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Subject: A review for those new to the hobby rss

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Elijah Lau
Singapore
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This review is for those who are new to the hobby and have never heard of SoC or have heard about it but never played it. To put it simply, SoC is a 3-4 player boardgame of negotiation that plays in about 90 minutes (at most 2 hours). But that’s like saying the Mona Lisa is a painting. SoC has a reputation beyond the game itself, for this was the game that brought the genre of Eurogames into the American market in a big way. Along the way, it sold millions and millions copies, generated several expansions to the base game and on its 10th anniversary, was made into a 3-D anniversary set that costs about US$400.

Synopsis

Players are settlers in the fictional land of Catan and they begin the game with two settlements and two roads. Using the settlements to gather resources (lumber, brick, wool, ore and wheat), players can trade resources with one another in order to gather the right type of resources to build more settlements, roads, upgrade their settlements into cities or buy development cards to get soldiers, extra roads, or other special events. Settlements are worth 1 point and cities two points. Players also get points for building the largest army or the longest road. The player who gets 10 or more points first wins the game.

Components

19 land tiles + 18 sea tiles
95 resource cards
25 development cards
2 six-sided dice
Rulebook, almanac, starting setup sheet
18 round cardboard counters
4 cities, 5 settlements, 15 roads in each of 4 colours
4 player aids
1 robber piece
1 Largest Army tile
1 Longest Road tile

The components are a mix of wood and cardboard that are typical of Eurogames, no plastic that’s commonly found in American games. The really interesting part to the game is the 19 land tiles and 18 sea tiles that make up the board. Just to note that including the starting setup sheet is a very big help for those new to the game (setting up the board may be confusing for those used to a single-piece board like Monopoly). This helps to explain the longevity of SoC, which has been around for 11 years and still going strong. Every game is different because of the modular board and changing the board also changes which resources are more readily available. Some games will see a lot of ore produced, some games very few, some see a lot of lumber and some very little brick. Also, the components are functional and sturdy. I’ve seen some old and well-played SoC sets but they are still in relatively good condition. The thin paper rulebook is probably the worst for wear in these games after repeated thumbing through but the basic game components hold up well, as long as no one has spilt Coke or some other game-damaging substance on it.

Rules

SoC is primarily an area placement and negotiation game. What do I mean by area-placement? The initial placement of settlements and roads is probably the key determinant to whether you even have a chance of victory. Each player places two roads and two settlements at the start of the game. The first player who places a settlement and a road will be the last player to place his second road and settlement, while the last player to place will place both his roads and settlements at the same time. This, hopefully, gives everyone a fair shake to pick the best places on the board. Where you have placed, no one else can place there, so this game is as much a fight for territory as a negotiation game. Settlements are placed on the point of a land hex and roads are placed on a land hex side. For their starting hand, players receive one card of each resource that their second settlement placement is on.

The 18 cardboard counters are numbered 2-12 excluding seven, with all numbers having 2 counters except for 2 and 12. These numbers are placed on 18 of the land tiles, excluding the desert tile. These numbers indicate the number that must be rolled on the dice at the start of a player’s turn for that terrain to produce resources. Any player with a settlement or a city on a hex point with that number receives 1 or 2 resource cards, respectively.

With the resources, the active player (the one who rolled the dice) can trade resources with the other players. After that, he can choose to use his resources to build roads and settlements (to expand his territory), upgrade his settlements to cities (cities are worth 2 points) or buy development cards. Development cards give victory points, additional roads, soldiers and other special events.

What happens when a 7 is rolled? The robber comes into play. At the beginning of the game, the robber is placed in the desert. When a 7 is rolled, the player who rolled it gets to place the robber on any of the resources terrain and he steals a card from any 1 player who has a settlement or city on that terrain. When that terrain’s number is rolled, no resources are produced as long as the robber remains there. Any player who has more than 7 resource cards in their hand also discards half of his hand when 7 is rolled. The robber can be moved to another terrain hex or back to the desert when another 7 is rolled or by using the soldier.

Game play

What makes SoC an excellent game for beginners and veterans and why it has been so successful is that it retains many familiar elements of gaming but is incorporated in new and innovative ways. There’s dice-rolling, familiar to many Cluedo and Monopoly players. But SoC uses the dice no longer as a randomiser. Instead, the game makes the dice a quick study in bell-curve probability. At glance at the board shows exactly what numbers have the highest probability of appearing and this is where the prime real estate for building settlements is. Instead of randomising the game, the dice adds an element of territorial strategy to the game. Players now jostle for the best territory, not only during the initial placement, but also where they expand to.

But this is not just some territory-grabbing chess-like game where everyone is silent in deep concentration. The primary mechanic driving the enjoyment of the game is the negotiation. Players talk to one another which runs through the whole gamut of emotion and communication – they can cajole, persuade, threaten, beg etc. All this talking is not only fun, this communication is integral to a winning strategy in the game; it’s not communicating for communications’ sake or trash-talking for that matter. Getting the resources you want at the time you want it is they key to victory and to do that, you need to trade and trade well.

The brilliant part of SoC is that the communication within the game is self-regulating, i.e., the atmosphere of the game is determined by the players, not the game. A casual game among friends will be full of jolly banter, mock indignation and raucous laughter. In a competitive game of SoC, well you get these things too but there’s a harder edge to the negotiations and things can get more visceral. The beautiful thins about SoC is that it can accommodate such varied style of plays, mainly through the self-regulating mechanism which I mentioned earlier.

I must add that in general, I like negotiation games (my first Avalon Hill game played back in my youth was Diplomacy so I guess that probably has something to do with it). I like games that foster player communication and SoC definitely does that. Compared to other Eurogames like Puerto Rico where games tend to be very quiet, with players concentrating real hard … well, it’s not the reason why I play games. I like to get together with my friends and have a noisy, rip-roaring good time!

Conclusion

I can’t remember of this was the first Eurogame I played or Puerto Rico but without the doubt I preferred SoC back then and still do so. I had stopped playing SoC for a while then played it recently and that confirmed it, SoC is a game with longevity. I still love it. It’s a 9 for me.
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