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Subject: Strengths and weaknesses of Settlers of Catan rss

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Matt N

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How do I evaluate games?
I have two major rules for judging games:
-A better player should win more often than a weaker player; a much better player should win much more often
-There should be a lot of depth to a game
My current top three games are Race for the Galaxy, Agricola and Caylus. I do generally prefer some decent element of luck within a game, but it should be a minor factor.

What is Settlers of Catan?
Settlers of Catan is a game where you build up your civilization to obtain 10 victory points and win the game. The box describes it as “a game of discovery, settlement, and trade”; it would be more accurately described as a game of dice rolling, trade, and thieving.

Rules summary
An exhaustive summary is available in many of the reviews posted to this site, so I’ll just hit the highlights:

-Start of the game involves the placement of two settlements and two roads; the first player to place a settlement is also the last one to place a settlement
-One dice roll per turn for everyone to gain resources from terrain (hexes) that has that number adjacent to their settlements/cities
-Rolling a 7 moves the thief, to block a hex from producing, take a card from one of the players adjacent to that hex
-Rolling a 7 forces players with 8 or more cards to discard half rounded down
-Resources can be spent on the end of your turn on settlements, cities, roads, and development cards (which can move the thief, give you points, build roads, take all of one resource from other players)
-Settlements are worth 1 point, cities are two points
-2 point bonus for longest road/largest army
-Trading is allowed and encouraged, but you can only trade if it is your turn or the turn of the player you want to trade with
-Can also trade 4 of any resource for any one resource; better deals are found when you build a settlement/city adjacent to an ocean hex.
-You win when you get to ten points

Theme: 9/10

Most of the theme is excellent; the feel of building settlements, cities, and roads is unmatched as far as creating your own empire goes, at least in games I’ve played. Trading at the ocean adds a thematic and logical element to the game, and bartering with your neighbors is logical and integral to the game. The major part that bothers me (and not just for theme) is rolling dice to gain resources; why should I randomly gain wheat from my fields? Why do I randomly gain lumber from time to time? Production at a fixed rate, or at least a less random rate, would go far to improve the theme.

Replayability: 5/10

I’ve played this game about ten times and enjoyed it for the first three… Your opinion of this will vary tremendously based on the gameplay. Broadly speaking, the random board and new starting locations each game are the main source of variability and make each game different, but playing the game itself is generally pretty similar each time. Sure, you’re going for lots of settlements one game and early cities in another game, but there’s not much room to choose a strategy; you just play what you have. This score improves notably when your opponents are willing to gang up on the consistent winners and trade more with the losers, creating a metagame dynamic. However, it’s far worse with poor interaction, where the game becomes a dice rolling competition.

This leads to my fundamental opinion of Catan; it is a game of interaction, and the skill from the game almost entirely stems from this interaction.

Gameplay: 3/10

This score will undoubtedly be the most controversial one, so I’ll explain:

-Resources
The bulk of the game is obtaining resources, and spending them. Unfortunately, the dice rolling and lack of options largely ruins this portion of the game. The dice rolling means that even the player with the best starting locations will have long dry spells where they gain no resources and do nothing. Generally in games, I prefer for dice rolling to be minor and have a minimal effect on the game (such as Pillars of the Earth) or for dice rolling to be so widespread that variance over time evens out during a game (such as Stone Age). Settlers of Catan manages to hit the worst medium between the two, where dice rolling is common but has enough variation that there is frequently a player far ahead or a player far behind. A player who’s far ahead is less of an issue since they can be thieved or boycotted from trading (if your opponents help you out), but a player who’s far behind is generally there because they didn’t get enough useful resources. There is no fundamental catchup mechanism in this game for the last player, and it suffers greatly because of it. Any game where you can, through no fault of your own, know you’ve lost in the first twenty minutes and still have to sit through 40+ more minutes of the game is fundamentally flawed to me.

The lack of spending options for resources is the other problem. Generally, if you can build something or buy something, go ahead and buy it, with a bias towards settlements or cities whenever you can build them. The choice is almost always obvious and there’s little difference between an amateur and an expert player here. This trait, along with the dice rolling, is what makes Settlers of Catan a popular “gateway game” and is why it fails as a resource management game and is simply a game of interaction. Nevertheless, this aspect of the game consumes more than half of the time spent playing it; I don’t like games where most of the time is spent performing mindless actions.

-Thieving
There’s a reasonable amount of skill involved in moving the thief (targeting the player who’s probably winning vs maximizing your own benefit); the problem here is that the thief is the fundamental catchup mechanism for this game and needs to be played well by most or all players to work. If there’s a new player in a three player game who doesn’t get it, well, you’re back to a dice rolling competition. This is a particularly bad flaw for a gateway game that supposedly accommodates beginners.

-Trading
This is the most skillful part of the game, and it’s probably the reason why certain people continue to play the game. Unfortunately, it’s just a small fraction of the game, and using strategy for 20 minutes of a 60+ minute game is quite unappealing. It won’t fully overcome the dice either, unless you’ve got a big supply of money you’re willing to trade…

So, the low score comes from the lack of strategy for much of the game and the ability to get “eliminated” early. This score will go up if you’re surrounded by experienced players, however.

Ease of learning: 10/10 (Agricola = 7/10, Puerto Rico = 8/10)

This score may seem rather high, but compared to deeper games of the same length Settlers is much easier to teach. It’s called a gateway game for a reason, and in this aspect at least it succeeds.

Chance: 6-9/10 (Agricola = 1-2/10, Puerto Rico = 1/10)

This is very much a function of your opponents. If they are weak in an exploitable fashion it’s lower, if they are stronger it’s in the middle, and if they just don’t ever trade you get 9/10. I would prefer games that are 4/10 or less, since those give a good reward to skilled players.

Interaction: 10/10 (Agricola = 6/10, Puerto Rico 4/10)

This is entirely a game of interaction, albeit with 40 minutes of dice rolling and resource spending thrown in, so it gets the highest rating. If you enjoy the dramatic swings of fortune and the agony of your opponents when their thieved hex is rolled, this is a good choice for you, as long as you’re not too worried about the strategy element.

Downtime

You’ll have to wait during your opponent’s turns, so that’s some downtime. Still, it’s not that much, and the low depth to the game means that there’s little analysis paralysis for decisionmaking. The major issue would come from being the player who’s last and staying in last, in which case the rest of the game is downtime.

Final thoughts

Buy this game if:
-You like trading and dealmaking
-You can tolerate/enjoy a large amount of chance within a game
-You don’t like a lot of difficult decisions within a game
-Your gaming group enjoys a "gang up on the leader" type game

You may not want this game if:
-You prefer games with a lot of depth
-You don’t like games that require others to play well in order to be enjoyable
-You don’t like others destroying your strategy
-Your gaming group prefers indirect interaction
-You want to have a much higher chance of winning than a relatively new player
-You don’t like enduring runaway leaders or being stuck in last place for long periods of time

I very much agree with the second set of points, so Settlers of Catan gets a 4/10 from me. I’d be more forgiving if the game were shorter, but I honestly still would not like it much; there’s just too much fluff compared to substantive decisions in the game. I also dislike games where everyone has to be a good player to enjoy the game; Puerto Rico is downgraded for me because of this.

I could only really see this game working long term for two groups of players. One would be a group of casual players who enjoy the dice rolling and don’t care much who wins; the other would be a group of skilled players who can keep runaway leaders in check and enjoy the interaction and swings of fortune.

People who want an easy to learn game with lower interaction should try Ticket to Ride or Dominion; people who want an easy to learn game with high interaction should try Citadels, which involves much more skill in acquiring and spending gold and still has that element of stabbing your opponents and ganging up on the leader. People who want a high interaction game with more depth could try El Grande, which is a very different game but still has that high level of player interaction.
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Mike Siggins
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9/10 for theme! I think you should try some more games...

Otherwise, interesting analysis.
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Evan Stegman
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Stunna wrote:
How do I evaluate games?
...

Downtime

You’ll have to wait during your opponent’s turns, so that’s some downtime. Still, it’s not that much, and the low depth to the game means that there’s little analysis paralysis for decisionmaking. The major issue would come from being the player who’s last and staying in last, in which case the rest of the game is downtime.

...


If the dice are not hitting your resources and you don't have much in hand and nothing anyone wants to trade for, you can spend quite a few turns (both yours and other players) with absolutely nothing to do. You just have to wait and watch the other people play the game until the dice start going your way. This can go on for quite a while sometimes.
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Mike Davis
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Very interesting review - though I disagree with huge parts of it. It is nice to see a dissenting view, however.

Some specific comments:

1. Replayability - Settlers offers infinite plays. Yes, the mechanics are the same to win the game, but with the randomness of the set up and cards (not to mention dice), every game is different.I find it VERY odd that you consider that Settlers has a weakness in this area. But, to each his own.

2. Game Play - Again, I strongly disagree with you on these points. I have played many dozens of games of Settlers - and in only a very small percentage of them has a person been so 'out of it' they had no chance at all to win. Maybe a lower chance - maybe a difficult chance - but not NO chance. The same luck you have a problem with is the luck that can give players a chance to get back into the game. I will say that the 'gang up on the leader' thing CAN be a bit silly, but, again in general it is not a problem. I certainly have been on both sides of that.

3. Interaction - You are one of the few people I have seen that thinks this game has such a high level of interaction - as it relates to sticking it to other players. Yes, the robber is there of course, but given that 7's are rolled often, plus Soldier cards - the robber tends to move all over the place - especially early and mid game - and it tends to hit everyone at some point. My point is that the interaction is from all sides to all players, in general. Of course, with the trading aspect - perhaps the BEST part of Settlers - there is a lot of interaction. I just get the sense that your score is based on the interaction of completely devastating another player.

Oh, and if you think that, in general, a good settlers player will not beat a newbie, I humbly disagree. I have played the game many, many times - and while I sometimes lose to my wife and daughter - who have played maybe 10% of the time I have - I usually have to play with a handicap of getting to 11 points instead of 10 to win. A good Settlers player will be a newbie far more often than not.

Overall though - again, your summary was an enjoyable read - I just disagree with several of your points. I was glad to see Agricola was one of your favorites - it is one of mine too :)

MM
 
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