Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don't Settle for Less - A Settlers of Catan Review

Another review-- I guess I've been feeling opinionated recently (though not having much time with the time/energy to paint certainly contributes to the lack of painting entries).
The dated copy I got second-hand-- I prefer the older aesthetic...

This began as a review of Settlers of Catan's expansions, but, being a responsible reviewer, I chose to start at the logical beginning, with the core game.

Settlers of Catan has been around for some time, now, but I've been playing it for less than a year. It's part of the newer generation of board games, not specifically targeted towards gamers, but for those tired of the previous era of board games.

Catan, with ports and land, before resource availability
and starting locations have been chosen.
The premise of the game is that the 3-4 (or up to 6, with the multiplayer expansion) players - our Settlers - have growing communities on their new, roughly hexagonal island of Catan.

Players gather resources, which they spend to get advantages: more production; defense; advantageous trading; position, etc.

Through positioning, forethought, making deals, and luck, one player will eventually accrue 10 points (settlements and certain achievements give varying amounts of points) and win the game.

I've come to admire the ability to make a straightforward game with nuanced play (eventually, I'll get to writing on Space Hulk), and, due to a random board, no set starting place, and multiple directions of progress, the game has substantial replay value.


Another reason I enjoy this game is because this game is unlike an older generation of competitive game: Risk and Monopoly are the main offenders. These share a very specific element, which is that, the vast majority of the time, each victory you have directly and negatively effects your opponents.

Now, this may sound strange coming from someone who regularly plays wargames, but there is a distinct difference: wargames are typically two-player, where the express intent is to beat your opponent. In contrast, the above board games have two primary modes: ganging up on whoever's winning, or preying on the weakest linkBoth, from my experience, result in at least one player getting hurt feelings.

Specifically, those games (Monopoly and Risk) become as much about causing others to lose as winning, yourself. The goal is victory through elimination.

Munchkin and Zombies! are the more contemporary versions of this, which, while they don't eliminate players, often do the equivalent to elimination players through crippling them, making their only method of participation a chance at revenge, rather than victory.

While this likely isn't true in competitive settings (everyone knows they're just there to win), aggressive victory conditions sour casual gaming experiences.

In contrast, Settlers, while involving indirect competition (for instance, only one player can claim the points for Longest Road), there are multiple avenues of victory (Longest Road is not the only way to secure victory). Players will also typically rely on trading with each other, especially early- and mid-game (before one player is close to winning, and before anyone has a wider access to resources).

There are a few pieces and circumstances (most notably, the Thief) that allow you to restrict resource production and/or steal resources from your opponent, so the game is has some direct intervention, but I believe this is a balanced and productive part of the game.

The basic game has good replay value, due to variable starting locations and random terrain: resources, trading ports, and regional productivity give the game a lot of options, and I feel that one of the only limitations of the game has little to do with game design, but with players attempting to artificially balance the table.

Another factor of the game is that, with rare exception, the game rarely ends with one player winning by a large margin, but through a close margin, often through a small final victory, rather than some sort of devastating combo. I find this very well engineered, though some may prefer the killing stroke over the slow victory.

The Seafarers expansion. Note the water, pirate ship, and
awkward newer airbrushed mascot.

Seafarers adds a couple elements, some of which I agree with, and some I don't.

The most obvious difference are the proliferation of water tiles (compare to the single island above).

Water tiles do not generate resources, which makes concentrations of land cards a more interesting element, and notably adds to replay value, given the growth in options.

Speaking of replay value, while I've yet to play any, Seafarers adds scenario play to the game. They seem a little gimmicky, to me, but, if you've exhausted the regular options, they allow for something new.

With the water tiles come two new mechanics:

First, ships are the sea equivalent to roads, which requires (or, depending on circumstances, allows) you to use different resources to expand your territory. I appreciate this, as, without easy access to some resources, early play can stall.

Second, the maritime equivalent of the Robber are Pirates (obviously, I guess?). I tend to think this mechanic does more harm than good: it's the first piece that specifically is designed to counter expansion. However, I haven't played Seafarers a ton, so am not sure how important this element is to balancing the game.

Ultimately, Seafarers is a decent but utterly non-essential expansion: you add moderately more variety and replay value.

The Cities and Knights expansion focuses on two additional aspect, as your wee settlers grow up and get more violent.

You're now able to go beyond simple towns to cities, and, with them, compete in knowledge as well as the basic resources from previous editions.

Your more developed civilizations produce additional, different forms of resources and abilities, and once they get advanced enough, you get bonuses (that vary from moderately useful to almost game-breakingly good).

The shift in resources slightly changes the way resources and productivity work, which I'm not a fan of on principle (I think expansions should expand, not replace), but the replacements are mostly positive.

With the escalation, in the board game arms race, the Thief is supplemented by Viking marauders, which can, if not properly repelled, destroy your cities.

The counter to Vikings are various defenders of your realm, which have supplemented the ability to move a thief with the ability to block opponents' expansion. While blocking could originally be achieved through positioning, and in Seafarers through pirates, the game has escalated from two ways of blocking opponents to four cheaper ways of doing so.

In addition to blocking, this is the first iteration of Settlers that allows players to lose more valuable elements. The aforementioned vikings can destroy cities, losing you points and resources, and other players can steal your productivity (through swapping resource tokens).

Probably my favorite element of the new game are simple walls. These purchases are relatively cheap, and increase your hand size, fixing one of the more frustrating part of the original Settlers game. This is nice enough that we've considered using this as a house rule even when not playing with this expansion.

In truth, I'm a bit torn about this expansion.

The variation is interesting, most notably because there are far more varied long term victory conditions and resources. This not only increases replayability, but can give you more options, adding the number of decisions you make while decreasing the likelihood that you'll have a turn where you can't do anything productive.

However, as I stated in the red-highlighted portion above (I couldn't figure out how to format the text more elegantly than that...), I find that elimination-based multiplayer games can easily sour the mood of any party, etc., which is part of why I originally liked Settlers' indirect competition.

Again, I haven't played a lot of this expansion, so my thoughts may change with experience.

Final Thoughts
If you were, like I was, turned off of multiplayer board games because of repetitive gameplay or elimination victories (or, even more, if you like board games but haven't tried this one), I'd highly suggest trying the game out.

Fortunately, I think that the expansions are just that-- expansions. I don't feel that any of them (extra players*, Seafarers, or Cities and Knights, are essential, but they all add to the replay value, so, as an expansion ideally functions, it's great when you've exhausted the basic game.

* Nope, I didn't put in a review for the 5-6 player expansion. It's got more cards and game pieces. The only thing worth noting is that the expansions (at least nominally**) also require 5-6 player expansions, so the game will get notably more expensive if you regularly play in larger groups and want the expansions.

** You can probably just fake it by sharing cheat sheets and using generic tokens for the extra pieces...