Brutus scale: 7/10
Pairs well with: cola and vodka. you know, the stuff you drink when you first start drinking and haven’t acquired much of a refined taste yet.
So we’ve just been informed that Settlers of Catan has now actually been renamed to just ‘Catan.’ This is presumably a move to make it ‘catchier’, ‘edgier’, more ‘down with the kids’. It’s also a move that could be described as ‘dumb’ and ‘unnecessary’. All of the expansions are already called ‘Catan: Slightly More Convoluted’ or ‘Catan: Now with Pirates AND Robbers’ or whatever, it just seems a bit redundant.
‘Wanna play some Backgammon?
‘Oh we just call it Gammon, now’,
‘But that’s already a thi-’
Anyway. Let’s have a show of hands, who hasn’t played Settlers of Catan yet? It’s OK, this is a safe space. There’s no judgement here (except probably from our German readers. Over there I believe it’s as ubiquitous a part of family game shelves as Scrabble or Monopoly in the UK). Until recently, Bob was one of you. In fact she still sort of is. Despite the fact that Catan is THE gateway board game for future board game addicts it just somehow passed her by. There were always newer, flashier games to play, or no one around with a copy handy and a willingness to explain the rules.
By 2015 this state of affairs had become something of an embarrassment. What kind of board game reviewer hasn’t played Catan? A piss-poor one, that’s what kind. Luckily salvation was on the horizon in the form of a local mini-convention. Lots of friendly local nerds gathered at a hotel to share their (collectively enormous) stash of games, make friends, and carouse until the early hours. When the incredibly friendly and helpful in-house vendor heard of her plight he cheerfully not only conjured a show copy of Star Trek Catan to learn on, but a couple of experienced players at a loose end and willing to teach a newbie. Despite Bob’s ordeal, Briony’s first Catan experience was simply to be told to play it. She then won. Like, by a lot. And since those friends were the only people she knew with a copy, has never been asked back to play it again.
Catan was one of the first European-style agricultural resource management board games to gain mainstream success. In case you have also lived your life under a rock until now, it’s comprised of a randomised modular board made of cardboard hexagons, so no two games are ever identical. The aim of the game is to build towns and cities which generate resources from nearby hexes, depending on dice rolls. Mo towns and cities = mo victory points. Longest road between settlements also = mo victory points. Instead of making your settlements bigger and more numerous you can instead choose to earn points through development cards, which grant favours like extra roads, resources, or knights. Get the most knights in the game, earn some victory points. Get 10 victory points and you win the game.
There is also a nasty mechanical implement in the Robber. He’s a dick who shows up every time a seven is rolled. Because every player rolls two dice on their turn, he is statistically likely to show up pretty damn often to annoy the crap out of you. His job is to sit on a hex so that it denies you resources, and steal from you.
Star Trek Catan is pretty much regular Catan with a Star Trek: TOS makeover. The robber is a Klingon battle cruiser. The resources are things like dilithium, tritanium, and oxygen. Roads are itty-bitty starships and towns and cities become outposts and starbases respectively. It’s pretty damn adorable. The only real difference is that the ‘Helpers of Catan’ expansion is integrated into the game in the form of Kirk, Spock, etc. showing up to give you a hand.
It is not an easy game to get the hang of right away. While it doesn’t immediately punish you for every mistake, and strategic errors made in the early game can be overcome, this very much depends on the savviness of the other players. There is no open conflict mechanic, but there are definitely ways to stab your fellow settlers right in their puny, exposed backs, enough for a 7/10 on our ‘Brutus Scale’. This game is war. Gentle, cerebral, agricultural, sly road-blocking war. Any fault made in another player’s turn should be harshly punished, while any obvious strategy should be blocked or made unfeasible. Sun Tzu’s wise advice to ‘know your enemy, especially if it’s Lizzy’ is to be heeded here.
Success means being able to tally this awareness with an overall strategy based on early settlement placement, as well as being flexible when the fucking dice keep rolling nines and you’ve banked heavily on an ‘eight’ hex. A new player is at a distinct disadvantage. Bob’s first game is marked by banter, desperation, and a pair of dice that refuse to roll anything but a seven. You may think this is an exaggeration, and that in any case sevens are the most likely outcome so it’s not a surprise anyway, but really this was ridiculous.
After eight turns which included six sevens someone brought out their freshly bought, unrolled Firefly-licenced dice, reasoning that the stacked dice was probably the reason for this being a show copy. Luckily Momus, the god of irony and mockery, was grinning down and sent another two sevens in a row before letting the players get on with the damn game.
Bob managed to earn four whole victory points, and the winner was a Settlers savant who sat down with no prior knowledge of the game just as the rules were finished being explained and asked to join.
This is not the end of the review, gentle readers. Oh no, Bob had only just whet her appetite for sheep and wheat. Despite a miserable score the potential for fun in Catan was unmistakeable. By sheer coincidence Catan: Creators Edition (the latest Catan ‘videogame’) showed up in the following week’s Humble Bundle along with Ticket to Ride, Smallworld 2, and some other crap that no one cares about. Pennies later, the download was quick and running the game only made Bob’s elderly and increasingly senile laptop fall over and die twice. It includes the original vanilla game, Catan: Seafarers, and Catan: Cities and Knights.
In general it’s a faithful but cheap and somewhat nasty port. The rulebook, for example, is dreadful. It has no easily-searchable index, bundles all three versions together in its explanations (confusing as fuck, yo), and is remarkably brief on the details. This is fine if you already know the rules, but not great if you’re trying to find the expanded rules which apply only to Cities and Knights, for example (it looks like there’s a dragon involved? Is that right?).
It does, however, come with some pretty great little game ‘scenarios’, which alter the gameplay to make certain strategies more viable or difficult, and reward you in different ways. There is also a whole gang of computer-generated characters to play against, including knights, mothers superior, craftsmen and nobles. They curse you in different ways when you screw them over by plonking a settlement in front of their longest road, and have a rotation of phrases during their turns. The game also makes a variety of noises to let you know when somethings happening (gained some sheep? Have a sheepy ‘baaa’ noise. Gained some wheat? Have the sound of… uh… some grains? Being scattered? Whatever, they tried.)
Of course the best thing about having a digital version of a board game is that play is much faster, meaning you can play several games in a day instead of doing your PhD research, which all of the misery farmers approve of. Although computers don’t make the same mistakes that humans do, you can definitely begin to identify winning strategies and refine them to work in different situations. ‘Desperate resource-grabbing Bob’ is long gone, having been replaced by ‘longest-road-builder of Catan’ Bob, ‘successful sheep-farmer’ Bob and ‘fuck you and your army I’ve got a monopoly on the supply of wheat so good luck building a city’ Bob. Lizzy better watch her back, harbourmaster Bob’s a-coming.
Lizzy is tempted to counter that the game is actually a lot better as an app, after you’ve played it your first few times and have been gently welcomed into the gaming world. But that may be because there’s just too much opportunity to ruin each other’s game. If, for example, you’ve earned a reputation as someone who’s ruthless and always wins games, then nobody will ever trade with you. Ever. Even if you’re desperate. Even if they’re desperate. At least the AI on Lizzy’s phone won’t bully her quite that badly.
Bob is very enthusiastic about Catan. It’s a bit like watching a grown adult who’s never eaten peanut butter before try it, go mad, and refuse to eat anything else for three weeks straight. Suddenly a whole new world has opened up to her, and she tries to tell all of her friends about it, but all of her friends already know about peanut butter. It’s actually quite surprising that she’s eaten five jars of it in a row and neither thrown up yet (metaphorically) nor gotten bored of it.
Soon she’ll realise that peanut butter involves far too much dice-rolling, luck and reliance on other players. Until then, we’ll have to cope with playing more Catan than is healthy. (Are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice game of Caylus? Bob?)
Briony has only played Catan several times, and unlike Bob has not gotten hooked. Any board game that has memes about sheep trading are way too cool for her, and she prefers to instead to engage with these types of games by turning up, ignoring the rules, being mysteriously silent and then thrashing anyone else without batting an eye. The good thing about this strategy is that you can get away with doing it once, and claiming that it happens as consecutive times. But, she supposes, at least Catan is a good way for normal people to be swayed to the way of the board game nerd.
Credit for the incredibly sunshiney photographs go to Dr Photographer-Friend. Credit for the photographs, that is, not for the sunshine. He hates the sunshine. And happiness.