Game Night!: Settlers of Catan

March 16th, 2011 No comments

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.

Gameplay

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.

Categories: Social Life Tags:

The Purge Begins

March 15th, 2011 No comments

My mother tells me I come by my hoarding and materialistic tendencies honestly; growing up, my house was filled (not to any unhealthy extent, but “filled” is not an exaggeration) with collectibles, books, records, and knick-knacks.

My desire to own things, though, is based on a very easily identifiable (and very illogical) desire:  I want to possess a library of media.  Traditionally, whenever I’ve been at a used book shop or thrift store and seen a book for which I’ve heard favorable reviews, or a movie or CD that a friend has mentioned I might like, I’ve bought it.  I may take it home, file it on my shelf (always in alphabetical order!), and never look at it again…but the fact that it’s there – for my theoretical future reference, for my theoretical eventual enjoyment, for the theoretical convenience of not having to seek it out if at some point I decide I want to read/see/hear it – gives me a weird sense of comfort.

Of course, this tends to backfire when, on my next shopping trip, I see the same book or movie or CD and, due to the massive size of the “library” I’ve so successfully built in my living room, I forget that I’ve already bought a copy.  This has happened countless times:  I’ve spent six bucks on a CD because I was lucky enough to find it in the used rack, then taken it home to find out I’d been just that lucky a month or two before.

My grandfather – in whose memory most of my interest in frugality and finance was piqued – used to make fun of me for how much money I “wasted” on music.  I hated when he said that, because I loved listening to music so much that I felt like he was directly attacking my character.  But, in retrospect, maybe even “waste” wasn’t a strong enough word…I’m happy he didn’t know just how much money I did ultimately waste on it.  And on movies and on books and on any number of random passing interests, each of which is always accompanied by at least a few not-too-thrifty purchases (the most notable of which was the $800 camcorder I bought when I wanted to start making films as a 17-year-old…and guess how many films I made).

So, all that having been said, I was pretty excited to start my modified “365 Less [sic] Things” challenge.  But, even taking that excitement into account, I surprised myself by how incredibly easy it was going to be to purge a chunk of the library.  As my first project, I focused exclusively on books, and a quick pass through my shelves yielded a fairly impressive 47 titles that I’m willing – no, happy – to sell to a used book store (or to a reader, should you happen to catch me before I make the trip to 1/2 Price).

What’s more, I stopped at those 47 based on some lingering hesitations that I’m sure I can shake by the time we’re packing up to move.  For the time being, though, here were my parameters that I couldn’t quite overcome:

  • I didn’t get rid of any unread books that were given to me as gifts, because I can’t bring myself to even secretly be that disrespectful.  (exceptions:  gag gifts, and exceedingly uninteresting books from people who had no idea what to get me).
  • I didn’t get rid of any books that had especially huge levels of sentimental value to me (exceptions:  books used as study material in college…is it weird that I’m so attached to a bunch of random short fiction anthologies?).
  • I didn’t get rid of any books I’ve read and loved so ferociously that I insist on proudly displaying them to visitors (exceptions:  books of which Girlfriend and I had multiple copies between the two of us).
  • I didn’t get rid of any as yet unread books by authors I love, as they seem the most likely of the hundred upon hundreds of those on the shelves to be read in the near-ish future (exception:  one Steinbeck – too bulky, would prefer a paperback copy – and several by a college professor of mine–but those fall under the “multiple copies” rule)

The one book in the “sell pile” that speaks most to my excitement for purging is James Joyce’s Ulysses.  You see, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans that I hope to some day fit back into; instead I own Ulysses:  I’ve never made even a passing attempt at reading more than the first few pages, but I’ve always hoped that some day I’d just sit down and plow through it…somehow, I imagined this as being some sort of life-changing experience, like I’d immediately be inducted into the secret club to which all those who are smarter than me belong.  But, there are a few problems with that:  1) I didn’t really understand what was going on in the few pages I did read that one time several years ago (i.e., I’m not too smart…or at the very least not a very attentive reader); 2) while I would never argue that “reading doesn’t make you smarter,” I’d strongly doubt that reading any single book would make you more than infinitesimally smarter than you were before you opened said book; and 3) I’ve known a couple of people who have read Ulysses just for the sake of saying they’d read Ulysses, and they’re typically not the sort of people I like very much, nor the sort of people I strive to impress.

All the same, it feels good to get rid of it, like I’m finally being honest with myself.  (Of course, I did keep my massive, hardback copy of Underworld by DeLillo, which, if I’m going to be totally honest, is sort of staying on the shelf for essentially the same reason.  But at least it’s about baseball – something that marginally interests me – and not about…wait, what’s Ulysses about?  I don’t think I even know.)

Anyway, it feels good to have lightened the burden of my bookshelves (and of my knees and back, come moving day).  I look forward to finding the courage to trash some more of the extraneous crap floating around my massive library…watch out, DVDs, you’re next!  (Should be noted in advance:  there are several DVDs that I’ve owned for more than a couple years that still have their manufacturers’ shrink-wrap intact.  Ugh.  Absurd.)

Categories: Goals, Home Life Tags:

Letter of Complaint to Chase

March 14th, 2011 No comments

Being a man of strong principles, it surprises me that I’ve not yet composed a letter of complaint to the people of JP Morgan Chase.  Not only have I been repulsed by their seemingly indifferent attitude toward me as a customer, their greedy manipulation of people who don’t have the financial understanding to realize they’re being taken advantage of, and their general disregard for every person in the nation and world who is not an executive at JP Morgan Chase…but I’ve also been annoyed with myself for not speaking and acting out on these principles or any others that I happen to carry with me (e.g. animal rights, civil rights, labor rights).

So, of all the issues to get me writing, the scales have finally been tipped by Chase’s junk-mail practices.  What follows is a rough draft of my thoughts.  Feel free to offer any edits you’d like.

To Whom It May Concern,

I’m writing in broad response to your semi-monthly mailings of information about business card printing, your monthly mailings of credit balance transfer checks, your bimonthly mailings of offers for business and premium credit cards, and all other similar items I’ve found in each of my mailboxes in the six years since I became your customer.

First, understand that I don’t need any business cards printed, much as I didn’t when you first started offering that service several years ago (hence my failure to respond to your first advertisement, second advertisement, third…); also, note that I have not utilized any of the over 100 balance transfer checks you have mailed me–not three years ago when my credit card was maxed out, and not now when I carry virtually no balance; also, note that I do not own a business, and therefore could not open a business credit account even if I wanted to; also, note that, while your premium credit cards are quite impressive in appearance and reputation, I recently tried to extend my line of credit with you and was rejected on account of my low annual income, so it seems difficult to believe that I’m even eligible for such a card.

Now, you deserve to know something before I explicitly state my complaint and request:  I don’t like being your customer.  I’ve been on the verge of leaving Chase in favor of a locally-run credit union for a long time now on account of not only your business practices but also on account of the structure of the corporate banking system as a whole.  While I find your plethora of ATM locations convenient, I find the number of Chase branches in my city to be an excessive waste of real-estate and energy at the least; while I enjoy taking advantage of your online banking system, I think every time I use it about how I might instead be interacting with a friendly teller at a local establishment (and contributing somewhat directly to their paychecks rather than to your bosses’ already bloated bankrolls).  So, with any small motivation at any time, I might decide to take my money somewhere a bit friendlier to my community.

My complaint and request are one and the same:  please stop sending me paper mail.  I love the planet and I hate debt; I’m not going to use any of your unsolicited credit card applications or balance transfer checks.  Nor am I going to ask you to print my business cards for me, nor am I going to do anything besides send your mailings straight through my shredder, usually without anything more than a cursory glance.  When you told me I could opt to receive statements and notifications by e-mail, I had visions of a paper-free banking experience.  Now, several trees’ worth of wasted junk mail later, an ultimatum:

I’m planning on relocating soon, to a city which, conveniently, also has a multitude of Chase banks and ATMs.  The quantity of junk mail I receive between now and the month of my relocation will likely be the deciding factor as to whether or not I relocate my finances as well.  I hope my six years as your customer will give me enough sway to justify this small request.

Thank You,

Justin

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

The Bright Side of Goal-Setting

March 11th, 2011 No comments

Elle at Couple Money recently referred me (indirectly…thanks, Twitter) to an article entitled The Dark Side of Goal-Setting at PsyBlog.  While the first few paragraphs of the story made me think it was flying in the face of everything I’d come to believe about the importance of goals, it actually rounded out to make some fine points that I hadn’t necessarily considered.

Goals, the article argues, have become too much of a centerpiece in our culture.  (“How dare you say such a thing to a personal finance blogger!” thought I.)  The prevalence of goals is dangerous not because goals themselves are inherently a bad idea or an ineffective tool, but because people are told simply that they need goals, not how to set them.

I know I’ve always been told not to set general goals, but this article points out that setting goals that are too specific may cause you to lose sight of whatever broad goal those smaller ones are meant to work toward.  I suppose I’ve done that before.  (Exhibit A:  didn’t I go to school for fiction writing?)  Also, being a person who has tried to set goals for every aspect of his life, I was dismayed to read the very valid point that too many goals may cause you to prioritize based on ease of accomplishment rather than actual importance.  I know I’m guilty of this.  (Exhibit B:  not updating my blog for a period of six months last year.)

So, the article argues against institutionalized, general goal-setting and encourages informed, personal, flexible goal-setting…so long as wrestling with said goals doesn’t dominate your life.  I don’t know how willing I am to back off of my goals so soon after I’ve gotten back into the habit of living by them again (Exhibits C and D:  decreasing credit card debt and increasing pile of stuff to get rid of).  That’s the “Bright Side of Goal-Setting”…when I’ve fallen out of a goal-pursuing mode, I think in general I’ve suffered for it.  But the article certainly gives me something to think about.

What do you think?  Have you ever set goals only to fail to meet them for some reason or another?  Or are you more like me, where even if your goals aren’t necessarily properly or even decently organized, you don’t function as well without them?

Categories: Goals Tags: