Designer: Klaus Teuber
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Date Released: 1995
Number of Players: 3-4
Age Range: 10 and up
Setup Time: between 15-20 minutes
Play Time: up to 90 minutes
The game that started the whole German/designer game craze that has revitalized the tabletop industry, Settlers of Catan has players pioneer a series of settlements and a network of resources and roads, building up to a civilization. It’s hard to believe, but the modular board game mechanic caught fire with this game.
Unless you play the initial set up (developed to be well-balanced and recommended for beginning players), every game board of Settlers of Catan looks different. The simple yet elegant design has players set up the game by randomly placing land tiles that have different land types—these land types grant different types of resources you need to build things—and number chips that show which number you have to roll on two six-sided dice in order to obtain the resource associated with the land tiles. Players build by spending resources that are represented by resource cards. Mountains provide ore, plains yield grain, farmland gives wool, forests have wood, and hills provide brick.
Each player starts the game with two settlements and two roads. Since land tiles are hexagonal, settlements are placed on one of the tile’s corners, and the roads go on the border between two tiles. Settlements have to have at least one corner between them, so you have to use your head when placing your settlements. You’ll want to get a combination of resources you can use to drive you to victory, while blocking your opponents from getting the resources they need.
On each player’s turn he or she rolls the dice. The number on the dice determines which land tiles produce resources that turn. (You can produce resources on other players’ turns.) There’s also a robber token, which starts on the desert tile, and if a player rolls a 7, the robber must be moved to another land tile, and anyone—including the person rolling the die—with more than 7 resource cards in their hand must discard half of their resource cards. Once the robber is moved, any tile he’s moved to ceases to produce resources, and the player who moved the robber gets to steal one resource at random from a player with a settlement on the tile in which the robber was moved.
You earn victory points by building settlements, cities, development cards, owning the largest army, and even the longest continuous road. The first person to 10 victory points wins. You can upgrade your settlements to cities. A settlement only gives you one resource, while a city gives you two resources. Players can draw development cards by turning in one wool, one ore, and one grain to the bank, and there are two ways to earn victory points off of development cards: some cards have a point value (you simply play them for quick points), and knight cards. If you draw into a knight card, you can use the card to move the robber before you roll the dice on your turn. You keep the used knight cards in a stack by you, and if you have three or more knight cards, you earn the largest army, provided no one else has the largest army.
Then, there’s the trading aspect. You can trade resources with any player on your turn, and only with the player whose turn it is on their turn. You can also trade with the bank, but you have to have 4 or one kind of resource to the get the one you want. This trade ratio to the bank makes trade routes important. If you have a settlement (or city) on a trade route tile, you own the trade route, and there are plenty of routes to be had: there’s a 2:1 ratio for trading each individual resource, and there are 3:1 trade routes for any resource. You’ll find that when you’re close to winning the game, people won’t want to trade with you, so these trade routes can seal a victory.
But it’s trading with players that give Settlers its charm. You’ll find plenty of awkward moments when someone starts shouting, “Wood. I need wood. I have sheep, but I need wood.” The Big Bang Theory makes good use out of this common occurrence when Sheldon Cooper asks for the same trade. His friends laugh and tell him that his girlfriend might be able to help him out.
And you have to love the strategic aspects of Settlers. Everyone has their own opinions on what works best. Wood and Clay are used to build roads, so if you load up on those two resources, you can build the longest route—securing two victory points—and run the tables on your opponent. I prefer to focus on grain. I’ll pick a plain tile with a good number on it—keep in mind that 6s and 8s are rolled more often than 2s and 12s—and even though I may have a slower start to my game, grain is used to build everything except roads. But I’ve even seen someone win by dominating wool—the least useful resource on paper, since it doesn’t have nearly as many uses as the others. One of my military buddies built several cities on wool tiles and owned the 2:1 wool route to the bank. He loaded up on wool and rode the wool train to victory.
Verdict: Unlike some evergreen tabletop games Settlers of Catan ages well. The well-balanced combination of a variable board, trading, and a focus on strategic resources make it relevant today as it was twenty years ago.