…Blurg!!! …you nearly didn’t get this review. I’ve been ill. Been a bit crappy all weekend and had to take a day off work. Feeling a bit better now and the deadline is getting so tight…
…The Missus is away this weekend. Time to crack open a few unplayed games and learn the rules. I really don’t like starting with a new game from scratch while wasting someone else’s time with it. It can really put someone off a game. She’s never going to play Memoir 44 with me again, I can tell you that now…
I should have seen it coming. I turn up to the pub and there he is waiting. “Oh, I saw you coming up the road so I got you a drink in” …how nice of him. We walk over to the table and I see what he has in store for me. I’ve been suckered in. I’d rather he’d drug me and take a kidney, but no. I have to go through with it now. He was being so nice and the it looked like an old edition of the game with some lovely art. Much better than the bold coloured trip of the modern edition. I had to play Settlers of Catan.
I have had some preconceptions of Catan from a little bit of play on the iOS version of the game and the opinions of others. The iOS game has an awful, awful interface and makes a relatively simple game awkward. I felt the game was too dull and just a generally slow, horrible experience. This lined up with the opinions of some others …who may have perhaps played a bit too much Catan in their early board gaming lives tainting their views.
There was every chance I was wrong…
Catan is a game for 3-4 players where you must build settlements, collect resources from the surrounding areas, build more settlements and roads to connect them with those resources, and trade resources with the other players to get the ones you need to carry out your plans. Earn victory points from building your settlements and the player who gets 10 wins (although a round is finished in case another player can beat those 10 points in that round).
The map you play on is created by a number of hexagon tiles that have woods for wood, grass for sheep, fields for wheat, clay for erm…clay, and rocky mountains for stone. The island is surrounded by water tiles and some of which have ports that will allow you to trade some resources cheaper than others. We just played with a random map but you do get suggestions on how to arrange your map for more balanced games.
On the land tiles numbers between 2 and 12 are placed. The idea is that before each turn a player roles the dice to see what land can be worked upon and what resources everyone can collect. Numbers around 6-8 are more likely then those on the outer fringes. The aim of the game is to build settlements on connecting corners of the land tiles to reap from the surrounding land in order to build more settlements, connecting roads and eventually build cities that take twice as much from the land.
The game is started by everyone being able to place a settlement and road on the board where they think they will have the best chance of reaping most resources that they’ll need for their plans. Then players get to place another settlement and road in reverse order so no one gets too unfair an advantage choosing first.
Other things to note are a desert tile on the map where a Soldier lives. If a player rolls a 7, the most likely roll in the game, that player may place the soldier on a tile and make it useless if it’s number ever gets called. This soldier can also be called by a Development Card. Development cards can be collected during the game by buying it with the required resources, much like building a settlement or road, and can be played on your following turn. Some cards just have victory points, making them worth chancing a go at the end of the game when others have built more than you. Another card is the monopoly card that demands the other players give you all their resources of one type.
Play goes around the board. On a turn a player rolls the two dice and everyone collects their resources on the land carrying that number. Beforehand a development card can be played just in case you have a soldier than can block someone getting resources before that roll. The player than can then choose to trade with the other players to get the resources they need or just trade them with the deck for the price of 4:1 (which can change if you have a settlement on a port). Then you play the cards you have to build settlements, cities, roads or development cards.
You must build a settlement or city on a connecting road. These settlements and cities are worth 1 and 2 victory points respectively. Add these with any victory point development cards and you’re on your way to beating those other jerks at the table. And they will be jerks. I know I was. Try to be nice and people may trade with you more. Or be mean like me and don’t help anyone unless it’s really worth your while.
Settlers of Catan is a well-crafted game. It’s well balanced, easy enough to pick up quickly and every version I’ve seen has had a high production value. The map can be randomised too bringing lots of replay value. Thanks to them flogging many copies every year you can also get it at a pretty reasonable price. I am somewhat more accepting that after a little bit more play that Catan could serve better in it’s renown position of Gateway Game. Approaching Catan from a fresh perspective it is approachable, diverting and certainly less horrible than all the bad games of Monopoly we’ve all had to endure.
Despite all that …stuff Catan. Stuff Catan up it’s well-presented bum-bum.
It’s not just the desert tile that is dry in Catan. The whole damn experience is. There is no variation of strategy in Catan. You do what must be done depending upon what the map layout is, what cards you have and who’s turn it is. Everyone else is doing much the same. Yes, there are many possibilities on how your game will play out but it never feels like you are truly in control.
For example, you need more sheep to build a settlement. There isn’t much other option for you at this stage of the game You have three choices. Either wait for the dice roll to get you more sheep, wait for the dice roll to get you enough of something else to buy a sheep, or see if anyone is feeling generous enough to trade you for a sheep…knowing full well you’d be advancing their cause too if they did go for it. I really need that sheep. I’m probably not going to get that sheep any time soon.
Catan has key moments and all the events in between are just boring filler. Your initial placement of settlements or roads is the biggest key event. While it is all in your control and your own fault if you choose poorly…damn, it’s going to be a long time before you can build another settlement once you’ve got the stuff you need for it to improve your chances in the game. Even moving the soldier, which should be a fun way of screwing up other people’s games, feels like you’re just slowing down your opponent from following through with their equally limited options. The only bit of real strategy that you have true power over comes towards the end when you decide to push for that City settlement for more points or just use what you have for a development card and hope you have a spot of luck.
…and it will have to be a spot of luck. I don’t want to say that Catan is too based upon luck, as I think that the better player will probably win out most of the time, but it is so disheartening when a dice roll keeps going high rather than low or someone gets the monopoly card to nick all of one resource. It should all balance out in the long run, but it’ll never balance out in that one game you care about right now.
The believe the only reason that Settlers of Catan has done well as a gateway board game is that the people playing just don’t know that it could be so much better than this yet. I think the initial love for the experience of playing something different like Catan lives on throughout some board gamer’s lives even as they get onto “the good stuff” so it’s reputation remains intact. It’s even made me re-evaluate just how good Ticket To Ride is, my first gateway love, and accept why some others feel the same way towards it as I do towards Catan.