Review: The Settlers of Catan

At this point, why write about Setters of Catan? Surely, it's been said before. The classic, Klaus Teuber game that's been out now for over a decade and sold millions of copies. For years, the undisputed "gateway" Eurostyle game. A game franchise that finds releases every year now.

I write to the new and curious in this hobby what a fun gaming experience this can be and how I've come to dislike playing the game. Don't get me wrong here, it can be riviting fun. Though for me, I know at this point in my gaming career, I don't need to play this one ever again.

So what is Settlers? We have here a game of very careful resource management, very tight money (resources), trading amongst the players, blocking other players and a racing game to the finish that, often times, is a photo finish. Lot's a great stuff. The game plays in 45-120 minutes, generally on the lower end of this for experience players and better dice rolls. As said, games are tight and tense, there is a lot of player interaction each turn so downtime is not much of an issue with 3 or 4 players. The games are relatively easy to teach and learn, though maybe not as much as one might expect for an introductory game to this genre. The game has potential to move quickly, although can sometimes drag with bad die rolls. We also have a modular board which, through a random setup, invites a different feeling game each time, which is key to the Settler's longevity.

The physical production here is fine, though I feel the artwork quite bad. Mayfair seems to have a nack for uninteresting, bland covers and this one is no exception. With such a rich theme of colonialization in this time period, there is plenty of opportunity here to create a really dramatic cover with great shelf appeal. This one doesn't have it. A quick reinterpritation that I of the cover that I created below illustrates the missed opportunity here. In the original, the tiny window of a picture, done in a less realistic illustrative style, lacks drama and emotion. It tells a story, but without feeling. In the modified version, below it you can see how strong colors and large simple imagery adds more power.

Current Mayfair cover

My refreshed cover

Opening up the box, we have a set of hexigon tiles, which make up the modular board. Somehow this is a magical thing, offering the promise of a very different game each time. Really wonderful! Each player has a set of wooden tokens (roads, settlements and cities), which are very nice to hold and fiddle with. We have two decks of cards (resources and advancement cards), some player aid cards – which are really helpful – and two cardboard victory cards.

In terms of the board artwork, the hexigon tiles which form the board are poor from three perspectives. Firstly, at first play, some of them can be difficult to differentiate and associate with their respective resource cards. Since we have two different graphics to mean essentially the same thing, this takes getting used to. Color coding helps, but is not enough at first. Though after a few plays, this is no problem. Secondly, the artwork is just not that attractive. I've certainly grown used to it, but the patterns used here are not that visually appealing, particularly given the subject matter of a map of an island. This could have been soooo much more appealing. Finally, I find that the color coding of the tiles interfers with the important coding of the player's pieces. Often times, when a game calls for players to scan a board quickly and often for patterns as does Settlers, it can be the case that the board's colors are muted or in some way quiet to let the patterns of players' pieces become evident. Here, both tiles and pieces call for attention, which gets in the way of "seeing" the board. Now, certainly the game and board are most playable and work fine, however there was a missed opportunity here to positively effect gameplay through more careful design and color choices.

A board that I created offers more character and old world charm.
The colors are muted to help the player's pieces pop. Tiles are colored
red for 6s and 8s to enhance scanability for these particular hexes.

A detail from my modified board

What Can You Expect To Get in a Game
- Well, firstly, we have a highly interactive game where players effect each other greatly
- The game play is very dependent on die rolls and luck (which can be a bad thing)
- There is a lot of "screw your neighbor" in this game with blocking and take that moves
- There is trading amongst players
- Tense close finishes
- Usually, one person will be shut out of the game at some point
- A little king-making or -breaking with trading cartels and take that (robber)

What You See In Front of You
- On the table, you'll see a board made up of individual hexigon tiles which represents an island.
- On the board will be players' pieces, numbered chits on most hexigons which relate to die rolls and finally a "robber" pawn
- Off to the side of the board will be the bank, which is in the form of 5 types of resource cards – each resource separated in a different stack, face up. Also, there is another deck of development cards which are face down.
- In front of you will be any resource and development cards you have, face down and secret. As well, you will have three types of wooden pieces with your color. You will also have a hard cardboard reference guide for spending money (resources).

There is a little bit of setup involved with this game, which can take a few minutes. Essentially, you will place hexigon tiles together to form an island surrounded by water. Tiles are randomized and placed in a preset configuration. In this way, the game will play differently each time! Very nice. One numbered resource roll chit is placed on each land tile (except the desert – more on this later) in a predetermined manner, which I won't go into in this review. These chits will be numbered 2-12 with no number 7.

Winning the Game
The first player to collect 10 VPs will win the game. Each settlement is worth 1 VP, each city worth 2 VPs, a condition called "Longest Road" is worth 2 VPs, another condition called "Most Soldiers" is worth 2 VPs and occasionally players may buy a 1 VP development card.

Game Play
You are all settlers on an island looking to establish the most successful colony. To this end, you will be collecting resources in the form of wood, brick, sheep, wheat and ore. These resources will be your currency which you use to build settlements, to upgrade settlements to cities and to build roads to connect them all. You may also purchase development cards with resources which get you a variety of stuff. You will collect Victory Points (VPs) as you build these things. The player who gets 10 VPs first wins.

The circular board is a combination of individual hexes which represent different terrain of the island. The different types of tiles will yield different types of resources for those nearby. They are: forest (gets wood), hills (gets brick), pastures (gets sheep), farmland (gets wheat) and finally mountains (gets ore). There is also a desert hex which is barren and produces nothing and water hexes, which surround the island land tiles and also produce nothing. After all the tiles have been placed, one numbered chit is placed on each resource producing hex (all but water and desert). The chits, numbered 2-12, include two of each number except the 2 and 12 of which there are one and no 7s. These numbers are an extremely important part of the board to track as they tell what resources will produce after rolling two dice. The goal is that more often than not, certain numbers will roll more on average (6s and 8s), so hexes that have these numbers on them tend to be more valuable.

As mentioned, players have wooden tokens representing settlements, cities and roads. Through the course of the game, players will place their settlements and cities on the corner edges of the hexigon tiles. Each hex has 6 corners and each corner is the intersection of 3 hexes. So then, each settlement and city will sit on exactly one corner of 3 hexigons. These 3 hexigons will represent those resorces a player may possibly receive. Roads will be placed on the edges of each tile (not the corners) so that they connect two edges. Additionally, roads can only be placed next to a player's settlement or city. In this way, the board will form a network of settlements and cities all connected by roads. One last placement rule is that a settlement or city must be at least 2 corners away from any other one on the board; players may not place them on neighboring corners – even if by different players.

At the start of the game, players will be given 2 settlements and 2 roads. A starting player is selected and each player will in turn place one settlement next to one of their roads on the board in the manner previously described. After all have placed, the last player will place his second settlement next to a second road in the same way and play will go around the board in reverse order one at a time. Players will also receive a resource card that matches all resource tiles that their second placed settlement is on. In this way, players' start positions are set and they have some resources to start building with. As mentioned above, each settlement is worth 1 VPs, so players start with 2 VPs.

A Typical Turn
Each turn a player will:
- Roll 2 dice for resources
- Collect any resource card(s) they might get from that roll (as does all players)
- Trade their resources with the bank or other players and make purchases (in any order that they like)
- Place any purchased buildings/roads on the board

The first player will start his turn by rolling two dice. Find the hexigon(s) that have a numbered chit with the total of that die roll. This hex(es) will produce resources on this turn. ANY players that have a settlement or city on the corner of the hex(es) that match the die roll receive the matching resource cards. Each settlement yields one resource card and each city yields two resource cards, per match. This is a very nice feature and part of the draw of the game as players will be watching each die roll for hexes that might give them cards. This keeps all players involved in each turn.

The player may now trade cards with other players at any rate agreed upon. He may also trade with the bank at the rate of a set of 4 like resource cards for any 1 they wish (4:1 trade). Players will have the opportunity to better this rate to 3:1 or 2:1 if they build on port hexes (more on this in a bit). Before, during or after trading, the player may then make any purchases with their resource cards and place any appropriate tokens.

Costs and descriptions:
- A Road = 1 wood and 1 brick
(connect and expand settlements/cities as well as "longest road" condition worth 2 VPs)

- A Settlement = 1 wood, 1 brick, 1 wheat and 1 sheep
(get resources, worth 1 VP and allows for cities)

- A City = 2 wheat and 3 ore
(get more resources than settlements, upgrade settlements, worth 2 VPs)

- A Development Card = 1 wheat, 1 sheep and 1 ore
(various goodies, possibly some VPs, soldiers as well as "most soldiers" condition worth 2 VPs)

After purchased, settlements may be placed as previously described and must be next to the player's roads. Cities replace settlements on the board. Roads must be placed either next to that player's roads or his settlement or city. When a player has a continuous road of 5 segments, he receive's the "longest road" card which is good for 2 VPs. There is only one such card, so it is very valuable. If another player subsequently gets more road segments than this, he will take it from the former owner. In this case, the original owner does not get the 2 VPs and the new one will. Finally, Development Cards may be purchased. There is no limit to how many may be purchased or held at a time. There are a few types of cards, all of which are good. Most of them are soldier cards, which I will explain soon. In addition to their special powers, a collection of 3 that have been played will yield the "most soldiers" card. This works just as the "longest road". Worth 2 VPs, it can be taken away if another player gets more than the holder of the card. In addition to the soldiers, there are 5 Development Card that count as 1 VP. Players hold this in secret and reveal when they reach 10 VPs.

Rolling for resources and the robber
As mentioned, each turn a die roll can yield resources for any and all players depending on their board positions. In theory, 6s and 8s should be rolled the most because there are more die combinations. This makes for some careful planning and strategy as players try to capitalize on this with their settlement/city placements. 5s and 9s roll a little less followed by 4s and 10s, 3s and 11s and finally 2s and 12s. Often players will look at which combination of 3 tiles meet to form the highest combined probability to maximize their yield.

The number which will most likely be rolled the most is the 7. When rolled, a special sequence of events occurs. Firstly, no production happens this turn. Any player that has more than 7 cards in their hand must lose 1/2 their cards rounded up. This is devastating when it happens and forces players to take care not to have too many cards at once. The player who rolled now may move the "robber". The robber is a pawn that starts the game in the desert. The player may place it on any hex he wishes, except where it currently is (it must be moved). The robber blocks any production from that hex. So, if that hex's number were to be rolled, any players next to that hex receive nothing, until the robber is removed. Often times, players will look to hurt the leader by placing on a 6 or 8 hex or one which he has the most settlement/cities on. Also, the player who rolled it may randomly select one resource card from any player who has a settlement/city next to the newly placed robber. If a 7 is rolled before a player's 3rd turn, they must reroll; the special 7 roll situation does not occur until after this. This is a nice rule to get players established and going at the start of the game.

A robber may be moved on any player's turn if they play a soldier card (a development card). Playing such a card allows the player to move the soldier to any hex and select a card from one player as above. That player still rolls for production as normal and may play the card at any time during the turn including before their production roll.

Every other ocean tiles (which are around the whole island) have a port on them. There are different types of ports, most of which are 3:1 ports. Each port is located on two corners of that ocean tile. If a player builds a settlement or city on one of the those two port corners they may get a special trading benefit which is dependent on the port. 3:1 ports give the player an immediate 3:1 trading advantage with the bank. In this case, they only need a set of 3 like cards instead of 4 to trade with the bank. There are also resource specific ports. Each one of these represents a unique resource to trade. If a player has a set of 2 of that particular resource, they may trade for one with the bank (2:1). Players will want to get at least one port during the game. Often times it is the case, that when a player has good numbers on a particular resource or more than one of those hexes, they might try for that port. This can make for a very powerful engine.

Much has been written about the strategies. There is the brick/wood strategy where players work to get good positions on these resources. This combination is good for early game as it yields roads and is needed for settlements. Very good for early expansion on the board and blocking others. It also can set a player toward the longest road card.

The wheat/ore strategy is great for cities and development cards since that is a common resource needed for both of these. Purchasing development cards helps get rid of robbers with the soldier cards and can lead toward the most soldiers card.

A more risky stragegy can be to go for a sheep strategy. Sheeps are used for settlements and development cards. Players may neglect to get good positions on the board for sheep in order to get better positions for other resources. That can help the sheep strategy as sheep resources become worth more to more people, which helps in trading.

Players may wish to go for diversification, seeking to spread out to as many of the five resources and number combinations as possible.

My main problem with the game (a common one with many) revolves around the die rolls. Settlers can be loads of fun when the resources are coming in, but it is very common to get hosed by the dice. Generally in a 4 player game, it will happen to one person each game. So one person is going to have a bad game while everyone else has a good one. Situations can arise when 5 or 10 turns can go by without one single resource collected by a certain player. This is very, very frustrating. It just is not a good game when this happens. Often, the 6 might roll all the time and the 8 almost never (or vice versa). I've seen situations where, for some reason, the 11 comes up every few turns and that lucky person reaps great rewards while everyone else scratches their heads. The idea that statistically certain numbers will come up more than others is supported by a volume of rolls that a single game does not necessarily support. Thus, framing strategies against "better" numbers might simply not be effective enough. Perhaps you are lucky enough to get positions on both 6 and 8. I've seen games where these two numbers hardly come up and the others do all the time. Again, very frustrating as this should be the better play for gaining more resources.

The game can move along at a brisk pace or drag along depending on the rolls. At times in early game, hardly anything will come up for anyone. Or perhaps a necessary resource, like brick or wook, won't come up at all. In this case, development is very slow as players must sacrifice cards to trade with the bank and game play drags.

This game was great fun for me in my early Eurogame career. The new mechanics and ever changing board were a delight. There are plenty of ways to win and games can be close calls. In most all cases, though, someone will be hosed by the dice. In such cases, the game is frustratingly painful to play. At this point, after having been exposed to many games, I really don't need to play a game where bad luck can not be adequately compensated for by good play. There are some fixes for this which can be found, though, and I would encourage seeking them out before many games go by. For me, what we've got here is a good game on the good days and a bad one on the bad days.

- Mike