber was on the wheat hex, the adjacent settlement would receive no wheat). The robber is the great equalizer of Catan.

So, why is Catan so great? Well, for starters, it is balanced. It is hard for any one player to run away with the game because of the various checks in place. Some of the checks are trading, the robber, multiple paths to victory, and the simple luck/strategy equalizer of dice rolls. It is difficult for a player, at least at the start of the game, to have settlements bordering each of the different natural resources, and even if a player did border these resources, chances are the probabilities are not in that player's favor. Settlers of Catan forces players to interact with one another. Each turn, players must roll the dice to see which resources are produced. After this, the player who rolled the dice may trade resource cards with other players to try to get what he needs to build what he wants to build. This mechanism is brilliant because it allows for player interaction (always a plus) and it limits the lead that any one player can get. If a player is running away with the game, the other players (if they're smart) will limit their trades with the leading player. (But the leading player is not completely out of luck: he may trade resources with the bank at a rate of 4-1, or if he borders a port, 3-1 or 2-1.) The leading player will also be the frequent target of the robber and any other negativity that can arise. Because the game is balanced, it keeps all players involved the entire game through.

Another way the game is balanced is in its multiple paths to victory. There have been a few games I've played where the dice rolls simply weren't going my way, so I was unable to build high-scoring items...but I still won. How? By buying development cards. (Development cards offer many advantages in the game, one of which is secret points at the end of the game.) Development cards aren't generally the best strategy for winning, but they are an option available in dire situations. There are also awards given to the player who has the longest continuous road segment or the largest army (soldiers are found in the development cards) that move as different players contend for them. Because there are multiple ways to get points, the possibilities for winning strategies vary from game to game.

Catan is also a great game because it keeps players involved the whole game through. There is no player elimination, and each player is involved in each other player's turn. (You collect resources regardless of whose turn it is, and you might need to trade with the active player.) Because of this, the game is rarely boring.

Settlers of Catan is sleek, elegant, and smooth. So why did I say that it gets old? Well, like most good things, too much can be grating. Once new players are exposed to a board game that is actually fun, they want to play more and more of the same one. And while each game is different, the game itself can feel tired after too many plays without moderation.

Also, as I've mentioned before, the way I most frequently play games is in two-player mode, a mode that Settlers of Catan does not possess (at least not an officially sanctioned two-player mode). Granted, the time I was introduced to Settlers of Catan was with only two players, but that's not an experience I'd like to replicate.

Settlers can also be miserable if played with the wrong crowd. Abby almost never tried the game after one bad experience we had with guests, and I wouldn't have faulted her if she hadn't. But now she enjoys the game, even if it isn't her favorite, and we've used it on many occasions to draw people in to the world of fun board games. Though, granted, afterward we've often led them to games we like better (like Acquire or Ticket to Ride).

Settlers of Catan is unquestionably a great game. In fact, if asked objectively what the best board game is, aside from personal attachments, Settlers would probably be near the top of my list. I am enamored of its brilliance, and I've only scratched the surface of its treasures (especially because I didn't talk about the expansions, which change gameplay quite a bit). So don't let my negative comments fool you--it's a jewel of a great game, one whose shine I'm sure I'll recognize anew the next time I play it.


  1. Good post Jon! My 4 stepkids were here with me and my wife this week and we played Catan and Cities and Knights over and over and... :) we had lots of fun:) ...even though I won just one game.

  2. That's the mark of a great game--when it's fun even if you lose. Settlers has that mark, too, you're right. :-)