By Jeff Dougan
In 1995, Mayfair Games published a game that would revolutionize the hobby game market, an import of the German game The Settlers of Catan (hereafter, Settlers). Settlers has won roughly a dozen awards in the last 17 years, including the German Spiele das Jahres (Game of the Year) award, the 1996 Origins Award for best Fantasy or SF Board Game, and being inducted into Games Magazine’s Hall of Fame. It was recently featured on Wil Wheaton’s video series Tabletop, too. It has spawned a series of expansions, accessories, and spin-offs.
Plays 3-4, or 5-6 with expansion (sold separately)
- Manufacturer suggests ages 10+, but many gamers say 8+
- Play time about 90 minutes
- List prices $42
- In The Urbana Free Library’s collection
Settlers combines Monopoly’s ability to trade resources (in Monopoly, properties) between players with many of the aspects of hobby games that I wrote about way back in my first column, including constant player engagement and low language dependence. (There’s a deck of cards that does require some reading and can potentially play a big part of the game in allowing you to do things.)
The players take turns placing two settlements and two roads onto a map, and want to grow their settlements into cities and construct new settlements in order to help them reach a total of 10 points. Settlers was one of the first games to introduce the idea of points in board games to an American audience, but the victory point idea has featured prominently in hobby games since. To win, players must acquire the resources to build more roads and settlements, and upgrade settlements to cities, both through the dice rolls that happen at the start of every player’s turn and through trading with other players.
There are a few complications: first, each hex on the board has a number from 2 to 12, except for 7. Every turn the dice are rolled, and every hex with that number produces resources for anyone with a settlement touching that hex. This means that some resources will be more plentiful than others, depending on the rolls that happen. However, 7 is the most common possible roll of a pair of dice, and triggers some bad things. First, anybody who has more than 7 cards has to discard half of their hand. Second, the player who rolled the 7 moves a pawn called the robber someplace on the board. The robber steals any resources produced by the hex it occupies, slowing down players gaining the resources they need to build things. This makes it impossible for you to win alone; you have to trade with people (every turn, ideally) in order to win. Because no two players will have settlements touching the same resources and numbers, different people will end up with different resources available to build with. Although you can always trade with the bank, it’s not a very good deal, and the odds are that you can get a better deal from other players.
I like several things about Settlers, but should acknowledge up front that few people have mediocre reactions to it. First, it’s now available in many mass-market stores, so it’s readily available. Its availability will be increasing even more, since it was announced at the San Diego Comic-Con last weekend that any of the games featured on Tabletop will be available at Target. It’s also one of a small handful of hobby games that is recognized by name even by people who don’t consider themselves to be gamers. Because the structure of a turn is still “roll the dice and then do stuff,” it’s an excellent game to introduce people who are new to hobby games.
On the other hand, people who don’t like it really don’t like it. A few months ago, I played it with my wife and the Grasshopper as part of testing whether he was old enough to play it competently. Her description of the game afterward was “plod, plod, plod, oh, somebody won.” Our run-through did take closer to two hours, but I think some of that was learning curve for both of them. I also think part of that perception came from them getting lost in the mechanics of the game and losing track of the ultimate goal. However, one of the reference librarians at The Urbana Free Library voiced a similar feeling about it at the time I checked it out.
Grasshopper wasn’t too interested, but probably will be pretty soon. Eight-years-old seems about right.
Overall, I’d encourage you to try this one out before sinking the money into buying a copy, as it has a higher price tag than most of the games I’ve written about to date. The best way to do that would be to show up at the library’s Second Saturday Game Day (slated for this Saturday, July 14, at 2 p.m.) at or to stop by Armored Gopher Games some Sunday evening. But checking it out from the library would work in a pinch; the rules booklet has gotten much, much better at explaining the game over the years.
Jeff Dougan is a science educator, husband, lifelong gamer, and father to the Grasshopper (age 6) and the Munchkin (age 2). He’ll happily teach or learn a new game just about anytime.