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Die Siedler Von Catan

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Doug Adams writes:

Designer: Klaus Teuber
Publisher: Kosmos Spiele-Galerie
Players: 3-4

Go to the Siedler Ludography

Oh boy, what's the point in writing a review about this game ? All you have to do is go to Deja News and scan the newsgroup archives and you could spend the rest of your days reading about Siedler. Well, I guess I'm writing this because I haven't made up my mind as to whether this is a good game, a bad game, or a great game. It may be any of these, but I suspect it's all three rolled into one.

Die Siedler Von Catan is a game of trade and growth, set on the small island of Catan. Three or four players will start out in rather humble beginnings on Catan. From here they will reap the resources from the island, they will trade with the other inhabitants and grow, expand, and flourish. They will open trade routes across the sea, build vast cities, long highways, huge armies...all in about 75 minutes.

It's a wildly popular game, published by Kosmos Spiele Gallerie and currently taking the USA by storm in it's English form. It's easy to see why it's as huge as it is. It's simple, attractive, interactive, and constructive. Games where you start with a little and end up with a lot always seem to be popular, and this is no exception.

The game is played on a board that is made up of large hex tiles, representing the coastline as well as the 6 different types of terrain - forest, mountains, fields, meadows, hills and desert. The island is built from these tiles in the shape of a larger hexagon, 5 tiles across at it's widest point in such a way that it's different each time. Around the hexagonal island is placed the coastline tiles, which represent either open sea, or trading ports.

Raw materials can be extracted from five of the six types of land tiles. Ore from mountains, wool from meadows, wheat from fields, clay from hills and wood from forests. These materials are represented by a deck of cards with the various materials printed on them. As materials are gained by players, they take the material cards into their hands to signify ownership.

Numbered counters are placed on all the land tiles, except the desert. The numbers on the counters vary from 2 to 12 and follow your rough bell curve of dice probabilities if two were rolled. ie. in an ideal game you'll get lots of 6's and 8's and not many 2's or 12's. There are no '7' counters.

Each player takes a set of coloured wooden pieces. These pieces consist of 15 narrow rectangular blocks (roads), 5 small houses (settlements) and 4 larger buildings (cities). Each player also receives a reference card (in German) indicating what builds are possible, and what raw materials are required for these builds.

Dice are rolled to determine player order and the first player places a settlement and a road on the board. Settlements can only be placed over the junction where three hex tiles meet, in such a way that some small portion of that settlement is over each of the 3 tiles. The road leads along the hex edges between two tiles, away from the settlement.

Each player in turn follows as such, but no two settlement can be placed on adjacent junctions and there must be a minimum distance of two hex sides between each building - no matter who owns them. In Siedler, space on the board is valuable and quickly becomes scarce.

When the final player has placed his first settlement/road, he immediately places a second settlement and road. This proceeds in reverse order until the first player has places his second settlement and road. Each player receives a material card for each terrain tile adjacent to the settlement he placed second. The game is ready to begin.

Game play is quite simple. On any given turn, the player rolls the two dice and sums them to get a number between 2 and 12. Any terrain tiles with that number on them will pay a raw material of the type it produces to any player that has a settlement bordering that tile. If any players have a city bordering the tile, they will get 2 of that raw material. Players earning raw materials take the appropriate material cards into their hands.

If a 7 was rolled, then a black pawn piece, known as the robber, becomes active. The player who rolled the dice may take the robber and move him to any tile (except ocean tiles, or the tile he was just taken from). The presence of the robber will lock down that tile so it produces no raw materials if it's number is rolled. It will remain this way until the robber is moved away. The player may then take a material card at random from any of the other players with a building adjacent to the robber's new location, and keep it for himself. Another nasty little weevil that comes along with the robber is if any player is holding more than seven material cards, then they must lost half of them immediately. This is not much of a problem early, but as the game builds up and the materials start coming freely, balancing your hand of commodities to keep it at or below 7 can be tricky.

After the die has been rolled and materials distributed, the player who rolled the dice is allowed to trade and build. Building means building new roads, settlements, or cities. Roads cost a wood and a clay, while settlements cost a wood, clay, wool and wheat. A city will cost three ore and two wheat. Now it will usually be the case that you don't have the necessary material cards to build these wonderful structures, therefore you will try to trade for the necessary commodities. This means announcing to the other players what you want and what you will give for it. This may be all you need to do to get what you want, but more often than not both sides will be trying to get the best deal possible for themselves, and trades of 2 cards for 1 card are common.

If no one will trade with you, then you have other options. You are allowed to trade in 4 of one type of material for 1 of another desired type. This is not really that economical, so it's much better to go for a port. These are printed on every second or third ocean tile around the perimeter of the island. There are 2 types of ports: 3 for 1 ports, or material ports. The 3 for 1 ports allow you trade 3 like materials in for 1 of another, which is much better than 4 for one. A material port will allow you to trade 2 of the specific material listed on the port in for one of any other material. This is great if you are drowning in a specific raw material. The catch is you must build a settlement and roads out to a port in order to use it.

When a player builds, he simply returns the cards to the respective material decks, takes the appropriate piece from his stock and places it on the board. The normal placement rules must be followed, roads must be placed adjacent to an existing road, and settlements must be adjacent to a road and no closer than 2 hex sides to any other building. Cities replace an existing settlement on the board and will double material production for the 3 adjacent tiles. Players may also purchase cards from a special deck, which costs a wool, wheat and ore. These cards can be special events like road building (build 2 extra road segments) or monopoly (announce a raw material and all other players must give any they are holding over to that player), but far more likely you will pick up a Ritter card (a knight).

Knight cards can be played face up during a subsequent turn. They have two functions: they force the robber to be moved away (which is very nice to do at times, especially when your 6 and 8 tiles are locked down by the dreaded mendicant!), but they also count towards your army. If you get three knights face up in front of you then you are a candidate for the largest army, and rich rewards follow for that, read on!

Players will go through their turn, rolling, trading, building and robbing all for the common goal of ten victory points. Yes, that's how you win the game, by being the first to reach ten points. Points are awarded for settlements (1 each), cities (2 each), the largest army (2 points, by having more knights than anyone else, and greater than 3 of them), the longest road (2 points, having a continuous road segment of at least five segments long and longer than anyone else), or through the cards which you can build. Some of these cards award victory points, which are kept hidden until you are ready to declare victory.

That's about it. I could go on for twice as long about strategy, but others have said it all online before, and I really just wanted to get a description of the game across along with what I like and dislike about it. The design mechanisms are brilliant, very easy, intuitive and interactive. I've played this game with an 8 year old who didn't have any difficulty with what was happening on the board.

What I dislike is the way the materials appear at the whim of the dice. It's appallingly frustrating to be involved in a tight game and suddenly have your resources dry up for a couple of turns, which is all that needs to happen to lose a game. You can cover 7 or 8 of the ten numbers on the board with settlements and cities and suddenly a roll of '3' becomes popular. Everybody else relishes their good fortune and trades in that valuable ore that you can't get (because no one wants what you're holding) and you have to sit and watch.

That's a good story, because if you get that many numbers covered you've done well. I've played games where the bell curve departs for the entire game, and you must scrape for every material you can get only to have it pinched off you just as you have enough for a settlement. The robber spends the entire game on your '6' just because you're sharing it with the leader, so you have no hope there. Another good cause of heart ache is where your expansion path gets cut off. No expansion, no growth, 75 minutes of scratching around to get up to 5 points before the game ends. Ho hum!

Mike Siggins summed all this up much better than I could ever hope to in an issue of Sumo a couple of years ago. It may be getting close to appearing online at the Games Cabinet. It's an excellent piece that is well worth reading because I think he the various nails that represent the problems with Siedler right bang squarely on the head. When it works for you and your numbers are rolled, it's the best game in the world; but when it doesn't it's a pain. A friend of mine has devised a 'deterministic' Sielder set-up that does a good job of solving some of the problems by having the players set up the tiles and counters. I'll try to coerce him into posting the variant sometime here.

To sum up, it's a very good game and others will claim it's a fantastic game (check out Pete Sarrett's review at The Game Report Online for a very flattering review). With family and friends, it's one of the best games you can buy. I have a reservation or two about it, and there are a stack of games I'd sooner play before this (the card game version for two players being one of them). However, this is my opinion and I still don't mind it, with all its warts. Go and buy a copy - I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Recommended for players who don't mind a little (or a lot) of luck.

Siedler Ludography

Now that you've played and enjoyed Siedler you are probably clamouring for more ? Well here is a list of the various Siedler related products that have passed through my collection - some have even stayed!

This ends the Siedler story...for now!

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