Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Settlers of Catan

Today I want to write about my favorite board game - The Settlers of Catan. Ever since it was released 19 years ago it has been a staple with my family and friends. It was a big hit in Germany, but took a bit longer to catch on in the US. But once it did, it was soon heralded as the "Monopoly of the 21st century" by The Washington Post. It even created a controversy between The Atlantic and Wired, with an in-depth review, a differing opinion and a rebuttal.

So what is that board game that gets established magazines so riled up all about?

As an easy summary, it is a game depicting a market economy, where resources have to be acquired, your economy has to be grown by building assets, and trades must be made to collect the right combination of materials. Or for a more literal description: the game board is a layout of resource tiles, along which the players build roads, villages and cities. The dice decides which resource tile pays new resources to the players living on it (like a harvest of straw or wool). Since it is often impossible to be represented at all resources at the beginning, players need to trade.

This is a great family game since all players are eligible to trade in each round, so nobody is ever excluded. There are no rules for trades, so anything goes. I remember trading having to do the dishes with my sister in exchange for that one elusive beam of wood ... you can gang up against the player in the lead, or you can give a preferential trade to the one in dead last place. You can form alliances boys versus girls, or parents versus kids. It is a game that is not played quietly, and engages everyone.

The Junior Board is small with a fixed setting. The game pieces are Pirate ships and Castles.

My kids are still playing the Junior board, where the resource tiles are fixed and each player has a designated starting position with the same resources. Players are staying close with their progress, and winning is often a very close call between 2 or 3 lead players. These games are quick, about half an hour, but still complex in execution when the kids have to decide what resources to collect for their next move, or weigh if or if not they should trade with someone.

The adult game board however, is where the true genius of the game becomes apparent. The resource tiles are not fixed and are laid out in a new configuration before each game. In addition, the designation for each resource tile that decides at which dice roll it pays out is also flexible and gets randomly distributed before each game. That means no two games are alike, and strategies that worked in one game won't work in the next. Sometimes games are balanced in resources and are dominated by busy building. In others you will fall over unwanted sheep with every dice roll, and you have to find different ways to score points than building. Infinite diversity and infinite combinations :-).

But I must confess, what cemented The Settlers' status as my favorite board game is that it comes in a Star Trek edition. Oh yes, little NCC-1701s, star bases, a Klingon battle cruiser as the "robber", and instead of sheep and wool you explore planets for dilithium and tritanium. Who can say no to that? The only thing to make the game more perfect will be fleets of Romulan, Cardassian and Ferengi ships we plan to add as soon as 3D printers become affordable for household use.

Star Trek Edition game board

A Klingon battle cruiser steals resources and interrupts trading.

Geek Factor: 4 out of 5
Fun Factor: 5 out of 5