Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1.8: Settlers of Catan - Overview of play

During my last post I realized that I should probably do a full overview of The Settlers of Catan; I gave a summary of the game, but it really should be given more time. While, yes, this is an in-depth overview of the game, I'm not covering every piddly nuance--if you want that, why don't you just go play the darn thing a couple times...

The Settlers of Catan was designed by Klaus Teuber; originally published in 1995, it has since earned a number of awards, including the Spiel des Jahres (those familiar with boardgaming realize this is a big deal). The game supports 2-4 players, and takes about 60-90 minutes to play. There have been several expansions for this game produced, but we'll start out by explaining the base game, and will mention a few of the expansions at the end.

What' s in the box?

In addition to the board tiles, the game also comes with a deck of Development cards, a deck of resource cards representing the five resources (Grain, Wool, Lumber, Brick, and Ore), four sets of wood Settlement, City, and Road tokens in four different colors, 18 "number" tokens, four building cost "cheat sheets," one "Longest Road" and one "Largest Army" card, and a Robber pawn.
Goal and Set-up

In Settlers, the goal is to be the first to reach 12 victory points. A player does so by using resource cards to build new Settlements, upgrade settlements into Cities, and to purchase Development cards. The game uses a modular board of 19 land tiles (representing each of the five resources, plus one desert tile which produces nothing) and another 18 water tiles to represent the island of Catan and the water immediately surrounding it; the arrangement of the land and water tiles can be random (with some caveats) or preconstructed, the result being that you may never play on the same board twice. After the board is built, one circular number token is placed on each of the island tiles, and the Robber token is placed on the desert tile.

Before the first turn begins, players must place their initial two settlements (each worth 1 point). Going clockwise, each player places one settlement at the junction of three tiles, and then attaches a road along one tile edge. The three island tiles the settlement is touching are the three resources this settlemnt will produce; also, each settlement must be placed with at least one corner between it and any other settlment, meaning that you can block an opponent from taking resources by strategic positioning of your settlements. After the last person has placed their first settlement, he then places his second, taking one of each resource for the tiles this settlement is in contact with. Players continue counterclockwise, placing their second settlement and taking these resources.

"Wow, Lucioman, that seems like a whole lot of busy, it must take, like, forty years to set all this up." Not really, since the set-up is mainly shuffling the Development cards, shuffling and placing the island tiles, and then placing the number tokens. Placing the settlements is actually more of the actual playing of the game, but I'm rambling, so let's officially talk about...

Playing the game!

On a player's turn, they must first roll two six-sided dice, adding the roll. Remember those number tokens? They show a number between 2 and 12 (one 2, one 12, two of every other number except 7, which is skipped); any tile with the number rolled produces one resource for each settlement touching it, or two for each city. A corresponding resource card is given to the owners of these settlements. It is very possible that on your turn, you gain no resources for yourself, but supply your opponents with resources. For anyone who's had some basic statistics courses, you also know there is a probability curve for the numbers rolled on two six-sided dice--6 and 8 should come up with the same frequency, and will likely greatly outnumber the number of times 2 and 12 come up. This, of course, was one of the major influences in initial settlement placement.

After rolling, the player may do the following in any order: Play one Development card, trade resources with other players, trade resources with the "bank," build Roads, Settlments, or Cities, or purchase Development cards.

Play a Development card You may have purchased development cards on previous turns, but you can only play one per turn, and only one that was not purchased on the current turn.

Trade Resources
You may trade resources with the bank on a 4:1 basis (ie, you could trade those four grain resource cards you don't need for one grain, lumber, wool or ore card), on a 3:1 basis if you have a Question mark labeled harbor, or on a 2:1 basis if you control a resource specific harbor (ie, if you have a settlement on the Grain harbor, you may instead trade those four Grain cards for two resources of your choice, but if you wanted to trade your Ore, you would still have to trade on a 4:1 basis if you controlled no other harbors).

You may also trade with your opponents, and while you can probably get a better trade ratio, you can only trade away what is needed or wanted, trade for what your opponents are willing to trade away, and if you are in the lead, they may not trade with you at all.

Build...all that stuff
Building is the most important part of the game, as this is where you'll gain your Victory points for settlements (1 per) and cities (2 per, but replaces a settlement), building the longest continuous road (3 points), or from the development cards as simple Victory point cards (1 point), or by getting and playing the most Soldier cards from the Development deck (3 victory points). In order to win, you must be the first to obtain 12 victory points through a combination of the above means.

"How does one build?" What, do you think those resource cards are for decoration? In the image to the left you can see the cost of building--for instance, a road is one Lumber and one Brick. If your hand of resources has these two resources and you want to build a road, you may do so--the same goes for the Settlements, Cities, and Development cards. There is no order that these must be built in; as with the rest of their turn, the player has the flexibility to build at their whim.

"But what about that Robber pawn? And what about rolling 7's?" How grossly convenient that you asked exactly those two questions at the same time. You'll recall that I mentioned players gain resources when 2 through 12 are rolled, skipping 7. When a 7 is rolled, the active player (that is, the player who's turn it is) gets to place the Robber pawn in any island tile on the board. This does three things: First, all players count the number of resource cards in their hand--anyone that has more than seven cards must discard half, their choice. Second, the active player chooses one of the other players that has a settlement touching that island tile, and steals a random resource card. Third, the island tile where the Robber now sits will not produce resources when its number is rolled until the Robber is moved.

When a player has completed their turn, play continues clockwise around the board, and players continue in this fashion until someone has 12 Victory points.

Final Word

While I know this overview is long and may sound a little confusing (future Overviews will likely be shorter--Catan, however, is important in many aspects, so I gave it a little extra time), I assure you that The Settlers of Catan straight-forward with a simple rules set. The complexity, and the common point of confusion among those new to the "Modern Boardgame," is the openness of the game. A player is not restricted to doing A, then B, then C; they may choose to build a road, trade some resources, build something else, then trade some more. Alternatively, there may indeed be a turn where they simply roll the dice, realize they aren't getting any resources, and simply pass play to the next person.

The Settlers of Catan is an excellent gateway game--that is, the rules are simple and undaunting, but there is enough depth in the actual play that new players are able to understand and enjoy the experience of playing, and--here's the "gateway" part--are intrigued enough to start looking at what else is out there. Think of the saying, "The first one's free..." Many boardgamers cite Settlers as their first foray into boardgaming.

Images taken from Boardgamegeek.com .

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