31 January 2007

Settlers of Catan

This is not a review, but rather a play report and some thoughts after first experience with the game. It will be of little interest or use to people completely unfamiliar with Settlers. Sorry about that!

Last weekend, with my brother and his girlfriend up, no firm ideas and time schedules an idea was posited that I had meant to bring up several times before. I have owned Settlers of Catan for a good few years now, but there has always been something here or there that has prevented me from actually playing: too many people, or too few; or the wrong people; or not enough time or space; or the worst one: forgetting about it.

But this weekend we (collectively) remembered it; on Saturday it was cracked out after lunch and the four of us (me, my brother, his girlfriend and my mother) set up the board with the suggested beginner's starting positions and set about trying to learn the game. It was left to me to read the rules, which I did very slowly (but not very carefully), and tried to explain them to the others. We decided - perhaps self-defeatingly - to play the first game with open hands with regards to resource cards so that everyone could get an idea of how the game worked. In hindsight this was a bad move. While there is no doubt it helped us to grasp the uses of the various resources and their relative worth at different stages of the game, it also took a lot of the strategy, in trading and targeting of the Robber piece, out of the game and, ultimately, directly governed the final winning move. There were other problems, too; the randomness of resource generation coupled to the default starting positions meant that the red player ended up with nothing and thus couldn't build. By the time they got the resources needed to build they got shut in and isolated; unable to build for that reason. This seemed like sheer bad luck though and, combined with the realisations that: a) we would get more out of a closed-hand game and b) we may have missed out on a lot by using the default starting set-up. Random isle-generation and self determination of starting location would make a huge difference, we reasoned, and we'd seen enough to ensure a return to the game, with closed hands and a variable board. My interest was piqued, certainly even if I hadn't enjoyed the first game.

On the Sunday, again after lunch, we settled down to play explicitly by the rules and with, on the whole, a much better understanding of the game. We used variable set-up and placed settlements ourselves; the difference this made to the perception of the game was immense, even if - as is quite possible - the effect it had was small. The red player again got shafted, but this time it was a consequence of poor choices of location and ill-advised road placement in the early phase. The biggest difference was obvious: trading was more prevalent when we didn't know precisely what each other had and use of the robber (through soldier cards and 7s) was more targeted by who was winning, how many cards people were holding and what they'd picked up in recent rounds. I suspect a lot of the strategy for development card usage passed us by; from what little discussion I have had, heard or read from Settlers veterans there are good times to hold onto development cards - even ones that aren't hidden victory points. I can certainly see some situations where holding onto things like a Monopoly might be of benefit, for instance. Despite that I feel I learnt a lot more about good placement and the relative weighting of resources which might serve me well when I play again; I intend to play again, as I enjoyed the game.

There are, however, downsides. The shutting off of the fourth player owed a lot to poor placement on their part in this game, and the worst of the default starting positions in the first game. However it was compounded by randomness that then enforced a lack of resources for that player and if people are being stubborn and unhelpful by not trading then an unlucky sequence of dice rolls can easily rule you out of the game in the early stages. Certainly, too, it is frustrating at stages when you cannot make a significant move on your turn; the randomness behind resource generation means it is quite possible - likely, even, in some circumstances - that you will be able to do no more than roll for resources then pass the dice on to the next player. Between that and (possible) reticence of others to trade it can write people off too early. We also found that it took too long - hence the interest of the game was balanced against a boredom of slow-moving play; this is especially the case if someone does get cut out of any real victory chance. It is definitely the case, however, that gameplay speeds up as you get a better handle on what you are doing and a any future third game should probably run a lot smoother and faster than the first two. This is good, but to my mind it is really a bad game to play with people who are unfamiliar with it: the advantage given to people who know what they're doing and the time factor seem to be disadvantages in this sense.

The randomness? Well it appears that many people have looked to lessen this as streaks of lucky/unlucky or statistically unlikely die rolls can have huge impact. I don't know where I stand yet but I certainly see it as a contributing factor to the unsatisfactory elements of the two games played. Another informed outing with the dice is certainly warranted before looking to house-rule on this score.

All in all, I'm very glad to have played. Settlers is an interesting game and potentially a very fun way of passing the time. There are flaws, but then there are with anything. My interest remains high though and I hope I do not have to wait another 2 years or more to play again!

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