Settling down

Pevans reviews the original edition of board game Settlers of Catan

The square box that Die Siedler von Catan comes in has a reassuring heft to it when you pick it up. It is thus rather surprising to open it up and find that there is no board. Instead the game is played out over large hexagonal tiles (near to mounted board quality) which make up the island of Catan and the surrounding sea. Each land tile represents a different type of terrain, producing one of the five raw materials used in the game: wool from pasture, corn from arable, clay bricks from hills, timber from forests and ore from mountains. There is one exception to this: the desert tile produces nothing.

Roadbuilding

Players build settlements where three tiles meet and build roads along the edges. They gain raw materials, depending on where their settlements are, and trade these with the other players to gain what they need to build more roads, settlements (1 point) and towns (2 points each) and to buy development cards: aiming for the magic total of 10 points which wins the game.

In each turn, a player does three things. First s/he rolls the two dice. The tiles which have been marked with that number (in setting up the game) produce raw materials: one card of the appropriate type going to each player with a settlement on that tile. However no tile has the number 7 on it. If a 7 is rolled, the player instead moves the robber to a different tile and steals a card from one other player with a settlement there. With the robber sitting on a tile, it produces no raw materials.

Now the player may trade raw materials cards with the other players. Deals are reached by mutual agreement, but players always have the option of trading on the 'export' market. This will take four cards of the same type and trade them for one of any other. Players with ports (a settlement by a sea tile that's marked appropriately) can trade either 3 of a raw material or 2 of a specific type of card (depending on the type of port) for one of anything else. Players can also play a development card, if they have any in hand.

Developments

Last in their turn, players may spend their raw materials cards to build new roads or settlements, to upgrade a settlement to a town (which gains two raw materials cards) or to buy a development card. Development cards come in three types. Most numerous are Ritter (Knight) cards. When played, they allow the player to move the robber (and steal a card from someone else). There is a bonus (2 points) for the player who's played the most Knights (at least three).

'Amenity' cards (cathedral or market square, for example) are each worth one point towards winning the game. These are held secretly by players. Finally, there are three types of progress card: one allows you to build two free roads, one gives you two free material cards and the third allows you to declare a monopoly in any raw material, taking all the cards of that type held by the other players. These cards are very useful and can allow you to pull a minor coup - such as using the card to build two extra roads and gain the longest road bonus). There is one other bonus available: 2 points for the player with the longest road of at least 5 sections.

Setting up the game has quite an effect on how it's played. Because the land tiles are shuffled and dealt out randomly, the map changes each game. And so do the numbers on each tile, affecting how likely it is that any specific tile will produce raw materials (6 and 8 are most likely, 2 and 12 least). This means that different materials will be rare in each game: in the last game I played, the three hill (bricks) tiles had numbers 3, 3 and 4 and consequently bricks were rare. It also has a great bearing on just where players put their two initial settlements - though the vagaries of the dice mean that you cannot predict just what will happen (such as 11 coming up repeatedly while 8 never appears).

Trade or Die

The game system encourages, nay demands, trading between players. You simply will not be able to produce everything you need: you will have to trade to get it. This and the movement of the robber provide the major player interaction. There's also some conflict on the board as players can try to build roads to bottle up others as well as expand their own territory. The rule that no two settlements can be adjacent to each other also lends strategic importance to the placing of settlements. Each settlement that appears means another swathe of countryside that can't be built on.

This game is excellent fun. The sizeable element of luck means you can't have precise gambits, but there are lots of general, tactical rules that can be applied. Thus, while it is possible to apply a strategy to the game, it needs to be general rather than specific. The game usually finishes suddenly, with one player reaching the requisite threshold, leaving the others saying "I only needed one more turn!". In fact, there are usually several players close to winning - a sign of a well-balanced game. Just what you'd expect from the game of the year. Top marks to Klaus Teuber for producing another cracker.

Settlers of Catan was designed by Klaus Teuber and published in Germany by Kosmos (as Die Siedler von Catan). It was subsequently published in the USA by Mayfair Games. It is for 3-4 players and takes 60-90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 95, October 1995.

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Page created 12th October 2001. Last modified 24th June 2005.
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