Starvation in Settlers of Catan and how to solve it
“Have you got any wood? Has anyone got wood?!”
“No, no …nope”.
Next turn: “Has anyone got wood?”
“No, nobody has any bloody wood! We’re all there ready with axes, lumberjack settlements etc but no one can cut down a bloody tree because the 8, (yes the 8!) hasn’t come up for 14 turns”.
To those who have ventured into Klaus Teuber’s wonderful world of Catan, this might well be a familiar scenario.
Settlers of Catan is the award winning resource gathering board game that has become popular enough to find itself on the shelves of well known British stores such as WHSmiths. Usually the realm of reincarnations of Risk, TV game show knock offs and the promotional weapon that is a themed version of Monopoly, it feels unusual to see a new game in a high street store simply because its original set of rules are so engaging. In fact, in Silicon Valley the game has become so popular that, according The Wall Street Journal, it is being used as an icebreaker at some business meetings.
To those who play the odd board game at a family get together, it is the game that offers something different to the traditional Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. Having broken into this area it is perhaps the flag bearer for the many new and original board games that are a part of the cardboard revolution. That collection that resides mainly in the vast plains of Amazons shopping site, but I digress…
For those that haven’t played it, go and have a go. It’s great fun and this article will be here for you when you’re done settling.
For those interested — a proper break down of the rules can be found here: http://www.ultracatan.com/game-rules.php
Now, as you read on you might start to feel I am actually writing this to berate Catan, on the contrary, I think it’s a great game, one that ties nicely around a fantastic game mechanic. However, I do feel it has a few cracks in its make up. The kind that would get rounded off in a longer standing, and truly solid game, such as Risk (awaiting harsh reaction for that line). These cracks manifest when you find yourself sat repositioning your settlement pieces into a picturesque and completely inconsequential village at the side of the board, complete with chimneys and fences, because nothing is happening for you on the main stage.
You twiddle your thumbs as you imagine your poor settlers kicking the dust, just waiting for that all important sheep to wander down from the pasture, so you can finally complete your third settlement. You wonder how it is that you are short of every combination and no trading partner has what you need to get some work done. Or, everyone endlessly rattles the dice in the hope that a brick might appear from, what is supposed to be, the productive brick quarry, only to find that yet more grain floods the board and everyone has to accept that any road is going to require a pricy trade with a merchant-man. “Yep I’m swapping four grain for a brick as none of you have brick.” Suddenly, someone disappointingly announces “Oh I’ve won”… You had no idea how close to the end you all were.
I accept that I might well be exaggerating somewhat and not every game is like this, but I thought it might be interesting for others to see the house rules we have introduced. They are not for everyone, you may utterly hate everything they stand for — and that is fine, but they seem good at introducing beginners and those averse to taking on new rules (the kind who wish you could just play Monopoly or Cluedo again).
First — The Problems
Resource Starvation — stated many times above.
Endless asking who has what
No idea who might be about to win.
What we have done
First I wanted to simplify it for beginner players. When you’re used to single action focused games it can be a tad frustrating checking the list of four possible things to build (and each corresponding recipe). Are they all needed? Mostly yes.
The chance to try different strategies, using resources that are available to you and trying to over take your opponents are great elements of Catan, but what could I strip back.
1. Change the nature of development cards, and kill the robber.
- You no longer build development cards but get them as a prize for rolling a 7. And you use them as soon as they are picked.
- The robber no longer exists, people can hold as many cards as they like.
I noticed in our (perhaps amateurish) games of Catan, no one was really bothering to build development cards. Explaining the largest army on top of the largest road was sometimes a step too far for those who want to just get on with playing. Splitting your focus to development cards as well takes it away from the main focus of what’s being built on the board. When everyone just focuses on the land of Catan in front of them it‘s all the more gripping. So I decided to turn the development cards into Chance cards (as in Monopoly, a largely over-looked mechanic that works surprisingly well). I needed a simple reason for people to pick them up though. Rolling a 7?
Me and my brother found that the use of the robber when a 7 was rolled was largely not fun. Yes you can steal from others (great interaction), but you tend to just get one random material and groans go out from all those who haven’t built or traded enough and have to loose half their cards. Oh and suddenly a tile is blocked slowing the game for little tactical gain. (Why not make that tactical gain only something you can do by actually building roads and settlements rather than just placing a giant grey statue to block someone). The robber sometimes seems a side note that stands outside of a streamlined game. So we killed him, no more robber. More streamlined game :) )
2. Picking up a knight allows you to pick 1 of any resource.
This is a big help. You’ve waited and waited for that sheep to turn up and still he hasn’t. Now your knight is going to damn well go and pick him up by the scruff of his wool and bring him back to town. You might think this would adversely affect trading but luckily it doesn’t seem to, people still trade a lot. There is no largest army any more.
3. Remove the prize Victory Points from the Development Cards
This is a little bug bear of mine. Why do some games hide the potential winner? A game should build to a crescendo in the final moments when victory is in the grasp of a few and the rest of the players are fighting to get themselves to that level, or bring others down to theirs. In sport this is the case, a championship builds from the qualifying stages through to the finals and you can see who there is to watch out for, and even plan accordingly. Imagine if you were watching a Wimbledon final between Murray and Federer, they’ve both made it all that way, then suddenly Cilic pipes up and says — oh by the way guys, I picked up these 3 wild cards 2 rounds in and it says I win.
Making it really clear where people are and just how close they are to winning has made out games far more gripping. It has lead to players who are just a few points from victory being told they are sanctioned (people refuse to trade with them in the closing stages) and having to fight their own way to the final victory. It creates memorable moments — someone got named Vladimir another player — Trump. So we have a score board so everyone can see who is dangerous and who is safe to trade with.
4. Resource cards must be displayed always
A small one but it just adds to discussions and hilarity when you know someone has the brick you want but wont give it.
And that’s it. You may well prefer the original rules and they do have their advantages and disadvantages, but even if you’re not sure about this house version I would suggest you give it a go, especially for anyone who is a new comer or unwilling to try a none ‘monopoly’ game. It is a good way to introduce the concepts, adds a gripping edge to the final moments and, most importantly, allows you to grab that sheep you’ve been waiting months for.