Unplugged Review: Settlers of Catan

It started the German invasion, it spawned five expansions and countless follow up sequels. Is it last summer’s movie blockbuster? No, it’s a great little board game called Settlers of Catan.

You might think a game based around four economic consultants pitted against each other in order to build a small island into a thriving economic power would be boring. You would be wrong. Settlers of Catan is a game that challenges players to build a small thriving economy on an island game board that is different every time the game is played. Settlers first arrived in the United States in the mid 90′s and news of the game traveled by word of mouth so fast that it went through several English printings in its first few years in the U.S. A winner of multiple game awards in Europe as well as the U.S., it is widely regarded as the game that started a “German invasion” of board games. With the success of Settlers, other popular German board games were brought into the U.S. At present, a strategy board game that has strong player interaction, multiple ways to win, high quality pieces, and can be played in an hour or two is often labeled as a “German-style” board game.

Lets begin with an overview of the game. The game is set up by randomly placing hexagonal tiles in a hexagon shape to form an island of land tiles surrounded by water tiles. A number token showing a number from 2 to 12, is then placed on each land hexagon. To start, players place two starting settlements and two starting roads. Settlements are placed on hexagon tile corners, and roads are placed along a tile’s sides. After placement, the game begins.

Players start their turn by rolling two dice. ALL players who have a settlement or city next to a hexagon matching the number on the dice receive a resource card. For each matching settlement, a player gets one resource card of the type produced by that hexagon. Settlements can eventually be upgraded to cities, and cities produce two resource cards. There are five types of resources and five matching hexagon tiles. Hill tiles make bricks, field tiles produce grain, pastures produce wool, forests produce lumber, and mountains produce ore. The acting player then can trade resource cards as well as spend them on developments. A player can build roads, new settlements, upgrade settlements to cities, or buy a development card off the top of the deck. The different development cards can be played on a later turn to receive benefits such as two free roads, a free victory point, or even a card that forces all players to give you all they have of one kind of resource. Once the active player has spent and traded all the resource cards she wants, she ends her turn and the dice are passed to the next player.

The object of the game is to be the first to acquire 10 victory points (VPs). Most items that can be purchased award VP. Settlements are worth 1 VP, cities are worth 2 VP, whoever has the longest road gets 2 VP, and whoever has the largest army, represented by the most played development cards showing a soldier, gets 2 additional VPs. Some development cards can award a VP outright. Development cards aren’t exposed until they are played, so an unplayed card can be used as psychological warfare. It might be a victory point, or just another army card. Games are usually fairly balanced with at least two or three people having a real shot at winning during the last few turns. A single game can be played in under an hour once players are familiar with the rules.

The heart of the game is in trading resource cards and planning out what to build. Since two dice will roll a seven more frequently than any other number, regions with numbers closer to seven will produce more resources than other areas. (The number tokens conveniently display the likelihood of any number being rolled by displaying dots. For instance, a “2″ token has one dot while a “6″ token has five dots.) As a result, not all tiles produce equally. Players will often be forced to trade with others to obtain needed resources. Multiple cards of the same resource can be converted to a single different resource card via the bank or converted more efficiently by owning special port squares on the water tiles. All this producing and exchanging of resource cards keeps everyone involved in the game, since anyone can trade with the active player. It also means that players usually never have enough resources to do everything they want to do, but they usually have enough resources to do something. Settlements (and cities) must be at least two hexagon sides away from each other, all new settlements must be built one existing roads, and no roads can cross or overlap. The game board soon becomes rather congested and there are little races to see who can be the first to build roads to the best remaining positions.

Those super-competitive types will find plenty to enjoy, but Settlers can be a nice game for the “kinder, gentler” crowd as well. While resource cards can be stolen or lost, all player purchases are permanent and are never removed from the game board. Kingdom building fans will be pleased to know no one will be able to steal away the city that is the crown jewel of their empire. The most confrontational part of the game is the placement of the bandit. If a seven is rolled, the bandit on the board must be moved to a new hex tile. That hex tile will cease to produce any resources for adjacent settlements, even if its number is rolled. The only way to move a bandit is for someone to roll another seven, or for someone to play an army card purchased from the development card pile. The most effective way to try to slow down the game front runner is to place the bandit near their cities and refuse to trade with them. Their production slows down, and it is more difficult for them to find the right resources to build what they need.

Popular games often spawn expansions; Settlers is no different. A highly recommended expansion is the 5-6 player expansion containing more tiles, resource cards, and player pieces. Games with six players last a little bit longer but are just as fun. Two main games can be combined to make an eight player game which is quite fun for fans, but with that many players, the game slows down a bit and a few people invariably get trapped between stronger players and spend the game languishing in a corner of the game board.

The Cities and Knights expansion and the Seafarers of Catan expansion both add new rules to the game. Cities and Knights focuses on further city development, while Seafarers adds shipbuilding and exploration into the mix. Both expansions also have their own 5-6 player “expansion expansion” available. Although I haven’t yet personally played Cities and Knights, I would recommend Seafarers as the better purchase.

Settlers of Catan is a game that can be quickly and easily learned by most everyone and enjoyed by light strategy and deep strategy game players alike. At an hour in length, it is perfect for that time between the kids’ bedtime and your own. Since the game board is different every time you set it up, you will definitely get your money’s worth on this one.

One Response to “Unplugged Review: Settlers of Catan”

  1. Thanks for the great review, Matt! I’ve heard of this, but now it is time to put it on my wish list :)

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