Sunday, February 10, 2008

Board Game Review - The Settlers of Catan

I’ve always been a fan of the classic board games: Risk, Monopoly, Scrabble and even some other not-so-rare ones you might have played but may not have, like Boggle and Stratego. I’ve also been known to partake in that game of kings, Chess, every once in a while. After I came to Harding University, I was introduced to such gems as Apples to Apples and was able to indulge my passion for party games that take more people than I normally had around to play with, like Catch Phrase and Scattegories.

But those were the games I stuck with, the old stand-bys. It was not until recently that I was exposed to some of the games off the beaten path. Last summer, my fellow Hobson's Buffet author Drew Spickes bought a couple games of the type you can only get from a specialty store or the Internet, and one in particular that we played all the time and I ended up buying for myself: The Settlers of Catan.

In The Settlers of Catan, each of the four players’ goal is to establish a presence on an island abundant in natural resources by building roads and settlements and controlling ports on the coast, while competing with other players for best position and trying to avoid a thief that will steal your resources. The premise sounds fairly basic, but there are a few things that make this one of the best games I’ve ever played, and that made it good enough to receive numerous awards from different publications and organizations.

The first thing you notice when you begin to play Settlers is the board. It is not a traditional board that you just set down and place pieces on: it is made out of 37 hexagonal cardboard pieces, which you set up in a random position every game. This makes the board, and thus the game, different every time you play, which keeps things interesting, even when playing more than once in one sitting.

Another aspect is the social interaction. You could play the game all for yourself, mercilessly boxing people in, cutting them off from the resources they need and trying to rip them off, but it will come back to haunt you in the end. When you develop ill will in the game, you risk having the other players turn against you and send the thief in your direction or refuse to trade with you, even if it might be in their interest to work with you. Trust me; I know. I’m a very competitive person, and I have to make sure that my competitive streak doesn’t take over too much when I play Settlers or I wind up being stuck, unable to move towards my goals because I can’t get the resources I need and looking at three unsympathetic faces.

While the objectives and game play remain pretty much the same every time you play The Settlers of Catan, the player interaction and board set up always make for an interesting, unique game. One of the best things about it is that even if you reach a point in a game where you know you can’t win, you can still have fun by picking a way of playing that makes things either more difficult or easier for the other players, or just changes the game entirely. One player can completely change the outcome of any game, even if they can’t in a way that gives them a victory.

For even more variety, you can buy expansions to the game. While they cost almost as much as the original game itself, they provide a lot more depth to the game, like adding other islands and pirates or letting you build cities and create knights. There are several other smaller expansions that cost a lot less, but can now only be found on eBay or the like, of which I bought several. My favorite smaller expansion adds in fish that you can harvest from the sea and then spend to get special benefits. Whatever way you want to play, expansions make a good way to change up an already expansive and fun game.

The Settlers of Catan is a wonderful addition to any board gamer’s collection, whether you only play games at family gatherings during Christmas and Thanksgiving or you play every weekend and even some nights in the dorm. Many people I've introduced it to have ended up buying it for themselves: my parents bought it since I take my game to school with me, and two friends each got it for their respective families. It finds the perfect balance of being easy to learn, yet complex enough to keep you interested the hundredth time you play, and with each game taking only about 45 minutes to an hour, it’s perfect for when you have a little time to kill and aren’t in the mood to try to take over the world or manipulate the real estate market. All you have to face in The Settlers of Catan is the deceptively simple task of managing a little island. How hard could that be?