04 December 2011

The Gateway Game: Settlers of Catan

So a while ago I offered a general introduction to the world of modern hobby board gaming. I wrote that as a crash course in the topic so that I could jump right in to reviews of new games and thoughts on the hobby. Since then, though, I've decided that it would make more sense to extend the concept of that primer to a whole series of posts that not only introduce people to the world of hobby board gaming, but perhaps also help them get into it. (In light of that, that introductory post may or may not be of use to you. I think it's a pretty good intro, but it's mostly quick details and no meat, so may be more confusing than helpful.) Inasmuch, I'm gonna go more in-depth with a few games that I think are good for people getting started in the hobby, beginning with The Settlers of Catan.

It's a vibrant and engaging game. (Image Source)

As I've said, if I had to recommend one game to get yourself started in the hobby, it would be this one. It uses a nice variety of simple but engaging mechanics, has plenty of player interaction, and also has a lovely charm to it. The game involves building up a network of roads and settlements to gain access to the island's different resources, which can be used to further said expansion, upgrade settlements to cities, purchase soldiers, and trade with the other players.

For some folks that immediately sounds interesting. For others it might sound a bit boring, but let me assure you, it's far more engaging than a game like Monopoly: you have meaningful choices to make, it's shorter, there's more player interaction, and there's no player elimination (all players stay in the game until the end, so there's no sitting around bored while you wait for the others to finish). The amount of choices in the game are enough to make you feel like you're in control, but there aren't so many that you're left with your head spinning. The bottom line is this: when I've played Monopoly, people are grumpy, bitter, and just waiting for it to end, but when I play a game of Settlers, I see people smiling, laughing, and having a good time with a friendly competition.

So, how do you actually play the game? Well, you start by setting up the island. It's made up of 19 hexagons (hexes) that represent the different kinds of terrain on the island, and is surrounded by the sea. The land tiles are arranged randomly each game, meaning it'll play differently every time. Each type of terrain produces a different resource: Forests produce Lumber, Fields produce Wheat, Pastures produce Sheep, Hills produce Brick, Mountains produce Stone, and the single Desert produces nothing. But in addition to arrangement of the terrain, the amount of resources each hex produces in a game is also determined by chance, further randomizing which areas of the board are the most valuable. Take a look at the image below:

Settlements are built on the corners of hexes, and so can be considered to be "touching" up to three hexes. (Image Source)

You can see a few of the terrain types (Fields are yellow, Pastures are light green, the Forest is dark green, the Mountain is grey, and Hills are red), and may notice that each hex also has a number on it. These number disks are separate from the hexes, and are also randomly arranged at the start of the game. The number determines when that hex produces its respective resource. There are two dice in the game, and they are rolled by a player at the start of his/her turn. If you're used to old roll-and-move board games, you may associate rolling dice with determining where to go, but in Catan, the sum of the die faces tell you which hexes produce resources during that turn. A single die presents an equal chance of each number being rolled, but when you take the sum of multiple dice, the results fit to a bell curve.

At the top of the curve (most likely to be rolled) is 7, which is followed by 6 and 8 and so on down to 2 and 12 at the ends (the least likely to be rolled). When a player rolls the dice at the start of their turn, each player with a settlement touching a hex with that number gets a resource of the appropriate type (in the image above, the city closest to the camera would get resources on a roll of a 5, 9, or 10, since it is touching hexes with those numbers). So not only is there the matter of establishing your settlements near hexes that will give you the resources you need, but you also have the priority of those that are likely to pay out a lot over the course of the game.

Determining which resources are handed out at the start of each turn is all the dice do (with one exception, below). You don't roll a die to tell you where you can go next like in Monopoly, that decision is up to you. Informing that decision are the resources you currently have (and thus what you can build), what resources you want to have more of (and thus which terrain you'll expand toward), and the actions of your opponents (you might want to block them from claiming a certain position, for example). Physically blocking your opponents is one form of competitive interaction, and the other major one is using the robber. When a 7 is rolled, the player who rolled it can place the robber pawn on any hex he/she likes, which not only prevents all the settlements around that hex from getting resources when they otherwise would, but also allows the deciding player the opportunity to steal a resource from someone with a settlement there. The robber will block that hex until another 7 is rolled, or until a player plays a special "Knight" card to move it elsewhere.

The large pawn is the robber, currently blocking a forest hex. (Image Source)

Despite these mechanisms, the game usually isn't a ruthless one, and play is mostly lighthearted and friendly. Most player interaction comes in the form of trading your resources with the other players, giving you access to materials your current territory might not be able to provide. If you've managed to secure a resource that's proving to be rare in that play session, you might be able to demand a higher price for it ("Sure, you can have a brick, but you'll have to give me two lumber"). If no one is willing to trade, you can also trade with the bank (though it won't be a good deal), or try to gain access to one of the ports around the island in order to convert your resources.

The goal of the game is to be the first player to reach 10 points. You get one point for each settlement you own, and two for each one that's been upgraded to a city. If you've been trading in resources for "development cards" it's possible you'll have gotten some that can also give you a point each, while also having the advantage of remaining secret up until the end (development cards can also get you helpful one-time bonuses and Knights). There are also two competitive sources of points: having the longest continuous road and having the largest army. Having either will get you two points, but they aren't guaranteed, since someone else could surpass you and take the points away from you for themselves.

In the board gaming community, Settlers of Catan is a classic. For many of us, it's replaced Monopoly in our minds as the archetypal board game. And it's welcome to the position, because while many folks have come to see it as a bit simple as compared to the other, myriad options out there, it's still able to offer a genuine good time, unlike some other "games" I know. The rules are engaging enough that you'll feel like your in control, but simple enough that kids can still play it. All in all, it makes for a great evening in with people you care about.

D'awww.... (Image Source)

If you're interested in getting the game, here're a few more details. It's for 3 or 4 players, and once you're familiar with the rules you can expect it to play in about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. Conveniently, this game is often for sale at places like Barnes & Noble, so you won't have to seek out a specialty game shop to find it (if you can't find it at your local B&N, it's also on their website). It usually goes for around $40. Be careful that you're getting the base game to start off (it's the one I've linked to a moment ago). There are several expansions for the game should you decide you want to add more options and variety down the line, but you won't be able to use them without having the base game first. First of all, there's the "5-6 Player Extension" that lets you make the island bigger and gives you pieces for two more players (it's in a red box like the base game, but smaller). There are also three expansions that add particular new content (I won't go into them here, but they come in boxes the same size as the base game in blue, purple, and green); each of these expansion also has its own 5-6 player extension in the appropriate color. For now, don't worry about all that stuff, just make sure you don't buy it by mistake. Start with the standard Settlers of Catan, and if you think you need to add to it down the line, then by all means do so. Perhaps I'll go in-depth with some of the expansions here at a later date.

If you have any questions about Settlers of Catan or getting into the board gaming hobby in general, please feel welcome to shoot me an email.

Happy gaming! :)

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