Now that May has come and gone, Settlers of Catan: Explorers & Pirates has come out! Explorers and Pirates introduces several new pieces, alternative routes to victory, as well as apply a new rule mechanic that many people enjoy. The pieces are as follows:
- Crew: Sheep + Ore. 9 pieces.
- Ship: Wood + Sheep. 3 pieces.
- Settler: Wood + Brick + Sheep + Wheat
- Settlement: Wood + Brick + Sheep + Wheat
- Harbor Settlement: Wheat + Wheat + Ore + Ore
The VP, or Victory Points, functionality works as usual as in traditional Settlers of Catan. The fundamentals of the game feel more like a mix of Seafarers with a tiny portion of Traders & Barbarians. This Expansion bodes little to no similarity to Cities & Knights, Oil Springs, nor Frenemies of Catan.
One will quickly notice this set has no Harbors. That is because by default, everyone gets a maritime trade with the bank at a 3:1 rate instead of a 4:1 rate. The only major loss is being unable to trade a specific resource at a 2:1 rate, but due to the advent of Gold coins and no Cities to produce more, it more than makes up for it.
Those who have played Traders & Barbarians or Rivers of Catan would be familiar with the Gold concept. In fact, it’s actually the exactly the same as far as functionality goes. The only major difference is how it is obtained. Twice per turn, you may exchange two Gold coins for 1 of any resource. Likewise, since Gold is in your possession, you can also use it as part of trades for bargaining power, since each Gold coin is like half of any resource. Also, you can trade 3:1 with the bank for a Gold coin. Despite potentially gaining lots of Gold because of missed production, the Gold goes fast pretty quickly.
This expansion uses a phase after trading and building called the movement phase. This is the portion where you use your Ships to explore or deliver goods/Crew. This also prevents people from moving the Ship, making a play, and then trading. However, it is also easy to forget the more strict order of moves.
There is no robber in this scenario, but instead there is a Pirate Ship. Ultimately it works like the Pirate in Seafarers, where you can steal from an adjacent ship, and cause terror for ships that need to pass by it. However, to pass by an enemy colored Pirate Ship, you only need to pay that player 1 coin to have a boat pass through the spaces. Each player has their own colored Pirate Ship, because even though there’s only one pirate ship on the field at a time, it is necessary to know whose Pirate Ship it is. The other applications of the Pirate Ship are much similar to Wagons from Traders & Barbarians. Once per turn, a player can decide to make a specific dice roll for an adjacent ship which can attempt to knock away the Pirate if a 6 is rolled. This would effectively drive away that Pirate Ship, and allow your own to be placed on any other sea hex to wreck havoc on other players. Also, when you attempt to steal from a player that has no hand, you can take one of their coins instead.
Crew act like Knights; a piece with abilities. However, there’s no activation with a wheat, they simply have built in properties. Crew can occupy Pirate Lairs, stay forever in a spice village, swap positions between boats and harbor settlements, and can be chucked off to sea to load up a fish. Who knows.
As far as pieces go, an interesting new mechanic are the Ships and Harbor Settlements. These pieces noticeably have a giant slot that appears to fit pieces. They basically work as transports would, where they each have a capacity limit of 2. The idea is that purchased Crew and Settlers would spawn on the Harbor Settlement, be loaded on the Ship, then set sail to a destination to either settle or to use a Crew’s special ability. Each Crew piece takes up only one slot, while a Settler would take 2.
As far as hexes go, instead of having many sea hexes like Seafarers of Catan, these are given in larger combined puzzle pieces. This is great to keep the board intact with the cuts, but unfortunately it does make variations on this board less likely.
Explorers & Pirates make effective use of point counters, where achieving a minor goal such as fishing, delivering spices, or liberating pirate lairs would increase your point counter position. Each position has a value of VP points you gather, and if you’re the furthest in progress for it, you can temporarily hold onto a best fish/spice/pirate VP token that gives you an additional VP as long as you are in the lead.
Explorers & Pirates is actually only just one big scenario that combines mechanics from 3 – 4 smaller subsets. These mechanics come in the form of missions, and help gain resources, gain Gold coins, and progress your missions that earn you additional points. They are as follows:
Land Ho! – The only mechanic here is that like Seafarers; there are uncharted hexes which can be explored when a ship makes contact with said terrain. Unlike seafarers, if the hex is a sea token, you get two coins instead. Because the scenario itself only introduces the exploration aspect, it ends at 8 points. One noticeable difference is that since Harbor Settlements do not produce two resources on a roll like Cities do, the production speed feels surprisingly sluggish even though the points can build up pretty quickly.
To settle on a corner hex of a foreign island, one must sacrifice a ship that has a settler on it, and place a settlement adjacent to where the settler ship once was. A neat feature is that a ship can temporarily improve its movement by 2 movement points by consuming 1 sheep.
The Pirate Lair – Pirate lairs are a new type of hex which is only featured in this expansion. This is a gold hex which is occupied by pirates. When you discover this hex, you gain 2 gold as an exploration bonus. To defeat pirates, you need a total of 3 Crew pieces combined among all the players. As soon as 3 Crew are on a space, the tile is immediately liberated. Anyone who participates in the liberation gets a point and 2 gold, and an equation is used to determine who is a “hero” of the liberation, where one Crew member is sacrificed for an additional point. After liberation, the hex is now productive. When its corresponding number is rolled, you get 2 gold, which is in effect similar to a Gold hex in Seafarers.
In some ways, I like this 2 gold production on a Gold hex. I wouldn’t mind if Seafarers redesigned itself to make a Gold hex provide 2 gold instead of a resource of your choice. This in effect would make protection against theft and discarding hands potentially stronger, by having Gold on the side instead of more resources in hand, while it would also weaken a Gold hex if there’s lots of settlements nearby because of the 2 Gold exchange limit. But this idea is only for combined rules, as Seafarers itself does not use the Gold exchange system.
- Fish for Catan – In this scenario you want to locate a Fish hex, where you decide to do a dice roll and if the number matches the Fish hex, the hex will spawn a Fish which you can then load onto your ship and deliver to the Council of Catan. You basically get points for delivering Fish. The downside is that the Ship you use is supposed to be unloaded (so that it can load the Fish), and also any player can take a Fish that spawned, so your Fish dice rolls may end up helping an opposing player.
Spices for Catan – In this scenario spice villages exist. By having a Crew piece permanently landing in a village, you gather a spice in exchange and also get the village’s special bonus. A village special bonus for landing a Crew piece ranges from being able to trade one resource for one gold once per turn, being able to roll a 4 (or 5) to assist in driving a pirate ship away, or increasing the movement points of all your Ships! All these benefits are useful, and they also stack.
Having Fast Gold, which allows you to trade 1 resource for 1 gold once per turn, is actually a way to be able to switch some of your resources for other resources at less than a 3:1 rate. Though, the true benefit is the luxury of switching an unneeded resource for a much needed Gold, especially towards the end of the game when gaining Gold is far more limited as the map gets fully explored and enough settlements cover more numbers.
Explorers & Pirates – A large scenario that uses 72 hex spaces and possess exploration, pirate lairs, fish, and spices. The game goes to 17 VP and is the true essence of the scenario!
The structure of these pieces are stronger. The major mechanic I find that people like is being able to retrieve 1 coin for every failed production roll. A failed production roll is a number rolled that isn’t 7; where you do not receive a resource due to not having a settlement or city on the said number. In fact, most of the time in basic Catan this is where the moans and groans usually are- when dice rolls do not hit your key numbers.
My overall thoughts is that this is a nice addition, but since it is effectively a giant scenario, I feel that it’s more like a glorified Seafarer scenario. The only problem I have with these types of scenarios is that the forward direction is surprisingly similar among all players. Since Cities, Development Cards, or any of the 2 VP bonus cards do not exist, very few different strategies can be implemented. In my local 3 player game when the full game was tested, one player managed to lose despite having all the extra 1 VP bonuses for leading in points for all three exploration bonuses. At the conclusion of our session we did realize that had he ditched a Fish to move his remaining Crew, he would have participated in more battles and gain an extra victory point there. In this sense, a similar bottleneck principle applies, much similar to the other expansions. Perhaps it is better to stock up on settlements, then course out to missions aggressively when you have the production backing up your progress, as opposed to exploring but basing your progress based on what you find.
Unfortunately because of odd behavior, our playgroup used terminology such as “punch the pirate ship”, “settler ship exploded”, “crew stuck forever”, or “pirates destroyed the fish”. The conclusion I can get is that brick was highly undervalued, and the concentration on exploration was too high. What ends up happening is a term I used before called “dilution”. I ran into this similar problem when I tried combining Settlers of Catan expansions. What happens is that the focus on moving the ships to explore becomes so great, that although you make plenty of progress regarding fish, spices, and pirates, production is actually surprisingly sluggish. The amount of actual settlements in the home island are very small, and the thought of building a road to build another settlement (instead of a settler) doesn’t quite come to mind.
The board is so big I couldn’t even fit it all on the table
Although I’m rather underwhelmed by the sight of this expansion, it remains locked away as 7 Wonders’ Wonder Pack achieved much more play as soon as that was released. Catan still retains the problem of being an effectively slow game, and suboptimal decisions may make the game longer than intended. Unfortunately as the compatibility is not good, I could not go expanding into oblivion with this expansion of Settlers of Catan. I did think of some wacky ideas that were mutually exclusive, such as adding Cities back in, but the local playgroup was not interested in combining everything to generate a 30+ VP game with. Along with having Cities & Knights tech, having additional phases such as Caravan/Barbarian triggers, Wagon phases, and Ship movement phases all in one would make turns go way too long, especially with the addition of the coin rule.
One of these days…I will make a valid attempt, as illogical as it sounds. However, it seems like others were already ahead of me, making a long board that goes 93 hexes big. My custom board only reaches 88 hexes and it’s more compact as opposed to very long.