Vie for Colonial Domination with Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is one of those games you hear people talk about for years, but somehow never get around to playing. Then when you finally do play it, you wonder why you wasted all that time on sleeping when you could have been playing Settlers.

The premise of the game is simple. Two to four colonists are attempting to settle the virgin land of Catan. They use the natural resources of the island — wood, grain, wool, bricks and iron — to forge roads, towns and cities. Each town is worth 1 point, each city is worth 2. The first person to 10 points wins the game.

Capitalist Gaming

That’s the short version. Here’s the long one. Settler’s game board is made up of hexagonal pieces, each representing a different kind of land or ocean. The land pieces — and the resources they produce — are forest (wood), fields (grain), sheep (wool), clay (bricks) and mountains (steel). There’s also one desert hex, which produces nothing, and is the starting place of the robber (more on him later). The ocean squares are divided between those who have ports, and those who don’t. Ports are valuable commodities, and the individual who controls one gets special deals when trading resources.

At the beginning of the game, players build two towns, which are placed at the intersections of the various hexes, though not within two intersections of one another. At the same time, players place who road pieces on the lines connecting each intersection. As the game progresses, players must build additional roads away from their cities in order to build towns; roads are also useful because stringing five of them together earns a player the “longest road” card, which is worth two victory points.

Each of the land hexes, save for the desert, is labeled with a number from 2-6 or 8 to 12. On each player’s turn, two six sided dice are rolled; if a land piece with that number comes up, it produces resources for anyone who has a city adjoining that hex. These resources are then coupled together to produce roads, towns and cities — for example, a brick and a wood is used to build a road, while two ore and three wheat produces a city.

Resources can also be used to buy development cards. All of these cards are designed to help the player who produced them but their exact nature varies. “Year of Plenty” allows a player to get two free resources, while “Road Building” gives him or her two extra roads to place anywhere they like. There are “Victory Point” cards which count toward a player’s total victory points, as well as “Soldier” cards which compel “the Robber” to move to a new hex. The first player to play three “Solider” cards also snags the “Largest Army” card, which is worth two victory points.

Back to rolling the dice .. and that elusive “Robber”. If a seven is tossed, then nothing is produced, and instead “the Robber” is summoned. The player who rolled the robber can place him on any settled land hex on the board, preventing that hex from producing resources and stealing one resource card from a player abutting that hex. There’s another consequence of rolling “7” though — it forces anyone with more than seven resource cards to discard half their hand (and keep discarding until they’re under seven).

Trading is an integral part of the game, as people seek out resources to complete their various projects. Trading can take place between players or through a generic resource “bank”. At any time, players can trade in four resources of a kind for one resource they need. Those lucky enough to have settlements next to ports may be able to trade 3-of-a-kind for one, or two of a specific resource (like wool) for one.

“I Have Wood For Sheep”

That’s the line that finally got my gaming group to play Settlers of Catan. It’s from a comic strip by Knights of the Dinner Table when the guys were playing Settlers, and you can’t truly appreciate the humor of it until you’ve played the game, and found yourself quite innocently proclaiming, that yes, you did have wood for sheep.

Settlers is a game that’s equal parts strategy and luck, although admittedly, sometimes it seems like its far more about luck. I’ve played games where the oddest numbers — like 11 — get hot, with that number coming up 5 or 6 times out of a dozen throws. That sort of thing can easily throw the entire game into chaos, as careful strategies built around the work-horse numbers (6 & 8, which statistically should come up the most times) are ruined. I’ve also seen players stricken with incredible runs of bad luck, rolling sevens four or five turns in a row — hell, I’ve been that player. With such fickle turns of the dice, weaker or disinterested players may spit in disgust, and leave the table, never to return.

But if you stick around, and watch how games unfold, you’ll see that strategy does play an important role. Placement of your roads and towns is crucial — run your roads in the wrong direction, and you may find yourself off from needed resources. Build a road when you should have built a town, and you may find someone else snatches up that hex with a town of their own. Knowing when to hold on to your cards — and when to trade — is also critical — yes, you want to hold enough resources to build, but you also want to make sure you don’t lose your hand if someone role’s the robber.

Of course, all Settlers strategies require flexibility, because the nature of the game varies so wildly from session to session. The economy of the game is constantly in flux because placement of the tiles (and their corresponding numbers) are randomly determined with each game. One session sheep can flood the market, but bricks are exceptionally rare. The next, bricks are everywhere, but you can’t get wood to save your life. This constant fluidity of strategy and game play is Settlers most compelling aspect, and it gives the game tremendous replay value.

The game is also a near-perfect demonstration of capitalism in action, particularly the bits involving supply and demand and the resulting trade. The only flaw in capitalist exhibition is the robber. However, while he can (and is) used to mess with other players, either through rolling sevens or playing the Army card to move him to a new home, overall I think he’s more representative of the effects of natural disaster and common banditry. The game also needs some mechanic like the robber in order to add more randomness to play, and to ensure that players don’t acquire too many resources, and thus complete the game too quickly.

Final Analysis:

Settlers is a fun strategy game with great replay value. It’s perfect for anyone who’s tired of conventional board games, and wants to move on to something more advanced.

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