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Subject: Six years on Catan Isle - a personal view rss

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Merric Blackman
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Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
I have been playing games for most of my life. My main love has always been Dungeons & Dragons, but other games have also intruded into my life: Monopoly and Talisman in the early days, Magic: The Gathering and its successors in my University years, and, in my working life, The Settlers of Catan and its cousins, the Eurogames.

I have played more games of The Settlers of Catan than any other boardgame in my library, which speaks greatly of its attraction and durability as a game. Why does it hold this honour? Is it merely because it was the first Eurogame for me? Well, perhaps, but not entirely.

When you get down to it, Settlers is a very good game. It maintains interest throughout the play of the game, in no small part due to a critical ingredient: Player Interaction.

In the game of Monopoly, you spend a lot of time not really needing the other players to be there. You're really just moving along the board and receiving and losing money based on the dice rolls. There comes a few moments in the game when you have the opportunity to trade properties with the other players, which is where most of the strategy of the game lies, but most of the game you just wander along until the conclusion.

The genius of Settlers is to have that trading continue through almost the entire game. As you and the other players collect the resources you need to further settle the island, local shortages will arise: you may not have brick, but your friend does, and you have something he needs. It is only at the end of the game, when players are very close to victory, that trading ends and the endgame relies on the roll of the dice - although, by that stage, the skill of your play in the early game will mitigate any luck that may exist.

Settlers is played on a hexagonal isle, five terrain hexes wide in its centre, and 19 terrain hexes of area. You build settlements on the intersections between the terrain hexes. Each terrain hex is marked with a number from 2 to 12.

At the beginning of each turn, the current player rolls the dice. Each hex that has its number rolled produces Resource Cards for all players who have a settlement built next to those hexes. There are five types of terrain hex, each of which produces one type of resource, as follows:

* Mountains produce Ore
* Fields produce Grain
* Pastures produce Wool
* Hills produce Brick
* Forests produce Wood

After each player collects their cards, the current player can trade with the other players or the bank, build new roads and settlements, upgrade settlements to cities, and purchase development cards. Each of these activities gives the possibility of victory points, and when 10 victory points are reached, the game is won!

One factor that leads to its replayability is this: the Isle of Catan is different every time you play it. The 19 terrain hexes are made out of thick cardboard, and are shuffled and dealt out to create the isle at the start of the game. Then the ocean and harbour hexes are dealt around the island, and the number chits are placed on the board.

With the isle built, each player then places two settlements and two roads on the island. These initial placements are key to how well players will go in the early game. One problem Settlers does have is this: a bad placement can severely hamper your chances of winning the game. For a game that is quite friendly to new players, this is the one hump that needs to be overcome.

To help players work against the front-runner and keep themselves in the game, Settlers provides the Robber, represented in my edition by a black pawn. On the roll of a 7 or when a Soldier development card is played, the Robber is moved to one terrain hex, preventing it from producing resources while the Robber remains, and also permitting the acting player to steal one card from another player.

In most cases, this will slow down the development of the leader, although there are times when that player can gain control of the Robber themselves. This becomes much rarer in a four-player game.

The Settlers of Catan provides many paths to victory. You need 10 points to win, but you can gain points by...

...building Settlements. Each Settlement is worth 1 point.
...building Roads. If you have the Longest Road, you gain 2 points.
...upgrading Settlements to Cities. Each City is worth 2 points.
...buying Development cards. Some development cards are worth 1 point each. Others are Soldier cards - if you play more Soldier cards than any other player, you gain 2 points.

However, to win the game you really need to pay attention to two things: where you build on the board, and how good your trades are with the other players.

When I first bought Settlers, it was in 2001, just after I started playing Dungeons & Dragons regularly again. Our Friday evenings quickly fell into the pattern of playing a game of Settlers of Catan, followed by our D&D game. As Settlers takes about one hour to play, this formed a very enjoyable evening.

There is no doubt that skill forms a large part of Settlers, overcoming what luck the dice bring to the game. For those early games, I'd win most of them. However, it is unwise to discount the luck element of the game: it allows players of lesser skill or experience to win games, which is one reason I really recommend Settlers as a family game.

Settlers is not a difficult game to learn. It works well as either a three- or four-player game, although I do recommend playing it with four players when possible. Four-player games make the island more crowded, and therefore make trading more important. As I consider trading to be at the heart of The Settlers of Catan, this is to be desired.

Eventually, after many, many games of Settlers, I started looking for new experiences. I bought various expansions to the game, which helped prolong its variety and interest; I really recommend the Seafarers of Catan for those wanting to expand the game. However, the other games being published started to impinge on my awareness: Carcassonne, Alhambra, and especially Caylus, and I gravitated more towards them, leaving Settlers mostly unplayed. It had been my gateway to the greater world of Eurogames.

Does this mean Settlers remains on my shelf, unloved, unplayed? No, it doesn't. It remains a game I still hold great affection for, and still greatly enjoy playing - even if I no longer do so on a weekly basis. Every month or two I drag it out, take it to the board game days I now have with my friends, and play it once more.

Then too, I've also begun to play it online. This is a different experience than playing it face-to-face with friends. Settlers really works best with people facing you over the board, for trading is much easier and thus more prominent. Online play tends to concentrate a bit too much on the initial placement of your settlements and the luck of the dice.

However, in any form, Settlers is a game I find fun to play. Could you ask for anything more from a game?
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Fippy Darkpaw
United States
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Nice review. Totally agree.
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