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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 21 Next

8. The Settlers of Catan

Published by a variety of publishers, originally by Kosmos. Published by Mayfair Games in the U.S. and U.K., Strategy Games in Canada.

Type: Three-or-four player island colonization board game (up to six players with expansion)

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Klaus Teuber

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Settlers of Catan is the best-selling of the Eurogames, or German-style board games. Every turn a pair of dice are rolled, which indicate which island spaces grant resources to players who have settlements bordering them.

Resources can be traded between players freely with each other, or to the bank in sets of four, and particular combinations can be spent to build roads, more settlements, cities and resource cards.

Players win when they reach a set level of development, measured in victory points. The island, and the numbers that indicate which resources pay off, are randomized each game, giving each game different strategic possibilities.

Play Summary

Before play, a set of hexagonal tiles are mixed up and dealt out to form the island of Catan. There are six kinds of terrain: woods, hills, mountains, plains, grassland, and desert. All the types except desert have a matching type of resource card, respectively: lumber, brick, ore, grain and sheep. (Desert produces nothing.)

Surrounding the island are harbors, one for each kind of resource and three "general" harbors. After the island has been dealt, a random corner is picked and the production number indicators are placed, counter-clockwise and in alphabetical order -- each counter bears a code letter -- in a spiral inward. The order of the letters combines with the numbers in a clever manner to provide a mix of valuable locations.

One common feature of Eurogames is a special consideration to lessening advantages and disadvantages of the play order. Settlers of Catan shows particular care here. Before the game proper begins, each player must place his initial two settlements and roads. The first player places his first settlement on a "corner," a location on the board where three hexes intersect, and then places an adjacent road along one of the edges between the tiles. Then the second player does the same, and so on through to the last.

Then the order reverses: the last player places his second, then the next-to-last player, and so on back to the first. In placing, no settlement may ever be put on an intersection adjoining another settlement; there must always be at least one "empty" intersection between settlements, regardless of owning player. This restriction severely limits available building sites, making planning for future expansion a challenge.

After initial pieces are placed the turn order begins, beginning with the first player. On each turn:

  • First, the player whose turn it is rolls two dice. The resulting number from 2 to 12 determines which island spaces produce that turn (unless it's 7). The settlement placement rules mean that there can be a maximum of three settlements adjacent to each hex. Each settlement adjoining the indicated hexagons gives one resource card matching its type to the owning player, and two cards for each city. All players participate in this, not just the rolling player.

    Rolled sevens are special and produce nothing. They cause players with more than seven resources to discard half, then the player who rolled gets to move the robber to a different hex. Whatever space it is moved to will not produce any resources as long as the robber is there, and the player who moved it may steal a one resource card from the player of his choice who has a settlement on that hex.
  • Second, the player may then trade resources, either freely with other players or at a set rate with the bank. Bank trades are ordinarily done four of a single type for one of any. If the player has a settlement touching a harbor on the edge of the island, he may be able to trade at three-to-one, or even two-to-one depending on the type of harbor.
  • Third, and finally, he may then spend resources to buy various advantages.
    • One lumber and one brick make a road, needed to provide more building sites. The player with the longest road of five or more segments gets the special Longest Road card, worth two victory points. Roads and settlements can be placed to block enemy roads.
    • One lumber, one brick, one grain and one sheep make a settlement. Players have one victory point for each settlement owned, and they increase resource income. Each player may only have five settlements.
    • Two ore and three grain allow the player to upgrade one settlement into a city. Cities are just like settlements except that, on the die roll, they produce two resource cards instead of one, and they are worth two victory points instead of one. Each player may only have four cities, but upgrading one returns a settlement to his supply, allowing it to be built elsewhere.
    • One sheep, one grain and one ore together may be spent to draw a development card, providing a random benefit. They may not be used on the turn bought, but may be used at any time during the player's turn after that, including before rolling the dice. Some are worth bonus victory points. The most common are soldiers, which may be played to move the robber without rolling a 7. Played soldiers are retained face-up, and the player with the largest army of at least three soldiers gets the special Largest Army card, worth two victory points.

The Longest Road and Largest Army cards may change hands during the game. Once a player obtains one, another player can take it from him only if he manages to beat, not just tie, the owning player's accomplishment. Thus, if the longest road is six segments, another player can only take the card and its points if he can reach seven. The first player to reach ten points wins.

What can we draw from this game?

Settlers of Catan is a strategy game, but perhaps paradoxically it relies upon randomness. The best of plans can be undone if someone else draws all the victory point development cards (we've seen it happen), or a "common" number you were relying upon doesn't show up that game.

Higher-level play not only attempts to maximize the resources earned, but to claim many different numbers so as to provide a consistent income. One could possibly engineer a version in which the numbers "rolled" were according to a fixed schedule that matched the probability numbers of the dice. Such a game may even be interesting, but that certainty would be a big change.

It is difficult to spread out across the board because of the limits on settlement proximity and the need to connect new settlements to old ones via roads. One could counter this by concentrating on surrounding a small number of hexes, or building cities early, but both these strategies are vulnerable to the Robber. Beyond this, the Robber is actually underpowered in Settlers of Catan. It only affects one hex, it only steals one random resource, and it moves often.

This is a general property in German-style board games, in that they tend to reduce the means of attack between players. Often games will have players seek to maximize some personal system over which the opponents have little control, but must compete for resources with them in order to obtain the tools they need to affect that system. Settlers of Catan is more competitive than many other games of the type, but serves as a good introduction to the idea.

My favorite thing about the game is the random board generation mechanism. The production number system usually does an excellent job of spreading out the numbers. Cases where the common 6 or 8 rolls touch each other only happen rarely. It is an elegant algorithm, necessary when run by a human being rather than a microprocessor.

Software designers can use computing power to brute-force their way around problematic cases, but often the fixes are as bad, in a way, as the problem. The Eurogames are a goldmine of elegant play concepts and algorithms that computer strategy game designers can profit from studying.

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