Settlers of Catan: Expanding into Oblivion

Catan

Uh what do I do with such a big board?

I wanted to take a quick post to talk about one of my favorite board games: Settlers of Catan. Upon first introduction, this game seems intuitively interesting. However, we also know that the game in recent years is grossly outdated, despite the fact that a new expansion is about to release called Explorers & Pirates.

My personal history was that a group of 4 friends each paid 1/4 the cost to get Settlers of Catan. We played it often, and it was often fun, spreading to other groups of friends. Then one day I learned of Cities & Knights and loved the greater complexity involved into it. Unfortunately, that did not translate well into re-introduction of the game, as some botched plays caused the game to take 2 hours and not finish, leaving the normal playgroup to never want to play Settlers of Catan ever again. To this day, that same group still adamantly refuses to play, even if I revert to the original, or try out different expansions to make it work.

Either I could let Cities and Knights die, or I can figure out what is the core component that was disliked that caused the strain. Well, I can list a few things.

  1. Game takes too long.
  2. Commodities clutter your hand.

Seafarers

Through the desert 3 player

That’s basically it. The complexity, while some players did like it, if it elongated the length of an already long game, it’s not as desirable. Instead of giving up on the game, I elected to get the other two expansions: Seafarers and Traders & Barbarians. The idea of Seafarers is to expand the map and allow ships, denoting exploration. Those more familiar with conventional Catan are more familiar with this, as it doesn’t drastically change anything. Hence, this addition is easy. However, this features the problems of being both slow and boring, as well as turning into a mere race to the finish. Sure there are multiple paths to victory, but the most efficient is basically whatever Seafarer scenario it is and emphasizing the bonus points or the win condition.

Traders & Barbarians was an entirely different animal though. Since it’s actually more like five mini-expansions, for one thing the expansion components were meant to be used one at a time, or complementary to an existing mode. However, this also allowed what previously didn’t exist: multiple paths to victory. Actually wait, that already existed, but new phases do exist!

Another common complaint is going several turns of dice rolling of no production. This is natural in the game, but for some who tend to fall behind more often than that, it feels rather debilitating with no real means to catch up. I tried mitigating this by using a new Explorers & Pirates rule: gather one gold coin on a missed production. People liked it, as it prevents falling behind too badly, and basically getting pity compensation that allows you to still advance your plan, but not get stymied. The other form of mitigating production issues is by implementing fish tokens, as the add-on is a pure addition that doesn’t subtract anything.

Adding such passive add-ons proved beneficial, but it caused the game to change quite a bit. First off, the game actually took even longer because of the extra tokens and coins to distribute to roll. Since coins and fish work more like a variable wild card, it made optimizing even more difficult because of the load of options. It also allows faster progress since you don’t fall behind as hard, or accelerate too efficiently. This quickly makes 13 victory point games go rather quickly, despite being 3 more than regular Settlers of Catan, possibly due to the extra phases and the city start.

Mashing Everything Together

Trying to mix all the expansions more cohesively, still chaotic

All in all, I learned two simple things. Trying to force all the expansions all in the same game at the same time is fun, but extremely impractical as it can be horribly imbalanced and overwhelming. The other aspect is that the game is more balanced when playing expansions separately.

What I found most intriguing was that I thought multiple expansions would set off a “turbo charge”, where after a certain point, production flows through the roof because of having access to all the possible resources and scenarios. However, I quickly realized that because of board structure and usage of the same resources, you actually get hit by a bottleneck since all these options actually dilute each other. This is also why the number of victory points go higher for every expansion you add into it, or the game ends far too quickly.

And that’s how I expanded into oblivion. Instead of letting Settlers of Catan rot unused for the rest of eternity, I tried to forcibly revive it by maxing it out through buying every expansion covering 5-6 players and even getting a custom wooden Catan board that technically support a 7 – 8 player game from size alone. Granted, I’ll never get around to actually using all 88 hexes (the expansions together have 94 hexes, allowing 93 to be actively used). Still, I found it extremely fun to make a seriously expensive move to forcibly combine everything into something chaotic. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t play too well with too many events and rules, despite each expansion being somewhat mutually exclusive to one another. Managing chaos is certainly interesting, as being able to try reviving an otherwise dead board game feels great.

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3 thoughts on “Settlers of Catan: Expanding into Oblivion

  1. I wouldn’t really say that Catan is outdated. People who enjoy the game will play it, even if only occasionally. My game group is still willing to take out Catan and play it for a few hours. Of course we like variation and we often play different board games over the course of one gathering.

    The “gather one gold coin on a missed production” rule seems like it would help balance the game a lot. When players lack resources for too long it tends to lead to trolling (i.e. not playing to win, but playing to piss other people off). I really need to try out that rule the next time we play. However for the time being I think we’ll be caught up with “Ticket to Ride”, so when that next time will be is currently unknown.

    Trying to reintroduce your friends to Catan using C&K probably wasn’t the best idea because we both know the rules for that get pretty complicated >__>. You could always try to introduce the game to some of your other friends? A while back I introduced Catan to 3 girls that I know and they seemed to enjoy it quite a bit ^^. So you’ll be surprised on who’ll enjoy the game.

    However while we’re on the topic of board games, I hate how some people only associated the term “board game” with crappy games like “Monopoly” and “The Game of Life”. I recently invited a friend to hang out, but he refused after seeing the term board game. He would be fine with doing something like pool or bowling, but board games are no go? The close-mindedness of some people… >____>

    I have to say that the wooden board looks a lot better than when I first saw it ^^. I suppose it’s because of the picture quality.

    • I usually found myself with not enough time to play more than one session of Catan, two at best. Out of all the variations, only Seafarers the Forgotten Tribe hasn’t been played, as well as Oil Springs or Frenemies, but I likely won’t go that far as I don’t have the official pieces for those. Well, Oil Springs does sound amusing because of higher potential production so I’ll consider that.

      When I tested one gold coin on a missed production, everyone liked the idea. It’s fair enough that it applies on everyone, and eventually I realized it also prevents people from getting extensive leads. Personally because I like to always exhaust my hand, there’s even a big differential in collected gold, but that might be due to playing Traders & Barbarians. Then you also realize that rule actually makes Fish Tokens and Aqueducts stronger, because Fish do not count as “production” while Aqueducts reward with you with a wild resource because you missed a production roll (so it’s fish + gold or resource + gold).

      It almost got to the point that I nearly recommended Seafarers to change gold tiles so that you get two gold instead of a wild resource. This makes the tile stronger on off-turns so that people can’t plan on attacking your hand, but also weakens the gold tile because you can only convert 2:1 on gold:resource twice per turn, and even worse if you have 5-6 players with the Special Building Phase (but again your hand size would also be smaller, which also oddly defends against the robber better like city walls since gold also can’t be stolen). Ironically if Rivers of Catan was played with gold tiles, you would also be effectively richer to qualify for Wealthiest Settler (+1 VP for having the most gold vs your opponents) which intuitively makes sense with “mining gold”.

      Gold can also be used on trades, so while sheep might not be desirable at times, a gold coin could push the trade. Although I have found that when you use Seafarers with C&K with T&B Wagons, Sheep gets horribly important (ships, knights, promotions, dev cards, wagon upgrades. Usually all these are separate so the rate of use is about the same, but not when combined) while Brick becomes somewhat ditch-able, although what actually happens is that Wood gets oddly more scarce especially if with C&K because its used on both ships and roads. The game feels vastly different, but actually what happens is that with the gold more plays per turn can be done, so the game actually slows down from having more productive turns, even though many times the hand size feels very small, because at worst you get a gold coin.

      I reintroduced C&K because I was amazed at the complexity increase. I did have one original buddy who definitely liked the complexity, but so far that was it. The logic on board games was indeed limiting. Even 7 Wonders I had a terrible first impression assuming it was something I wouldn’t be interested in, to end up playing it for an entire year every weekend. Heck I still have automatic close-mindedness on Ticket to Ride or Carassone, I’m actually wondering why I like Settlers so much when I’m not a dice rolling fan.

      And yes I found trolling more likely on base settlers of catan since you have limited options, whereas when you expand like crazy you have various things you can do. It always varies depending on how you optimize.

  2. I’ve implemented a crossover between seasons of catan and two dice from the catan dice game. When playing regular catan two matching resources gets the roller two of that resource, all others get one. In cities and knights the roller gets 1ea resource and matching ommodity. If unmathing resources, nobody gets anything. The gold acts as a wild card. It really helps the game move along.

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