Monday, February 27, 2017

Catan (The Artist Formerly Known as Settlers)

In Catan (formerly The Settlers of Catan), players try to be the dominant force on the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. On each turn dice are rolled to determine what resources the island produces. Players collect these resources—wood, grain, brick, sheep, or stone—to build up their civilizations to get to 10 victory points and win the game.

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound all that interesting, but I guess the intro writeup paragraph on BGG doesn’t have to try and sell you on the game - most people have probably heard of (if not actually played) Settlers of Catan (now called Catan, which is super odd given that everyone I know calls the game “Settlers”). Catan came out over 20 years ago and is still popular and selling well (along with 10 kazillion expansions). This game is often considered THE Gateway game, and for some longtime gamers, it probably was their intro into the world of Euro style games (though the randomness of the dice and cards makes it very Ameritrashy). 

The basic play of the game is simple. The board is setup with random placement of land (each land type generates on of the five basic goods, except for a single “dead” tile) and random placement of a number on each space (again, except for the dead tile). Players take turn setting up their initial settlements and roads and then begin. Each turn players roll the dice and whatever location(s) that match that number generate a good for each settlement touching that location. The player whose turn it is can then spend their goods and/or attempt to trade with other players. Then they pass the dice to other players. If a SEVEN is rolled, the player moves the Robber token to a location and then steals from a player whose settlement is touching that location. 

Players get points for building other settlements, upgrading their settlements, getting development cards (which have armies, structures worth VPs, or one time abilities), and for having the single longest road or army. First person to reach 10 points wins. 

The key proposition / mechanic of the game is bartering with your opponents for the goods you need to build out your network of settlements so that you don’t have to depend on your enemies for the goods you need to win the game. Of course, you are essentially gambling here - do I give up two wood for one sheep, since my wood has a 6 on it and 6 is likely to be rolled, giving me the replacement goods I’ll need shortly? So bargaining is about risk taking between the players.

So why am I writing about Catan at all? Again, the game has been around for over 20 years and most of anyone that reads this will have played it once or twice already. Well, because it was my most played game in February. You see, I have children (currently ages 13 and 11) and they love the game (though I always seem to beat them). My daughter especially likes the game. I took her along to a game day at a friend’s place a while back and he owns the 3D Collectors edition which she fell in love with. Now I wasn’t about to spend $700+ for Catan, but…

My employer bought a 3D printer a while back for his employees to play with. I spent a load of time downloading and printing out a complete 6-player (the 3D Collectors set is only 4 players) set for the game and then hand painting all the pieces. The pieces all have magnets in the bases so that the whole things holds together and frankly, it looks really cool. I gave this to my daughter for her birthday and we recently have been on a bender (4 whole games in the last month) of playing with this set. 

(yes I know there is a bad placement in there, I was just taking a picture)

So back to my kids and I playing. My kids have played a lot of games from my collection and so they didn’t need a gateway game like this, but the capriciousness of the dice really seems to tickle them. Last night, my son couldn’t stop laughing at how many 3s were getting rolled (which benefitted my daughter with sheep, but since that was the ONLY good type she was getting, made it really funny to my son). I used to feel that playing a bad game was just bad, but I’ve come to treasure the kids wanting to play any game with their old Dad, so I tolerate this game. It is certainly easy to see why this is a gateway game that appealed so well to Americans that grew up on Monopoly. There are dice (and the general non-gaming public seems to be confused about boardgames without dice so thumbs up here) and negotiations. There is certainly more depth to it than that, but this is not going to be mistaken for being in the same class Agricola, Power Grid or even Ticket to Ride to the hobbyist crowd. There is also nothing horrible about this game. If you have never played, give it a go with some non-gamers or your kids and you might find out why this has been around so long.

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