First Play: Settlers of Catan

. 11.07.2016 . 0 Comments

One of the most ubiquitous and beloved board games that you couldn’t have help but have heard of is Settlers of Catan. The innocuous little box can be found almost everywhere these days from specialty stores to Target.  But if your like me it was never a game that was all that accessible, requiring several people to play and looking like it possessed an intimidating learning curve.  So years went by with me only having a passing knowledge about the game’s existence, until finally I got a chance to play it with some friends at a local cafe, and finally experience what the sticker at my Barns & Noble calls “a modern classic”.  I’ll be taking a look at what little I knew about the game before playing, a breakdown of my first game and the pitfalls I experienced and finally my impressions afterward.

Image “Settlers of Catan” by Brian Uhreen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What I knew going in

Even through Settlers of Catan is a common game these days I really knew very little going in.  I had looked at the back of the box once or twice in passing and knew that the game revolved around trading commodities and trying to take over a strange symmetrical land mass.  I thought in practice that it was going to play like competitive sim city, with perhaps a more robust set of progression mechanics for your territories and armies etc.  I expected victory to either come from the accumulation of points or territory tiles, and that there would probably be some sort of way to force other players to trade with you via some action card or the like.

Like I said, I didn’t know much going in.

Game Play

While kind enough to bring the game and show me the ropes my friends were not about to go easy on me. After several minutes of overwhelming rules explanation it was decided that we would launch into the game and I would do better to “learn as we went”, which I was totally OK with.  Rolling off to see who would go first forced me into the first player position, and poised to made some catastrophically bad strategic moves right out of the gate.  Having been told that tiles with common numbers would award me a more steady stream of resources, I tried to choose spaces with numbers close to 7. My first settlement and road was quickly placed and seemed like it would have easy access to clay (bricks?).  I wasn’t sure at this point what each resource would get me, but bricks seemed more valuable than sheep at the time.

Then I was told that the way settlements were initially placed would mean that I would place my second at the very end. Crap. Instead of the advantage I thought I was going to have from rolling first, I would instead have the least amount of options for my second settlement.  A good balancer to be sure, but not what I was expecting.  “At least I would get to watch others before making my second move” I thought.  My second settlement ended up going far too the edge, and in a position I hoped to be able to Capitalize on my assumed steam of clay resource.

The game then began with my plans being dashed right from the get go, by a road development card pulled by the competition. Locations that I wanted were snatched up and quickly disappeared, and I was left with meager choices where to expand my little Kingdom. Compounding my problems was the fact that I kept forgetting about the two space rule for settlements, meaning I would go through all the trouble to collect resources for a new settlement and find that I instead would have to spend more points on roadways and delay development for turns.  This game would have been more aptly named “Trial by Fire: Catan”.  But hey, at least I was getting the feel for the pattern of the game-play.

Blocked from my collection of brick and the lack of realization that it is required for just about everything early on in the game, my second settlement at the edge brick exchange point was disappointingly unhelpful, pulling only seldom resources from a set of two fringe numbers. My fledgling empire was lagging behind and at the midway mark I was beginning to see the writing on the wall.  …And then came the robber. Remember how I said that my friends didn’t go easy on me? Well the robber and the enemy soldier’s pursuit of him were laying waste to my settlements the whole game. By chance (or perhaps by design) my settlements were adjacent to what became the most hotly contested tiles on the map, and so as other players fought to foil one another my poor people were caught in the crossfire.  At no point in the game was I not blocked from 1-2 potential tiles.  My little Cataninites would have done well to impeach their leader, but alas they struggled on.

Finally the proverbial straw that broke the camels back came along. Pulling a monopoly card from the development deck, I figured I had the chance to collect the means to get the minerals I found myself so desperately in need of.  “Hooray!” I thought, finally a chance to catch up and give these jerks a run for their money! Knowing that there was a huge ore collection the turn before, I plotted to take it all from them, and then trade it back the following turns for the roads and settlements I so desperately needed and expand beyond the tiny borders I was stuck in.

But alas I learned another Element about the game that was the death knell to my hopes of not finishing dead last.  The finite amount of settlement tokens and the restriction that having only a handful puts on settlement expansion meant that even through I had the cards to build, I did not have the tokens to place anything on the map.  Having spent turns accumulating and trading for the pieces required to build new settlements and expand around the edge of the board I discovered that I had no more little plastic houses to place. “Obviously the other players will let me use a city token with the knowledge that it is actually a settlement right?”  No.  I found out the hard way that in the late game the most desirable commodity is ore, and I had just traded it all back to the competition.  Curses foiled again!

Two turns later the game was won.  Despite coming in dead last however it really did feel like I had come away knowing how to play, and running into the rules face-first had been a better teacher than a review of the rule book would have been.

My Analysis

I can see why people have come to really enjoy this game.  At first it seemed like things were going to revolve around a lot of arbitrary one-off rules that I would have to memorize, but it turned out to be surprisingly simple.  As someone who is used to role playing games, the straight progression path of the kingdom and development of your settlements was almost frustratingly limiting.  Though I will say having only four options on the building costs cards made the turn rotation quite brisk, and gave you the ability to assess your options at a glance.  I can see where the strategy comes into it, and the give and take of helping yourself while helping your competition through trades was the facet I found the most fun.

The travel version of the game (which we were playing) I thought was absolutely perfect for gaming at a cafe.  The tables were small and we were right in the center of the room, but it didn’t feel like we were crowded or running the risk of dropping pieces on the floor.  Perhaps because it was mostly a friendly game too, but Catan seemed like a game you didn’t have to watch your opponents like a hawk to succeed.  Side conversations with occasional runs for fresh coffee and pastry could happen without any real derailment of the game which was great.  At times it seemed like if you placed your initial settlements well you could you could play a completely isolated game focusing just on what you needed in trades and still do pretty well.

The rules that tripped me up the most were the two space rule for settlements, and the realization that you need to start upgrading your towns to cities in order to keep expanding.  That being said however the rules were quick to learn, and in my opinion shouldn’t be considered a barrier at all for those looking to get into the game.

Would I buy Settlers of Catan?  Yes.  I think it really would shine in my collection as a casual game with a universally appealing theme that a lot of people have already some familiarity with (even if is just in passing like me).  I think the travel version was absolutely great for a pickup game, or one in a small space like a cafe.  However I can really see the appeal of the many expansions their are out there, and could see myself itching for more strategic options after having run the base game a few times.  The vanilla game also only accommodates up to four players, so if you know you are going to be playing with more bodies than that I would caution against the travel version (which I presume can not be expanded) and go with the full fledged version instead.

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I had a great time with my first play of Catan, despite not being blessed with the beginners luck I was due.  But what was your first experience with Catan like?  Are you like me and somehow have avoided playing it?  Feel free to share your comments below, or tweet at me @Tanz444.  I would love to hear what expansions you all think are the most worthwhile, and if the box that expands the number of players does much to effect the base game mechanics.  Thanks.

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About the Author ()

Tanz is an enthusiastic GM, Blogger, and avid table top gamer with over 15 years of experience. His first brush with tabletop gaming was with Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Ed. Over the years he has transitioned from player to GM, and has run many types of game systems favoring games that bend toward horror and with a supernatural twist in contemporary settings. His DM style is one that leans heavily towards adventure path style play, preferring to give players options rather than unrestricted 'sandbox' style play or narration on rails. He regularly engages with the tabletop gaming community on twitter @Tanz444, his articles can be seen on various digital venues, and loves to GM at conventions whenever possible.

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