Boardgames are Weird: Settlers of Catan edition

Strategy board games are a weird thing. On the one hand, they’re strategy games, and so a contest of wits. But on the other hand, they’re usually wrapped in some kind of escapist fantasy that has nothing really to do with the battle of wits going on. So, what you usually end up with is an interesting design subtly ruined by concessions being made to the fantasy. For example, to pick on a classic, the rulebook to Axis and Allies just comes out and admits that the game is stacked in favor of the Allies. That’s a sop to historical reality: the various participants were unevently matched in terms of technology, manpower, training and, perhaps most importantly, industrial capacity. But of course it’s just a sop. The game is COMPLETELY abstracted from the realities of strategic decision-making in WWII. The territories aren’t real, landscape plays no rule, there are no differences in the kinds of units nations produce, there are no battlefields (just macro strategy), transportation plays no role, the weather plays no role, political realities play no role, etc. etc. etc. In a very real sense, there’s no point in calling it a game about WWII because it has nothing to do with the historically real WWII. And yet, concessions were made to the balance of the game in the service of what pitiful scraps of historical reality exist in it anyway. That’s strategoy boardgames, ladies and gentlemen!

The latest such game I’ve played is Settlers of Catan. I played it on one game night with some friends, found myself addicted, and so went and bought the iPhone version and have been playing it nonstop for about a week now. Well, overloading on something has a way of giving you perspective, and basically it’s the artificiality of the whole thing that’s showing through. Boardgames are a weird passtime. As a pure strategy trading game, Catan is flawed. Something about the pretense of playing a simulation of expanding influence over a newly-settled territory papers over those flaws to give you the illusion that you’re playing a carefully thought-out strategy game. And it’s not just that: I also get the real sense that without the pretense that this is somehow about settling an island, which of course it isn’t really, even the flawed-but-basically-good strategy game aspect of it would fall flat.

Well, if you haven’t played the game the rest of this will be meaningless to you – but here are some unfortunte decisions in the game design that I think could have been done better. To put this in proper context – I’m winning now about 2/3 of the games that I play against my computer, and I suspect that that’s about the best record one can reasonably expect, given the number of chance-based fudge factors involved.

My criticisms:

(1) PROBLEM: The Robber. The robber serves an important balancing function in the game in that he keeps the accumulation of wealth under control. This is important, because it preserves the need to trade with one’s neighbors, a central aspect of the game. Without the robber preventing any one player from growing out of proportion to the others, there’s a real possibility that one player would grow out of the need to trade, destroying the essence of the game. So I admit the need for some such mechanism. I just wonder whether this is the right one. In particular, I don’t think the robber is a good idea early in the game, when one has very few settlements. Very few settlements means that the robber parking on one of your hexes really puts you at a disadvantage. And since you haven’t yet accumulated any wealth, you can’t really buy your way out of that handicap. Having the robber park on one of your spaces for, say, 5 early turns in a row – hardly outside the realm of liklihood – really sets you back in terms of expanding to get the resources you need to pursue your strategy.

SOLUTION: Conquest of the Empire had a similar problem with wealth accumulation, but pursued a more interesting solution: inflation. Once your income goes over a certain point in that game, prices double. After another point, they treble. So, the point is to keep you fighting. It discourages players from ignoring the thick of battle and pursuing a strategy of gobbling up otherwise useless territories just to get tribute. You can do that, but then you price yourself more or less back to the level where everyone else is. Now, I sort of disagree with the Conequest approach of doubling and trebbling. Once your income is double or tripple what the game considers reasonable. Because then there’s no reward for thinking your way to an expansion strategy. But I think putting a factor on it that’s somewhat less than the amount of territory covered makes sense. So, in Settlers, changing the trading ratios slightly once there are so many resource cards in one’s hand makes sense. You know, instead of trading to the bank 4:1, make it 6:1 or something. This contains the accumulation of wealth without the blunt instrument of the robber.

Now, astute players will have noticed that the robber performs one other function as well, which is discouraging people (subtly) from amassing too many settlements on one hex. Such hexes become easy targets for the robber, so there’s an advantage in spreading out a bit. However, that’s also easily overcome with an inflation mechanism. You just call it something like “overexploitation” and reduce the value of cards gleaned from those hexes for ever border settlement over one.

(2) PROBLEM: development cards. One highly annoying thing about the game is that it’s really hard to gauge how well you’re doing with regard to the other players. That’s because there are entirely too many hidden factors in the form of development cards. Most obviously, someone can be way ahead of you in points in an invisible way by holding victory point cards. And, what’s more, those cards are less expensive than either settlements or cities. To an extent, that’s justified, because they don’t produce any future wealth. But in another way, it’s not – because they provide a cheap way for a person to buy his way to victory, and stealthily, no less. Actually, when you stop and think about it, victory point cards were probably introduced to make up for the real possibility – especially prevelant in games of many players – that the layout of the board would prohibit anyone from achieiving 10 victory points on their own. There just wouldn’t be enough connected roads with empty spaces to build the 5 cities it theoretically takes to win the game. More accurately, it’s to compensate for the fact that there is no way to unbuild settlements and roads. Since they’re permanent, if you find yourself in a position where you can’t build the 5 cities theoretically necessary to win the game, your only recourse is to buy development cards hoping for victory points. As a compensation mechanism, it’s crude. And since it’s hidden, it adds an element of guesswork that’s just clumsy – because there aren’t really tests that you can do to probe what an opponent has in his hand. There are no real external signs that, say, 3 of player X’s 5 cards are likely to be victory point cards. And this level of uncertainty makes it difficult to plan in a meaningful way.

SOLUTION: Drop the political correctness and allow for armies and raids. Build in a mechanism by which cities can be attacked and roads destroyed. The designers were right, in other words, that there needs to be a way to compensate for poor performance (whether from luck or bad decision-making) in earlier stages of the game, but having it in the form of victory point cards is an obvious construct – because victory point cards are just accumulated things. You just roll the dice and get one or not – it’s not something you really plan for. Staging raids on other players’ cities, by contrast, would be. There would be strategy and timing involved and, more importantly, the other players would be able to take steps to protect themselves from being blindsided.

(3) PROBLEM: too much depends on initial setup. Actually, one of the things I really like about the game is the initial setup phase. I like games like that, where you kind of decide at the outset what kind of approach you’re going to take. You get to try out different things, develop a playing style, etc. The problem is that with the completely random board, it can easily happen that there are clearly advantageous positions. For example, if it just so happens that there is one hex with an 8 or a 6 on either wood or brick, and this hex has a neighboring hex of some reasonably likely number that’s whatever the first one wasn’t (wood or brick), and there are no other such spots on the board, then the first player to place his settlement has a clear advantage. He develops faster, and it can be really hard to recover from rapid development early in the game. Now, I like that the board isn’t the same each and every time you play. This forces you to think on your feet a bit. It’s just that I think that the importance of the initial position is a little too great in proportion to the rest of the game to leave it entirely to chance.

SOLUTION: Not really sure, but probably something in terms of negotiating the board. That is, randomly distribute the tiles and have players lay down one tile at a time. Oh, and skip the desert crap; I’m not sure what role that plays. The robber doesn’t HAVE to be on the board at the outset, you know? And then the same could be repeated for numbers and ports. And only then when the board is set up in this way would players begin to place their settlements.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. It’s a fun game, but there is room for improvement. I should add that there is room for improvement “in the limit,” because as much as I truly love strategy board games (and it’s a deep and lifelong love affair, let me assure you!), they are deeply goofy things when you really think about it. There will always be frayed edges in the system design simply out of necessity in propping up the implausible fantasy on which the game rests. Settlers on an island indeed!

2 thoughts on “Boardgames are Weird: Settlers of Catan edition

  1. I’m not sure if the video game version(s) randomize the initial set up the same way you do in real life. Recall that in real life, the number tiles things have letters on them, too, and you place them in alphabetical order around the random resource hexagons. I’m pretty sure that this is designed to constrain which numbers end up next which other numbers, preventing too many likely numbers from being too close to each other. Maybe the iPhone version (and my XBOX version) don’t have this constraint? I know that my XBOX version lets you trade/build/trade/build/etc… within a given turn, which is not how the real-life game instructions say it works…

    Also, I wonder what effects armies and raiding would have on trade. It could certainly give people another reason not to want to trade with one another.

    With the development cards, there are more knights than anything else, I think, plus there are cards that shuffle resources around, making it relatively unlikely that you’ll just get victory points by buying development cards. If players had to put the point cards face up as soon as you get them, it would take care of the secrecy…

    I like the inflation idea, but it seems like it should be a function of how long the game has gone on or how many hexes have been settled, and it should affect everyone, rather than being a function of one person’s income and only affecting that one person. And maybe you could limit the value of having multiple settlements on the same hex by limiting the maximum resources that can be extracted from any given hex (or maybe the max that can be extracted by a single player).

    Okay, I’m rambling, and I’m trying to get Solomon to fall asleep on my lap. I’m going to stop now.

  2. OK, I had forgotten about the letters on the tiles. I’ve seen some pretty lopsided boards on the iPhone version, but then the iPhone version is pretty memory-constrained, so maybe that’s one of the things they cut. If they’ve worked out some way to make the board more or less fair each time, then I’m all for it. I still think the desert square is silly.

    iPhone handles trading like XBox.

    Civilization has armies and raids, and trading is still an important part of the game, so I think that would work out.

    I did a Google search and found that there are only supposed to be two victory point cards in the development card deck. If that’s the case, then I suppose I have no real objection (though it still seems kind of lame to purchase victory directly; at least roads and settlements serve an independent purpose). I’m not sure it’s the case in my computer game, but I haven’t been paying that much attention either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>