Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Settlers Ain't All That

Since its release in the mid-1990s The Settlers of Catan has been a name to conjure with in the gaming community. Combining some of the colonization, trade, and development features of Civilization with the blocking strategies of railroad games, Settlers quickly gained a big fan base and helped start a craze (in the United States) for so-called Eurogames, heavy on strategy and light on theme. It also generated many supplements and spin-offs, such as Seafarers of Catan, Starfarers of Catan, and Settlers of America; a collectors' edition with a molded resin board; and many lavishly detailed and scaled-up home models of the original game, some of which one can find at GenCon and other gaming conventions. Settlers generates much excitement among neophyte gamers who have never played it before but heard good things about it. Once they've tried it out a few times, however, their excitement usually fades. I know mine has. Why?

1)      It takes too darn long. I've rarely played a game of Settlers that wrapped up in less than two hours, and three-hour games aren't unheard of. Long games are fine if, like History of the World or Through the Ages, they give players lots of choices to make, but simple entry-level titles like this one, or Alhambra, or Guillotine should take only about 45-60 minutes.

2)      There's too much luck involved and too much potential downtime as a result. An unlucky player who sets his/her initial settlements next to land tiles that the dice don't like can spend long stretches of the game doing little more than rolling those dice, while others steadily accumulate the resources they need to build new roads and settlements and thereby acquire more resources. Bad die rolls deprive players of the ability to make choices, and the paralytic effects of bad luck are cumulative.

3)      There's little incentive for players to trade. Presumably players should benefit from exchanging resources they need with each other, but as the game progresses the advantages that trade gives to the active player grow too great to risk. No-one wants to give a rival the means to complete the Longest Road or build the new city that will probably hand them the game. Interactivity thus quickly turns into “screw your neighbors” (by moving the Robber or blocking other players' expansion), and nothing else. I've had more than one Settlers game end with my feeling like I'd just played a stupider version of Diplomacy.

Some of these problems are theoretically fixable. Giving players who receive no resources on a given die roll a gold token that can be swapped, 2-to-1, for any resource card is one way to deal with Problem 2. So is creating some sort of mechanism for borrowing resources from the game supply or other players, with a victory-point penalty if they don't repay the loan with interest in a set period. However, a game that has been around for twenty years shouldn't still need basic repairs to make it appealing. There are certainly variants and spin-offs that I enjoy: the Cities & Knights of Catan expansion makes for an appealing, if very long version of the base game, and the spin-off games Settlers of America and Merchants of Europe are well-made geographical variants with some agreeable historical “chrome.” I wouldn't recommend any of these for beginners, however, and I don't think I would recommend the original game to anyone. In the world of designer board games, older doesn't necessarily mean better.

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