Cost: $45 From: Frankh Players: 3-4 Playing Time: 60-120 minutes Type of game: Family strategy Complexity: 6 Skill level: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 3.3, Summer 1995
Not since Magic: The Gathering has a game come along which has totally obsessed my gaming group as has Die Siedler von Catan. To be honest, I'm not sure why we can't get it out of our systems. It's a very well balanced game. In fact, mentioning that fact has become something of a running gag in our group. Siedler also got more play at this year's Gathering of Friends than any other two games combined, so my group isn't alone in our obsession.
Die Siedler von Catan (The Settlers of Catan) is a game about settling a randomly-configured island composed of hexagonal tiles, each of which depicts one of six terrains: forest, mud flats, mountains, plains, grasslands, or desert. Fans of Kings & Things will recognize the basic process of dealing out tiles to form the island at the start of the game. A ring of water hexes, every other hex featuring seaports, is added to the perimeter. Each hex is assigned a number from 2 to 12 (but no 7) by dealing out lettered discs in alphabetical order around the island. Flipping the discs over reveals their numbers. This ingenious mechanism prevents clumping of the best or worst numbers. This is an extremely elegant solution to a potentially unbalancing problem— typical for the entire game.
Players roll dice to determine who goes first. One of the interesting things about Siedler is that it is usually not advantageous to be the first player. This is because to begin the game, players take turns placing their first two settlements on the island. The first player places first and eighth, the next player second and seventh, etc. Being fourth, and thus placing both settlements simultaneously, can be more helpful than getting an earlier placement. It's certainly less nerve-wracking. Simultaneous placement allows you to offset the disadvantages of one location with the advantages of another. Other players can try to do the same thing, but by the time it gets back around to them they might find that the second location they were hoping for has been taken by another player.
Settlements aren't placed on the hexes themselves, but on the vertices where hexes intersect. Thus every settlement borders three hexes (although sea hexes without ports are worthless). Players also build a road along with each of their first two settlements. Whereas settlements are built on hex vertices, roads are built along hex edges. The initial roads must be immediately adjacent to the matching settlement. As the game progresses, a player can only build more roads if they connect to their existing roads or settlements without any opposing structures or gaps intervening.
The key rule about placing settlements is that there must always be a vacant vertex between them— settlements cannot be adjacent to each other. This means that whenever someone builds, they make it impossible for anyone to build in up to three other places. Now you see why placing first isn't necessarily so hot— by the time you get to place your second settlement, your choices will be severely limited.
The reason you're jostling for position is because the hexes your settlements border will produce resources for you. Each player rolls a pair of dice at the start of each turn to determine which hexes produce. Hexes with sixes and eights are generally the most valuable since those numbers get rolled most frequently, making those hexes produce resources often. Resources are saved and then spent to build roads or settlements, upgrade a settlement into a city, or buy a card.
Roads are both offensive and defensive tools. You can't build a settlement someplace unless you've already built a road there, so roads are critical tools in the early game. They also block the progress of opponents, since only one road can exist on any hex side. If an opponent is building toward a site you've got your eye on, you can stop him by building a road along the edge he was going to use.
Settlements are also both offensive and defensive tools. A settlement provides you with more opportunities to produce resources. They stop opponents from building not only on the settlement's site, but on all adjacent sites. They protect your roads from being cut off by opposing settlements. And they give you a victory point. The first player to accumulate ten victory points wins the game.
Upgrading to a city is one of the best paths to victory. Cities provide two resources instead of only one, and they're worth two victory points. As more cities get built, production increases and progress accelerates. This is one of the things I like most about the game— the pace of the game actually increases as time goes on, bringing the game closer to a conclusion rather than dragging on interminably. And it does so naturally, without any clunky forced mechanisms.
Using resources to buy a card represents an investment in technology which pays off in one of five ways. You might discover that you've built a cathedral, university, or other civic improvement which gives you an additional victory point. Such cards are typically kept secret until you've accumulated enough points to win the game, at which time you reveal them to your chagrined opponents. You might experience a building boom, entitling you to build two roads at no cost. A production windfall might leave you with two additional resources of your choice. You might be able to claim a monopoly on a specific resource, forcing all opponents to hand over all of the resources of that type they currently hold. Most commonly, you'll hire a knight to protect your settlements and chase away the pesky thief.
Ah yes— the thief. He starts the game in the desert, but whenever someone rolls a seven, he moves to a hex of that player's choice. While the thief is on a hex, that hex does not produce any resources— a major annoyance. You can rest assured that if fives haven't been rolled the entire game, they'll be rolled in spades immediately after the thief lands on your 5 hex. When the thief is moved, the player moving him also gets to steal a resource at random from any one player who has a settlement bordering the thief's new home. Rolling a seven has one other unfortunate consequence: anyone currently holding eight or more resources must immediately discard half of them (their choice).
Playing a Knight card allows you to move the thief to a new destination and steal a card accordingly (but it doesn't force people with more than seven resources to discard). Knight cards remain in front of the player who played them. Accumulate three knights and you gain a two point bonus for having the largest army— unless someone collects more Knight cards than you, in which case they get the bonus (and so on).
A two point bonus is also awarded to the person who has the longest continuous road of at least five segments. As with the Knights, if someone builds a longer road, the bonus goes to them instead. These bonuses can mean a huge difference in the game. It's quite possible to win without them, but having one (or both!) of them makes winning much easier.
A player's turn begins by rolling the dice. If a 7 is rolled, anyone over the eight-card limit must immediate discard. Then the current player moves the thief and steals a resource. If any other number is rolled, the corresponding hexes produce and all players bordering those hexes collect resources. The current player may then use their resources to buy roads, settlements, cities, or cards (in any combination he can afford). He may also trade resources to get what he needs.
Players can trade resources freely amongst themselves, as long as the current player is involved in the trade. This open market system is where the game really comes alive, as players with a wealth of sheep try to unload them to get the lumber or brick they so desperately need for roads. In many trading games, the amount of actual trading is limited since players often are unable to arrive at acceptable terms. This is not the case with Siedler. The economy is limited to five resources, and someone often has a shortage in the one for which you have a surplus. Trading is thus frequent and lively, leaving all parties satisfied.
Of course, sometimes you can't unload your sheep no matter how sweet a deal you offer. Fortunately, the game offers a solution. On their turn, players can always trade in resources at a 4:1 ratio— that is, four of the same resource for one of any other resource. So even if you have no access to lumber and nobody is willing to trade any to you, you can accumulate enough of another resource to convert them into lumber. If you get a seaport, this is made even easier. Just under half of the seaports allow you trade at a 3:1 ratio. This sounds like a minor improvement, but it makes a world of difference. Remember, when you have more than eight resources, you're subject to spoilage of half of them if a seven is rolled. If you can trade at a 3:1 ratio, you can keep your hand size down more easily. The remaining five seaports are resource-specific, one for each resource. A player settled on one can trade in that resource at a 2:1 ratio (so a player with the lumber port can trade in two lumber for one of any other resource). These ports can be tremendously important. Since the board is configured randomly each game, some ports will be better situated than others. When the wheat port is adjacent to two wheat hexes, for example, you can bet it will be snatched up early in the initial placement phase. If you're settled on a couple of good lumber hexes, making your way to the lumber port is a very wise move.
What's the big deal about being able to trade resources in? For one thing, it makes you independent of the other players. You can get the resouces you need without having to convince someone else to give them to you. When you're close to winning, other players become oddly reticent about dealing with you. And different resources are important at different times of the game. Lumber and brick are only useful for building roads and settlements— absolutely vital in the early stage of the game. But as the island fills up, players become more interested in upgrading their settlements into cities, or in buying cards. Ore is required for these activities, making it crucial to the endgame. Actually, building cities is the fastest path to victory, making ore even more critical. Sheep and wheat are used for settlements and cards, making them useful throughout the game (although wheat, required for cities, is more useful than sheep). This shifting of focus makes the initial placement phase particularly interesting— should you focus on lumber and brick, guaranteeing quick expansion, or grab wheat and ore for rapid maturation?
I've found that lacking access to lumber and brick can absolutely cripple you in the early game— particularly if there isn't any surplus for people to trade to you. Everyone is reluctant to give up lumber and brick in the first turn or two anyway, because they're always needed. On the other hand, it's frustrating to expand rapidly early in the game but have no ore or wheat access later, causing you to stagnate midway through. This can be mitigated by grabbing a good seaport, though. Note also that if you have lumber and brick early on, you can probably build your way to wheat and ore hexes. Having wheat and ore in the early game won't help you to build to lumber and brick. Unless you've got a lot of them and a good seaport...
It's a good idea to analyze the board at the start of the game. Look for potential resource shortages. There are four wheat, lumber, and sheep hexes but only three each of ore and brick, so the organics are always more prone to being bountiful. But the numbers allocated to each hex are important. If the wheat hexes are 2, 3, 4, and 12, wheat's going to be in very short supply— grabbing that 4 hex in the initial setup might be prudent. Watch for resource-specific seaports adjacent to hexes of the matching resource. Be careful not to position both of your initial settlements on hexes with the same numbers, unless they're sixes and eights— it's best to maximize the number of different values which will produce for you. Choosing where to put your roads is almost as important as your settlement locations. Try to guess where your opponents will go. Building in the same direction could result in your getting cut off. The center of the island tends to get crowded, so I frequently build my roads outward toward the sea, where the terrain is less desirable and so there's less chance of an opponent blocking me. Blocking opponents, of course, is a good thing— you want to have as much room to expand as you can. And, all other things being equal, it's nice if you can link your two settlements up with each other to form the longest road.
Die Siedler von Catan is a superlative game, one in which the luck of the dice actually enhances the fun. I've taught this game to about a dozen and a half people, a mixture of "gamers" and casually players, and it's been a smash hit with all of them. Most immediately ask to play again. People go home afterward and lie in bed thinking about the game and what they might have done differently to win. Siedler hasn't just skyrocketed to the top of my annual playlist (21 plays in under three months), it's insinuated itself into our psyches. Avalon Hill picked up Klaus Teuber's last gem, Adel Verpflichtet (By Hook or Crook) for American distribution. I fervently hope they or Mayfair likewise snap up Die Siedler von Catan— it deserves as wide an audience as it can get.