Settlers of Catan
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Published In: 1995
Designer: Klaus Teuber
Review by: Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower
One but need start talking about the advent of “Euro” games in America, and the name Settlers of Catan (Kosmos and Mayfair Games, 1995 - Klaus Teuber) invariably pops up. Ten years old as of this writing, and the game still manages to rock the gaming world. There are new “portal” games that possibly might surpass the success of Settlers of Catan, such as Ticket to Ride, but its place in the history of board games is secure. Many, many die-hard gamers have stated that Settlers is the first game that hooked them into the wonderful world of board games, and I’m sure that many more will say the same thing.
No, Settlers hasn’t become a household name yet, like Monopoly; but its popularity is starting to soar. Winning the most prestigious gaming award in the world - the Spiel des Jahres - in 1995, and spawning an entire family of games, there have been hundreds of thousands of copies sold across the world. Settlers has been translated into many languages, and many foreign copies of the game have popped up - even a Korean copy where I am. Settlers has given birth to several expansions, a couple card games, a space version, a pizza-box version, novels, spin-off games, a travel edition, religious versions, historical versions, a comic strip, and much more. Very few games have had the impact of Settlers, and despite what some vocal naysayers have to say about it, the games popularity is quite evident. It has more ratings than any other (4000+) at www.boardgamegeek.com, and has consistently stayed in the top ten popular games over the past several years despite its age.
Microsoft has picked the game up for play online, and hundreds of variants can be found across the ‘net and collected into books. Tournaments for the game are still quite popular across the world, and sales for the game still hold strong. Settlers has become quite popularly known as a family game, and I’ve rarely seen the game fail in a group. With the expansions, players can make the game as complicated as they want - yet many prefer the game in it’s purest form. I won’t spend much time going over the rules of the game in this interview, as you can easily find those online. Instead, I’ll quickly go over the points of the Mayfair edition, which is still readily available for purchase.
1.) Components: There is often a fuss raised up online about how the tiles in the German version are much better, etc. Frankly, I’ve never understood this, but then again I’ve never played the German version either. All I know is that the tiles in the Mayfair version are satisfactory to me. They fit well together and are very easy to distinguish from one another. The building costs cards, and longest road and largest army cards are nice to have; but what make the game (and what I imagine redefined game components forever) are the little settlement, road, and city pieces. Made of wood, they are a startling contrast to many people who’ve only played games that utilize plastic. Placing one’s roads on the board and forming your own little network is very satisfying, and it’s a tremendous feeling to see the longest road on the board and know that it’s yours. The only thing missing (and it’s not needed, but would be nice) is something to track players’ points. The cards, which are used more than most cards in a majority of games, have white borders and are of fairly good quality.
2.) Rules: Two rulebooks come with the game, which is pretty interesting considering how simplistic the game actually is. The main rulebook, which is nine black-and-white pages, is very nice, formatted well, and explains all the rules clearly. An “almanac” is also included, which is basically the rules all over again, put in alphabetical order, for ease of use. Now this is a nice touch, I just didn’t see how it was very necessary - especially for such a simplistic game. One feature I DID highly enjoy was a game overview page which gives a starting setup for beginners - something I highly recommend. If someone new to the game puts their settlements in poor places, it could conceivably give them a poor outlook on the game. Following the suggested setup gives players about as fair a game as possible.
3.) Players: The game supports up to four players, which many people seem quite content with. I personally like five-six player Settlers, so gladly picked up the five to six player expansion. I would never even try two player Settlers, since it would take out a large part of the game, negotiation. If you have two people and want to play Settlers, try the card game - it’s an excellent reworking of the system for two players.
4.) Time: I’m a big fan of adding in the expansions, because more complexity doesn’t bother me. But there is something to be said for “vanilla” Settlers, and that’s the fact that the game ends in a fairly short amount of time. Players can get an entire game done in only forty-five minutes, with total player participation the whole way. If a player gets a bad position in Settlers, and this does happen occasionally, the game is quick enough so that they aren’t sitting there, wallowing in their misery.
5.) Dice: One of the biggest complaints leveled against Settlers is the fact that the game is fairly lucky. I don’t see this as a problem, because for one - many, many people LIKE games with dice, so this doesn’t bother them. Also, the luck seems to work out evenly (although there have been many wordy debates on the subject.) I have found that most people I play with prefer the dice rolling, although some have preferred the “Dice Deck”, as it gives a slightly better distribution of the numbers. If luck is what is keeping you away from the game, the Dice Deck just may do the trick for you.
6.) Negotiation: The game works because most of it is speed, everything moves quickly - even when the players trade with one another. And since the commodities are necessary to win the game, everyone usually has something that someone else wants; so trading is possible on almost every turn. It seems highly doubtful that anyone could win the game without trading. This trading is easier to determine than that of different priced properties (like Monopoly), because all of the resources have a fairly equivalent value (although supply and demand will change them.) The robber itself - an antagonistic mechanic if ever there was one - helps push negotiations, and even affects them - “Why should I trade with you? You put the robber on my best property every chance you get!” Hoarding is discouraged, and because of this, deals are advantageous to all parties.
7.) Fun Factor: The game is extremely fun because of the player interaction, which happens at every turn. Yes, it looks good on the table, has a good theme and has a decent amount of luck (rolling for resources, drawing action cards, etc.), but it’s the trading that makes the game fun. There’s just something gratifying about seeing your little network of cities on the board, knowing that it’s because you did some pretty good bartering with the other players. This is why I prefer the face to face version of the game over the online game. The mechanics are basically the same, but I like to interact with other people, and Settlers definitely allows that.
8.) Expansions: I’m going to write reviews of the expansions, but I thought I’d pop a quick word in here. If you like Settlers even slightly, then the Seafarers expansion is a must - it adds a few more options, but doesn’t change gameplay too drastically. Cities and Knights adds even more complexity - something I like quite a bit - but changes the game drastically, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The five to six player expansions are really only necessary if you plan to play with that many people - I know I do.
I don’t like Settlers because it’s so popular, and now that it’s been out for ten years, I certainly don’t feel like I’m jumping on the band wagon about it. It’s a solid game; and while not one of my favorites, it’s one I’ll gladly play almost any day. I enjoy all the descendants of the series - especially Starship Catan, and appreciate all that Settlers has done for the hobby. When introducing new people to board gaming, there are three games I use: Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and the wonderful, grandfatherly Settlers of Catan.