I’ll never run out of terrible games to review or discuss. Most games have at least one thing that can be discussed in terms of terribleness. It isn’t just games of yesteryear either- new games, games coming out today, are not very good. They can be terrible for a number of reasons, in fact. The games that I call terrible don’t even actually have to BE terrible- only kinda terrible or maybe even 15% terrible. The Settlers of Catan is one of those games that falls into a certain category of games- the great games that you don’t play anymore.
I think I first play The Settlers of Catan around 1999 at 401 Convenience in Toronto with the owner. We were going to play some Magic: The Gathering, and the owner really wanted to play some Settlers. I was blown away by that game, but didn’t get to play it again for about 4 years. Then I bought myself a copy and got really into it. I’ve probably played it a few hundred times with various groups of people, and I think I have a firm grasp on the shortcoming of the game.
First of all, I think opening placement is a bit too strong in this game. If you place wrongly in this game at the beginning, I think you have an uphill battle. Thankfully, it is not very hard to get at least decent at picking an opening spot, but it’s still a part of the game that the newbie has to learn without it actually being a part of gameplay.
In terms of gameplay, Settlers is pretty great, but the end game leaves a lot to be desired. Woe to you if you are identified as getting ahead. You’re sitting at 7 points and everyone else is sitting at 5 points and it’s time to play Solitaire Catan! No one will trade with you, and you’ll be continually plagued by the robber. It’s a neat social dynamic and is definitely part of why the game is so good- but things get wonky if you aren’t sitting at the table with 4 honourable human beings- because they’ll start making silly trades just to be able to beat you. I’ve played with groups where the 4th place player, a player who had played a fairly terrible game, got to decide who would win the game. Sometimes you get to the point where someone is willing to make a trade, two people will win if they get the trade, and you get to play a game of “who likes who more”. After seeing this happen with a few groups, it becomes obvious that the game was not designed for us jerky North Americans.
Have you heard of people bringing “futures” into Catan? How much of my life has been spent arguing that the rules don’t contemplate this kind of trading. The general argument back is that they don’t prohibit this kind of trading either- THE RULES ALSO DON’T EXPLICITLY SAY THAT YOU CAN’T TOSS SHEEP AT ANOTHER PLAYER FOR VICTORY POINTS. Futures, in Catan, are the worst. The Settlers of Catan is not a “trust” game, an alliance is not required for you to win the game. Sure, there are some elements of that, but it really isn’t a game where the midgame should be dominated by trust concerns- You should always assume that given limited resources, a player will screw you over to get ahead. There’s only so many places a road can go and, oh yeah, that road cutting off my road makes a lot of sense. Some people like to trade favours/futures for cards/favours/futures. I actually think that this only adds length to a game that is designed to be over in about an hour. In the same way that Monopoly is ruined by money on Free Parking, Settlers is ruined by trading things you don’t have, for things another player doesn’t have either (or whatever iteration of that you want to insert) because the game is designed to be brief- Maybe one in 20 games of Catan goes past the hour mark, but those are the tensest, closest games possible.
There’s also no enforcement ability for these kinds of trades. I can’t MAKE you give me another card. Also, the rules don’t give us any indication of WHEN you have to hand over that sheep you just got. In my opinion, this “futures” system requires a bunch of unwritten rules to actually work, and tries to make a simple trading game into something far more complicated.
So there you have it, some criticisms of Catan. There’s also the issue of Sheep being less important than the other resources, but there are ways to mitigate that issue. Part of why I don’t really play Catan anymore is that I’m a bit tired of it. I have Star Trek Catan, which I much prefer to play, but it’s obviously hard to get new people to understand Catan AND an expert variant right off the bat.
What should you play instead?
You’re a bit burned out on Catan and you want to play something in the same vein? You’re pretty difficult. That’s a tough question to answer, because Catan has sucked up a lot of the space in this area. There aren’t THAT many resource trading games, but 7 Wonders is probably a good bet for a next game after Catan. Still very easy to understand and great no matter how many are playing. The “price” of commodities can go up or down depending upon what you and your neighbours need (price meaning when it is taken in the draft). It’s good, easy and quick- just like Settlers!