Updated: Sep 17, 2019
And so we arrive at April, six months since I started games night with an accidental birthday gathering. This month was a selection of games that I consider to be quintessential to the board gaming hobby. They were, for me at least, as seminal as The Matrix or the Sam Raimi Spiderman films. They are a selection of games that I think all gamers should at least play once, just as a reference point for games that came later.
The big four, for me, are #Pandemic (which was played at co-op night last month), #Catan, #Carcassone and #TickettoRide. Settlers in particular holds a special place in my heart as the game that kickstarted my interest in board gaming, in a story so common that it has now become a cliche. It is also the game that kickstarted this very blog eight years ago and it is the game that, beyond any others, has cause the most arguments and recriminations in my house.
A Quick Overview
Settlers of Catan is played the first to 10 points and you start the game with 2 points. It is a game of trading and resource management. The board is constructed of hexagons, each of which generates one of 5 different resources so long as a player has a settlement or city there.
On their turn players roll two dice and add the results. The hexes with the corresponding number generate resources that turn for all players. The player whose turn it is can then build structures, such as cities, roads and settlements, buy development cards for special abilities or victory points and trade with the other players at the table.
The first player to accumulate 10 victory points through settlements (1 point), cities (2 points), cards and bonuses is the winner.
Settlers can be a luck driven game, you can play the odds, build your settlements and cities on 5’s, 6’s, 8’s and 9’s and still end up not getting the resources you need. In theory, across a whole game the luck should even out, however I have seen eight 8’s rolled in a row and I don’t want to even think about the odds of that happening.
Various expansions over the years have helped even this out, The Helpers of Catan which gives you small bonuses to counteract the luck and the diceless variant which comes in the Traders and Barbarians expansion (but might be available separately as The Event Deck). Regardless, I don’t actually have a problem with the luck in the game, sometimes life gives you lemons, it’s what you do with them that counts.
I have a bigger problem with the Robber. The robber is a piece which moves each time a 7 is rolled. Whatever hex he is in no longer produces resources until he moves away. In most case he will sit on a 6 or an 8 belonging the to the player in the lead. This is a balancing mechanism that Settlers employs to stop players who get ahead steamrolling the others.
The problem is that sometimes other players share that hex with the winning player and they are getting penalised too. Even worse, sometimes the robber is used, not against the winning player but instead in a highly vindictive manner to attack other players. Grudges from previous games, perhaps even previous game nights can suddenly come flooding out as the player slams the robber down, airing a past grievance as their reasoning for such behaviour.
Having the robber parked on your land as your number comes up again and again can be a frustrating experience. In my games I now play a variant in which 7’s are rerolled for the first 2 rounds of the game to allow all players to at least build up some resources before the dreaded black pawn comes out.
So Why Pick It?
Settlers is a classic. That is really my only reason. I’m sure any seasoned gamer can point to half a dozens titles that “replace” settlers, but here’s the thing, they aren’t all pointing to the same games. Settlers hasn’t been replaced by “Settler’s 2.0”, a game everyone universally agrees is better, a game that rolls off the tongue in the same breath as other Gateway Games, a game that is universally known with endless internet memes about wood and sheep. Love it or hate it, Settlers started a revolution and it’s not going down without a fight.
Now we come to the part of the review where I have to admit that I messed up. You see, Settlers is a game with endless variety, replayability, customisation and expansion. Every game the board is randomised and each different set up creates a different game. Some resources will see a plentiful harvest while others a horrible drought.
I should have followed the first game setup example in the rulebook, but as I’ve played Settlers a million times I decided to just randomise it. This was a mistake. Perhaps with seasoned gamers things would have been okay but not with newcomers.
Clay, a vital resource for building early settlements and roads was practically non-existent. It was a precious commodity and everyone needed it. The three hills hexes where clay could be found were a 2, 3 and 10. This gave an average result of 1 clay every six rolls. The game was slow going.
Starting settlements evolved into cities. Trading was mostly with the bank as players with Clay needed to hold onto it. The game took an hour and a half, twice as long as it should have and by the end of it we were all in need of a pallet cleanser.
Did They Like It?
Well, they were not blown away by it. No one was yelling “We must play this again!” and the time the game took plus robber frustrations I think dragged everyone down a bit. We have played Settlers again since and players have been much more engaged with it and we’ve kept the playing time under the hour. The Settlers of Catan is 23 years old now and games have moved on a lot so maybe it’s just harder to impress people now or maybe Settlers can’t really live up to it’s own hype any more.
I love Settlers, I don’t play it as often any more but I do own nearly everything for the game (minus anything beyond Pirates and Explorers) and I love how every game can be different and interesting. As I said, Settlers is the reason I do this, it’s the reason I play games and write about games, it ignited in me a torch I’ve been carrying for the hobby ever since.
Is it a good game for new players now though? Or is it like going back to watch those old movies and not seeing the innovations because they have been reused and rehashed and parodied and homaged in so many movies since. Maybe Settlers has had it’s day, maybe it’s time for another game to shine, but for me Settlers will always be on my shelf and I’ll play it with anyone who asks… Just don’t put the robber on my land or you will regret it!