Designer: Klaus Teuber
Time to Play: 60+
Note: I apologise for the stock images used in this review, but my camera broke before I could grab some snaps of the game in action.
In Settlers of Catan you take on the role of adventurers attempting to cultivate and tame the mythical island of Catan, vying for control of the many resources there which must be gathered to construct the roads, settlements and cities that will lead to victory. First published back in 1995 Settlers of Catan is widely regarded as a classic, yet in all my years I’ve never actually played it. Until now. So, does it live up to its illustrious reputation?
The goal is score 10 victory points, done by constructing an empire spanning the board, trading along the way with other players since you’ll likely be unable to gather enough materials on your own. Placement of new settlements must be considered, risks weighed and expansion plans formulated as different resources become more important later in the game
The board is made up of 12 thick, cardboard hexagons arranged randomly at the beginning of the game with an equally thick cardboard frame that you piece together to house them, ensuring that every time you play the terrain is different, therefore forcing players to analyse the lay of the land. Small tokens with numbers printed on them are then also randomly placed on each tile. It’s these hexs that produce the various resources you’ll need to construct roads, build towns and erect vast cities. The many resource cards are fairly small, and both them and the board feature simple but elegant artwork that matches the more relaxed nature of the game. Meanwhile the playing pieces are made of plain, colored wood. Everything comes neatly packaged up and can be placed back in the box with easy, all components fitting snugly back into place.
Once you’ve got the board set up and the various resource cards separated into their littles piles each player in order places their first settlement and road onto the board, an important step as you need to consider what resources you’ll need early on while contemplating where to expand your little empire to. One the initial settlements are placed the player order is reversed and everyone places a second settlement and road, however this time around they are given starting resources based in the positioning of this second town. Settlements and cities are placed in the intersections created by the tiles, while roads are laid on the paths between hexagons, so at any given time a settlement can be adjacent to a total of three tiles at once, thus based on the placement of your little settlement you can begin play with up to three resources in hand.
At the start of a player’s turn you grab both dice, roll and the match the number shown with those on located on the board. The number indicates which tiles will produce resources this turn, and for each settlement/city a player has adjacent to that hex they get the appropriate amount of resource cards. However, should you roll seven, which is statistically the most likely number to roll on two dice, the dreaded robber is activated, at which point anybody with more than seven resource cards must discard half of them. After that whomever rolled the seven gets to move the robber to a new tile, which has two effects: the first is the tile cannot produce resources while the robber occupies it, and the second is that the person who moved it can steal a resource card at random from one of the players with a settlement nearby.
During your turn you can construct as many settlements, roads and cities as the resources in your hand allow, each costing a different combination of materials. A settlement, for example, requires one card each of sheep, wheat, bricks and wood, while upgrading a settlement to a fully fledged city takes two wheat and three metal, but is worth the effort as a city lets you harvest 2 resource cards from a tile instead of one. Roads, of course, are a little lighter on the wallet, costing just one each of wood and brick, but then you will have to build quite a lot of them. While wheat, sheep, wood and bricks are all valued commodities it’s not until the later game when metal becomes much sought after, as you can only have 5 settlements in play and will this need to upgrade them to cities in order to score more points. It’s worth noting that if you upgrade a settlement to a city, the settlement piece returns to you and you therefore build it somewhere else.
There are some limitations on where you can build and how you can go about it, though. IN order to construct a new settlement you must first build a road out to the perspective building site, and roads built outwards from your pre-existing towns, so obviously you expand across the board based on your initial placements. Unlike the initial starting placements you cannot simply whack a settlement anywhere. As a final rule you cannot place a settlement adjacent to another, be it one of your own or another player’s. Therein lies a layer of strategy as placement of roads and settlements can be used to block and divert your opponents. With four players you’ll often find your plans scuttled by the inopportune placement of a rivals settlement or their choice of direction for a road. Yet having said that deliberately attempting to block players or obstruct their plans rarely became a priority in the games I played, as everyone was concentrated on working toward their own goals and viewed attempting to harass others as a waste or resources, therefore any blocking was mostly just coincidental.
During your turn you can trade resources with other players, bartering for whatever you need and therefore providing a way to get resources without always waiting for a good dice roll. You’re allowed to trade at whatever ratio you like, provided your perspective partner agrees, so you might hand over two sheep to get yourself some wood, or just one brick for one clay. Should there be nobody willing to bow to your unreasonable demands you can also trade in at the resource bank, but you’ll have to do it at a ratio of 4:1, which is obviously pretty skewed in the banks favor. You can improve this ratio, however, by controlling one of the ports scattered around the outside edge of the island, done by simply constructing a settlement next to it. The catch is that at these ports you can only trade one specific type of resource.
Its in trading with others that the game is arguably made or broken, because with a group of players always striving for a bargain and willing to barter at every turn Settlers of Catan is great fun with player interaction constant. This also helps the game keep a better pace as you’ll find yourself stuck a little less often. However, with people less willing to trade the game can feel a little stale and slow.
My biggest complaint about Settlers of Catan resides with its dice rolls. Because your allocation of resources is almost completely based upon the cruel whims of fate it’s entirely possibly, and actually quite common, to get bogged down for multiple turns, unable to build or do anything, especially during the early phases of the game where you have just a few settlements under your control. Of course this is where trading cards comes into play, but even this can fail to help should your perspective trading partners simply be biding their time with their current resources or if you have nothing they want. This leaves you with trading straight to the bank, but again if you’re stuck with limited cards the 4:1 ratio will leave you high and dry, simply passing the dice on in the vague hope that luck gets its butt in gear and helps you out a bit. Playing well can help minimise the risks of stalling happening, but frankly this isn’t a deeply strategic game and luck seemed to play a far more important role in the games I played.
My problem isn’t the inclusion of luck in the game as a major component, after all it makes perfect sense given the theme of the game, but more how pure luck can often seemingly trump any amount of strategic play. No matter how well me or my friends positioned settlements, traded and blocked each others advances simply bad luck could often leave us idly passing the dice to the next player turn after turn, waiting for fate to hand us some resources so we could advance our nefarious plans. This happened more times than I really would have liked, stalling the pace of the game.
Both the trading and manner in which dice are used to spawn resources highlight the fact that Settlers of Catan really is a game best played with the full contingent of four. With the maximum amount of players around the table it increases trading opportunities and helps ensure that with every roll of the dice there’s a high chance somebody will get something, keeping play flowing for as much as possible. The game still works well with 3-players, but that aforementioned bogging down can strike even more often.
Initial placements of settlements can weigh surprisingly heavy on the outcome of the game, something to which even the rulebook seems to admit to when giving an example of a pre-determined board layout for first-time players. While new players or more casual gamers probably won’t notice too much, anyone with experience can dominate the game based on their settlement placement, especially if they’re eager to take full advantage of the fact certain numbers have a higher chance of being rolled.
During your turn you can construct as many things as you wish, provided of course that you have enough resources to do so. But another option is to purchase a development card, drawn randomly from the top of the deck once bought. Development cards aren’t too expensive to buy (One sheep, one wheat and one metal) and range in their abilities, from simply giving you an extra victory point to allowing you to construct new roads or a settlement for free. Knights allow you to move the robber at any time, but also contribute toward having the largest army, initially gained by having three knights in front of you. The over-sized largest army card is worth two victory points, but can be stolen away by any player who has a more knights are their disposal. Likewise there’s a longest road card worth two points presented to the first player to construct an unbroken chain of at least five roads, which can also be gained by a player who happens to build more.
It’s easy to see why Settlers of Catan is regarded as a classic and still held in high esteem to this day, acting as a perfect gateway for newcomers. It’s easy to learn with a clear, concise rulebook guiding players and watching your little empire grow from just a few settlements to a sprawling, thriving chain of cities is immensely satisfying. Every successful trade is a moment of pride, the glow of a deal well done, and there’s just enough depth to the gameplay to keep it entertaining. In many ways it’s the perfect family and casual game, great for introducing kids and adults alike into the wider world of board games and for being used as a stepping stone to the more complex titles out there.
Yet I’d be lying to you if I sat here and claimed that I absolutely loved it I simply can’t sit here and write that I believe Settlers of Catan is entirely deserving of all those perfect scores it still gets to this day. But before you begin cursing me and planning my ritual sacrifice to the fire gods, it should be made clear that I think it’s a very, very good game. It’s well designed, encouraging both co-operative play through its trading and downright offensive maneuvering with the placement of your settlements and roads, even if that’s an aspect of the game that takes a back seat . But ultimately while I think it was outstanding for its time, in today’s world there are plenty of other games out there that do what Catan does just as well and even better, while still not being overly complex nor difficult to learn.
Simple in its design and all the better for it, Settlers of Catan is viewed as a classic for good reason. It’s the essence of a gateway game, superb for introducing friends and family to the wonders of board gaming. Don’t go thinking that it’s entirely for casual players, though, because even those who regularly play more complex and nuanced games will enjoy themselves, bantering as they trade and cursing all whom build a bloody settlement right in the way!
+ Easy to learn.
+ Random board!
+ Plotting the rise of your empire.
– Dice rolls can leave you struggling for a while.
– The pace can drag at times.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great.
A light, relaxing strategy game for all the family to enjoy, and one of the best choices if you’re looking to introduce a friend or three to the simple pleasures of board games.