Friday, September 20, 2013

Settler of Catan: A Game in a Rose-Colored Box

“I just played this amazing game that you’ve probably never heard of,” is what I would have said about Settlers of Catan after I first played it, if hipsters had existed in 1997. Like many people, it was my first Euro Game. I remember being enchanted by its complexity compared to games like Sorry or Life. It certainly lacked the convolution of Monopoly, but who really knows how to play that anyway? I rediscovered it in college and it was still a great game. Piles of Euro Games and sixteen years later though, I have come to the conclusion that it is in fact not the amazing game I thought it was.

Settlers has a number of mechanics that the majority of people are already familiar with, making it easy to learn. The most obvious is dice rolling. We are exposed to dice games throughout our lives, whether it be through Monopoly, Craps, or Clue, and everyone understands that when certain combinations come up, specific things happen. Placing towns and road segments down is essentially betting that the given numbers will come up with enough significance to allow you to win, as in gambling. Most are also familiar with the idea of attempting to acquire specific combinations of cards, as in poker, and using probability or trading to get them. Everyone who went to a school with a basketball court is familiar with the scoring system in Catan, first to a given number.

Catan, and Euro Games in general, really shine when it comes to negotiating. Generally speaking, the ability to wheel and deal is essential. If you can make and break alliances effectively, you can stall out other players while advancing your own cause, just like in high school. Negotiating is an activity that everyone has engaged in since they were able to, and as such, doing so in Catan comes naturally.

While these features of Catan make it extremely accessible to people new to Euro Games, there are several features that hurt the game’s playability. The random distribution of tiles can create situations where low-probability numbers saturate a given resource, making the game run long. There is a setup in the rules that is balanced. I have never seen, or even heard, of anyone using it though. The die mechanic further exacerbates the randomness, which increases game length and unpredictability. This can increase the playtime dramatically. When I mentioned how I was discussing the flaws of Catan to a friend of mine, the first thing they said was that it takes a million years to play. During a given round of play, there is one player active at a time, except for the trading phase. If each player spends time pondering their moves, which they must since the board changes from turn to turn and there is negotiating to consider, it can cause the game to lag. Finally, in three player games, invariably one will fall behind and have no chance of winning. At that point, whoever they support will win.

Settlers of Catan offers players an introduction to Euro Games that is replete with known mechanics that make gameplay easy to learn. They are familiar to anyone who grew up playing games like Sorry, Go Fish, or Monopoly. Though these mechanics make a wonderful stepping stone into Euro Games, they do not create a gameplay experience that is of the caliber of other such games. The numerous randomizing factors can have a deleterious effect of balance, increasing game length and reducing enjoyment. While Catan is a useful tool for introducing new players to more sophisticated board games, it quickly shows its age.

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