At first glance, you wouldn’t expect The Settlers of Catan game to be as addictive as everyone who’s played it claims that it is. For one thing, there are two thick, daunting rule books (“Game Rules” and “Almanac”) and the playing pieces themselves are fairly non-descript wooden block-like house structures and “little rectangles” that turn out to be roads. If you’re looking for a traditional board for this “board” game, you’ll be confused, because it’s made up of numerous hexagonal tiles that you lay out in a beehive pattern to play on.
But when you get past the initial impressions (and you should) you’ll find the game every bit as enjoyable as it’s been described by the enthusiasts who rave about it.
SofC is a four player game. With an expansion you can play with six people, but experienced players have told me that makes the game very long and not as enjoyable.
The goal is fairly simple: gain 10 victory points. You can do so in a number of ways; by building cities and settlements on the game board, by building the longest road on the game board, by collecting enough soldier development cards to claim the largest army, or by obtaining “victory points” development cards.
You do all these tasks by collecting different types of resource cards on each turn, and resource cards are awarded to you in each round based on where you’ve built your cities and settlements on the game board. If you build your city near a meadow, you collect sheep resources. If you build near mountains, you collect ore. If you build near fields, you get wheat, forests get you wood, and hills get you clay bricks. Building near the ocean doesn’t get you resources, but it sometimes gives you favorable trade agreements with the bank.
Trade in your resource cards to the bank for more roads, settlement or cities, and you get more points. Or buy development cards with them and build an army or steal from your opponents.
The difficulty come in when land becomes scarce. Your building choices are limited by your opponents, and if you can’t build near a meadow, you might not get enough sheep, and thus not have the right resources to buy more cities. Then you have to trade with your opponents to get resources, so there’s some strategy in working together, even with your enemies.
Another obstacle thrown into the mix is a robber, an independent “player” who gets moved around the board based on roles of the dice, or by players with soldier development cards. You can move the robber if you roll a seven, and if you place him in your neighbor’s forest, he’ll not only steal a resource from them for you, but he’ll prevent them from collecting any wood until he’s moved again. Your opponent can then move him against you on a later turn, though, so you have to be careful how you use him.
The reason the gameboard is in hexagonal tiles is to provide variation in the play, which is part of the appeal to long-time players. Each tile is one of those types of terrain mentioned earlier (forests, hills, fields, meadows, mountains, oceans, desert), and they can be laid out in various ways, which means that every game is different and provides different opportunities, or different challenges. There’s a “beginner’s board” pattern in which the different types of terrain are evenly distributed to give everyone a fighting change of getting good resources, but the game becomes more difficult (and more fun) when the tiles are laid randomly and resources are uneven. Then trading with your opponents becomes more critical.
The play is complex enough that even accomplished card counters would find it tough to keep track of what resource cards everyone has and how they might play them in the next round of the game. At one point during play, I had the opportunity to win the game and overlooked it completely. I just barely managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat during the next round, but only through luck, not through skill.
The game originated in Germany and is so popular there that it was translated in to English. There are varations of the game, such as Seafarers of Catan, Cities and Knights of Catan, and also Starfarers of Catan, and a card game based on the original concept. There’s also an online PC version of The Settlers of Catan that my girlfriend is completely obsessed with. Not that I’m complaining. I’m just waiting for the Mac version of the game.