Friday, August 13, 2010

Long overdue Settlers of Catan experience

Boy, talk about being late to the party.

I first became aware of Settlers of Catan not long after it first came to American shores in the mid 1990s, but somehow I contrived to miss out on the initial wave of popularity. I think I was still too focused on wargames at the time. It wasn't really until I came across Boradgame Geek and then the Meetup groups that I realized how much wider the adult gaming interest was.

In any case, I took advantage of a rare Thursday night off to join a local Meetup gamer group. Like most Meetup gamers, the majority of this group are very casual gamers with little exposure to even the eurogames (let alone something like a wargame. One fellow mentioned how he had played a wargame once -- it was Risk).

Still, the Meetup hostess had promised a Settlers game would be available and I wanted to finally play it. And there's something to be said for not being dropped into a group of experienced Settlers players for your first game. I was familiar with the rules, having studied my own copy, but there are subtle points to the game you're not likely to discover without playing a little.

We had one fellow who had played the game a few times, as had the hostess. I had read the rules and the other three players were newbies. One was the Risk player, one fellow had played a few euros it appears and the last gentleman wasn't used to playing anything other than traditional Ameritrash games like Monopoly.

It was an interesting game, and I felt pretty good about where I ended up, in third place with 7 VPs. The Risk guy actually won it going away, scoring 10 while the experienced fellow was second with 8. The other three players were far behind, with Hostess at 4 (she had the Longest Road), and the two new fellows with 3 each.

I suspect the game may work better with four players than with the 6 players we had using the 5-6 player expansion. Even with the bigger map the board seemed a little too crowded and there was a little too much down time. I think the 4-player version may be better on both counts.

Our game was also a bit on the long side, which is probably attributable to the number of new players we had.

I'm looking forward to trying it again.

1 comment:

  1. Settlers, while a classic, has a few things working against it - too dependent on the luck of the roll (I prefer using a "deck of dice" to normalize the probability curve), and too kind to the person who places their first town last (because they place their second town first), with progressively less advantage to players who place their second town. The game can also be thrown by an inexperienced player who is convinced by a more experienced player to do trades (and to pick less valuable locations to build on).

    5-6 players is painful. However, note that with four the board is still crowded, and experienced players can box in someone with less experience so that they have no options. In my experience, you tend to get one player who loses any chance of competing fairly early in the game, usually the first to place their initial town.

    That said, there are some wonderful variants in the Das Buch set that make this a game worth owning (along with Seafarers). IMHO, the 5-6 player sets are only good for the extended scenarios, and even then I prefer to play almost every variant with the max of four.

    Settlers sparked the euro trend in gaming in the States, so it has a soft spot in my heart (and a place in my library), but the game is flawed and the original has not aged well compared with other classics like Euphrate und Tigris, El Grande, or Union Pacific. It does remain one of the mainstays of introducing "non-gamers" to designer games, however, much as Risk introduced non-wargamer's to that hobby.

    If you liked Settlers, you might consider picking up the 2-player card version, which has some excellent expansion decks and is superior in many ways. I'm also a fan of some of the Historical versions, particularly Struggle for Rome. I have not tried Settlers of America: Trails to Rails, but it looks promising. I'd stay away from the Candamir/Elasund variants, they are even more luck-heavy than the original with little to recommend them considering the time involved in playing them.