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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Expand Your Game with Cities and Knights of Catan

by Ken Newquist / December 30, 2005

Cities and Knights of Catan Game CoverThe game began like most: frenzied trading for resources, roads hastily built toward valued cashes, towns and cities rising to dominate the forests and plains around them.

And the barbarians attacked, razing all but one city and sending the island of Catan to a post-apocalyptic Stone Age it would take years (or a half-dozen turns or so) to recover from. Eventually the mighty herds of evolved sheep rose up and founded a new empire of Sheeple, caring deep within in their wood-obsessed minds a healthy respect for the barbarians looming over the horizon.

This is Cities and Knights of Catan, or at least our interpretation of the cataclysmic events that rocked our third attempt at playing the game. In truth, this sequel to the popular board game Settlers of Catan has no nuclear holocausts or uplifted Sheep-People, but the barbarian cataclysm was real enough, and did knock us out of our Settlers-inspired complacency. The sacking of Catan a handful of turns into the game reminded us that as similar as the game might look to its predecessor, in reality it’s a very different kind of game.

Same Island, Different Rules

Cities and Knights shares many of its predecessors traits, and in fact requires the earlier game in order to play; this is an expansion, not a standalone game. Like regular Settlers the game board is comprised of randomly-placed hexes, each of which produces a certain kind of resource such as grain, bricks or ore. Each hex has a token ranging from 2 to 12; if that number is rolled on a given turn, the hex "produces" its corresponding resource. These resources are then used to build roads, towns and cities, each of which scores a player points. The first person to 13 points (rather than Settlers' 10) wins.

All of this should be familiar to fans of the original, but Cities and Knights quickly adds plenty of twists. To start, hexes don't just produce resources; if there's a city next them, they'll also produce one of three commodities; wool, paper and coins.

Commodities are used to build city improvements along one of three technological lines: science, politics and trade. There are five levels to each line, and each carries with it the increasing probability of receiving an associated progress card. The mechanic is simple: each improvement has one or more red dice faces on it (starting with "1" and "2" and going up to "5"). If the red die (another of the game's additions, which replaces one of the plain dice from the original game) matches one of those numbers when rolled, and the event die (more on that in a bit) matches the city improvement, the player gets a progress card.

These cards in turn replace the development cards of the original game, and on average they're a more diverse and overtly effective than what came before. Cards like "Saboteur" allow you to cripple an enemy city's production while "Wedding" forces those who have more points than you to give you two resource or commodity cards. "Inventor" allows a player to switch two of the probability markers while "Alchemist" lets you to pick the results of a dice throw. City improvements can also grant special abilities when a player reaches a certain threshold, such as allowing a player to trade any commodity two for one when reaching level 3 in trade. Finally, reaching the pinnacle of any particular technology line causes a city to become a metropolis, earning the player extra victory points.

This is enough to transform the game, but there’s more. Lurking just off the board is a barbarian pirate ship. Each turn, players roll a special a six-sided event die, which has three faces with black barbarian ships on them, and three faces corresponding to one of the city improvements. If a pirate ship is rolled, then the ship moves along a pre-set path toward the island of Catan. Eventually it reaches the island, and the barbarians attack. When this happens, its up to the knights of Catan to repel them.

As with everything else in the game, knights are purchased using natural resources. If there are as many knights as there are cities, the barbarians are repelled. The player with the most knights gets a special victory point; if there’s a tie, the winners get to draw progress cards. But if they can’t repel the barbarians, Catan gets sacked, and anyone without protective knights loses their cities, replacing them with towns instead. Knights serve other roles as well, allowing players to drive off the ever-troublesome bandit and block other player’s road-building efforts.

The knights haven’t played a huge part in our game yet (aside from their essential early use in repelling invaders) but I can see them becoming more important as our strategies improve along with our understanding of the game.

The net result of all these changes is a more complex game with multiple paths to victory – in the original game, players who were beaten to certain resources, or had a bad turn of the dice, were doomed to failure. With this game, even a landlocked, resource-poor player can pull out a victory if they’re careful and observant. All of our test games were close, with all of us ending within a handful of points of one another, something that can’t always be said of our traditional Settlers games.

Cities and Knights of Catan is more complex than the original, and the first game – as everyone re-learns the rules and tries to figure out what’s different – can drag. But once you’ve got a handle on how things have changed, the game moves along much more quickly.

The game’s look and feel is top notch – the board is made from strong cardboard, and a the playing pieces are all wooden. If there’s a fault, it’s with the new “hex border” that comes with the game and is used to lock the board hexes into place – each time we’ve played we’ve had to spend a few minutes trying to remember how to lay the thing out; better labeling of the border would have been helpful.

Final Analysis

Cities and Knights of Catan is an expansion for Settlers but while the game shares some of the original’s mechanics, it feels more like a distant, beefed-up cousin than an expansion. The new ideas and new tools radically change your conventional Settlers strategy, creating a game that’s deeper and more complex than the original. The game isn’t for everyone – those who enjoyed Settlers for is ease of play may find this game overly complex. But for others, it makes for a welcome change.