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Game Night!: Settlers of Catan

Perhaps you recall my threat promise that I was going to occasionally post a review/discussion of a particularly interesting board game.  Since I am of the opinion that board games are a great source of frugal fun, I don’t feel that such a thing is out of place on a personal finance blog.  If you disagree and think I should take such entries elsewhere…well, then, perhaps we can settle our dispute with the roll of some dice.

Settlers and Me

I actually first heard the phrase “Settlers of Catan” uttered by none other than the world(?)-famous J.D. Roth of GetRichSlowly.org (when I heard him discussing board games, he was co-hosting a podcast called Personal Finance Hour…where did you go, PFH?!).  At that time, Girlfriend and I had been playing a weekly Risk game with a neighbor, and I was getting frustrated by the simple mechanics of the game, not to mention the nagging feeling that probability and statistics never seem to work in my favor where dice-rolling is concerned.  (Oh, by the way, let’s call of that rolling of dice that I mentioned in the intro…)

Having heard J.D. (or is it “Mr. Roth” if I’ve never actually met him?) talk up Settlers, I excitedly downloaded the iPod app when I first noticed it last summer…and thus, my love affair with European board games (god, I’m just such a dork I can’t even stand it sometimes) was born.

Basic Mechanics

Settlers is often suggested as an introduction to the “light strategy” genre of gaming because its mechanics are similar to many more mainstream games, but better designed than, say, Monopoly.  Monopoly, you’ll recall from the last time you underwent the daunting chore of playing it, is designed around (to put it in general terms) acquisition of assets, trading of assets, improving upon assets, and a few elements of luck like card-drawing and dice-rolling.  The problem with Monopoly is that the fate of the game is based almost entirely on the results of dice-rolling.  You don’t get to choose what properties you own; that’s decided for you based on turn order and luck of the roll.  Settlers of Catan plays with these same mechanics, but the results of dice rolling play a more minor role (pun?), in conjunction with your strategic placement of game pieces.


Here’s how it works, as briefly and basically as possible:

The board is made up of 19 hexagonal pieces, each of which represents one of five resources (with the exception of the desert, which I won’t get into yet).  The resources -lumber, ore, brick, wool, and grain – act as currency in the game, and can be exchanged for settlements, cities, roads, and playing cards.  Each of the 19 hexagons has some number, between 2 and 12, in the middle of it (again, except for the desert).  These numbers represent all the possible outcomes of the roll of two dice.  (Note that 6, 7, and 8 are the most likely outcomes, and that 2 and 12 are the least likely.  These probabilities will serve as the basis of your strategy).

At the beginning of the game, each player places a settlement and adjacent at the intersection of two or three hexagons, then a second settlement-road pair.  Ideally, one would place a settlement at the three-way intersection between three hexagons with numbers that are likely to be rolled, because during the game, whenever a hexagon’s number is rolled, everyone who owns an adjacent settlement receives the corresponding resource.  In the picture to the left, the blue settlement is placed at the intersection of a “6 grassland,” an “11 farmland,” and a “3 mine.”  (Not ideal, since 3 and 11 are both unlikely to be rolled.)

Once initial player locations are chosen, the game begins.  A player’s turn consists of three or four parts:  he rolls the dice (and resources are passed out to all players who have settlements adjacent to hexagons bearing the number rolled), he trades resources in his hand with other players for resources in their hands (he can also trade with “the bank,” but at a steep disadvantage of 4-resources-to-1), he buys expansions (roads, settlements, cities, or development cards) using his resources as currency, and he can play a development card if he has one and so chooses.  Should he roll a 7 (the most likely result of a roll), he activates the “robber,” which is a game piece that covers a hexagon of the player’s choosing (thus disabling adjacent players from collecting resources from it) and steals one resource from another player.

Several items and achievements collected throughout the game have corresponding “victory point” values, and the first person to have received ten victory points is the winner.  Each settlement (purchased with 1 wool, 1 brick, 1 lumber, and 1 grain) is worth 1 victory point, each city (2 grain and 3 ore) is worth 2.  There are several development cards (purchased with 1 wool, 1 ore, and 1 grain) that are worth 1 victory point each, though most development cards are not worth any.  Also, the person with the longest road and the person who has played the most knight cards (a specific kind of development card) get 2 victory points each.  The wide variety of sources for victory points make for a wide variety of possible strategies that can be used to win.

Did You Get All That?

This, wordy though it may be, is a somewhat simplified breakdown of the rules and mechanics of the game.  But I assure you, even if it sounds daunting, Settlers is widely regarded as one of the best board games ever made (ahem…Monopoly is not), and is very easy to pick up, particularly if you’re being taught by someone who already knows the rules.

In the time I’ve been looking forward to debuting a game review feature for my blog, I’ve also been thinking about a ratings system.  After more deliberation than is necessary for such a nerdy pursuit, I’ve decided I’m going to do a six-category summary:

Number of Players: 3-4 (though there’s a 5-6 player expansion pack available for about $20)
Appropriate For Ages: 8+ (manufacturer suggests 10+, but I think a patient 8-year-old could grasp it)
Length of a Game: ~1 hour (though this can vary wildly depending on tile placement and resource distribution…add enough alcohol to the equation and 150 minutes is not outside the realm of possibility!)
Replay Factor: 10/10!  I’ll never turn down a game, and occasionally pester people to play more than 1.
Difficulty:  5/10 if you’re trying to decipher instructions yourself, 4/10 if someone is teaching you.
Overall:  9/10…though it should be noted that I’ve not yet encountered a 10/10 game…Settlersis probably going to be my favorite until I find another that so perfect a balance between ease of gameplay and potential for indepth strategy.

Settlers of Catan sells for a list price of $49.99.  While it’s available for less at Amazon, I would encourage you, if interested, to buy it from a locally-owned game store.

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