|Cost: $39 From: Kosmos Players: 3-4 Playing Time: 120 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 5 Complexity: 7 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 19, Summer/Fall/Winter 1998|
No game has done more to promote European games in the United States than The Settlers of Catan. This runaway German success has spawned three expansions, a two-player card game, a computer game (now available for free download, see Gray Matter for details), and even a German fan club. A promotional version of the game was created for a whiskey company (complete with a bottle of real whiskey). Can a major motion picture be far behind? Now designer Klaus Teuber brings us the latest expansion, Stadte & Ritter. Whereas the previous expansions took the fairly traditional approach of leaving the essential gameplay untouched while adding new options, Stadte & Ritter follows the path of the El Grande expansions and dramatically changes the rules.
A healthy part of Settlers of Catan’s success has been its wide appeal across all strata of players. The non-violent, constructive/cooperative nature of the game has endeared it to many “non-gamers” who enjoy the trading, civilization-building, and short game length. Stadte & Ritter heads in the opposite direction, widening the game’s strategic paths and moving it deeper into gamer territory. As such, it may be the perfect Trojan Horse with which to smuggle a “gamier” game into your casual Settlers-loving group.
As its name suggests, Stadte & Ritter’s changes focus on the development of cities and the use of knights. City development depends on the production of paper, cloth, and coins. When a forest, pasture, or mountain hex produces raw materials, cities bordering that hex produce one raw material and one refined good instead of two raw materials as before. Wheat and brick production is unchanged, although undoubtedly some future expansion will change that. This one rule change has profound strategic consequences. The sheep, lumber, and ore ports are much less valuable than before, since their corresponding resources get produced at a slower rate. The power of wheat and brick barons is therefore stronger-wheat especially so, given its importance in the utilization of knights (as you’ll see later).
Further accentuating the classic opening deployment dilemmas, each player’s second free placement is now a city instead of a settlement. That’s particularly insidious because by the time you place your city most of the best locations are already taken. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s best to be the fourth player, since you get to make your two placements back-to-back without worrying about your plans getting fouled up by opponents. I believe the fourth position is even more attractive in Stadte & Ritter- perhaps too much so. The first player can get stuck with some lousy options for his city, putting him at a production disadvantage from the outset.
A spiral-bound notebook divided into three color-coded sections tracks each player’s city improvements in science, trade, and politics. The notebook is cleverly designed to double as a trading price list, replacing the reference cards from the basic set. Advancing in each area costs progressively more refined goods (one the first time, two the second, and so forth). As each improvement is purchased, the corresponding section of the notebook is flipped to the next page and the player’s chances of drawing development cards increases (see below). The third improvement in each area bestows a special ability: a 2:1 port for all refined goods; the ability to hire the strongest knights (more on that in a bit), or the ability to draw the resource of your choice whenever the die roll produces nothing for you. The first person to build the fourth improvement in each area can upgrade one of his cities to a metropolis, which offers extra protection to that city and is worth two extra victory points. These bonuses can only be lost if a different player overtakes you to build the fifth improvement first.
City improvements also control a player’s chances of drawing development cards. The original development deck of knights, points, streets, monopolies and harvests is gone, replaced by three decks matching the three areas of city improvements. The new cards, reusing artwork from the Settlers card game, offer a wider variety of effects (my favorite: pick any two number chips with values of 3,4,5,9,10, or 11 and swap them). These cards are no longer bought. Instead, they’re drawn when dictated by die rolls. Three dice are rolled at the start of each turn. Two of these are standard dice (one of which is red). The third shows barbarians and colored city gates. When a gate shows up, all players check their corresponding notebook section. If the number on the red die is shown on their notebook, they draw a development card of that color. Since these cards are never bad, and in fact can be quite powerful, improving your city is a high priority. To do that, you need refined goods. And the fastest way to get them is to build a city on a forest, pasture, or mountain hex. The terrain types you cover dictate which areas you’ll be likely to develop-or perhaps, vice versa.
This is one of the places where multiple strategies diverge in Stadte & Ritter. Some players might favor the trading deck, in which case they’ll be aggressively pursuing pastures. Others might like politics and go for the mountains. You can’t draw any development cards from a deck until you’ve advanced the corresponding area at least once, so everyone wants to get at least a taste of all the refined goods. But is it better to pursue depth in one area or breadth in all of them? The design shows nice balance here. If your goal is to draw more development cards, you’re best served improving in all three areas. Meanwhile, the special ability and metropolis offered by each area at high levels makes a focused push more alluring. In practice, you may have little choice. Refined goods tend to be perceived as being more valuable than raw materials, and are therefore traded infrequently. Players must therefore do the best they can with what they’ve got.
Refined goods can be stolen by the robber, however, who still bounces around on a roll of a 7. But there are no knight cards anymore. Instead players buy knights for a sheep and an ore, deploying them onto the map itself. Knights can be placed on any vacant vertex reached by a player’s road network. They start weak at a strength of one, but can be upgraded to strengths of two for an additional fee. To upgrade to a strength of three a player must have reached level three in politics and gained that special ability.
Knights are deployed in a passive state and must be fed (at the cost of one wheat) to become active. Active knights can move to new locations (blocking construction there) or repel weaker adjacent knights. So far, these actions appear to be uncommon. More frequently a knight will be used to chase the robber away from a hex the knight borders. Whenever knights are used they become passive and must be fed again to reactivate them.
But knights have a grander purpose-to protect the island of Catan. Remember that special die I mentioned earlier? Half of its facets show barbarians. When one of them is rolled, a barbarian ship advances toward the island. When it reaches shore there is a showdown between the barbarians and the assembled knights of Catan. The barbarians’ strength is equal to the total number of cities (not settlements) on the island. The island’s strength is found by adding the strength of all active knights. The higher total wins, with ties going to the defenders of Catan. If the barbarians triumph, they sack a city belonging to the player with the weakest army (and they’ll happily pillage more cities if players are tied for the dishonor), reducing it to a settlement. If the knights are victorious, the owner of the strongest army gains a permanent victory point and a spot on Oprah.
You begin to see why wheat, used to activate knights, can be very important- especially if the barbarians advance quickly. Here too is another place where new strategies are introduced. Suppose the barbarians are near the shore. Do you activate your second knight, which would make the defenders win and give you the strongest army for a victory point, or do you leave it inactive and let the barbarians win, reducing an opponent’s city? Perhaps you use your position as leverage during trade negotiations. A metropolis cannot be sacked, and a player with no cities has nothing to fear from the barbarians. But with fewer cities on the board it’s easier for the defenders to win, giving someone a victory point at relatively little cost. An investment in knights can pay repeated dividends over time, helping you achieve the 13 points needed for victory.
Yes, Stadte & Ritter games can take twice as long as the original. The characters of the early, middle and late games are now more distinctive however, so the game never seemed to drag. Making an English development deck crib sheet for each player will help to speed the game along. And if the length really bothers you, just play to fewer points.
Settlers tends to split people into polar camps of lovers and haters with no middle ground of players who find it merely okay. I’m in the former group. At least, I was until nearly incessant play within a short timeframe produced Settlers burnout. The seafarer expansion produced a flurry of renewed interest that quickly succumbed to the old ennui. But Stadte & Ritter has transformed Settlers, broadening the strategic landscape and injecting a jolt of adrenaline into an otherwise exhausted game. Anyone who derided the original for being too dependent on luck will find little to change his opinion here. The roll of the dice and draw of the deck are still strong influences. Even so, there are more potential paths for victory now, making decisions more interesting and varied. I’m still charting the new gamespace for the best strategies and avenues. More importantly, I’m enjoying the journey itself.
After a few plays, my biggest disappointment is in how infrequently most of the knight’s abilities get used. Perhaps we haven’t discovered some hidden subtleties, but we never move knights or use them to chase other knights away. In fact, the opportunity to attack other knights has been virtually nonexistent. Chalk it up to our play style if you wish, but from an expansion with “knight” in the title we expected the knights to be a bit more interesting in practice.
That said, if you don’t mind the increased game length, Stadte & Ritter has plenty of steak to match its sizzle. Even so, I think the core Settlers game has just about run its course, and perhaps Herr Teuber should leave Catan and focus on designing a new system to exploit.