Despite being an award-winning game that has been around for nearly two decades, The Settlers of Catan feels very much like Marmite in the world of board games. Players seem to either love it or avoid it. I suspect the release of the digital version of the game, called just Catan and available on a number of platforms, may convince some of the avoiders to give it another shot.
The rules are quick and simple to learn, even if the game itself takes awhile to play out. The board is made up of randomly numbered resource tiles that make up an island. The numbers represent dice rolls, and determine what resources (wood, ore, grain, sheep, or brick) are collected by the players with adjacent settlements to those tiles. These resources are used to build additional settlements, cities, and the roads necessary to connect them, on the paths made by the six-sided hexagonal tiles. Every settlement and city you build will earn you Victory Points, and the first player to acquire 10 Victory Points wins.
Of course, there are additional factors to make the game more interesting. The Robber, who may be moved to another tile whenever a seven is rolled, enables a player to steal a resource from another, and also blocks resources from being collected. Resources can be used to buy Development Cards, which do a variety of things including allowing the player to build extra roads, move the Robber, or gain instant Victory Points. The ability to trade resource cards is a great game element, as it allows you to exchange resources with other players or the resource "bank" in order to get the resources you need.
What is probably apparent just from the overview is how much the game depends on chance. There is a definite element of strategy, but all the strategy in the world won't help you if you suffer from a series of unlucky dice rolls, or poor placement of either resources or settlements. The digital version offers at least one solution to this: the ability to simply quit the game and start again with a new board (though this could be considered a bit of a cheat to some).
What seems to be the highlight of the game is the trading options. Building settlements on harbours, special locations around the edge of the island, rewards you with the ability to trade resources with the bank at a reduced rate, rather than the standard 4:1. Trading with other players can be either greatly beneficial or a nightmare, particularly if one player has all the brick you need for roads and refuses to give it up! However, it must be noted that in the digital version of the game, computer players will repeatedly offer the same poor trades; what's more, they will often trade with each other as a priority, even if you have accepted a trade, which can be incredibly frustrating.
The real limitation to this game is the required number of players. Catan can only be played with three or four people, making it difficult if there's only two of you. This is less of a problem in the digital version, though you then end up dealing with the often exasperating computer players.
The Settlers of Catan is, overall, a game that one needs to be in the right mood for. While the digital version allows for a faster game, it lacks the entertainment value and competitive edge you get from playing the physical game with a small group of friends. If you want to have a go at the digital release yourself, it is available on PC, Xbox Live, PSN, iOS, Android, and online at The Settlers of Catan website.
For more from guest blogger Rae, please check out her website.