Die Siedler Von Catan

Game by Klaus Teuber.
Reviewed by Jocelyn Becker.

This is the game that rightfully won Spiel des Jahres this year in Germany. Having played it more than ten times in about as many weeks, I am still not tired of playing it.

The players in the game are settlers in the undeveloped land of Catan. You build roads, towns, and cities along the edges of different kinds of lands, and reap the harvests produced by those lands. You can trade commodities with other players or through ports with the bank. The players compete to build the longest roads and the most towns and cities.

Since the board is made by arranging hexagonal tiles together in a sort of random way, it's different every time you play. I find myself scanning the layout, quickly trying to figure out the perfect strategy this time around. Should I try to monopolize the ore lands and the ore port so I can produce and trade copious amounts of ore, or should I try and settle near the forests and brick quarries so I can get the goods to build roads? Should I place my first two villages close enough so I can link them later in the very long road I plan to build, or should I place them as far apart from each other as possible to minimize the danger of finding all my roads blocked off by roads belonging to other players?

I like the variety of board layout and "starting out" strategies. Some people swear that you live or die by where you place your first two villages, but I've found that it doesn't make too much difference. No matter where you place your starter villages, within a couple of turns you'll be wishing you'd placed them somewhere else (you'll wish you'd placed them on the 8 lands because the 8 is rolled all the time, or you'll wish you hadn't taken up residence on an 8 land because the robber visits there too often). It is possible to place your opening villages in bad situations (for example, at the junction of a desert and a 3 land), but even when I've made seemingly stupid mistakes with my initial placements I have enjoyed the game. The only time I really got frustrated was when my initial villages were too close together, and surrounded by so many other villages that there was nowhere for me to build any roads, so I couldn't expand further.

Much of the intensity of the game comes from the fact that each player is interested in every dice roll, whether it's their turn or not. Also, since players make trades with other players, you're always interested to know if the the current player is going to offer to trade that commodity that you desparately need. Thus you're not always waiting impatiently for your turn.

Every time any player rolls the dice, the lands that have the number that was rolled produce a crop of their commodity. Each town that lies along the edge of the tile gets one commodity card of that product while each city gets two cards. So if I have a town on the 6 tile which is a sheep-raising field and Ken has a city on the same tile, then whenever a 6 is rolled I get one sheep card and he gets two sheep cards.

The one catch is that an evil robber roams the land, and whenever he moves to a tile he shuts down its production. So if some dastardly opponent has moved the robber to the 6 tile then when a 6 is rolled both Ken and I get nothing for our town and city. Although we get no sheep, we do a lot of bleating.

The robber moves to a different land whenever anybody rolls a 7. Since a robber robs, the player that rolled the 7 takes a card from any player that has a town or city on the edge of the land that the robber moves to. Also, any player holding more than 7 cards in their hands must discard half their cards, which is often a cause of much muttering and discontent. You only have to lose half your cards once or twice before you start becoming very careful about keeping your card count down.

It's particularly aggravating if you yourself roll the 7 that causes you to lose the commodity cards that would have enabled you to build one town and upgrade another to a city, winning the game in the process.

The number 7 is the most likely one to be rolled, with 6 and 8 following close behind. It just seems that the robber often spends most of his time moving between tiles numbered 6 and 8. So building your towns and cities on 6 and 8 tiles seems like a good idea until you find your land closed down half the time by the robber.

After you roll the dice, you can trade commodities and build things. You can trade commodity cards with other players. For example, you could say, "I've got a lumber, who'll give me a brick?" If you've got a lot of cards in your hand, it can be a good idea to bring your card count down. For example, "I'll give two sheep and an ore for a single brick."

The problem with trading with other players is, of course, that although you benefit from it, so do they. You would not, for example, want to trade with a player who was searching for a brick and who could turn your own road into a dead end by the strategic placement of one more of their roads.

At any time during the trading phase of your turn, you can turn in four cards of a single kind for another card of a different kind. Again, this is a good way to keep your card count down. If you own a port (that is, you have a town or city at a port) you can get better deals. You can turn in three of any single kind of card for another card if you have an open port, or two of a particular kind of commodity if you have a commodity-specific port.

Owning ports seems like a good strategy except that the ports are always at the junction of one or two land tiles and a sea tile. A sea tile never yields anything during a dice roll (not even fish), so ports diminish your commodity producing capability. It's particularly annoying, for example, to have a port that only trades sheep and then realize that you don't have any towns or cities on field tiles, so you never get any sheep to trade.

During the building phase of your turn, you can extend your contribution to the urban sprawl of Catan. You can build new roads and towns or upgrade towns into cities.

You buy roads, towns, and cities by turning in commodity cards. You need a lumber and a brick to build a road; brick, lumber, wheat (for the thatched roofs?) and a sheep (for the wool carpets, I guess) to build a town.

You can also buy chance cards, which cost a sheep, a wheat, and an ore. These cards might let you get free roads or free commodities, or give you a knight to chase away the robber. Most importantly, several of the chance cards give you a point simple and pure. These cards each depict some kind of building, such as a library or university, whose presence in your town or city would no doubt increase its appeal.

I have seen people try to buy as many chance cards as possible, in the hopes of accruing points that way, but I've never seen a winner who had more than 2 points from chance cards. I tend to buy chance cards when I find myself holding a wheat, sheep, and an ore, and there's nothing else I want to do with them, and nobody will trade me a wheat for a brick so I can buy a road.

The extent of the settlements is measured in points. The first player to accumulate ten points is the winner. Each town is worth 1 point and each city is worth 2 points. The player who has the longest road more than five segments long gets the "longest road card" which is worth two points. The player who has played the most "Knight" chance cards (with a minimum of three) gets the "Most Knights" card, (that's how it is, don't ask me why) which is also worth 2 points.

There's no score marker, so if you want to know everybody's score you add up the visible scores on the table (points from towns, cities, longest road, and "Most Knights" card.) You also need to take into account the unplayed chance cards that people hold. Each one could potentially be a point.

The game can be so engrossing that it's easy to forget to keep tally of everybody's score (sometimes even your own!) You can bet your bottom dollar, however, that if you're about to quietly win after you complete the "sheep for a brick" trade that you're just about to do, some other player will pipe up "Wait! She's got nine points on the board! If she builds one more town she'll win." Then, of course, nobody will trade with you. The person that brought attention to your near win will no doubt go ahead and win on their next turn.

I like the continual involvment in the game; there's never any time to feel bored. You get to plan strategies, rehash them, throw them out and try again. You fight with your neighbors to be the first to get a road through the pass. Your town on the 2 land (by rights, nobody ever rolls a 2... ) is the most productive of all the towns while the towns on the 8 lands remain idle. When I find myself holding 7 or more cards after my towns have suddenly all been productive, I can scarcely bear to watch the dice roll in case it is a 7.

I think of all the games of Die Siedler that I've played, I've only won once, so my fondness for it does not stem from any frequence of winning. Perhaps it's that every time I play I see a new strategy, that I'm sure will guarantee a win next time, so I have to play again to check it out. But when the board gets layed out, my planned strategy doesn't fit it, so I have to quickly rethink another one. If I place my towns to get as much wheat and ore as possible at the start so that I can upgrade my towns to cities quickly will I get stuck later when I need brick and wood for roads?

I have learned though, as a general rule, that it's rarely possible to have too much brick, and you'll always have too much sheep except for when you actually need them.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell