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 However, we also know that the game in recent years is grossly outdated, despite the fact that a new expansion is about to release called Explorers & Pirates.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.
- Game takes too long.
- Commodities clutter your hand.
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.
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.