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Subject: Settlers of Catan - a Design Gem rss

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Matt Thrower
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There's a ton of reviews for Settlers already. Do we really need another one? Well, probably not but this is the second in an occasional series of reviews in which I talk about my favourite games and why I rate them so highly. So hopefully this might end up being more interesting than a generic review of the game.

MattDP - doesn't he hate Euros?

Well no in actual fact, whatever you might think from my occasional geeklists on the subject. But as a general rule I do tend to find them less interesting than older, more traditional "conflict" games. Settlers, however, is a big exception. It's the reasons why that I want to discuss in the rest of the review.

If I posted a review of the rules of Settlers on a site like BGG, I should probably be hung for misuse of database capacity. So I'm going straight on to the meat of the article.

Random, but not too Random

I know it's a deeply unfashionable thing to say, but I like rolling dice in a game. Sure it reduces the amount of skill needed to play a game when a sequence of (un)lucky rolls can skew the result away from clever play but it does add a level of excitement to the game, as well as making a nice noise as the dice bounce off the table. I still say the lack of dice is a sad loss in many modern game designs.

Settlers is the first game I'd ever come across to utilise the distribution curve of dice probabilities in it's game mechanics. I don't know if it was the first to do so - I've seen a number of others since I first played Settlers - but it remains novel in my head because I'd never seen it before. What's particularly clever about the Settlers model is that it allows for the excitement of random variation within a strategic framework. You have to weigh up the pros and cons of placing your settlements on various junctions with various probabilities to get what you need over the course of the game. And you also need to remember that some things are more important early in the game than later on. Because it's based directly on the probability curve and because the dice get rolled a lot in Settlers the random factors balance out over the course of the game resulting in a game that always requires good play to win. But when you're itching for that extra resource you need to build on a good road/village space before an opponent you can be right in there with the excitement of random dice results as much as a game of (say) Warhammer.

The other random option in Settlers is the board. By mixing a random placement of resources (tiles) with a fixed placement of probability (the numbers) Klaus has again given us a very workable random mechanic that keeps things fresh without sacrificing the need for strategy. The fixed distribution of probabilities ensures there's never a "best" space on which to build where you're close to a number of 6/8 tiles but the random distribution means you can never pre-plan the "best" places to put your settlements. In every game you need to weight up the pros and cons of each space depending on turn order, resources available and the chance of rolling them, resulting in a different experience every time. Brilliant! I know lots of people got burnt out on Settlers after a lot of plays, but that's just it - it takes a lot of plays before the burnout sets in.

Settlers on the High Wire - the Balancing Act

In my (admittedly not extensive) experience of Euros I've tended to find that they're very good at doing one thing well. Traders of Genoa is a classic negotiation game but is lacking in other aspects of it's play. Puerto Rico has the most fiendishly balanced tactical play I've ever come across but doesn't deliver as well on the long term planning or interaction fronts. Settlers delivers the best balance of strategy, tactics and interaction of any game I've ever played. You need to master the skills needed for all three aspects in order to win.

The long term strategies in Settlers are easy to see, but hard to deliver. Looking at the resources needed to buy various things in Settlers it's easy to deduce that there's two groups, leading to two main paths to victory. You can follow the brick/wood strategy, allowing fast expansion and getting VPs from roads and a proliferation of villages. Or you can follow the ore/grain strategy leading to VPs from cards and limited numbers of cities. The broad choice of strategy is down to where you've chosen to place your opening settlements. However, long term planning also involves working out how to get the resources you're short on, since you need a bit of everything and also the precise details of how you're going to pan out the strategy since there are subtle variations in every play.

On the tactical level Settlers succeeds by being one of those games with endless chicken-and-egg descisions. You need resources to build things but you need to build things to get resources. So you're constantly required to balance the need to expand and get board space with the need to up your production capacity to get more resources. Being able to read the game to make sure you make the right descisions at the right time is a difficult skill to acquire. Not least because, unlike some other Euros, the correct decision is based directly on what other players are collecting and planning to do. Which bring us nicely onto player interaction.

Interaction in Settlers can take two main forms. Firstly there's picece-to-piece interaction in the sense of taking up physical board space to stop opponents from expanding. This adds another tactical choice to the game because sometimes it makes sense to grab board space you don't really need just to nerf another player. And the great thing about this is that it results in gameplay which can satisfy bloodthirsty wargame fans without any actual direct combat. The satisfaction that can be achieved at leaving another player fuming because you've stolen their needed intersection with a cleverly placed road is just as huge as backstabbing someone in Diplomacy but is likely to loose you less friends.

The other player interaction is the trading phase. I've seen a lot of people complain that trading in Settlers is dry and boring because the payoff decisions are often obvious. While I can see this is a valid criticism I think, like many forms of player interaction in games, it comes down to who you play with. If the group is playing for the social experience as much as mix/maxing the strategy then trading can lead to all sorts of petty rivalries later in the game. "I'm not trading with you - you blocked my village/refused me an ore/gave a wool to player X/put the robber on me" becomes a familiar cry later in the game so you have to keep an eye on the players you alienate, needing a whole other skill level in negotiation and reading the attitudes of other players. There's also the chance to force other players into humiliatingly bad trades because they've been totally screwed on one resource thanks to the robber, or a monopoly card, or careless placement of settlements. The way these various mechanics interact to encourage players to indulge in uneven and exciting negotiations is a joy to watch.

Conclusion

Axis & Allies is a game I admire because it's got a balance of historical simulation, playability and strategic thinking but it has it's flaws - notably that it achieves none of those three things brilliantly well. What's so great about Settlers is the fact that it balances it's gameplay factors - strategy, tactics and interaction - in a similar fashion but without sacrificing the fun derived from any one element. It's a uniquely satisfying game in that regard, and truly a design gem.
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Pedro
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Great review! I agree with you almost 100% but you were able to write it down in a very clear and eloquent way! Good job!
 
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Rolf
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MattDP wrote:
Because it's based directly on the probability curve and because the dice get rolled a lot in Settlers the random factors balance out over the course of the game resulting in a game that always requires good play to win.

I like your review very much and it does capture what makes Settlers a truly great game. But I take issue with the sentence above.

First, there aren't a lot of dice rolls in a single game of settlers. If you take a four player game and assume (just a guess) that victory points get accumulated at a rate of .5 per person per turn then we get roughly 80 rolls in a single game. There have been numerous simulations here on the geek which show that this is not enough to produce anything even remotely like the probability curve in question.

Secondly, not all dice rolls are created equal. Dice rolls at the start of the game are usually more important than later on. So, the impact of any given roll can be quite different depending on the stage of the game. I would therefore contest that Settlers
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always requires good play to win.


But as you pointed out, this unpredictability is (amongst others) what makes Settlers great. But one shouldn't pretend that luck averages out over the course of a single game. Instead other (bash the leader) mechanisms are vitally important to keep the game close.
 
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Walt
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Before terraforming Mars, Surviving Mars is required: Paradox Interactive; Steam.
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Thank you for this review. It was so interesting seeing the the game through your eyes, I've posted something of a counterpoint review, so our different views can be compared.

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/1004183#1004183
 
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Gabe Alvaro
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As I was saying to someone earlier today, there are views and there are reviews. Great review!
 
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Matt Thrower
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nessi wrote:

First, there aren't a lot of dice rolls in a single game of settlers. If you take a four player game and assume (just a guess) that victory points get accumulated at a rate of .5 per person per turn then we get roughly 80 rolls in a single game.


This is a good point, which I've discussed briefly in my reply to Walt's review (see the link in this thread). In essence, your arguments are all quite correct, but I think the impact of random rolls on the outcome of the game is not huge.

All this crossposting is going to get confusing very quickly!
 
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