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Subject: The Settlers of Catan Set the Hook in My Mouth (a review) rss

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David McMillan
United States
Madison
Tennessee
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For many BGGs out there, I am sure that this game was probably your gateway drug. It was certainly mine. Take a ride with me in the wayback machine.

It was the year 2000 and I was spending most of my time (and money) at a local hangout in Memphis, TN called The Café Apocalypse. On one nondescript evening an old acquaintance from my high school days walked in with an awkward bundle of items under his arms. He stumbled through the door and made his way to the backroom and plopped his bundle on the table.

“Who wants to play a board game with me?"

That bundle, as it turns out, was The Settlers of Catan, The Cities and Knights expansion, as well as the 5-6 player expansions for both. There weren’t many takers that night as you can well imagine. A random person walking into a public space and plopping a bunch of board games on the table is going to get some mighty strange looks. Lucky for him, I already knew him and I had a couple of friends with me, so we were able to get a four person game going. Now, I say "lucky for him" but in hindsight it was lucky for me. That game session that night awakened something within me that I didn’t even know existed and I have been board gaming ever since.

So, what is this amazing game that has such world-shattering consequences? The Settlers of Catan is, more than anything, a game of chance. The game board area is comprised of hexagonal tiles laid out side by side in a predetermined pattern. There are different tiles that represent different resources. There are tiles that represent clay. There are tiles that represent grain. There are also tiles that represent stone, wood, and wool. There is also 1 desert tile. Once these tiles have been placed, small chits are placed atop all of them except for the desert tile. Printed upon these chits are numbers and each number is accompanied by a series of dots. These dots represent the frequency which the number can roll on two six sided dice. The more dots there are, the greater the frequency.

Each player begins the game with an assortment of wooden pieces. There are several cities, several settlements, and several road pieces. There is a robber piece which is placed in the desert and then the game begins. The player who is selected to go first will place 1 settlement and 1 road that must be connected to this settlement. This is where your strategy begins.

Each settlement and city in this game is placed at the intersection of two or more of these hexagonal tiles. If you have a settlement adjacent to a hexagon whose number is rolled, then you collect one of the resources that the hexagon represents. For instance, if you had a settlement sitting on the corner of a clay hexagon with the number 6 chit lying on it, then you would earn 1 clay every time that a 6 is rolled. These resources that you earn are used, in turn, to build more roads, more settlements, and to convert your settlements into cities. The cities will earn you two of the appropriate resource every time the number is rolled as opposed to the 1 you would earn from a settlement and are worth 2 victory points. Settlements are only worth 1 victory point apiece. There are rules regarding the placement of roads and settlements, but I won’t get into them because they’re not important to your understanding of how the game is played.

After the first player has placed their settlement and road, the second player goes, and then the third and so on and so forth until the last player has placed their settlement and road. At that point, the last player will place a second settlement and road and this business continues until the first player has placed his/her second settlement and road. Then the starting player picks up the dice and gives them a toss.

If anything other than a 7 is rolled, then any player who has a settlement next to a hex with that number on it will collect the appropriate resource. If a 7 is rolled, however, things go down much differently. First, anyone who has more than 7 cards in their hand must discard half of their hand rounded down. Then the player who rolled the 7 can move the robber from the desert and place the robber onto any hex of their choice. If any players have settlements or cities adjacent to the hex they choose, that player may collect a card at random from one of those players. As long as the robber remains on this hex, it cannot produce any goods. There are only two ways to move the robber:

- Roll another 7
- Use a development card

On your turn, instead of building a road or a settlement or city you can choose, instead, to pay 1 stone, 1 wool, and 1 grain and take a development card into your hand. These development cards can do several things depending on which card you draw:

- The soldier card allows you to chase the robber away from one of your hexes
- The resource monopoly card allows you to name a resource and your opponents have to give you those resources if you have them
- The road building card allows you to instantly place two roads for free
- Victory point cards are worth victory points at the end of the game
- And there are many more cards I have not listed here

In addition to everything else, there are also two more things which will earn you victory points: the longest road card and the largest army card. Once you have completed a continuous road that is comprised of at least 5 road segments, then you get to take the longest road card into your possession. This card is yours until someone else builds and even longer road at which point the card goes to them. This card is worth 2 points at the end of the game. The largest army card is worth 2 points and behaves in the same manner as the longest road card, the only difference being, you earn the largest army card when you have at least 3 soldiers in your possession.

The only other game mechanic (which is probably the most important game mechanic) is trading. There are several different ways to trade in this game. You can either trade in 4 of any one thing for 1 of something else or you can use a port to make the trade more efficient. For instance, there is a port that allows you to trade 2 grain for 1 of anything else. To claim a port, you just need to build a settlement on it. The other method of trade is by trading with other players. During your turn, you may offer resources from your hand to other players for resources in their hands.

The game plays elegantly. The dice are rolled. People collect goods. People trade and people build. Resource management, expansion, and diversity is key. The more you build, the more options you have. The more options you have, the more likely your number is going to come up. The more your number comes up, the more resources you can collect. The faster you build, the faster you will add victory points to your score. Once a player has reached 10 victory points, they are declared the winner.

As I played game after game after game I began to notice something. Regardless of what amazing board position I was in... regardless of how well thought out my strategy was... if my numbers never came up, then I would lose every single time. Other times, it was like the exact reverse. I have literally played games in which I went last so I had the absolute worst numbers and it seemed like my horrid numbers were the only ones that rolled. This reliance on so much luck in order to pull out a win ultimately left a rancid taste in my mouth and pushed me away from the game. Don’t get me wrong. This is still a pretty great game but, after a while, it’s going to leave you wanting something more. If that means that you branch out and discover incredible games like Agricola or Carcassonne, then I guess the game has done its job.

If you’re new to this game, have fun and please accept these few tips for what they are worth:

- Diversify. The only way to negate the luck factor at all is to have as many settlements and cities on as many different numbers as possible.

- Early on, clay is king. If you’ve got a monopoly on clay, then try trading it with other players at a better rate than 1:1. Try a rate of 3:1. They can always trade at a 4:1 rate. They’d much rather part with three of a kind than four of a kind.

- Expand inwards. Expanding inwards keeps you from getting stuck on the edge of the board with nowhere to go. It also pushes your opponents to the edge of the board.

- Be fluid with your strategy. While you might desire the longest road card, doing something else with those resources might be better for you if an opponent takes the longest road card away.
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Glenn Martin
Canada
Ottawa
Ont.
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THE WELFARE VARIANT: Every turn you don't get a resource and the robber hasn't been rolled you get a token unless it's the robber
blocking your production instead of bad luck.
Tokens can't be stolen, traded or halved. On your turn you can trade in a number of tokens equal to the number
of victory points you had at the start of that turn (no VP cards, longest road/biggest army count) for one resource of your choice.
The better you do, the less help these tokens give.
This speeds up the game, especially at the beginning,gives you more choices
(you can afford to build to block instead of maximizing production) and greatly reduces the effect of luck.
 
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Toms Leikums
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CarcassonneFreak wrote:

If that means that you branch out and discover incredible games like Agricola or Carcassonne, then I guess the game has done its job.


Nope, not Carcassonne. It is a good game, but nothing more strategic, complicated or interesting than Settlers. Actually I even think that Settlers might be too hard for first time players - there are like 3-4 times more rules than in Carcassonne. So I usually use the last one (or Ticket to Ride: Europe) when showing new people the wonders of boardgaming.

Thanks for an interesting read.
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